Tuesday, September 1, 2009

wonder how to define racism

A reader named Pistolina left a question in a comment today that I'd like to bring up front here, because I overheard the exact same issue brought up today in a conversation between a black and a white person, and I'm now wondering about it. Please let us know what you think about this challenge to the definition of racism as prejudice + power.

But first, Pistolina's comment was in response to Robin F.'s excellent guest post here from last week, "Racism 101 for Clueless White People," where Robin offered the following explanation of the definition of "racism" that's commonly used in anti-racism discussions. I've also included Pistolina's comment below -- again, please do let us know your response to Pistolina's sincere query.

Robin F. wrote in part:

The first thing you really need to understand is that the definition of racism that you probably have (which is the colloquial definition: "racism is prejudice against someone based on their skin color or ethnicity") is NOT the definition that's commonly used in anti-racist circles.

The definition used in anti-racist circles is the accepted sociological definition (which is commonly used in academic research, and has been used for more than a decade now): "racism is prejudice plus power". What this means, in easy language:

A. Anyone can hold "racial prejudice" -- that is, they can carry positive or negative stereotypes of others based on racial characteristics. For example, a white person thinking all Asians are smart, or all black people are criminals; or a Chinese person thinking Japanese people are untrustworthy; or what-have-you. ANYONE, of any race, can have racial prejudices.

B. People of any race can commit acts of violence, mistreatment, ostracizing, etc., based on their racial prejudices. A black kid can beat up a white kid because he doesn't like white kids. An Indian person can refuse to associate with Asians. Whatever, you get the idea.

C. However, to be racist (rather than simply prejudiced) requires having institutional power. In North America, white people have the institutional power. In large part we head the corporations; we make up the largest proportion of lawmakers and judges; we have the money; we make the decisions. In short, we control the systems that matter. "White" is presented as normal, the default. Because we have institutional power, when we think differently about people based on their race or act on our racial prejudices, we are being racist. Only white people can be racist, because only white people have institutional power.

D. People of color can be prejudiced, but they cannot be racist, because they don't have the institutional power. (However, some people refer to intra-PoC prejudice as "lateral racism". You may also hear the term "colorism", which refers to lighter-skinned PoC being prejudiced toward darker-skinned PoC.) However, that situation can be different in other countries; for example, a Japanese person in Japan can be racist against others, because the Japanese have the institutional power there. But in North America, Japanese people can't be racist because they don't hold the institutional power.

E. If you're in an area of your city/state/province that is predominantly populated by PoC and, as a white person, you get harassed because of your skin color, it's still not racism, even though you're in a PoC-dominated area. The fact is, even though they're the majority population in that area, they still lack the institutional power. They don't have their own special PoC-dominated police force for that area. They don't have their own special PoC-dominated courts in that area. The state/province and national media are still not dominated by PoC. Even though they have a large population in that particular area, they still lack the institutional power overall.

F. So that's the definition of racism that you're likely to encounter. If you start talking about "reverse racism" you're going to either get insulted or laughed at, because it isn't possible under that definition; PoC don't have the power in North America, so by definition, they can't be racist. Crying "reverse racism!" is like waving a Clueless White Person Badge around.

After thanking Robin for her post, Pistolina wrote in a comment:

I am white, and while I have done a lot of reading and attempted to educate my fellow white people on issues of racism, there was one time that a PoC called me out that I could not figure out the appropriate response for, and did not want to demand that they educate me, so I apologized and stepped out of the conversation. Perhaps you can help?

In describing the definition of racism as prejudice plus power, this person accused me of infantilizing people of color by refusing to allow them to have power. I explained that I did not think that PoC were incapable of wielding power, but that in certain areas, such as North America, white people were in control and thus racism by the sociological definition was practiced by whites, not by blacks, Latinos, Asians, or other groups. I went on to explain that in a place where blacks were the group with institutional power, it would be possible for blacks to be practicing institutional racism. They continued to tell me that they found this definition offensive and that it was insulting to PoC.

Is there a correct way to address situations like this? I learned this definition because I understood that this was the proper definition to use when trying to address race issues, and because I want to be a good ally to PoC. I certainly never meant to insult anyone. The problem is that I don't really know how to engage in a conversation if I have people telling me that my language is perpetuating racist views when I try to use the language that I see anti-racists recommend.

Strangely enough, the conversation that I overheard between a black and a white person today was almost exactly the same -- the white person defined racism this way, and the black person said that was an insulting denial of non-white agency.

What do you think -- does the standard anti-racist definition of racism (prejudice + power) actually end up infantalizing people of color?

If it does, is there a better way to define and understand racism? If it doesn't, is there, as Pistolina asks, a correct or better way for a white anti-racist to say so to a non-white person?


  1. I discovered your blog a while ago and have been lurking and enjoying (actually reading over at LJ). First time commenting.

    I think this question completely depends upon how one defines power: if it's conceptualized as more of an object, something one has or not, and an object in a zero-sum game (if X has power, Q cannot), then the "prejudice plus power" can be read as denying agency/power/authority to minority populations. A person either has power, or they don't.

    But I think that's too simplistic.

    If power is conceptualized as a web of relationships and actions that is always in flux and is fairly complex (i.e. one is not either totally powerless or powerful, but differently empowered in different situations, depending upon a whole slew of variables, both internal and external, private and cultural), then the formulation does not seem to claim that people in the minority group have NO power whatsoever.

    And I tend to think "power" in this phrase means social power, and to be relative (but then I'm white and privileged by that whiteness, even as I am queer and female which means less power in some situations than the white/straight/men). And I read a whole bunch of Foucault at a vulnerable age.

  2. The first time I heard that definition was from my father. (As I commented on the original post) At first I argued with him - who was he to say that I, as a young WOC had no power? As if living my life wasn't already hard enough now I had to be slapped in the face with my powerlessness?
    He explained to me that he wasn't saying that I, personally, had no power - or that my gender, generation or race had no power. His point was that the balance of power was weighed against me.
    After fruitlessly trying to come up with arguments against that theory I had to concede the point.
    That was a conversation that was hard for me to have with my father, also a POC. I cannot really imagine how incensed I might have been had I had it with a White friend, teacher, etc.
    In my experience, no one wants to be told that they have less power, either individually or as a group, than someone else.
    This might be part of the reson for the reaction.
    I still haven't found a better definition for racism, but am open to hearing one if anyone else has.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It's something I hadn't thought about enough.

      My boyfriend is Black, and we've talked a lot about how he and the other members of his family have responded very differently to the pressures of being Black in America -- and the main options seem to be either constantly over-achieving to compensate for negative stereotypes, or giving up entirely.

      He tells me that the hardest thing for him about racism as an institutional part of American culture is not the hatred or bigotry he faces from any individual-- it's having to be constantly vigilant, having to wonder at every moment whether and how racism is subtly affecting the way others treat him. Every time a store clerk's eyes linger on him for a moment, every time someone sneers, every time he doesn't get a job interview, he has to wonder "is it because I am Black?"

      Part of why I asked him about these things is because I was baffled that he often didn't want to get involved in anti-racist activism or talk about racist things that happened in the government, etc. Now I understand that he doesn't always have the energy to engage-- that he doesn't always want to be reminded of racism any more than he has to be.

      I've come to realize that one of the most damaging ways white people (myself included) can be racist is to be ignorant of the smaller daily struggles that POC face in this country. As a person with chronic illness, I know all too well that small, daily battles add up to a terrible weight to carry.

      I don't think it's just about wanting to have equal power. No one wants to be marginalized, or to feel singled out for their struggles, either. No one wants to be put on display and be a poster child for being less fortunate in any way. None of us want to believe that our battle involves more uphill fighting than anyone else's.

  3. First off, that definition seems accurate enough to me. I'd never heard it before, but it seems to fit all conventional models as far as I can see.

    As for how to address PoC on this subject, agree to disagree. I'm black myself, and where I could have this discussion, I think too many PoC are too sensitive to the topic to discuss it fairly.

    In fact, this is my policy with ignorant people in general. We'd like to see everyone grow through learned conversation, but most people would much rather let their emotions get the better of them than seek the next logical progression in an argument.

  4. I have nothing intelligent to say, but wow, this is one of the best posts I've read on the blog. Very thought-provoking.

