Differences in terms

I keep seeing arguments about the word racism, mostly because folks have different definitions and it trips the conversation up. This is usually because folks see the world through different lenses, and racism is not the only word this happens with.

Think of the way a layman uses the word ‘theory’ (I have an idea, maybe it will work) and the way the a scientist uses the word theory (I had an idea that I called a hypothesis, I tested the shit out of it and it is now a theory). I honestly wish most of society would adapt the scientific use of the word theory and add hypothesis into the general terminology. It is so much more specific and clear!  

Racism is similar. The basic dictionary definition is prejudice based on race, although The Oxford English Dictionary adds “It is often based on a desire to dominate or a belief in the inferiority of another race”. Once power dynamics are involved in the definition things change from the basic definition, as there are obvious differences in who has power in our society. If we take this more nuanced definition for our sociological lens it becomes harder to see how any person of color could be racist, as they are lacking any power with which to dominate. Much like the word theory, I wish society would adopt the more nuanced definition of racism and add racial prejudice into the general terminology. It is so much more specific and clear…


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.