Defining Racism

As we discuss racial issues in America and the world, agreeing on nomenclature is incredibly important. Additionally, as systemic racism continues to be exposed in America, it is essential that our society accurately diagnoses and fixes the root causes and deeply ingrained effects of racism. Yet for such a heavily used buzzword, there remains significant disagreement about how exactly racism is defined. Take the following two definitions:

Oxford Dictionary: Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

Milton Academy Handbook: Racism is a system of oppression involving subordination of members of targeted racial groups by those who have relatively more social power. This subordination occurs at the individual, cultural, and institutional levels.

Obviously, these two definitions are fundamentally different, yet rarely mutually exclusive. Tensions arise in two major areas. Merriam Webster’s definition is, on one hand, more restrictive because it doesn’t acknowledge ‘incidental’ racism ( i.e. systems which are not theoretically or ideologically racist, but in practice discriminate against those of a specific race). But on the other hand, it is more open, because it doesn’t require racism to be perpetuated by someone in power. I personally believe that the best definition of racism combines both of these definitions to encompass all acts of discrimination based on race.

One common argument for the second definition is that racism, like microaggressions, is more potent and common when targeting an oppressed group. Currently, a white person in America would never have to face institutional discrimination and would rarely have to face instances of cultural/individual discrimination and, when one does, it is almost never destructive in the way it is to minorities. Yet there is no truthful way to deny the systemic abuse of power by white America, so many would argue that such abuse must be highlighted through the term racism.

To most people, however, the word racism culturally carries a value judgement in addition to calling attention to injustice. And when looking at it from that perspective, it’s essential to highlight the equal immorality of prejudice based on race. For example, if a white person chooses not to hire a black person solely based on their race and a black person chooses not to hire a white person solely based on their race, then both actions are equally immoral. Should we call the white interviewer’s action racist and the black interviewer’s action prejudiced? Given that racism implies immorality in a way that prejudice does not, saying that the black interviewer could not be racist excuses his action; each action should be ascribed the same term ( i.e. racist). Although I understand that the white interviewer perpetuates a pattern of unacceptable racial discrimination that has a larger social impact than that of the black interviewer, this should not change the value judgement of his action, or make his action inherently worse than the other.

Alternatively, some people might argue that the first definition adequately covers all instances of racism, as it suggests that intention determines if something is racist or not. After all, if someone believes in fundamental equality, wouldn’t their actions reflect that? This viewpoint is flawed for many reasons. First, many people come from a place of ignorance, and even as they try to be respectful and culturally aware, miss out on some subtlety or important social/historical reality. Secondly, it ignores that everyone has (semi-uncontrollable) implicit biases which subtly impact how people interact with others. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it ignores institutional racism, which often (not always) works outside of intention but is arguably racism’s most oppressive form. Clearly, racism can happen outside of intention, and that must be considered when creating a better world.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would propose a more comprehensive definition of racism: individual, institutional, or cultural discrimination, antagonism, or prejudice against someone due to their race. The only potentially problematic part of this definition is that it has the potential to de-emphasize the current pattern of discrimination in America. While I do not advocate for this shift, given the changeable social realities of our world, we should broaden how we understand this deeply complex subject. It is important not to restrict ourselves in our discussion or create further differences between people as we try to unite society. Creating a more comprehensive definition of racism - and therefore a more comprehensive and easily communicable understanding of moral wrong - helps this goal immensely.