On the many meanings of the word “racism”: A prejudice primer

Monitoring public response to the Zimmerman trial, I’ve been struck by the obvious racial divide between (a) those who think the case was about race, generally people of color, especially Black people, for example Eugene Robinson or Russell Moore (but also many White antiracism activists, for example, Bree Picower), and (b) the mainly White crowd, who believe as Juror B37 put it, “race did not play a role” in the case.

As someone interested in language, I was interested in the many ways people use the term “racism” and in how the different meanings that the word takes on contribute to miscommunication (often perhaps willful miscommunication). President Obama has recently noted that the national discussion on race following the George Zimmerman trial has not been productive. I believe that productive discussions on race that cross racial boundaries in the United States (and perhaps also other countries, although I’ll be using the present and past US as my example) are not  possible unless we unpack what we mean by “racism”.

This is especially important for White people, whose perspectives on what it means to be “racist” seem fairly narrow. I’ve decided to synthesize others’ ideas about racism. In doing so, I hope to provide an overview of its many meanings that I hope can serve as an aid to what is meant by claims like “George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin” or “the US justice system is racist”. This overview owes a great deal of debt to many writers and thinkers, and, although I will try, I will undoubtedly fail to document all those who have influenced it.

What is race?

Probably the most fundamental issue here is what exactly race is. It seems fairly straightforward to most people. Most of us recognize that there are Black people and White people and Asians and Hispanics and so on. Perhaps we even believe that all we have to do is look at their physical appearance to make a reasonable assessment of their genetics and ancestry.

However, race is not a legitimate theory of biology and is, instead, a folk explanation of biological difference. In other words, it is essentially a powerful and widespread myth that assumes that we exist as members of biologically distinct races. If that seems like a fundamentally incorrect claim to you, I recommend checking out the American Anthropological Association resource exploring how genetic variation and our perceptions of race do not match.

Nonetheless, our brains are excellent at putting people in categories. We quite obviously place people into many different categories, race being one of the more prominent ones. In fact, research on our perceptions shows that we categorize people according to race quite quickly upon seeing their faces, and we’re often helped by the sound of their voices. Consider also that in pursuing suspects in a crime, the police utilize the person’s race as a prominent identifier, such as in some of the reports of “Black males” George Zimmerman filed prior to the killing of Trayvon Martin. The police don’t use race because they are ignorant buffoons but rather because they recognize that a person’s race is a salient identifier in our society.

In some sense then, race is a reality. Most scholars talk about it as “socially constructed”, which means that it has no basis outside of its existence within the minds and traditions of a group of people. Hence, it’s really unlikely that anyone except small children would be color blind (that is, to be unable to see race) in our society.

In the United States, our most prominent racial categories “Blackness” and “Whiteness” stem from systems of violent oppression originating with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In his book How Race is Made, Mark Smith argues that, in order to make a system of human slavery possible, White people had to actively create categories about what physically constituted the separation between White and Black, a task made difficult by centuries of interracial relations. This was necessary to identify who was a real human being (a White person) with fundamental rights and who was not (a Black person). Such a distinction was important, for example, in ensuring that Black slaves could not easily hope to escape and start a life, undetected, in another nearby town.

These two categories survive today in the United States, and we continue to think of ourselves largely as “Black” and “White” even though we have had to expand the categories to accommodate new groups. For example, more recent Caribbean and African immigrants have been categorized as Black, while European Jews, Eastern Europeans, and the Irish have been categorized as White (Noel Ignatiev documents the process of “becoming White” for the Irish in his book How the Irish Became White). We do recognize other categories (for example, “Asians”), make distinctions within categories (for example, “light-skinned African American”), and sometimes even speak of hybrid categories (for example, “biracial”). Nonetheless, when we perceive a stranger, our choices are frequently Black or White.

What is racism?

To be very broad about it, racism refers to beliefs and actions that divide humanity into socially-constructed categories of race. Since we all perceive ourselves and others as being members of one or another race, then this definition would suggest that we are all on some level racist.

