Alleged Acts of Racism and the Definition of Racist

What do we really mean when we say ‘racist’? According to the dictionary, a racist is a person who believes their racial group is superior or that another racial group is inferior. There is no list of actions, words or feelings in that definition. That’s it. And yet, when I discuss race on here, I inevitably get comments that focus almost completely on actions. White-face is a prime example. There have been movies in the past decade where black men have worn makeup to look white. If black face and red face is racist, isn’t white face the same?

Alleged Acts of Racism and the Definition of Racist

If we stick to the definition of racism, white face is only racist if the action is born out of one race thinking it is superior to the other. Black face is racist not because the action itself is racist, but because of the history and symbolism behind it. African Americans weren’t given those parts in movies because the white racial group thought themselves superior. More often than not, white people in black face would perform as a racial caricature of African Americans. Essentially, black face was a way to reinforce the racist idea that white people were superior to black people.

So why can’t white people put on black face now? I think most would argue it comes down to history. There is a history of pain and anger connected to the practice so that it is still viewed as racist. Technically, if a person puts on black face with no intention to symbolize that African Americans are inferior, I don’t think that single action would be racist. But, because of this history and because racism is far from dead, it will be seen as wrong. We, as a society, lack the ability to see that and not associate it with the racism it symbolized for so long. The fact is, white face doesn’t have that sort of history in America. Now, that doesn’t make it right, but I’m hesitant to call it racist. I have to ask, does it fit the definition of racism? Is the action being taken to show the inferiority of the white race?  Does the action have a deep rooted history of such stigma? I’d have to say no. Again, that doesn’t make it right, but certainly it’s not racist.

It’s like the term ‘cracker,’ which is sometimes used as a derogatory term towards white people. Why is it okay to say that word but not the N-word or what I usually called the 3-letter-F-word (a derogatory term for homosexuals). I only have my experience to go off of, but I have never heard the word cracker used to viciously prevent a white person from sitting in a restaurant, use a bathroom or buy a home.  I’ve never seen a side that says “No Crackers Allowed” as if to say white people are below all people who may enter that establishment. Again, does that make use of the term right? Not at all. But I wonder if we can really call it racist if it’s not commonly used as a way to show superiority over white people.

More importantly, I wonder if these arguments do more harm than good to the very important issue of race. It makes me think of the blog I wrote last week on Men’s Rights Activists. While most MRAs seem concerned with issues that are little more than non-issues, there are very serious issues out there negatively affecting men. It’s not right and they deserve notice. And yet, those discussions and crushed to silence. Somewhere, there is a man suffering from undiagnosed depression because he can’t show his feelings, he can’t cry and he can’t seek help due to societal pressures telling him all those actions will emasculate him. I have never seen an MRA discuss that problem, but boy can they rant on about how women are ruining the economy by having jobs and falsely accusing men of rape.

In the same way, I know there are issues involving racism – against white people and other groups – that go unnoticed because we’re too distracted about the word cracker. A while back, I wrote a post about whether we needed white civil rights organizations. I didn’t hear very many compelling arguments, but I did hear a few. What happens when, in an area of the United States where white people are a minority, white high school students are commonly beat up and assaulted because of their race? What happens when a qualified, hard working white person can’t get a job because affirmative action has gotten out of control in their industry?

It seems to me we are living in an interesting time. As a society, we are standing on a sort of precipice of racism. While each individual experience may be different, in general white people still have it better in this world. Legally, all the laws say the races are equal, but that doesn’t stop people from having a different opinion. The truth of the matter is, there’s a bit of racism all around. While we are now seeing issues pop up where it’s possible there is racism against white people, racism against other racial groups has not disappeared. Just recently, three young people of Middle Eastern decent were shot in what some are calling hate crime.

I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we claim there isn’t a bit of resentment among racial groups who have historically been the target of violent racism. The human race has this eye-for-an-eye nature and I don’t think it’s crazy for some to fear that the built of resentment will someday manifest in racism against their own racial group. Is that really our destiny, to repeat the same mistakes of the past against white people? Is it possible for us, as a society, to work towards true racial equality without having to make historically offending races ‘pay’ for the sins of their ancestors? Where do we go from here?

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22 thoughts on “Alleged Acts of Racism and the Definition of Racist”

  1. The problem with ‘Racism’ is the outmoded term that it derives from – ‘race’. This implies genetic differences we are born with, which in turn implies that some are ‘born’ better than others. Terms such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ also imply this. Science has long since dismissed that there are any kind of ‘essential’ biological characteristics of one race or another. For example some genealogists say that some 30% of ‘whites’ in the USA have some African-Carribean ancestry, and many ‘Blacks’ have European genetic ancestry as part of their make-up.
    It is much better to think about ‘Culture’ instead of ‘race’. Culture is a set of norms and values of a particular group of people. And ‘racism’ is part of certain cultures, it is a ‘learned’ set of norms and values. Because it is learned it can change and be challenged…

    1. Yes. Exactly. And the difficulty of changing culture shows why it’s so hard to defeat racism. I think it’s important to separate culture from human rights. I believe there is a way people around the world can preserve and celebrate their culture without keeping the human rights abuses that may also be involved in that culture.

