Monday, October 25, 2004

On Defining Racism 

Ordinarily, I wouldn't touch his sort of thing with a ten foot totem. But as those who follow the blog know by now, when both sides of a good and important discussion get bogged down by their own poor definitions of the issues at hand (like what counts as racism), and can't get past it to get down to the real important stuff (like what to DO about it), I can't help myself.

So here, verbatim, is an email I posted into this evening's student-side school bulletin board discussion after three dozen emails arguing about the definition of racism. Sorry about the length; as Twain would say, I would have written it shorter, but I didn't have the time.

Student 1 writes:
Racism implies that you consider another race inferior

Student 2 writes:
No, it does not, techincally and practically speaking. Racism is any act or situation, based in prejudice, ignorance, misunderstanding, or even hatred, in which the majority group benifits from the oppresion of a minority group or groups. Racism is not an act, it is an atmosphere. It's not about superiority, it's about the existance that we esperience.

Here's my response:

I'd be interested in the source for this definition, Student 2. I see it as problematic for three reasons:

1. It clearly states that "racism" does not cover acts or situations "based in prejudice, ignorance, misunderstanding, or even hatred" in which a minority group benefits from the oppression of the majority. Historically, however, there have been a number of instances where a minority with power from means other than sheer population numbers (say, technological power, or monetary power) has oppressed other racial groups, even sought to eradicate them, with explicitly race-grounded reasons. Are we to understand that this was not racism? What was it, then?

2. A related but separate idea: I believe this definition is also too limited in that, in using the term "oppression," it can suggest to the average user of the english language that oppression is always about negative stereotypes. But racism as I understand it can also sometimes be about one group benefitting by DEFINING another group in a specific way, one which (on the surface) is seen by outsiders as positive, not negative -- i.e. not in a way we might ordinarily see as "oppressive." Defining someone else for them is inherently oppressive, of course, but that doesn't seem to be what the definition means by "oppressing." For example, if I say all members of some race are especially good at math, it's not clear who benefits from this, but this is still racism by most people's definition, even the South Park "Museum of Tolerance" definition.

3. The definition given says nothing about race at all -- it says "majority" and "minority" as the only means of distinguishing one group from another. Is class conflict in a culture which is racially unified -- say, in Denmark or something -- thus "racist?" Is gender oppression "racism?" Are all homophobic acts racist? Was the Spanish Inqisition really about race? My concern would be that treating ANY power imbalance under the umbrella of race can actually blind us to the other real and valid differences between us and, in doing so, make it that much more difficult for those who are disempowered for reasons having little to do with race to have their concerns percieved as valid and actionable by governments, groups, and activists like ourselves.

Problematically, Student 2 then wrote to me suggesting that the definition SHE used is the definition currently being taught students in our student awareness trainings. Anyone else see a major problem with this?

posted by boyhowdy | 9:46 PM |

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