Defining racism, again

Since the events in Ferguson I have been obsessed with all the racism problems in the good old US of A. I could write twenty posts on things that have been on my mind, but have been having conversations instead. Conversations online and in person have been difficult, and have often devolved to arguing about semantics. I thought I should clear up my definitions in order to frame the whole issue.

First, google provided definitions for things (which in recent weeks have proven more contentious than I thought):

preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

I talked about some of this (prejudice and racism) in a previous post. I am fairly comfortable adding bigotry to my Venn diagram as such:

I have an issue with the fact that none of these definitions have systematic power structures as any part of their definition. I think it is obvious that a racist or bigoted act from a white person generally has more effect than a bigoted or racist act from a black person. The English language and dictionary definitions have no words that allow for this differentiation. I have often read that racism is partially defined by systematic power structures, and I choose to run with that definition. Racial prejudice without the backing of systematic power structures in my head is bigotry.

Those are the basics for me. Apparently the more complicated one is privilege, and either it is often misunderstood or my definition is wrong. In most circles I travel in the idea if privilege is so accepted that it is assumed in any given conversation. In the wake of Ferguson I have been exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints and thought I should hone my definition and thinking.

The sticking point in most of my conversations about privilege seems to be guilt. I find this extremely odd. I see no reason to feel guilt for being lucky enough to be born into any sort of privilege. Why would one feel guilty for having sheer dumb luck? To my mind people are confusing racism and privilege. So, my definition of that difference:

Racism vs privilege
I am going to define racism as an overt act of discrimination, and privilege as benefitting from a particular situation. For example, if a cab driver and passes up a potential black customer for a white potential customer they are actively doing something racist. Privilege is being the white potential customer. The customer did nothing actively to make this situation happen.

When someone is actively racist (perpetrating an act that is racist) they should feel guilty, though often enough they do not. I can see two scenarios where an actively racist act is done. One where the perpetrator is intentionally racist and therefor unlikely to feel any remorse. The other is when someone falls for one of the many cognitive biases and social conditioning that influence us all. I have done this (most of us probably have) and when it has happened I have been embarrassed of my mistake and immediately try to rectify or apologize, or at the very least be better next time. I have no feelings of guilt for being lucky enough to be born into a fair amount of privilege, and though I feel no personal guilt I still want to do my part for equality.

Also, this is may be the best analogy for privilege that I have seen. You go with your bad self John Scalzi.

Prejudice and racism

I opened Facebook the other day to this:

It made me question whether I had a solid definition for prejudice and racism. The little rant also sounded pretty racist to me, and I wanted context and explanation, neither of which I got (despite my heroic efforts). Lacking explanation and context I did what I always do, which is ask anyone willing to talk to me what their definitions are.

Most people agreed on prejudice and in the definition broke down the word to pre-judge. Google defined it as:
preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

Most people (but not all) also agreed that racism is a type of prejudice. The Venn diagram of prejudice and racism would look like this:

Dear god that graphic is large, what happened to the photo size option in my WordPress app?

Racism is the harder one to define, my goodness it is complicated and every single answer I got was different. Google says:
the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

This makes sense to me as a literal but not all encompassing definition. Take that and only that and I can see how one would end at the statement from the above Facebook comment “There are only literally thousands of ‘racists’ in this country … And most of them are black”, with which I wholeheartedly disagree.
So, what is that definition missing? I think it is both subtlety and social context.

The subtlety I see most often in microaggressions. I believe as people we all have biases and prejudices, often without seeing them in ourselves. Because microaggressions are by definition subtle, it is easy to tell oneself that engaging in the behavior is not racist. When these slip into our conversation we do not see them as racist, but to someone feeling the effects of microaggressions day in and day out it would feel racist.

The social context is mostly about power dynamics. Only one of the ten or so people I asked for definitions brought up societal power dynamics as a defining factor in racism, so though I believe this it is obviously not universally accepted. I see institutional racism in our society against minorities seeping into most aspects of our society, much of it unconscious. This is a good explanation using bricks, and a generally good read.

I think that is all my brain can take on racism, and I by no means have a definition that I am happy with. At least my Venn diagram helped me with the prejudice difference…