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What's the Definition of 'Racism'?

by John Spritzler

July 21, 2017

"Can black people be racist?" is a question that has elicited some very acrimonious debate recently, among people who very much oppose the systemic racial discrimination against non-whites that prevails in the United States.

There may indeed be some important substantive disagreements between the two camps in this acrimonious debate. But whatever things these substantive disagreements may be about, the answer to the question, "Can black people be racist?," is not one of them.

The disagreement about this question hinges entirely on a disagreement about the definition of the word, "racism."

One camp argues that "racism" is not merely prejudice against people of a certain race, but--in order for this prejudice to be "racism"--it must also be exhibited by a person of a race that is not oppressed by systemic racial discrimination against a race that is oppressed by systemic racial discrimination. According to this definition, then, a black person in the United States cannot be a person exhibiting racism, i.e., cannot be a racist.

The other camp argues that "racism" is merely prejudice against people of a certain race. According to this definition, a black person in the United States can be a racist.

Any disagreement about a word's definition cannot be a substantive disagreement.

Definitions of words are tools that people use to communicate all sorts of things, including agreements and disagreements about this or that. Even to communicate that one disagrees with somebody about something requires first reaching a mutual agreement with that other person about the definition of the relevant word(s). Otherwise it is not communication, but simply making noises at each other, as if each were speaking a language the other did not understand.

This is why any substantive conversation requires an initial effort to reach a mutual agreement about the definition of the relevant words that will be used in the subsequent conversation, be it one of agreement or disagreement.

Definitions are arbitrary. Dictionaries tell us what most people take a word to mean; they do not tell us what the word REALLY means. Words don't have any REAL meanings, only the meanings that people arbitrarily agree to give them. These meanings change over time.

For example, the word "prove" has changed from meaning "test" to meaning "demonstrate the truth" of something. Sometimes a wise saying based on the old meaning of a word keeps getting repeated even though the new meaning of the word renders the saying stupid. People used to say, "It's the exception that proves the rule." This used to mean something very wise: that if one wishes to test a supposed rule, i.e., to see if it applies in ALL cases (which is what "rules" do) and doesn't just apply in the common cases, then one needs to see if the rule applies even in the exceptional case; one uses the exceptional case to test the rule. But now when somebody says "It's the exception that proves the rule" they are saying something utterly stupid: that the existence of a case that DISPROVES the rule somehow, illogically, demonstrates that the rule really is a true rule.

Let's not get into counterproductive and non-substantive arguments based on thinking that words have a REAL and unchanging meaning,

Regarding the meaning of "racism," we should start by realizing its definition is arbitrary. In conversations (debates) about the subject we should offer to accept whatever definition the other person wishes to give that word. If the other person's definition makes it difficult (or impossible) to communicate an important concept, then we should offer a different (or even a novel) word to express that concept and ask the other person in a friendly manner if he/she would be willing to employ this word to mean what we want it to mean, in addition to the word "racism" to mean what they say it means. No matter how much people may disagree with each other on a substantive question, the only reason they could possibly have for not agreeing to employ some shared definitions for their conversation would be if one or both of them just did not want to communicate with the other person, period.

I think that people who insist on the definition of "racism" that makes it impossible for a black person in the United States to be a racist could hold this position because they want to make the fact of systemic racial discrimination against non-whites (which is NOT symmetrical to whites and non-whites) central in any discussion of racism, and they view the other definition as sort of the top of a slippery slope leading to ignoring the fact of systemic racial discrimination. I can sympathize with this point of view.

On the other hand, some people who insist on the "blacks cannot be racist" definition could have an unsavory reason--to shield themselves from justified criticism.

At the same time, I can sympathize with those who use the "blacks can also be racist" definition because they want to be able to criticize any instances of prejudice by a non-white person against whites, since this prejudice certainly exists in some individuals.

We'd be more able to achieve the unity we want if instead of framing these legitimate concerns of each camp as an acrimonious disagreement about the REAL meaning of "racism," we would state our concerns explicitly in a manner that did not employ the word "racism" or at least didn't employ it until a prior friendly agreement were reached for what meaning we would give that word for the duration of our conversation. I think that if we did this, we would find that good people would end up in the same big camp, and those (if any) who had an unsavory agenda would be isolated in a small camp.



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