  5. Well, I dodn't know...I do not think that there is a clear cut definition of racism, to be frank. Racism manifests itself in many ways for example a person could be racist towards people of an opposite or different race due to many factors such as contempt, fear (of the unknown), negative stereotypes, having had a bad experience with a person of a similar race, mistrust, self preservation, feelings of superiority, competition, jealousy, unfounded hate, differences, just because they can, so, for no real reason. I think there could be many factors involved or a combination really.

    I would call conflicts between people of the same race prejudice, not racism.

    I met a Polish guy a few years ago, we had many conversations. At first he told me about a film he watched. In this film, an old lady was being racist, he gave me a running commentary of the film and the old lady called a Black guy "antichrist" in the film. Then this same Polish guy told me that there are hardly any Black people in Poland. This was one of the very few times that he actually came across a Black person, although he did mention that in Poland they have Black students studying over there. On another occassion, he held up my hand and inspected my palm for a few minutes and then turned my hand over. He then told me "our hands are the same, just a different colour, that's all."

    Now, I have grown up seeing White people almost my entire life so I found this behaviour quite odd. But then again, he had never really come across any Black people before he came to the UK, so I guess interacting with Black people was something very new to him.

    This guy used to give me his laptop to use for hours and despite not having grown up around Black people he was very open, honest and seemed like a nice guy.

    Now, a lot of the time, negative stereotypes of people come from the negative things you read in the newspapers and see on TV on a daily basis (that is why I switch these things off a lot of the time, I can go for weeks and months without watching TV), others may come through bad experiences that some people have encountered with people of a different race or again through stereotypes.

    Maybe his perceptions of a Black person would change after living in the UK for a while.

    Sometimes, people do not consciously want to be racist, I think it is something that some people can grow up with. It is like a religion, some people follow a religion just because they were born into that religion, never mind the fact that they may hold opposing beliefs, but they just go along with it because everybody else in their family does. This is how I see racism at times. People are not born racist, but if you grow up in an environment where a lot of the people are racist and constantly saying and doing racist things, sometimes it would be inevitable that some people would then turn out racist.

    On the other hand, some people just choose to be racist and cannot even give an explanation as to why.

    The power factored in adds another dimension to the racism.

  6. Spandaniel said

    "In fact, this is my policy with ignorant people in general. We'd like to see everyone grow through learned conversation, but most people would much rather let their emotions get the better of them than seek the next logical progression in an argument."

    Hmmm, it is so interesting when people make comments like this. Racism actually IS an emotional topic. Until you have had the experiences that some people have had with racism, I really don't think it's fair to say people are ignorant. Everyone reacts differently to things...FACT!

    How boring would it be if we were all clones of each other.

  7. I didn't say all people were ignorant. I said I had a policy of behavior when I encounter ignorant people.

    And racism is an emotional topic. So are millions of others. Letting passion corrupt your arguments hurts our ability to find the solution. That's all I meant. I wouldn't deny your passion, but ask that you subdue it for the greater good.

  8. I linked the Racism 101 for clueless white people post over at my blog, and received several similar protests from my readers.

    I think that this definition of racism isn't about whether or not individual people have power, and it doesn't claim that people who do not belong to races that wield institutional power cannot have any power.

    I think this definition is about where that power comes from. For the most part the power that POC can obtain and wield comes through fighting against institutional power. Their power - even their institutional power such as political office or economic privilege - is an exception to the general rule in that people who control those instutions: government, business, media, other dealers in cultural capital, are majority white.

    1. Nicely put. And a good reminder, too, for the white people who keep claiming "but rich, powerful Black people exist!" as an argument that racism no longer exists.

  9. Hum, difficult question. I do not feel it is appropriate for me, as a white person, to define racism for a PoC, and I can also understand why this definition would be offensive coming from me (as G stated), and that it can be interpreted as denying PoC agency on some level.

    I can not think of a better definition, though, so look forward to seeing if anyone else can. Definitely food for thought and a very good post.

  10. Pistolina, I would have had your friend share with you the institutional power(s) that PoC current enjoy (it could be something I'm overlooking) and without institutional powers, especially economic power, then PoC cannot institute or carry out racist policies.

    On the use of the words infantilizing PoC, was the speaker suggesting that innstutional racism does not impact PoC?

    Allow me to digress. spandaniel said "I think too many PoC are too sensitive to the topic to discuss it fairly." ………… I could not disagree more, just because one is sensitive or passionate about racism does not mean that they take leave of their senses or avoid logic when they enter a discussion about race. I’ll submit that it’s the racist who is unfair in both their discussion and their practice.

    spandaniel said "Letting passion corrupt your arguments hurts our ability to find the solution. That's all I meant. I wouldn't deny your passion, but ask that you subdue it for the greater good." …………..You cannot be serious! Please share with me the time, any time, in the history of the planet where a racist regime yielded power, as a result of a mild mannered logical conversation with those who were being racially oppressed?

    It is most interesting that you have chosen to blame the victim for being racially oppressed, if only they would not be so belligerent in their demands for fairness and justice, then their oppressors would acquiesce to their wishes. I guess your implication here is that the oppressor respect sound and reasoned argument, of course in a subdued tone. What did MLK get for his NON-VIOLENT approach to racial oppression?

    To quote Frederick Douglass, "Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will!" I would add that the demand is best served with some passion.

  11. firstly, great blog!!! i've been following for a couple of weeks now.

    I dont think that the standard antiracist definition of racism, which includes prejudice and power combined, infantalizes people of color. a person of color maybe to prideful to admit the correctness of the fact that in every social institution america's power structure is weighted against people of color. I think ignorant people of color will use anything to say that the white man is keeping them down, even if it is a thorough and sociologically correct definition. The fact of the matter is that people of color have no real power in America. The face of America does not include melanin or kinky hair. I think some people of color just may have a hard time accepting the idea that institutionally we are powerless. just as in our society the structure or power places men on top...only men can be sexist, yes?

    I understand the commenter's point of view. but something you have to understand is that... anti racists and your readers have taken the time to research, discuss and better themselves whereas the person of color that you are speaking with may not have done the same, or read the same blogs or had the same anti racism discussions. im sure you realize that a person of colors anti racism discussion may vary greatly from a white persons anitracism discussion. I know that if you approach me or any person i went to school with (that took an afroamerican studies course)who completely agree with this definition of racism. But i cannot say the same for some of my high school classmates who for the most part are just ignorant (as are some whites)and will blame the man for everything....even for trying to provide an accurate definition of racism.

  12. I think Imhotep has a good idea on how to handle it.

    I'm black, and so I already know that the reaction another black person would have to me expressing that definition is different than to that of a white person.

    My recommendation would be to ask them for their definition of racism and attempt to draw parallels. It's interesting, sometimes, to hear someone argue with you on a point, only to realize that truly you see it the same way, you just use different words.

    When all else fails, what Pistolina eventually did suffices and goes along with what spandaniel said; sometimes it's better to just let the other person hold on to their beliefs and keep it moving.

  13. Honestly, Robin's post was the only one that I wasn't a big fan of so far. Some of the points were excellent, but the definition of racism was far too limiting, mainly because of the use of the word "institutional." That doesn't mean I don't see the US government as being a mostly racist institution; that said, I don't think the inclusion of that word is helping anyone.

    That said, "race-based privilege" is the definition I've always worked with.

    Something to think about, for sure.

    I'm curious though - in either of these arguments, did the person on the other side of the argument offer a better definition?

  14. I think that definition of racism--prejudice plus institutional power--is true, but I think it's way too confusing for American white racists.

    It seems to them you're saying blacks and other racists can't be racist then, only whites can...and that puts an immediate block in their mind.

    See, they're invested in the belief that blacks and others are as racist as they are. It seems to them we're defining prejudice as only a white thing...which is ridiculous.

    I don't think the bulk of racist American whites don't have the brain power for the finer points as Robin outlined.

    Best to keep it simple, otherwise you muddy your argument from the get go.

  15. We all come into personal encounters with our own idea of "the truth". This truth is based on our own personal life experiences, what we have been shown and told by others immediately around us, and by external forces like the media. My truth may be completely different from your truth, based on how much privilege I have, my family structure, my education, any of thousands of factors.

