Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can Black people be racist?

I have been in several conversations recently where communication has broken down around the concept of racism. In all of these cases, the people in the conversation were operating with different definitions of racism. As my friends in philosophy will tell you, this is a recipe for disaster.

We can’t actually come to an agreement about something, or even agree to disagree, unless we begin with a similar understanding of the topic we are discussing. And it's just not nice to say that the other person is “crazy” or “stupid” or, as my mother would say, we certainly shouldn’t say those things out loud even if we think them.

I am coming from the vantage point of sociology, Critical Race Theory, and education. In all of these fields, there is a certain definition of racism that is understood to be true.

However, MY definition is not the common definition of racism.

It is not even the definition of racism in the dictionary.

In order to be completely fair, I want to address this topic from three angles:
  • I will discuss whether protesters at Mizzou and, more broadly, Black Lives Matter activists, are racist using the common definition from the dictionary.
  • I will give a compelling argument why the dictionary’s definition of racism does not hold up to the logic of its morphological structure, and
  • I will show that, while the definition for “race” given in most dictionaries is common usage, it is based on a concept that has been debunked by modern science.

Point #1: Are Black Lives Matter protesters racist based on the common understanding of racism?

According to Merriam-Webster, racism is:
  1. poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.
  2. the belief that some races of people are better than others
The full definition is:
  1. a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
  2. racial prejudice or discrimination
Dictionary.com says that racism is:
  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
So here we go.

People who have been protesting in the BLM movement, for example, at Mizzou have not treated White people poorly because of their “race.” They have no official credo that White people need to be treated badly because they are White. The movement leaders do not condone violence of any kind.

They do not believe that Black people are better than White people. They further reject the notion that race is the “primary determinant of human traits” and they reject the idea that “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Someone might make an argument that they have discriminated against White people because they have blocked highways where White people drive their cars; they have done sit-ins where White people work and shop; they have written blogs about how White people are generally insensitive to the plight of Black people; and finally, they protested until the president of Mizzou, who is White, resigned.

Merriam-Webster defines discriminations as “the practice of unfairly treating a person or a group of people differently from other people or groups of people.” I suppose that might feel like discrimination to some, and I can understand that.

I can understand why it might feel like BLM activists are discriminating against White people.

But also I want to address Dictionary.com’s definition of racism, as well, because it brings out some important points.

BLM activists reject the belief that “inherent differences among the various racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement” because they reject the biological notion of “race,” which I will address later. Because they reject this, they do not believe that Black people are better than White people because they don't believe that White people are fundamentally different than Black people.

Now, could there be some Black people who think Black people are better than White people? Most likely. In this case, according to this common definition, they would be racist. Are there Black people who hate or are intolerant of White people? I’m sure there are. Again, according to this definition, they would be racist.

However, according to all this above, the MIZZOU protestors are NOT racist.  

The one definition that does not support the idea of a Black person being racist is the "a policy or system of government based upon or fostering such a doctrine."

No matter how much a Black person hates White people, the policies and systems in this country do not support that hatred.

Point #2: Even if we accept the popular usage of racism, the dictionary’s definition of racism does not hold up under its own logic.

This may sound like a lot of linguistic mumbo-jumbo, but I think you will know what I’m talking about with a few examples. Most of you have probably heard of the “-isms,” a group of words that end with… wait for it… -ism!

Words like communism (a theory favoring collectivism in a classless society) or atheism (a lack of belief in a god). So generally speaking, if a word ends in –ism, it means “belief in something.”

Your high school English class is coming back to you, right?

The words in a group that have a similar morpheme (or part of the word) tend to have parallel or similar meanings.

Capitalism, consumerism, individualism.

Communism, socialism, despotism.

Asceticism, humanism, hedonism. 


*I couldn’t actually find any more words like this; in fact, this is also a highly contested word.

And then we have the –isms you probably learned in a social justice-oriented class in college (depending on when or if you went to college):

Classism, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism.

The last two were created with the logic of parallelism, to match the other three terms, and are more self-evident in meaning. The first three are the ones I want to focus on, however, because I find that the dictionary is inconsistent in defining them.

We reviewed the definitions of “racism” above, so I will give the definitions of classism and sexism below.

Classism in Dictionary.com:
  1. a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes.
  2. the viewing of society as being composed of distinct classes.
Classism in Merriam-Webster:
  1. unfair treatment of people because of their social or economic class.
  2. prejudice or discrimination based on class.
This definition is somewhat neutral. We can see that classism is a belief that there are “classes” of people based on social standing or because of wealth. We get the sense that it is not directly linked to income, per se, but also to intangible elements like reputation or status. And of course, there is the aspect of discrimination, prejudice, and/or unfair treatment based on this status.

It is NOT clear, however, who is discriminating against whom.

For all we know, impoverished restaurant workers could be giving the snub to Yale graduates on a regular basis when they stop in to get a cheeseburger at McDonalds.

This is, of course, a ridiculous assumption. We know classism to be all about an elaborate system wherein people climb a social ladder in order to be more prestigious. In order to climb this metaphorical ladder, these people typically scorn the people below them. The people at the bottom of the ladder inevitably resent this and say nasty things about the people above them, but we would hardly accuse the people at the bottom of the ladder of being classist.