  2. Of course there can’t be a list of what defines racism. It goes beyond any type of list. It’s a way of being. That’s what happens when we focus on words.
    You said you so yourself. We don’t question acts of racism against white people because we’re too busy worrying about the word “cracker”.

    Since we can’t read people’s mind you can only determine someone is racist through their words and actions. But the truth is that racism goes every way.
    When one uses a derogatory term to describe someone of a different race, then regardless of the history of said word or country, it’s part of the racist discourse.
    When one acts in an harmful way towards someone else because they belong to a different race, whether they’re white, black, yellow, red, green or grey, it’s racism.

    To get to your question, I have to say I find it dangerous to attach history to the dialog even though I’m aware that’s often the case. Because that means that if someone speaks/acts in a racist manner towards a white person then the victim has no recourse because history isn’t on their side. That’s BS. Excuse my language. Being called ‘white trash’ is just as racist as the N word. Funny how we can type the former but the mere thought of typing the second makes us pause.
    There’s a difference between acknowledging a history of discrimination against one or several races and forcing generations of people who weren’t even born to carry the guilt. To me it’s just as absurd as arguing that all Germans are nazis because of WWII.

    But to me it goes back to that constant need of claiming one’s difference. I’m not from the USA and I’m quite certain that there are dynamics that I will never understand despite studying this fascinating country while at university. But it seems to me that people are so ensconced in that racial discourse that they’re losing something really important: you’re all citizens of the same country.
    Why do you absolutely want to be called African American? or Asian American? Yes your ancestors came from Africa or Asia, sometimes maybe not that long ago what do I know? But aren’t you US citizens first and foremost? Why is it so important to claim that difference? I don’t get it. It seems to me – and it’s only an impression not even an opinion – that the only thing it does is render dialog extremely complicated.

    I will never understand why people absolutely want to establish lines and boxes. It’s as if we were fencing ourselves and doing so closed any possibility of dialog. I’m white, you’re black. I’m a woman, you’re a man. I’m young, you’re old. I’m blond, you’re a red head. I’m gay, you’re not. What the hell? We’re all humans, and mostly we’re all citizens of the same country.
    Isn’t the social contract, the social dialog more important than our private differences? Democracy is a dialog between citizens (and sometimes non citizens we live in a small world now after all). Being a citizen isn’t defined by the colour of your skin, by your gender, by your sexual orientation or by your political affiliation. Going back to definition of words a citizen is “a person who legally belongs to a country and has the rights and protection of that country.” (Merriam-webster Dictionary).

    Maybe if we remembered that and that the government is at the service of its citizens and not the other way round, we might be able to reach a viable compromise. But people would rather hang on desperately to their individualities (differences) than find commonalities.

    1. I’ve heard Americans are unique in the fact that we divide ourselves by culture or race instead of just being Americans. A person of Asian decent who was born in raised in Britain would call themselves British, not Asian British. I have no idea why that is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s part of the problem.

      Perhaps it’s hard to require a racist history for something to be racist. That implies wrong-doing must happen often before anything is done. What we should be doing is preventing any wrongs from ever happening. That said, I think the reason why we’re more comfortable typing one word over another is history. The N word has such a painful history that we can’t even say it. White trash is derogatory for sure, but it’s not attached to such historic pain for most people. So, we type it. I think it might depend on the person. For example, I am uncomfortable saying or even typing what I call the Three-Letter-F-Word (a derogatory term for a homosexual person), but I know plenty of people wouldn’t feel the same way.

      At the end of the day, I think we need to get passed the focus on actions if we are ever to improve our issues with racism..

  3. I always think of a quote from Doug Stanhope:

    “People tell me I don’t understand racism. I disagree, because I’m there to hear what gets said when you’re not in the room.”

    To me, I don’t believe in reverse racism. Just racism, some people don’t need a reason to hate, either out of ignorance or misplaced revenge. I’ve seldom seen a racist impulse expressed with any degree of nuance and I’ve seen people of different ethnicities express racist behaviours towards other races.

    Ultimately, if you think about how you talk to people and act from a place of compassion and kindness then you can avoid most of the issues that come up. Thinking, it seems, is still a revolutionary act and it shouldn’t be.

    1. This is so true and that’s why a definition of racism is hard and even inaccurate. True racism is, as you say, what is said about a race when they are not around. It’d be nice if we could all just see each other as human. We’re all different. We may or may not like everyone – and that’s okay. It’s time to evolve and stop judging based on skin color.

      1. Buddha defines separation as the cause of suffering. You’re a woman and I’m a man yet we can acknowledge that and still talk from our points as we realise that we probably have more in common than we do not.