    I think the most important thing we can do is listen to each other and respect the fact that we each have points of view that don't necessarily "line up" but that may be a "truth" to the other person.
    I can try to become a better person every day, to be an ally to all people, but I will never be able to fully engage with people without running the risk of offending or misinterpreting them or being offended or misinterpreted in return. It is just not possible.

    So I think that when you come across a person that is offended by the race = prejudice + power formula, (or anything really) you may just have to take a step back and really listen to what that person is trying to say.
    You can try to explain what you feel is true about that formula, but at some point you may just have to acknowledge the person's feelings as valid, but agree to disagree on certain points.
    I think the key is to respect each other, even if we don't agree.

  16. I read a book written by a sociologist (and I can't remember this book, just this passage) in which the author doesn't define racism as prejudice plus power, but instead defines institutional racism. The author emphasizes that we are all capable of prejudice but that institutional racism benefits the whites in the US.

    I'm no sociologist, and so maybe I didn't quite understand this definition that he was giving, but I felt that the word "institutional" was important. This is the definition that I've held to as a PoC, and a definition that I feel is important because while I may not have power as an Asian American. As someone who's middle class, I do have some amount of that institutional power and privilege.

    I have had conversations with my white friends who take offense at this definition of racism as well because as working class women, they don't feel like they hold any power in our society. The word privilege, however, is easier for them to swallow. I think the issue might be that "racism" defined with power suggests and active participation whereas "privilege" suggests a passive role.

  17. To me the issue is simple. Does conventional anti-racist wisdom accurately describe actual real power dynamics, or doesn't it?

    If it does, the white people in those two conversations were correct. Power dynamics are as they are (at a given moment, anyway, because after all, they do change). Describing them accurately empowers people, as knowledge tends to do. Sugar-coating reality may soothe egos, but it doesn't help you fight racism.

    If it doesn't, then the POC in those conversations may have been on to something. And I could see an argument for that. POC aren't completely powerless by any stretch of the imagination, even though it does seem to me that white people, by virtue of history and majority, do have an edge. The POC in question may simply have a different reading of racial power dynamics in the US than the whites did.

    Also, you can't deny someone agency simply by (accurately) explaining power dynamics. I ran into this exact issue during a "Women in Islam" class in college. After a whole semester of promoting quite conventional feminism, the (female, Iranian) professor spent the entire last class railing against Western feminists denying Muslim women their agency by saying they didn't have power - by, for example, publishing books like "Reading Lolita in Tehran." I strongly disagreed with her at the time but could not articulate why until more recently. Western feminists do not, by saying "the patriarchy is denying your agency," strip Iranian women of their agency. Sorry, no, the patriarchy did that. If we're wrong, we're wrong, but that's a completely different issue. Same thing with POC and racism.

    So I think the thing to do, as a white person, is consider carefully the argument being presented and evaluate it logically and critically the way you would any other argument. And keep in mind that while POC often have insights about racism that whites don't, they also (being, you know, separate people) often disagree with one another on these things. If you simply allow yourself to be guided completely by the opinions of any POC you meet without application of critical thought, you'll find yourself holding some quite contradictory opinions.

  18. I'm delighted to see this post because I've been turning her comment over in my head since she posted it, and I still hadn't been able to puzzle out an adequate answer. It isn't a situation I've personally encountered so it hadn't occurred to me before. I'm grateful for the comments here because it's helping me figure it out more.

  19. Hey Macon and Robin,
    The POC you had the disagreement with reminded me of the issue of Affirmative Action. There are some blacks who feel that AA does infantilizes them as persons of color and denies the hard work they had to put in in order to get where they are. But like another poster commented, it's not a zero sum game. I've had to work hard with everything I do doesn't mean that I haven't had privilege in doing so and it certainly doesn't mean I've haven't lost out on opportunities because I didn't have "the right look" for the position. Those lost opportunities become especially problematic when you learn that they are based on decisions coming from a higher office and have nothing to do with you as an individual. One certainly has less power in those situations. And it's those situations that most people who do anti racist work are concerned with. It has the potential to affect the greatest amount of people. It doesn't deny ones personal power over one's personal body. That person may have been conflating free will (something we all have) with institutional power (something that most people don't).

    I definitely go by the institutional definition of racism--it's the only one that makes sense in my eyes. Does that mean that POC don't have power, well no? As a matter of fact, most people don't any have power. It's only in large movements collectively can we get anything done at all.

  20. This is a great thinking point, which I'm still trying to work out in my head. I do have a comment for Imhotep, though.

    I can understand and agree that PoC should not be expected to subdue their passion and emotion when discussing racism. It's just not fair to expect that. It probably wouldn't be effective, either, because logic alone doesn't work when you're discussing issues with such an enormous emotional impact.

    But then you ask, "what did MLK get for his NON-VIOLENT approach to racial oppression?" and question the effectiveness of mild-mannered activism in fighting racism. And here I'm just blown away.

    If you ask any group of white people to name three POC that they respect, I'm pretty sure the names that would come up again and again would be Rosa Parks, Gandhi and MLK. All three of them were non-violent and basically mild-mannered in their protests. I wouldn't call any of them passionless, but none of them argued from emotion. And they got results. I don't think any activist in human history has had more of a spectacular success than Gandhi, and MLK did a hell of a lot more to get white people thinking about racism than any other civil rights leader.

    Yes, he got assassinated - but so did Malcolm X. And unlike Malcolm X, he actually convinced great numbers of white people to see black people as intelligent human beings. (No disrespect to Malcolm X here, by the way - I just think MLK was way more effective as an anti-racist and a leader).

  21. I wonder how many white people would put MLK as a respectable American category as opposed to just as positive and affluent POC? and therein lies the message behind Malcolm X's passion.

    Once again it becomes an issue of POC having to justify their humanity. You can only be MLK or Malcolm X- when both leaders had positive effects on the black community. If you go to Borders, you will find both influential figures under African American studies, whereas Abraham Lincoln is simply American History. I have to agree that this should sit as a discussion of privilege, not power.

  22. Being a person of color doesn't mean that one is inherently more educated or articulate about matters of race than anyone else - though they likely deal with issues of race on a daily basis.

    Prejudice + Power is the best definition of institutional racism.

    However: touting that definition as THE definition downplays the prevalence and severity of "racial prejudice" across the board. Just because something is not "institutionally racist" does not mean that it is not harmful, not real, or in any way alright. I think PoC deal with racial prejudice on a number of levels and being told that "institutional racism" is the end-all, be-all of racism de-legitimizes our personal, day to day experiences with prejudice.

    Be careful when you say such things, because while that is a standard definition, the context in which it is used could have a number of unintended implications.

    One has to be careful when talking about racism in this way because most people (regardless of skin color) don't think about race in these terms. The WAY you talk about this definition (condescendingly, as a know it all, etc.) will irk anybody who is unfamiliar with it.

    I've found that taking a more thoughtful, humble approach to introducing this topic works best. Ask someone what they think about this notion rather than informing them that this is the way that it is.

  23. Wow, I never expected my comment to be the subject of a post! Thank you for taking the time to draw attention to my question. I appreciate it.

    I also winced when I read it today and would like to apologize because I think the end of it sounded like a whiny white person complaining that insulting someone made me feel bad. I didn't intend for that. I don't want to make other people feel bad! I want to be able to address racism and be confident that what I am saying is what a PoC would like his/her allies to be saying on his/her behalf. And right now my fear is that what I am saying is not what I should be saying on behalf of people who are being marginalized. I don't want to add to the misinformation in the world. So that is what is troubling me.

    I agree with ithiliana, although I also don't see how someone can see it as a zero-sum game. In Robin's post, she talked about how in Japan, the Japanese would be the ones in the position to practice racism, because they are the racial majority. Capacity for power does not enter into the equation: all of us have the capacity to oppress others were we in a position of power. As a white woman, I know I am both in a position to oppress based on my race but also a position to be oppressed based on my gender. Simply describing the truth of a power dynamic does not mean, to me, that I am belittling the person on the receiving end of the power dynamic.