To stop there, however, ignores a number of issues that are quite essential in understanding what people mean when they say something or someone is “racist”. In order to get a better sense of what is meant by the word “racism”, I’ve created a taxonomy of dimensions of the word “racism” that I will present here starting with the characteristics of supremacy versus ‘objective’ difference.

Supremacy versus ‘objective’ difference

Perhaps the most easily recognizable or least controversial form of racism would be a form that promotes the supremacy of one group. Historically, this has been White supremacy. Supremacist ideology holds that one race is biologically and/or culturally better than the others and that therefore that race deserves a higher position relative to all other races. For example, the Nazi Holocaust is a very extreme example of such a system, in which members of the so-called inferior races (particularly European Jews) were exterminated. White supremacy is also the ideology that was used to justify slavery in the United States. Very few people in the United States would openly and publicly support racial supremacy (although that doesn’t mean racism is necessarily vanquished, and I’ll explain why later).

In theory, supremacy would contrast with another form of racism that I’m going to call ‘objective’ difference. I’ve placed scare quotes around objective, because I’m skeptical about the objectivity, neutrality, or innocuousness of most of these racial differences, but this is the way that I have observed people trying to defend their beliefs against the accusation that they are racist (in the supremacist sense). Such differences include some of the stereotypes discussed in my previous post on Google searches revealing stereotypes, for example, that Black people like watermelon and fried chicken (apparently more so than White people, many of whom also relish in these things).

It’s conceivable that differences could simply be arbitrary matters of taste associated with one group of people and stemming from real differences, especially in culture. For example, hypothetically speaking, White people could have a cultural preference for cantaloupe (or musk melon), whereas Black people could prefer watermelon for similar reasons (although note I’m not saying this is in fact the case). There’s nothing that necessitates that watermelon or cantaloupe be viewed as a sign of superiority. However, such theoretically ‘innocuous’ and ‘objective’ differences are often incorporated into broader portrayals of Black people as inferior, as we see in the image below (read more about this in Julian Abagond’s blog, where the image also comes from). In this way, these ‘objective’ differences frequently become linked with supremacy.

Another way in which many people claim ‘objective’ differences stemming from race is to assume that race reflects truly significant genetic differences (I’ve already suggested a number of reasons why it does not, but see again the American Anthropological Association’s resources on this) and then to attribute any differences in their conditions to biology as opposed to social circumstance. For example, this type of approach is seen quite frequently when people claim that they’re just being ‘objective’ in describing the fact that higher crime rates among Black men suggest that they are more naturally prone to violence (see my previous post on this for examples). This is part of a long tradition of so-called ‘objective’ scientific rationalization of racism, as seen for example in the image below (in which, by the way, the Irish are presented as a race different from the Anglo-Teutonic).

I’ve noticed that the theoretical divide between supremacy and ‘objective’ difference is a major point of miscommunication in discussions of racism. In particular, White people often (at least ostensibly) intend to portray some aspect of racial difference as simply ‘objective’ difference. While it would be ridiculous to argue that Black and White Americans aren’t in many ways culturally different (although I should note that both groups are themselves internally culturally heterogeneous), it’s important to consider what the causes of those differences are so as not to present them as essential qualities of all members of a group. It’s also important to realize that observations of differences that are intended as ‘objective’ may be perceived as signaling supremacy through a kind of discriminatory backdoor (as in the watermelon example above), in which some feature of the group comes to be used as a substitute for more explicit forms of degradation. In other words, watermelon, which is otherwise a perfectly innocuous thing to like, can come to be a symbol of Black people’s alleged simple-mindedness and inferiority. Hence, when a White person remarks that Black people like watermelon, a Black person may legitimately interpret this as White supremacy even if the White person honestly intended to observe an ‘objective’ difference between cultures. The two will then likely disagree about whether racism has occurred, and this may be because they are thinking of different levels of racism.

Levels of racism: individual racism

A lot of miscommunication about the word “racism” seems to get hung up on the issue of one person’s intentions with their statements or actions. For example, in reactions to the George Zimmerman trial, different commentators accused both the shooter, George Zimmerman, and the victim, Trayvon Martin, of engaging in some form of racism. This type of racism is individual racism, and it contrasts with structural (or societal) racism, which I’ll discuss below.

