Thoughts on the Language of Racism


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Sometime in the 1980’s, I think it was in the Tennessee Tech University library, I came across a book about racism. It was a thin tome, written by a black author for a black audience, as I remember. It said that only white people could be racist.

I remember it over 30 years later because of the emotions of anger, righteous indignation, and defensiveness it sparked in me. It seemed unfair, unjust to say a problem could be all on one side of a conflict. Clearly, a black person could fear, distrust, or misunderstand me just as much as I could them, right? And, based on those things, I could be discriminated against based on how I looked as a white man in America, as much as anyone else?

Forward to 2020, I recently read White Fragility, a book by a white person writing for white people about race. The message was gentler, and likely more nuanced, but contained similar description of racism as being a cultural construct that acts for the dominate race against the “other.” In the America of my experience, that’s white vs. black specifically, and people of color (or whatever counts as non-white) in general.

With over 30 years to settle in, the concept was no longer radical or personally challenging in the same way. But in reading, I could remember my younger self’s affront, and as a contemporary reader I still felt annoyance and frustration with the language available to discuss the topic. A key point of White Fragility is that difficulty in discussing racism is a facet of racism. I’ll write more later about some of the more important topics from the book, but here I’m struggling with the English language. I feel the need to marshal my words before tackling the topics.

Lest it come as a surprise at the end, let me say that I do recognize that systemic racism is a real thing, that it is baked into our culture, that it supports the status quo and keeping the powerful powerful. It’s hard to talk about for various reasons. Part of that reason is that English is a mess.

Racism

I remember the heat of my indignation at the idea that racism could only be pro-white. In a theoretical sense, it’s not strictly true. But there is a strong, valid point. I prefer the term systemic racism to get the meaning across that we are talking about the cultural construct that doesn’t depend on individual thoughts or actions. It’s fair to ask if there is any other kind of racism; I know that young me could have argued the point for hours, distracting from ever getting to any substantive discussion. Certainly, there is plenty of prejudice of many flavors, including racial prejudices and bigotry based on racial perceptions. But systemic racism requires a system, a culture, that is bigger than personal opinion or belief.

So, systemic racism is the cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on race. In America, systemic racism favors the white “majority” and particularly disfavors those considered black or African American. Majority is in quotes above because:

  1. Whites aren’t necessarily over 50% of the population in many areas, and aren’t very far from being in the minority nationwide
  2. However many whites there are, white in America is the baseline, or “normal” (normative?) state of being

Minority

A minority is, technically, less than 50% of the whole. In the context of racism, though, minority is a synonym for non-white. Because black is the most non-white of options, minority is often a euphemism (or dog whistle?) for black. However, it sometimes includes gender, sexual preference, or other non-race-based categories.

Multicultural in the US essentially means something other than mainstream white culture, and sometimes black, so is more or less a synonym for minority, but relatively exclusively to racial, ethnic, or national origin.

-isms

I defined systemic racism as a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on race. Obviously, there are (and could be) other cultural constructs that skew power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group. It would make logical sense to have a clear taxonomy of these cultural biases. But, given that clear taxonomy doesn’t necessarily benefit those with the power and privilege, there is some cultural sense in keeping the language turgid.

The suffix “-ism” points to a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice, so it’s definitely more general than what I’m trying to get at. Sexism is a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on gender, but optimism is not a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to optimists over non-optimists. There are lots of “-ists” who practice some “-ism,” but we aren’t terribly consistent about usage.

Homophobia is the most common term for the cultural construct that skews power and privilege to cisgender[1]heterosexuals and away from those not in that group based on sexual or partnership preference. Googling finds heterosexism as a term, but it’s certainly not in common usage. The area of sexual preference is a semantic dumpster fire; LGBTQIAP[2] does not roll trippingly off the tongue. Homophobia should literally mean, “fear of the same,” before you even get to the problem/discussion of whether fear is the root of the cultural construct.

Religion is the other biggie for skewing power and privilege to one group and away from others based on it. That one actually varies by location as to the group being skewed toward, and in the current case of China, Communism is the group skewing against any religion.

The point of this “-ism” section is that there are parallels to racism that result in institutional or systemic discrimination. And also share some problematic semantics.

Race

Defining systemic racism as a cultural construct based on race, what is race? Race is a cultural construct based largely on apparent physical similarities and differences. There was a lot of work in the 19th and early 20th centuries to define race scientifically, without a lot of luck. Genetics hasn’t really helped. There are genetic differences that vary with populations, and there are genetic variations that are unique to particular lineage, some limited (or once limited) to a particular population or isolated community. But there is significant diversity within populations, and in most cases there has been a lot of genetic sharing across geographical and cultural boundaries.

Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined. I would expect that any (and every) African-American is more genetically similar to me, a white American, than to the least-similar African one could find. Especially since the majority of African Americans have white ancestors (the average African American has 24% European ancestry according to 23andme data[3]).

Despite any underlying scientific reality, though, race is a defining component of life experience in America.

Identity Politics vs. Color Blindness

Identity politics refers to political activism or coalition based on any of a large number of identifiers, race being a primary one. Identifiers can be unique or combined. The connotation is self-identified group(s) advocating for the group.

Issue politics and party politics are obvious alternatives.

Controversy over identity politics is that involves people self-identifying into identities that have often been marginalized or stigmatized, that it has the potential to reinforce stereotypes and cultural division, that it may encourage cultural fragmentation.

The flip side in the racial context is a call that we all be color blind, ignoring the existence of any structural racism in the belief that if we don’t see it, it will go away.

There is some truth that constant focus on a problem can keep the problem alive, by putting more energy into the system. And there is danger that an identity group can potentially become self-generating or self-protecting beyond any valid need or point so that it becomes self-serving (NRA, I’m looking at you). Victims can become bullies.

For the topic of systemic racism, though, I don’t see a danger there any time soon. Though a color-blind society is a noble long-term goal, pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist serves to prolong, rather than reduce, its power. That certainly is how it’s playing out in gutting of the voter rights protections.

Equity and justice require recognizing the sources of inequity and injustice and addressing them. When that happens the energy in groups formed by identity politics will recede, maybe without the identity going away. I know some very Irish Irish-Americans, but their politics aren’t focused on Irishness. It doesn’t need to be.

“Defund the Police”

As a slogan apparently intended to be incendiary this succeeds, but not in a productive way. The point is to open discussion towards reconsidering the ongoing militarization of the police, and the long-term scope creep of American police forces. I personally believe that we as a society need to be dedicating more, not less, to many components of what has become policing; community mental health and drug recovery program first response are on top of the list.

From a language point of view, I give “defund the police” a flunking grade. It has raised awareness and caused discussion, but in a divisive rather than constructive way.

Speaking of Systemic Racism

As a white person in America, it’s hard to talk about systemic racism. The only word we have for people who benefit from systemic racism is “racist,” which is right up there with “Nazi” or “baby killer” for stopping a conversation in its tracks. Clearly there is a continuum from an “out” Ku Klux Klan leader or Proud Boy to the woke and ashamed Liberal, and from all of those who are very aware to of racism to the big middle who either don’t know, or pretend not to, that any benefit exists. Saying all those people are racist isn’t very helpful or accurate. It’s uncomfortable to consider that we may have inherited a benefit that we didn’t earn or deserve. So options include choosing to believe that we do deserve it, they don’t deserve it, there is no benefit, or it just has nothing to do with us. Or feeling bad. Or changing the subject.

But, the fact is, there is a benefit to being white, to being in the majority, in America. The chance of being killed by police is 2-3 times higher if you are black than if you are white[4]. Death by COVID 19 is 2.1 times higher for blacks than whites.[5] Black men in America earn on average $.87 for each $1 white mean earned (though for a given job with similar credentials, it’s $0.98 per $1)[6]. The incarceration rate is over 5 times higher[7] for blacks than whites.

The reasons aren’t simple. COVID 19 isn’t bigoted. But reasons start with the American legacy of slavery, and have continued generation by generation with the construct of race being reason enough for a continued divergence of opportunity and benefit, baked into how things work. That’s systemic racism.

It’s worth figuring out how to talk about systemic racism, and how we can get over it as a system and as a culture. Like wearing a mask during a global pandemic, the difficulty is worth the reward, a reward that will benefit those who have the deck stacked against them more than the rest, but will ultimately benefit everyone. My hope is that, if systemic racism went away in America, instead of part of the community having “white privilege”, everyone in the community would have “just nation privilege”, and that would be even better. Talking is going to mean coming up with some better language, I think. Currently it’s hard to talk about, even if it weren’t hard to talk about.

[1] Or just “cis,” indicates those whose gender identity matches the gender assigned at birth.

[2] Lesbian; Gay; Bisexual; Transgender; Queer (or questioning); Intersex; Asexual (or Ally); Pansexual/Polysexual

 

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4289685/

[4] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/1123070/police-shootings-rate-ethnicity-us/ or https://gunsandamerica.org/story/20/08/06/who-is-most-at-risk-police-violence-explainer/

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html

[6] https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/racial-wage-gaps-persistence-poses-challenge.aspx

[7] https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html