    But still, I don't want someone to feel like I am removing their personal agency. That is not my intent. This was not someone who had never heard the definition before, so it wasn't a case of someone being shocked or misunderstanding. They were well-educated on the subject of racism and the academic/sociological definition of racism as prejudice + power and simple disagreed with it on principle. So this seemed like a well-thought-out, intelligent response, not a kneejerk to some white woman telling them about the power structure in the United States. I hope that answers the questions from G & others about that facet of the conversation.

    Imhotep: No, that was not it at all. They suggested that defining racism as an institutional factor was infantilizing because it "coddled" PoC and cast them as innocent victims who were not capable of acting or rallying power against racism.

    Jillian: I just think you're not using the term "institutional" the same way we are. "Institutional" does not in this sense mean officiated so much as endemic. It is not part of a specific concrete institution, it is part of the abstract social institution.

    Once again, thank you for the responses. I look forward to hearing what anyone else has to say on this subject as well. I am glad I was able to open up a subject for discussion that had not been addressed yet.

  24. Here's a question: Pistolina's story was obviously abbreviated, so it isn't clear exactly what happened. Pistolina, when that PoC confronted you and you tried to explain why your definition was accurate, did you first ask that person how they might define it differently (as A. Smith suggested) and/or ask some other question that would clearly demonstrate that you 1. admit that you may not be the authority on everything and 2. care about what they think and feel; or did you just immediately defend your definition?

    I ask because the former might have provided you with just the answer you have been looking for (or it may not have). The latter may have appeared to the PoC whom you were talking to as a clearcut example of a white person trying to disempower them (consciously or otherwise) by communicating in an "I'm right, you're not" fashion. Potentially a frustrating irony in that person's eyes.

    The idea suggested by Lilimarie that (and I'm paraphrasing, with interpretive bias) one definition of racism is correct because the people who use it are more intellectually experienced, what with college classes and blog discussions and all that "research, discuss and better themselves" going on; and that someone who isn't coming at it from the same approach is therefore ignorant of what racism really is, well... yuck! Show me one person of color in a white-run society who doesn't know all too well what racism is, semantics notwithstanding. If we step outside of our gated-community of academia long enough to hear the common folk who live under the pressure of isms every bit as much (or more) as we do, we might find that WE are wrong. Or maybe we're right but there's more to it. Or maybe we're all wrong and WTF is really going on here?!

    I can certainly understand how a person might take exception to wording that suggests they don't have power or agency. In addition to Malcom X, MLK, Ghandi, and Rosa Parks, I'm pretty sure that Huey Newton, Pontiac, Harriet Tubman, and many of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto would also have been hard to convince that they were powerless. (thus it seems like "institutional" is very much a key word to involve) And probably would have been fully able to comprehend the thinking behind Pistolina's/Robin's definition too.

    I haven't a clue what should be THE definition of racism. I use the prejudice + (institutional) power definition when talking with others who do too. It is a common footing. However with someone who defines it differently, particularly a PoC, it's time to slow down a little and try to expand my horizons.

    Pistolina, (just saw your latest post while writing this) careful with the speaking "on behalf of PoC" thing. Glad you are trying to fight racism though.

  25. I'd like to address ithiliana's comment, which brings up Foucault and attempts to define power. I would not have otherwise thought to address Pistolina's question by attempting to define power, but I think that's the way to go. I agree with ithiliana's conclusion that "the formulation does not seem to claim that people in the minority group have NO power whatsoever," but I'd like to try to add to it.

    Foucault wrote extensively about power, but never defined it. He did, however, conceptualize it as a means in which populations are controlled. Power, he asserts, is ubiquitous, relative, and individualized. It's not that power resides within the individual, but that people are self-policing because of their knowlege of the system/structure in which they exist: police, government, public school, etc. People will regulate themselves because they are under surveillance, thus internalizing the power of the system.

    Using this understanding of power (individualized, relative, and ubiquitous), I'd venture that the PoC was inaccurate in accusing Pistolina's definition of racism of infantalizing PoCs because she or he misunderstood what power is and how it is wielded. We say a Hemi engine has "power." A three-cylindar engine? Not so much. So to imply that someone does not have power is insulting them.

    But power is more intangible than that. The idea that weakness is the opposite of power is false when it comes to institutional power because power is something we've unconciously internalized. Police officers are mostly white. So are teachers, politicians, and other societal authority figures. White people and PoCs internalize that, and then respond to it in different ways: resentment or entitlement.

    So yeah, Robin F.'s definition of racism (and racial prejudice) is accurate, as is Pistolina's. But it's an easy definition to misconstrue. Hell, I may have just slaughtered it in my attempt to apply Foucault's concepts to it. But even if I royally screwed it up, I hope that at least Foucault's concept of power is helpful in sorting out this issue.

  26. Wow, such good conversation here and much food for thought.What Femmalia said really makes sense to me and helps me understand what it was about Robin's defintion that was not feeling quite right to me (although it also felt, and feels, logically unassailable):

    "However: touting that definition as THE definition downplays the prevalence and severity of "racial prejudice" across the board. Just because something is not "institutionally racist" does not mean that it is not harmful, not real, or in any way alright. I think PoC deal with racial prejudice on a number of levels and being told that "institutional racism" is the end-all, be-all of racism de-legitimizes our personal, day to day experiences with prejudice."

    On another note, I have a question about Pistolina's response to Jillian regarding "institutional":

    "Institutional" does not in this sense mean officiated so much as endemic. It is not part of a specific concrete institution, it is part of the abstract social institution."

    This is a new way of thinking about institutional for me (I think I'm more along the lines of Jillian) and I'm wondering if others share this conception/have another conception, and could perhaps "unpack" a bit more. Just trying to wrap my mind around this...

    And, Pistolina, for the record, I didn't hear your comment as whiny at all, although I am familiar with that anxiety...

  27. @ Pistolina, what do you now think your response should have been? I admit that I am a coward when challenged on any racial issue by a PoC. I can't help it, I defer because I have never experienced racism in a continuous setting.

    After reading these comments I begin to feel that power might be better represented by privilege, so maybe racism is racial prejudice + privilege (which is the offspring of power)

  28. I want to be able to address racism and be confident that what I am saying is what a PoC would like his/her allies to be saying on his/her behalf.

    I'm going to take this comment in the spirit of being an active and engaged ally to POCs (which I respect) and not as doing POCs a favor (which I don't).

    I wrote about this on my Livejournal a few weeks ago. Warning: contains fanfic and fangirl squee.

  29. Thanks for posting this follow up to the education post. I linked to the education post on facebook, and my friends commented the exact same thing, questioning the universality of power as aligned with white. This is a helpful followup to pass on!

  30. I want to address a few more comments that have been made since I started typing up my most recent one.

    1) To dejamorgana: the first time I read though your comment, when I got to this section, "If you ask any group of white people to name three POC that they respect, I'm pretty sure the names that would come up again and again would be Rosa Parks, Gandhi and MLK," I thought you were pointing this out because it was a problem, not because you were trying to hold these three people up as examples.

    I see this quote as problematic and privileged and I am hoping that you are here for the same reason I am, to learn and contribute to an ongoing discussion of racism so you will not mind me pointing out this privilege in your perspective.

    White people often use King as a shield or as an example of a "good black person" because he fought in a way that did not threaten the safety of white people. This is why white people accept him.
    Was his method effective? Yes. But it is problematic that white people feel the need to invoke a black man to try to blunt the harsh tip of black anger. Black men and women in the US have a right to feel and express rage. I often feel like when white people invoke King, it is done to put PoC in their place and tell them how they should feel and how they should fight racism. It feels to me like a kind of victim-blaming: why should we be spending all this time telling black people to be nice to the white people who are oppressing them? Why not turn that effort on telling the most offensive of the white racists in our society to back the hell up and stop treating black people with the hatred and violence that demands they make a choice as to whether to fight back peacefully or with violence?

    I also found this comment problematic because I think it shows how white people characterize people of color whom they respect based on those people's contribution to the racial community from whence they came, thereby belittling the contributions of PoC like Yo-Yo Ma, Oprah Winfrey, or the Williams sisters, or even historical figures like Granville Woods or Sarah Breedlove Walker or Sacajawea. It plays into miajere's point that people of color are marginalized even in greatness: they are always "a credit to their race," to use a patently offensive white people term most often linked to people of color who achieve things greater than the achievements of white people, instead of a credit to humanity. It's the racial equivalent of being not bad for a girl.