First, individual racism is an unavoidable consequence of our socialization into a racist society. However, I think it’s useful to make a distinction between unconscious or implicit racism and conscious or explicit racism.

As I mentioned before, as part of our perceptual process we categorize others according to race based upon aspects of their appearance or their voices. This is a process of implicit individual racism. Unfortunately, our implicit racism doesn’t end there. We categorize people, and then we assign them features of our most deeply-ingrained racial biases. This has been observed using tests like the Implicit Associations Test, in which nearly 88% of White people have shown a preference for associating words like “bad” with Black faces.  We’ve even been shown to frequently misinterpret objects carried by Black men as guns. We are less likely to make these misinterpretations of White people carrying ambiguous objects. Studies like these clearly point to a very unconscious, implicit level of racism that stems from our socialization into a racially divided society.

This implicit, unconscious racism is why many Black people accuse George Zimmerman of racially profiling Trayvon Martin. Although technically speaking it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what happened in Zimmerman’s brain that night when he saw Martin, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that he placed Martin in a racial category that predisposed him to think of Martin as a criminal or someone who was “up to no good”. That he then reacted differently than he might have to a White woman or even a White man is also extremely likely. I should note that whether you believe the evidence meets the legal standard of confidence for convicting him of a murder based in racial profiling is another matter. My point, however, is simply that implicit, unconscious racism exists in the vast majority of people in the United States (and probably also the world). Denying its existence does us no good. If you’re doubtful that you yourself have implicit racial biases (supremacy biases by the way, not just ‘objective’ differences), try taking the Implicit Association Test.

There is another level of individual racism, which is conscious and explicit racism. This type of racism is not as common today (although I did document quite a bit of it in a previous post). It involves consciously and actively doing, saying, or believing things that promote the view that one race is better than another. Conscious, explicit racism is today most prototypically associated with groups like the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi groups that actively promote an explicit White supremacist viewpoint. Often when White people hear the word “racism”, they think of these people. Other examples of conscious, explicit racism can be observed when people use racial slurs (like “nigger”), such as the recent controversy around Paula Deen (Southern chef and restaurant owner) and her admission to engaging in acts of explicit individual racism.

Ultimately, most people in the United States today don’t envision themselves as racists. When they have the opportunity to carefully choose their words and consider what their ideals are, they rightly view racial supremacy as an intellectually lazy and discriminatory way of seeing the world. Thus, we’ve become highly attuned to pointing out and policing this type of racism to the point where some writers like Taurean Brown label it a “distraction” from more serious issues. We can observe this type of distraction in the Trayvon Martin case where Martin’s use of the phrase “creepy ass cracker” to describe Zimmerman spurred accusations (from Ted Nugent, for example) of Martin (and not Zimmerman) being the racist in this case. To be clear, as John McWhorter points out, it’s true that the term ‘cracker’ is usually reserved for White men. In that sense, Martin’s use of the phrase was a form of explicit individual racism. That many White people are angered by what they perceive as unequal concern for policing of the word “cracker” as for “nigger” has been evident in discussions of the Zimmerman trial as well as from entries defining “cracker” in Urban Dictionary, such as the one below:


The commenter above draws an equivalency between “cracker” and “nigger”. If we confine ourselves to thinking of “racism” entirely as acts of individual, explicit racism, then this argument makes sense. However, when we look at racism in a structural or societal way, the two slurs (seen within their societal context) seem less clearly equivalent, and the policing of such language seems to only scratch the surface of the issue of racism.

Levels of racism: Structural racism

The notion of structural racism relies on one very important premise, namely, that membership in a racial category, whether Black or White, fundamentally alters the circumstances in which you live and how you experience and interact with the world. In other words, if we could hypothetically make all other individual characteristics about two men – one Black, one White – identical, they would still have meaningfully different experiences as a direct result of the different racial categories that the world assigns them. In addition, rather than being a sort of ‘objective’ differences issue (that is things like the Black man is more likely to enjoy the tastes of watermelon), the experiences would favor, in a supremacist manner, the White man. For example, an American Civil Liberties Union report on marijuana arrests suggests that if both men decided to use marijuana, then the Black man would be more likely to be arrested. Hence, many people legitimately conclude that the United States criminal justice system is a major contributing factor to creating a society, in which White people have an important advantage, referred to often as “White privilege”. White privilege is one side of structural racism.