That’s just not how it works.

That's not how any of this works. 

But let’s look at sexism.

Sexism in Merriam-Webster:
  1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women.
  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
Sexism in Dictionary.com:
  1. attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles.
  2. discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women.
  3. ingrained and institutionalized prejudice against or hatred of women; misogyny.
This definition is much more straightforward. We can see that sexism supports “stereotypes of social roles based on sex,” which is further clarified as discrimination, such as restricted job opportunities, especially directed against women. The last part explicitly states that one definition of sexism is institutionalized hatred for women.

Sexism describes attitudes which support traditional and stereotypical gender roles, which any student of American history can tell you is the belief that women should stay in the home and raise children, that they are not capable of intellectual work, and that they should therefore not be paid as much for the same work as a man.

According to the second and third definitions, women are the victims of sexism, although in the second one a man might also be discriminated against. Since the first definition indicates anyone can support "traditional gender roles," it would follow that a woman could be sexist towards men by supporting stereotypical male roles. (Ex. Expecting all boys to be aggressive or to be an athlete.) I would argue that the stereotyping of men still ultimately supports a male-dominated society, although it also harms men in the process.

Nonetheless, this leads me to my critique of the definition of racism in the same dictionaries.

The definitions of racism in both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com are imprecise and vague. There is no reference to the hierarchy that was clearly established at the inception of the modern concept of “race.” There is no indication of the institutionalized nature of discrimination, as with sexism and classism. As such, it leaves the debate open about who can be racist or rather, or who can be the target of racism.

Where there is typically no such confusion with sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, “racism” is left open to interpretation.

Racism should be defined as a one-way street, just like the other -isms. 

This leads me to my last point.

Point #3: Some dictionaries do not even historically situate the definition of "race," let alone racism.

I will start with Merriam-Webster’s definition of “race.”

1.  a breeding stock of animals
  • a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
  • a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
  • an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species; also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
  • breed
  • a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
4.  obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
5.  distinctive flavor, taste, or strength

The only part of the definition that this dictionary labels as obsolete is the fourth one down, which is so archaic I am have never heard of it. However, the FIRST definition refers to ANIMALS. While we know that we as humans are part of the animal kingdom, we also distinguish ourselves from the other animals with what we consider to be more evolved traits, such as cognition, emotions, and volition.

The second definition includes a classification of types of humans. I will now insert the Dictionary.com definition, which is more up-to-date and indicates that this usage is no longer backed by science.

1.  a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.
2.  a population so related.
3.  Anthropology.
  • (no longer in technical use) any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics.
  • an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
  • a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture:
  • a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.
4.  a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic lineage:
5.  any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc.:
6.  the human race or family; humankind:
7.  Zoology. a variety; subspecies.

While this entry does acknowledge a certain common usage of the word “race” to represent a group of people, it ALSO includes the fact that the classical racial divisions of humans are NO LONGER IN USE.


Please, for the love, somebody notice here that CAUCASIAN was created in conjunction with MONGOLOID and NEGRO, and if you wouldn’t say NEGRO, you shouldn’t use CAUCASIAN. 

*End rant*

My point in including this deluge of dictionary definitions is to point out that common usage and the correct technical terms are not always the same thing.

I also hope to point out that the term “racism” is based on the term “race” and literally means a belief in the idea of “race.”

The modern concept of “race” came from the idea of a hierarchical classification of groups humans, arbitrarily divided by physical traits. In this hierarchy, it was widely understood that the group labeled “Caucasian” or “White” was the apex humanity. This further indicates to me that the meaning of “racism” should indicate a belief in White superiority.

And this is why I don’t believe that Black people can be racist against White people. However, according to my definition Black people can believe that White people are superior, and so be racist against people of color. And we call this internalized racism.

According to this understanding of racism, Asian, Latino/a, and "other" groups can also be racist, that is, believe that they are superior to another group.  It just usually isn't White people they feel superior to in the the context of the U.S. 

But coming full circle... Yes, Black people can hate White people. It's understandable. And it's awful.

But I would just call that regular old “hatred," and NOT racism.  What if I told you Black people can be racist, too?  See above.  Probably, the answer is "no."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I've always been curious about this topic sicne I'm myself am black. Years ago, I asked my parents if they believed that black people can be racist towards whites. They personally don't feel they can since black people have historically been the oppressed race in this white-dominated country.(slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, civil rights movement). Since white superority attitutes had been prevelant in the past and white people still dominated most the laws and goverments that gives them a position of power, they feel it's impossible for blacks to racist even if they come off as a racist. My folks also explained that there is difference between being racist and reacting to racism, and to them many black folks react to the racism, oppression and discrimination that has happened to them that can make them bitter and sound like racists themselves. I myself recall the times I've heard other black people say they don't like white people. One particular person was a girl I knew in high school as I used to sit with her and a group of other black girls. She would also like to talk about them too and so would the other girls sometimes. The irony was they had one white girl in their group who would sit with them and she didn't seem to be fazed by their talk which astoudned me. I myself don't believe in disliking anyone because of their race regardless of our history as I wouldn't want someone disliking me because of my race over bad experiences with black people in the past. We need to move on to all this bitteness and realize we are all one in God's eyes as mentioned in Galatians 3:28. Good post. God Bless.


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