  31. 2) To femmalia, while I totally agree with you, if I had known this was going to become a discussion topic for the blog as a whole, I would have offered more context. I absolutely did not enter into this conversation with a PoC, nor was I attempting to school a PoC on an issue of race-- I would like to think that I understand how offensive that is for a white person to behave as if they know more about racial oppression than someone who experiences it every day. In fact, that was why I backed off in this discussion-- because I had no interest in telling a PoC that they were wrong about their perceptions of a problem that affects them more directly than it affects me. I got into the conversation at first with a white person who was mouthing off about "reverse racism" and I was trying to explain how to have a discussion in terms, similar to some of the explanation Robin posted in the initial post that prompted my question. The PoC in this conversation engaged me, and clearly had done their homework, was aware of the definitions, and so on. They were not just being blindsided by some random white woman waxing pedagogical at them.

    I feel it in some ways is a more complex rephrasing of the "what do white people call PoC?" question. You always hear white people complaining that some black people want to be called black (or Black more specifically), and others want to be called African-American, as if it is a burden to keep straight who prefers what description. I hope I am not coming off as complaining here. I think what I would like to understand is how best to be an ally to someone who fundamentally disagrees with the way that the majority of anti-racists (as far as I know) believe the issue should be represented. They deserve my respect and my deference on the subject of race as much as anyone else, but it is difficult to figure out how to respect their wishes while continuing to support the wishes of the anti-racist activists that I have heretofore interacted with. Is there a compromise? Is there a way to support both perspectives?

  32. dejamorgana, First, let me state unequivocally that my respect for MLK is without limits, and equally so for Malcolm X. The point that I was attempting to make is that those that are racially or otherwise oppressed, when they sue for their rights (regardless of methodology) they are met with the same fate. So going to the oppressor, hat in hand with a humble tone does not guarantee a favorable outcome. That approach had been tried ever since the abolition of slavery and yielded miserable results. Fact is Martin and Malcolm were pursuing the same thing, obtaining rights and justice for Black Americans, and basically getting America to live up to the 14th and 15th amendments, which had been on the book for nearly 100 years. The fact that they used different tones is irrelevant to me, because they were both speaking from the heart, and they were speaking TRUTH. That white people chose to accept Martin directly related to how both men were portrayed by the white media. It’s fair to say that during that time both men were demonized in the media, but Malcolm to a much greater extend. The media kind of shape the narrative of do you want the guy who will turn the other cheek or do you want the guy who will burn everything to the ground? So, white folks reluctantly embraced King.

    dejamorgana said “And unlike Malcolm X, he actually convinced great numbers of white people to see black people as intelligent human beings. (No disrespect to Malcolm X here, by the way - I just think MLK was way more effective as an anti-racist and a leader).”

    I would conclude otherwise, King’s effectiveness benefitted greatly from Malcolm’s no nonsense approach (as articulated, tone and words) to obtaining rights and justice for Black people. That white people chose to demonize Malcolm, and approach him from a position of fear, is more a reflection on white folks. Finally, I don’t measure Malcolm’s effectiveness by how many white people he was able to convince to like him, or how many he convinced to like Black people. White people’s acceptance was not a top priority.

  33. To Lutsen and RVCbard, I apologize for what was very poor phrasing on my part. I definitely don't purport to speak for anyone who does not share my experiences.

    A few people have asked for more specifics on the situation in question:

    As I already said, the conversation started between me and a white girl who was using the colloquial definition of "racism." I explained the academic definition because I felt like she was misreading other people's comments on the situation because she didn't know the academic definition. So I did not tell her that her definition was wrong; I explained that for the purposes of the discussion, people were using this other definition, and that I felt like that was part of why she was getting confused by the other posters.

    At a point in the discussion, after I had introduced the academic definition, the male PoC I mentioned brought up his argument. I didn't ask him how he defined racism: it wasn't necessary, as he defined it in the first post he made. I definitely did not tell him that his definition was not valid at any point in the conversation.

    To Julia, in my definition of "institutional" as I regard it, this is not saying that there is not racism in concrete institutions. For example, a case of concrete institutional racism is the fact that there are far more white police officers than black police officers even in mostly-black neighborhoods in the US. Slavery is an obvious case of concrete institutional racism. However, this is caused by and feeds into a deeper abstract institutional racism, whereby the vast majority of people have preconceived notions of white vs. black/ other PoC and what predefined roles we all play in society. Those abstract notions give white people power just as they take power away from people of color and they persist even when people of color are in concrete positions of power. This is exemplified by the mistake that many white people make when claiming that a black President makes this a post-racial society: the fact that the most powerful man in the nation is black does not mean a white drugstore manager is suddenly going to stop giving white job applicants preferential treatment or that white women are going to let their children sit next to black people on the bus.

    To kopekler, I am honestly not sure what the right answer is, which is why I posed the question. I think the best response when accused of racism, as a white person, is not to argue it but to apologize, step back, and consider the question privately rather than to continue to cause someone further hurt, anger, or discomfort. While I would have liked to ask him how he would like to see race issues addressed, like I said, I do not want to put someone in the position of feeling like a white person is demanding education. I also felt like it might come across as condescending or facetious.

    I am really looking more for a way to move forward and a way to be more inclusive when addressing these issues. I do not want anyone to feel like white people are taking their personal agency away any more than they already do on a regular basis.

  34. I have an analogy that I hope will be kind of helpful (although it has limitations as all analogies do). When I think of institutionalized oppression, I think of a soccer field which is tilted heavily towards one goal. The oppressed people have to try and score against gravity, while the privileged people get to work with it. The institutional aspect is the soccer field (and maybe a biased ref or other things that happen during the game and not just before it). Both teams still have agency though. People can refuse to play, or play on the tilted soccer field, or work on getting the ref fired, or the field leveled. They circumstances around their agency differs though.

  35. My problem with the whole 'racism is prejudice plus power' definition is that it firmly ignores the common use of the word, and instead opts for usage wherein only white people can be racist (which seems like a tough etymological sell, who wants to be told that they are the only type of people who have this negative attribute?). It might be all well and good for anitracists and academics, but using uncommon or scholarly definitions of words in our everyday conversations with people only seems muddies the waters of comprehension.

    In order to be considered an 'ally' you have to opt away from the common definition of racism. To make matters even more confusing, you then have to opt away from the common definition of 'power.' Which leads to a whole new level of hair splitting as to what power means and who in fact has power.

    Basically, this would be how all this would sound to someone off the street.

    "No, you don't understand. When I called that situation racist it doesn't mean racist like you're thinking of, or even racist like you will look up in the dictionary. It means racist in this special way that we -antiracists and allies for people of color- mean that you need to read a couple of good essays to understand. Come to think of it, you need to change your understanding of the word power as well. And then and only then can we talk to each other about this. And if you disagree with me or are confused then you are ignorant and I don't have time to educate you. Go read a book... but not your dictionary."

    This seems to be the short version of this explanation to the uninitiated. Is that a fair description? Or am I missing something?

    It all seems like a way of calling beginning anti racists n00bs and skipping by, shaking your head at the ignorance of beginners because it was decided to change the definition of racism and they haven't gotten the memo yet.

    That being said, I don't have any good solution. Trying to talk about race and racism is something where a lot of the bugs in the english language are revealed (which may very well have been intentional). My prejudice, such as it is, is that you strive to speak as clearly as possible and use words in such a way that they will be clear for as many people as possible.

  36. I'm a white Englishman. I think the problem with this question, as pointed out by other commenters, is the definition of power. The 'power' part of 'prejudice + power' is based on relevant privilege. In the context of racism, this power is derived from race privilege. The 'prejudice + power' equation is not about just any kind of prejudice and power, but has to be racial prejudice and 'race power' to constitute racism.

    In the US context, I would suggest your president to be an example here. Barack Obama is, constitutionally, the most powerful person in the country. In spite of his powers, he lacks racial privilege and daily has to battle the implicit and explicit racism in his society. Likewise, Hillary Clinton battles an undercurrent of sexism. Both are powerful people, but their lack of the traditional privileges associated with white men leaves them open to racism and sexism respectively.