Structural racism is a difficult concept to grasp for a number of reasons. The first difficulty lies in the fact that structural racism and its effects are closely related to other ways in which our experiences are different because of our circumstances. In particular, social class (especially the amount of wealth you are born into) causes us to view a lot of issues that could be related to or compounded by race purely as issues of wealth or poverty. Whether privilege associated with social class or race is more of a confining factor is a major area of disagreement, and the two are clearly quite related. However, at the end of the day, there are certainly aspects of White privilege that are partially independent of social class such as the ability to smoke marijuana with a lower likelihood of arrest. Hence, all other things being equal, the disadvantages facing a poor White man are not equal to the disadvantages facing a poor Black man in the present-day United States (the question of whether a poor White man or a middle-class Black man faces more disadvantages is not one easily addressed), which is not to say that being born into poverty as a White person is easy. It’s not. Poverty, whether for White or Black people, is oppressive and unjust, and anyone in this situation has a legitimate right to be angry about it. However, that’s no reason to deny another form of oppression: structural racism.

Another reason why structural racism can be difficult to understand is that it is quite different than the way most White people tend to think about racism. If we narrowly conceptualize “racism” as explicit, conscious racism, then structural racism seems to conjure up the idea that all White people are members of the KKK. To be clear, being a member of a structurally racist society is not the same thing as being a member of the KKK. However, that doesn’t exonerate White people from culpability in such a system. Although we might actively and explicitly claim to be opposed to racism (and we absolutely should), we can still passively indulge in White privilege. For example, we can attend rallies and shout things like “all people should be equal regardless of race!” and afterwards go smoke a joint and be less likely to be arrested (thanks to our Whiteness). It’s difficult to accept this aspect of the word “racism”, because it is largely not a choice we make. We didn’t ask for and we may not even support the racial biases that privilege us. Nonetheless, it’s an important phenomenon, and it’s essential to understand what people mean when they use the word “racism” in this way. If you encounter this usage (and you’re White), you’re not necessarily being called “a racist” in the way Paula Deen was accused of individual, explicit racism, rather you’re being called upon to acknowledge the way your membership in a structurally racist society has arbitrarily benefited you and to recognize the disadvantages others have faced.

This brings us back to individual racism. If you deny the importance or existence of structural racism, then you are left with the difficulty of explaining the massive inequalities in wealth, income, education, incarceration, health care, and other things that separate Black and White people. The only way to explain these other than arbitrary advantages experienced by White people (structural racism) is to say that there is something inherently better about White people (whether biologically or culturally), and doing so would mean you are engaging in racism of the individual, explicit, supremacist type. I’ve seen many White people appear very confused about the accusation that they are being racist when they downplay the effects of structural racism on inequality. Hence if you’re a White person and you’re confused about accusations of racism you’ve received, understanding the connection between your failure to acknowledge the effects of structural racism and the logical conclusion that you must therefore believe that inequality is ‘Black people’s fault’ (or that Black people somehow deserve this inequality)  is critical to understanding why you might be experiencing these accusations that seem unfounded to you.

Are individual and structural racism really separate? 

Even though I presented them as separate above, I’m sure you’ve noticed that individual and structural racism don’t seem completely separate from each other. If we think about it hard enough we can imagine how acts of individual racism help contribute to structural racism and how structural racism can reinforce individual racism. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, I discussed above how we have implicit racial biases. Those implicit racial biases lead to us assuming that Black men are dangerous or that they are criminals, and Black men sense that they are viewed differently by the police. These implicit racial biases are at least partially responsible for the structurally racist disparity between drug-related arrests for White and Black men. The police and others who are involved in the criminal justice system are not immune from implicit racial biases, and implicit racism leads to policies (explicit or implicit) and actions that monitor Black men more closely and treat them as more threatening than other people. This situation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which our individual racist suspicions about Black men being violent are inevitably confirmed.