  4. Racism is in the eye of the beholder – and the consciousness of the aggrieved. We cannot let our inability to see and feel and understand racism ourselves be interpreted to represent the inability to see and feel and understand racism by someone else who is directly affected.

    1. I think it’s hard, though. It’s hard to see racism if you don’t see it yourself and especially if you don’t see it happen to yourself.

  5. Excellent piece!

    You make some very valid points regarding men’s issues. I commented elsewhere regarding a point you made about depression and no outlet because of what the societal norms and views of a man and how a man should deal with emotional distress. When they say be a man they mean shut up and take it.

    I champion and teach against emotional control. I champion and teach for emotional presence.

    Shut up and take it, no no no, not anymore! You want equal you got it. It hurts and I’m going to say so. You want more equal here you go. Coffee spot I go to has 2 washrooms and they are unisex. A woman looked past me the other day as I was waiting and she said she was hoping one was for women. I said nope and I also said smiling, welcome to equality. She understood what I meant, I’m a man there is a line and I was here first so you wait your turn in line.

    I did a couple pieces on discrimination off an article I saw on Linkedin. I know there are many kinds of discrimination and racial is just one of them.

    Discrimination is the enemy. I don’t discriminate. I don’t use the “P” word and I don’t use the “C” word. I will use the “A” word which is generic as everybody has one. And just so you know, yeah a woman can be the “A” word so again, welcome to equality!

    1. Nothing wrong with equality. Maybe it’s because I’m from a younger generation, but if a man was first in line, I certainly wouldn’t expect him to give up his spot for me. Fair is fair.

  6. But we know what racism is! It’s any opposition to Obama, and failure to obey Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Academically, it’s also something that all white people are automatically guilty of, no matter what they say or do.

    1. Perhaps you are basing your assessment on the opinions of the wrong segment of ‘Academia.’ Amongst the university professors and others with whom my twin regularly interacts, racism is NOT ‘something all white people are automatically guilty of.’ In fact, anthropologists say that a person’s CULTURE is their ‘race,’ not their skin color.

  7. Some black people make a big deal of being called “negro” because of the painful history it brings to memory. The word itself literally means black in Spanish / Portuguese – nothing more, but what of the history of slavery?

    I see many people of my race trying to be like other races. Racialism becomes a natural tendency of others especially when by one’s own acts one confers a feeling of inferiority/helplessness to others. I don’t think the ancient Jews get offended when referred to as “ghetto wanderers?” or the 18th century Indians of British colonies got offended when referred to as “coolies.”

    Personally I believe in cultural diversity which is why I’m pasting this video for you to watch. Here is the link I think I’m already in love with “Tanya,” the character played by the white girl in this video and She had a good point at timecode 8:24

    The question I ask my own race is this: if it’s ok to refer to each other as niggers, why is it utterly offensive to be called a nigger by a white person. Does it mean black people hold something against white people? The most important thing, for me, is to move forward. Holding on to the past is not going to change anything.

    1. I’ve seen the argument that homosexuals should ‘take back the power’ so to speak by reclaiming the three-letter-f-word. I’m not sure about that myself. I think the simple answer is that we all have to be able to laugh at ourselves, shake off the past and move forward. Now, that is WAY easier to say than to do, but we need to have healthy discussions to get there.

  8. The problem with racism is that too many people are going by the dictionary definition you wrote about, but that’s out of date. As we find that fewer and fewer people actively believe their race is superior to others, we see that the instances of people being hurt and victimized because of their race hasn’t been decreasing at the same pace.

    We have to stop teaching that racism is about intention, or that people themselves are racist. Rather, we are part of a social system that penalizes people based on race, and those who make up that system may be acting out these things without consciously intending to feed into racial injustice.

    One of the best analogies I’ve heard is that if someone steals my wallet, I’m not going to chase him down to find out if he truly feels like a thief deep down inside; I’m going to chase him down to get my wallet back. Likewise, it’s not about whether or not we have racist beliefs or intents, it’s about what we’re doing that might hurt people, and then recognizing that so we–most of whom consider ourselves good people–can stop doing that.

    Recommended reading: “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy MacIntosh (it’s short). She developed the (commonly misunderstood) idea of “White Privilege,” which states that if we are not personally harmed by the racial system, we have the luxury of not noticing this injustice.

    1. This is exactly what makes racism so difficult to discuss. A person might be offended by racist action even though the person doing that action doesn’t feel like they’re being racist. When confronted, I think it’s more common for people to get defensive and claim they aren’t racist regardless of the offense they unintentionally caused. There’s a slippery slope there, too, because it’s impossible for anyone to make every person in the world happy.

  9. Even in the most equal societies, one does not get respect simply through one’s membership of that society. But rather through how much one or one’s ancestors have contributed to that society.

    So in effect, the best way to get the respect one deserves is to contribute to the betterment of one’s society. Laws can only momemtarily force people to offer equal treatment. They don’t change their perception.

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