    Sitting here in Oxford, being a white man, I know I'm not going to suffer racism or sexism today. I may not have the world's largest nuclear arsenal at my fingertips, but I have race and gender privilege, which, if abused, gives me the power to be sexist and racist. That's the power in the equation.

  37. Pistolina, did you just ask the man what his reasoning was? Because that seems like the logical step to me. I don't think the general rule about not asking POC to explain race-related things applies to one guy's personal opinion on the finer sociological points of anti-racism. That doesn't really count as "stuff everyone should already know." You couldn't go educate yourself about it if you tried, unless he himself has written a well-known scholarly work on the subject. Besides, he presumably wouldn't have started discussing it with you if he hadn't wanted to discuss it with you.

    And I would really like to know how it is possible to refuse to allow someone to have power by simply observing that they don't have power. Schroedinger's social power dynamics, perhaps?

    J.M. Perkins, you really hit the nail on the head re: n00bs. That happens in feminist circles too. I don't quite understand how the principles of feminism or anti-racism are supposed to be obvious in a sexist, racist society, or how feminist or anti-racist principles are supposed to spread if you need the equivalent of a BA to understand them.

  38. The "racism = power+prejudice" equation is probably fine, though one (might) need to be explicit about it. "Prejudice" is clearly understood to be a mental thing, to compliment it with "racism is an action thing." is perfectly sensible. Without power, we can't take action.

    The roadblock shows up when you claim non-dominant group X has no power, institutional or not. Every group has some, some have more than others. As a white person living in Canada, I get more racism for my prejudice dollar than I would if I were black.

  39. Thanks, Pistolina, for further unpacking how you think about institutional. And thanks to Heather for the soccer field analogy. Both very helpful.

  40. Pistolina, I agree with what you're saying, but you're extending my comment into a whole different discussion. Those are not comments that I made. Of course PoC should be recognized as more than just "credits to their race", and it is problematic that the PoC most universally respected by WP are all civil rights figures (although I suspect that Michael Jordan and Oprah would round out the top five) - but I wasn't saying anything like what I think you're reading into my comment. I was responding specifically to Imhotep's statement (as I read it) that non-violence and mild-mannered protest could not be effective anti-racist tools. They can be effective. They can work spectacularly. And Parks, Gandhi and King are indeed positive examples of how effective they can be.

    Imhotep, you're right. I realise that Malcolm made a huge contribution to the fight. And I do think that, while MLK did more to get white people to embrace universal civil rights, it was probably Malcolm X who actually empowered black people to a degree that King alone wouldn't have been able to achieve.

    I think you need a little Malcolm and a little Martin in the approach to anti-racism. I also think it's important to remember that even Malcolm himself was moving in King's direction towards the end of his life.

    On a slightly more argumentative note, I didn't say "PoC that WP like", I said "respect". Of course the object of the civil rights movement wasn't to get whites to like PoC. A lot of white people have always "liked" PoC without acknowleding their equality. Plantation owners in eighteenth century Virginia might have "liked" PoC, but they definitely didn't respect them. They did not see them as equals, or even as full-fledged human beings. Right up to the Sixties I think the vast majority of WP continued to not respect PoC. White respect was one of the important ingredients that MLK helped provide, as a learned, intelligent leader dedicated to peaceful resolution. White respect is certainly not the only criterion by which we should judge him - but it's one of the ways he stood out, and in so doing helped the movement more than most.

    I realise it might sound like I'm saying that PoC need white approval to validate them, but I'm not. What I'm saying is that to end racism, you need to get the other guy to see you as a human being. If you can't do that, all the empowerment in the world won't stop the racial conflict.

  41. If you ask any group of white people to name three POC that they respect, I'm pretty sure the names that would come up again and again would be Rosa Parks, Gandhi and MLK. All three of them were non-violent and basically mild-mannered in their protests. I wouldn't call any of them passionless, but none of them argued from emotion. And they got results. I don't think any activist in human history has had more of a spectacular success than Gandhi, and MLK did a hell of a lot more to get white people thinking about racism than any other civil rights leader.

    Yes, he got assassinated - but so did Malcolm X. And unlike Malcolm X, he actually convinced great numbers of white people to see black people as intelligent human beings. (No disrespect to Malcolm X here, by the way - I just think MLK was way more effective as an anti-racist and a leader).

    I'm completely flabbergasted by the level of ignorance presented in this post.

    White people often use King as a shield or as an example of a "good black person" because he fought in a way that did not threaten the safety of white people. This is why white people accept him.

    True, but those same White folks know very little about what the man actually said and what he really stood for.

  42. dejamorgana,

    Do you have any idea how insensitive and condescending you're being right nwo?

  43. "Do you have any idea how insensitive and condescending you're being right nwo?"

    No, I don't know how this is condescending or insensitive. I certainly didn't mean it to condescending, and I didn't come here to insult anyone. I don't see the point of spending time reading anti-racism websites just to fight with people. I came here to communicate with like-minded people about ending racism. If I'm offending you, maybe I'm not communicating adequately. So could you explain why it's condescending, as well as why it's so flabbergastingly ignorant?

  44. So... if a member of the KKK goes to China, he's not racist anymore because he doesn't have institutional power there?

  45. So according to your definition of racist when Blacks and Koreans fought during the LA riots of ’92 there was not a ‘racist’ among them but if these same people fought in Nigeria then only the Blacks would be the racists?

  46. If by "blacks" you mean "Nigerians", then yes, the Nigerians have institutional power in Nigeria and Koreans do not, so the Nigerians can be racist in Nigeria. As for the L.A. riots, there was an enormous amount of racial prejudice and hatred, but neither blacks nor Koreans have institutional power there, so it's racial prejudice and bigotry rather than racism.

    And likewise to Sepia, while the KKK member is still a douche* no matter where he goes, he becomes a prejudiced douche in China rather than a racist douche in America.

    * As far as I'm aware, "douche" is not a recognized class of people in terms of sociology, but I think many of us would agree that anyone who is loud and proud about being a bigot is, colloquially speaking, a douche.

  47. Telling people that they are immune from being a racist based solely on the jurisdiction that they happen to be in at the time is irresponsible and dangerous. Irregardless of the hairsplitting differentiations of ‘Racial prejudice”, “Racial hatred” & plain old “Racist” many can & will interpret this as a permission to spew Racial epithets.

  48. @Brass

    What difference does it make if someone 'spews racial epithets' if they are in a context where nobody of the group they are spewing epithets about is ever going to hear them, and in which they have no power to influence the way members of that group are treated?

    If someone marooned alone on Mars with no chance of ever getting back to earth were to rant and rave about some racial group or other, why should anyone care?

    _Obviously_ the significance of racial attitudes is going to vary depending on the context.

    And yes, if a KKK member were somehow stuck in a remote village in China, with no prospect of ever getting out, surrounded by folk who don't much interact with the world outside either and who don't accord him any special status for being white, then yes, his 'racism' would cease to have any meaning.

    A white ex-pat American living voluntarily in China though would not be in that position, because they clearly still have a strong connection to the US and the potential to return.

  49. Regarding white racists, Wildflower wrote:"See, they're invested in the belief that blacks and others are as racist as they are. It seems to them we're defining prejudice as only a white thing...which is ridiculous."

    As a white teacher of a class on white privilege and racism, I have spent much too much time with just this objection, and I have concluded that one cannot just ignore the conventional definition of a term and redefine racism for a certain discourse. Many words have multiple meanings, and "racism" is one of those words. I have used the terms "small R racism" and "capital R racism" to try to distinguish between what might be called racial animosity on the one hand and institutional racism on the other. This is sometimes helpful, but also confusing.

    Lately I have had better results in terms of coming to an acceptable understanding of the term by pointing out that racism, like sexism or capitalism, involves a system of belief, in this case a belief (conscious or not) in a hierarchy of race. Then when a white student says that a PoC has been racist toward him or her, I point out that while any action might have a racial aspect, the racial hierarchy that we are all living under (i.e., racism) is still the same. It's hard to deny that in US society, white people are at the top of the racial ladder; that's racism.