Another example concerns housing discrimination. Landlords and others involved in the housing industry are legally forbidden from racially discriminating against potential tenants and homeowners. However, despite these legal protections, we continue to live in racially-segregated communities. We could assume that this is just the result of ‘objective’ differences and that we all choose to live near people who look like us. However, disparities in public resources that people enjoy as members of a community like parks, schools, utilities, roads, sidewalks, and emergency services suggest that the situation is not simply ‘separate but equal’. Among the many possible causes of this aspect of structural racism is one that is directly related to implicit individual racism. Research by Thomas Purnell, William Idsardi, and John Baugh demonstrated that landlords in the San Francisco Bay Area racially categorized people by cues from their voice (see a video illustration of this here) and used this information to screen callers for available housing. Hence, Black people were generally informed that housing in more affluent areas was unavailable. An apparently White caller who calls afterward might be told that the same housing was in fact available. While we might try to assign intentions to landlords that are not malicious (for example, that they just wanted to avoid the inconvenience of long conversations and unnecessary work to show a property to someone they assumed could not afford it), ultimately whatever the intention this type of individual racial bias contributes to the continued structurally racist  segregation of communities in the United States. The result of course is that Black children continue to live in communities with higher crime rates and attend schools that receive fewer resources, which reinforces our individual racist ideas about Black people as uneducated and prone to crime.

Finally, the connection between individual and structural racism helps to explain why many people (especially Black people) do not consider Trayvon Martin’s labeling of George Zimmerman as a “creepy ass cracker” equivalent to White people calling Black people “niggers”. Martin’s individual act of racism does not reinforce or stem from a societal position of power. In fact, “creepy ass cracker” suggests that Martin thought of Zimmerman as the one with the power, as someone who was following him because he was Black. While he obviously felt no love for Zimmerman, the use of the word “cracker” is not connected to a structural racism that oppresses White people, in fact it is connected to one that privileges White people. White people who have been called “cracker” in a way that was intended to be cruel are allowed to be hurt by it. People should not call each other mean racist names. However, insisting that the degree of damage done by these two words is equivalent fails to acknowledge the context of structural racism. Individual acts of racism toward Black people contribute to their oppression within a society based in White privilege. Individual acts of racism toward White people can hurt the feelings of individual White people.

Final thoughts

In reviewing this information, I hope that I’ve compiled a useful resource for thinking about what people mean when they say “racism” so that more productive conversations about the topic can take place. We need to keep a number of points in mind when having such conversations:

  1. While in theory we can talk about ‘objective’ differences between races, it’s important to keep in mind that:
    • Racial categories have no real biological basis. Genetic explanations about racial differences or inequalities, therefore, tend to fall apart. Thus, we need to acknowledge that any difference is a cultural tendency and avoid genetic absolutes.
    • Even seemingly innocuous cultural differences can come to be associated with negative stereotypes. Therefore, it’s a good idea to stress the legitimacy of both ways of doing things.
  2. Implicit individual racism is a ubiquitous reality. Denying its existence is silly and offensive, since it tells Black people that their collective experience that they are viewed negatively (which has been systematically and extensively documented) is incorrect.
  3. Structural racism is also a ubiquitous reality. To deny White privilege in society is to say that White people have earned or deserve their advantages in society. Hence, this denial is itself a form of racism.
  4. Explicit individual racism is something most of us (at least ostensibly) oppose, and we do so rightfully. We need to keep in mind, however, that opposing these forms of racism does not make racism in all of its forms disappear even from our own minds.
  5. Many White people tend to get very defensive any time an accusation of racism is made (toward a person or an entity). This is understandable since to many racism is what the Ku Klux Klan practices. We also just generally associate racism with ignorance, and people rightfully do not want to be associated with these things. However, we need to be able to see that seeing ourselves and our society as racist doesn’t have to be a final moral indictment of us as people. We can continue to learn about how our society and even our own minds are implicated in a form of racial supremacy without abandoning our fundamental conceptions of ourselves as morally good people.
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Posted in Language and race

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