    Individuals and their actions can't be divided into racist and non-racist in such a system; they are only more or less so. Saying that only some people in a racist society can be racist is, in my opinion, counterproductive, but so is saying that some people aren't racist at all. We live in a racist society, and we have all, to one degree or another, bought into that belief system, just as we live in a society based on wages and commerce and all participate to some degree, regardless of whether it is an equitable system. To change this means not ridding the system of certain behaviors or people (getting rid of racism or "converting" racists), but remaking the whole system, recognizing and rejecting the racial hierarchy and what damage it has done to us all, both its beneficiaries and its victims.

  50. Robin said:

    And likewise to Sepia, while the KKK member is still a douche* no matter where he goes, he becomes a prejudiced douche in China rather than a racist douche in America.

    * As far as I'm aware, "douche" is not a recognized class of people in terms of sociology, but I think many of us would agree that anyone who is loud and proud about being a bigot is, colloquially speaking, a douche."

    I think "douche" qualifies as an offensive, sexist term though:)

    from http://www.drbilllong.com/SpellersDiary/Interlude.html

    "The word douche, with this spelling, goes back to the 18th century, but "douche-bag" doesn't occur until the 20th and, at first, in a medical context. For example, in a gynecological handbook for nurses, from 1908, we have the advice to "hang the douche-bag eighteen inches above the level of the patient's hips." By 1967, according to the OED, the term came into its more prominent contemporary usage: "Douche bag, an unattractive co-ed. By extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to deprecate." By the time I made it to the university in 1970, the language of "douche bag" was in the air, but it was almost universally applied to males."

  51. If a white man goes on television in Japan, denies the Holocaust and uses the N word. Not only would I call him a racist so would the great majority of the world along with President Obama. But your definition of racist would say that he is not.

    Like it or not words are defined by their usage. The people who use the word racist and the dictionary do not define the word in the same way that you do.

  52. White people are "people of color" too.

  53. The idea that there are differences between races and the way in which people with particular clusters of genes function is viable. The idea that this confers a panoramic superiority is not.

    Different genetic adaptations to surviving in rarefied air have developed in the Himalayas and the Andes. both are effective in enabling indigenous people living in that environment to cope with their milieus. These peoples are both "superior" in terms of surviving in oxygen depleted areas.

    Why is there denial of such verities? It seems to be that extrapolations of differences, however slight (such as that between bonobos and humans), sare used to justify disparate treatment. Sometimes the differences are acknowledged, and sometimes adjustments are made in a societal setting without attributing differentiated performance to intrinsic capabilities of the organism.

    Although speciation had been in progress, humans are still able to interbreed, and internationalization has in part reversed the speciation process.

    Where are some areas in which some races or clusters are superior to others? Well, all of the male world sprint records are held by people of West African origin. Almost if not all of the world's distance running records are held by persons of East African origin. Coincidences? Ho hum.

    In terms of athleticism, African Americans seem to be endowed with characteristics that enable them to perform at championship levels in many sports.

    Yet African Americans do not excel in certain intellectual fields as for example, they are conspicuous by their absence from higher level mathematics and hard science accomplishments. There are no "Nobels" in these fields.

    In the interests of "fairness," we have pretended that there is equal endowment, and so have contrived remedies for all groups that address problems centrered in one group. The D.C. school district illustrates that infusion of cash, more than $13,000 per pupil per year, third highest per pupil expenditure in the country, does not succeed in educating the mass of students.

    Of course, there is a continuum, and there are blacks who excel in all areas requiring social interaction and other skills, law, social work, and the like, as well as having musical and rhythmic talents.

    There is a passive evaluation that downplays the value of black skills (which are nevertheless rewarded in athletics), and decrees that we all are "the same." Possibly this is necessary in an attempt to include blacks in all levels of society, and the pretense and costs are something that society should bear to offset the devastating effects of exclusion from participation of blacks in proportion to their numbers in the general population despite lack of comparable skill levels.

    Is racism the recognition of realities concerning gene clusters. Do we need to indulge societal myths so as to enable the nation to function?

  54. Parenthetically, I have heard declarations by numerous black people that are implicitly racist. Remember that Michelle Obama declared that even though she was warmly received and well-treated in college, she herself brought alienating racist attitudes with her that made her uncomfortable interacting with whites despite the fact that these white people did not manifest any racist attitudes or behavior. Can racism be a subjective attitude held by many minorities, so that they are to a large extent dealing with their own racism and unresolved feelings rather than expressions of "racism" directed towards them? Could it be their subjective apprehension of what they experience? Can a man such as Professor Gates, who brought so much baggage with him, misiniterpret even the most benign expressions as "racism?"

    It reminds me of the early days of the "Freedom Rides," when I interviewed a black girl who had been participating, and told me how their integrated group had run through a department store yelling and breaking items, knocking items off of the counter, and had been arrested and detained overnight, which she ascribed to "racism" rather than as a response to "disturbing the peace." How much racism is the residual burden of which blacks cannot divest themselves?

  55. C.R., you may have heard biased thoughts by people of color; but, you didn't deal with racism.

    Learn the difference between prejudice/bias and racism.

  56. @Peony

    Actually your scenario shows you have misunderstood the definition. If a white guy did that, then, yup, he would be a 'racist' under the definition given here. Japan is not an isolated desert island, its not Mars. A white guy in Japan is still part of an international system under which white people have more power than black people. If he appears on TV and makes statements that will influence large numbers of people, including Japanese people who do have some power over black people, and even people outside Japan, then clearly it meets the definition. Your attempt at a counter-example fails, I'm afraid.

    Now if a white guy were marooned on a desert island or another planet with only other white guys, and none of them had any prospect of ever getting back to civilisation/Earth, then yeah, whatever any of them say about black people its not really racist because it has no power to hurt anyone.

    Words are indeed defined by their usage. Many people use the word as its defined here. Furthermore they have a rational argument as to why it makes sense to do so.

  57. @Robin

    "If by "blacks" you mean "Nigerians", then yes, the Nigerians have institutional power in Nigeria and Koreans do not, so the Nigerians can be racist in Nigeria."

    I think it is sufficient that they be black, not specifically Nigerian, to be racist in Nigeria. A white Englishman or German could easily be racist against the blacks if he were in America.

  58. As an Indigenous WOC I always found this very situation confusing. I have seen it happen with friends and myself on more then one occasion arguing for both sides but never reaching a clear "definition" or understanding. At the end of it all, both sides are right but the question is...how can we find the right medium that is agreed upon by both side?

    There is still more need in finding more language that can allow us to have a better understanding of both communicating and understanding "racism" better.

    However. I did find contextualizing both colonial and post-colonial knowledge and language along with "ethnicity" and its relations to "power" did a better job for me (personally) in understanding these dynamics in not only our, but other societies better.

    somehow, "race" is just a huge block that obviously needs breaking apart and looking at individually. In the post on the word "Orient" and "Asian" many expressed the problem of clumping half of the world population in one category "ASIAN"...its difficult when all of us who come from different identities attached with our ethnicities are clumped together in one (although i understand the need for us to politically engage ourselves as "asians" in order to fight institutional and other forms of injustices facing "asians")

    But when it comes to understanding "racism", of-course one needs to understand the "power dynamics" which gives that allows that "group" to hold more power over the "other/s"....and in countries such as Asia, AFrica and S. America, indigenous peoples are the ones being colonized ones again and disenfranchised by the Asians, Africans, and S. Americans.

  59. Prejudice + "Prejudice is beneficial to me so I will advocate it" = Racism

    This is a bit more complex than Prejudice + Power. Any time a person chooses to maintain their prejudices (around skin color stereotypes) because they are personally beneficial, that person is being racist.

  60. When asked the question:

    “if a member of the KKK goes to China, he's not racist anymore because he doesn't have institutional power there?”

    You replied:

    “while the KKK member is still a douche* no matter where he goes, he becomes a prejudiced douche in China rather than a racist douche in America.”

    But when asked a similar question about a white man in Japan that was vocal about his beliefs, you replied:

    A white guy in Japan is still part of an international system under which white people have more power than black people. yup, he would be a 'racist' under the definition given here.

    We are All part of an international system (white dominated) so therefore according to your later definition only white people can be racist.

    You said
    “Many people use the word as its defined here”

    but that doesn’t matter, because the great majority do not, and the usage by the majority define the word.

    Dictionaries are written by scholars that dedicate a tremendous effort to research how words are used in order to find their definition.

    GOOGLE: “Define: racism”

    The definitions I have found do not talk about the race of the person or their location at the time that they voiced their opinion.

    You appear to be desperately trying to redefine the word.

  61. @bloglogger: I think the way you explain it to your students (re: the systemic nature) is fantastic. Do you get a good response to that in terms of your students having a "lightbulb moment"?

    @Isabel: I'd never known the origin of the term! I've never heard it applied to co-eds, it's always just been anyone negative. I love it because douches are things that are not good for humans in general and women in specific (not to get too midwife-y here, but they upset the balance of bacteria in the area and tend to cause problems). Is it still sexist if it's used against both sexes?

    @Anthony: Yes, white people do have color, and that's something that's been discussed on this blog (the "normalization" of white by having it be the default). However, PoC is the commonly accepted term for those who are not white, so it's the easiest term to use for discourse.

    @Concerned racist: It's likely that you'd get more response to your comments if you didn't make them sound like you ran them through a Dilbert generator, LOL. If it's too difficult to read, people will give up and move on to the next comment.

    @James: While I do agree with your point to an extent, it's also a fact that black-on-black prejudice occurs in some African countries - that certain nationalities of black Africans hold power in their individual country over black Africans from other countries. It isn't quite the same as a white British person being interchangeable with a white American.

    @supercilious: If it wasn't beneficial to them in some way, why would they advocate it? It seems to go without saying that if someone clings to a belief (of any kind), it's because they have something invested in that belief.

    @guppy: First, you're picking comments from several different people. But regardless of that, I invite you to go read the original "Racism 101" article, because that addresses the points you've attempted to make here (that this is the sociological definition of racism, and that's the definition used in anti-racist circles, and WHY it's used in anti-racist circles rather than the colloquial definition, and that you won't win points by dragging out the dictionary - all that's already been addressed at length).

    As for the conflict you're perceiving between a racist white person in Japan and a prejudiced white person in China, blogger "p" addressed the ways in which it is different for a white person in Japan to make racist statements and a white person on Mars (or, as in Celadon's example, a white person in rural China) making the same statements. I'd advise rereading their comments.

  62. @Robin

    I don't agree with Isabel about much, but, actually, I do agree about 'douche'. I am bemused that on certain US blogs its become the 'acceptable' insult of choice. I recognise that defence you give from a particular web site, but it just doesn't work for me, smacks of post-hoc rationalisation.

    That's clearly not what was in people's minds when it started being used as an insult. It obviously gains its negative power from its association with the female anatomy, which to my mind makes it misogynist. (Probably a bit like the way Jamaican patois for tampon was used at my old school.)

    Also, as a non-American, it find it a purely American insult (it's not used in the UK).

    Afraid its irrevocably associated in my mind with annoying right-wing Frat boy types (up there with the use of 'lame' for anything other than horses or excuses, or the use of 'retarded' 'pussy' or 'gay' as insults).

    I'm not telling you never to use the word, I'm not into language policing beyond a certain point, but I find it strange that people who are offended by certain other insults seem to find that one OK.

  63. Fair enough. I can certainly understand that having my own personal non-misogynist associations with the term "douche" doesn't mean that most other people will feel the same way, and it's good to be respectful of people's feelings and perceptions. I will henceforth not use the term around these parts. :)

  64. How convenient it must be to simply dismiss the dictionary.
    This is where I get off.
    Your arguments are intellectually bankrupt.

  65. I don't think it is fair to agree to disagree in this situation. This is a concept that can be explained. It is important to recognize the "red flag" words such as "power" that become highlighted in a persons mind. The words Power+white could easily make someone of colors' red flag go up. Trying to relate past that point might become very hard, especially if the person conveying the speech is white themselves. As a person of color myself, it is difficult to trust that a white person even knows what they are talking about when they speak on racism. Even though we know that in some cases this is not true, it is easy to make that assumption and to get offended.

    I think that it is best to first explain it, then give the definition.

    You could start by saying that you understand that America is an unfair country alongside many countries. That we have a serious problem with racism: designed to keep another human down and feeling less then, while the other is made to feel superior. That we know that humans have an ugly history and have always and seemingly always will take every opportunity to be the superior. That white people took that opportunity long ago and have groomed it into the ugly thing that it is today. That America is set up so that white people hold most of the most important offices in the industry and the government, From CEO's to Presidents (until recently, Barack, being the first minority president America has ever had, but with MUCH opposition).

    You could then say that you understand that USUALLY, these power positions are not awarded from "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" like white people so often want to throw in the face of persons of color. That a lot of the time its not what you know, but who you know, whether it be your dad, or his friends' friend. That the educational system in our neighborhoods are different from the educational systems in white neigborhoods. And that this definitely creates an imbalance in opportunity and a bias that America has held for so many years in favor of whites. That a lot of the time poc are the only ones "picking themselves up by their bootstraps". And that opportunities begin at a young age based on SAT scores and the school you've gone too. And that you understand that Sat's are more of a cultural test then a test of true knowledge or intellect, tipped in the favor of white people.

    There are so many issues to this that it would take many more blogs to explain, thus the reason for this website I'm sure. But this brings me to the conclusion of presenting this issue to a person of color.

    You would then be able to say that because of all these small factors that enable a white person to unfairly be the majority in positions of power that this is what makes you feel racism is defined by prejudice+power. Because when a person holds the power, be it fair or not, they have more of a sway on the decisions that are made. They can hold somebody down through various methods. And when you can exclude a certain group, when the money is on your side of the fence, and all your counterparts are in on it,then you've created a recipe with bigotry and power as the main components. Because according to the accepted view in America, he who has the money holds the power. Now, when color, age, etc. are the reasons behind the exclusion then you've created prejudice. When color and ethnicity become the only reasons standing behind the prejudice, you've created racism. Racism is only effective when power is on the side of the racist. Therefore power+prejudice specifically against one's skin color= effective racism.

    Now we really have to ask ourselves though... What is race? A creation by humans to define the colors of mankind?? red and yellow, black and white? Really we're all just humans and the only differences should be location. This is the way it used to be isn't it?? How silly for this to even be an issue if all it has to deal with is the changes in melanin in the skin...

  66. Perhaps "institutionalized supremacy" would be a better term than "power". Using the word power does seem patronising. In the US there is institutionalized white supremacy so white people who are being prejudiced are being racist. Same with institutionalized Euro supremacy in Europe, or Japanese supremacy in Japan.

  67. If racism is definitionally institutional, then why does the phrase "institutional racism" exist, and appear in Pistolina's comment?

  68. Racist... prejudiced... we don't live in a world of reality. We live in a world of perceptions. Changing a definition doesn't make innocence or guilt. Singling out anyone on the basis of color is both racist and prejudiced.

    Daily we scream about racism. The day before the Super Bowl I heard a local radio DJ comment that, because the Colt's coach was black, he'd pull for the Colts. The DJ is African-American.

    Now, if I had commented in a public forum that I would pull for the Saints because they have a white coach, I'd be labeled a racist. (I'm a white guy.)

    It can't be both ways. Equality is defined as 'the quality of being the same in quantity or measure or value or status'. The scales have to balance. If the black guy can shout he's for the one team because they have a black coach, equality dictates that the white guy must also be able to shout that he is for the other team because of the white coach.

    Personally, I think both of these guys are nuts. Black, white, green... as long as we (whether we be black or white or green) see our fellow humans as being fundamentally different simply because of color, we unbalance the scales. That person perpetuates racism.

    The black man who wants a special recognition of blacks is as guilty of unbalancing the scales as a white man who wants a special recognition of whites.

    Racism will never go away as long as we (any of us) seek special status or recognition or segregation because of skin color.

  69. racism??? http://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/2009/10/05/your-race-affects-whether-people-write-you-back/

  70. I’ve read though most of this rather massive blog/comments.

    First let me say I disagree with the attempt at sanitizing the current definition of “racist”.

    At best the definition is fragile I don’t care who the “experts” are that invented it.

    Remember the best minds of the 1700 used to bleed people too.

    To define this word (rasist) in terms of regional power and control is ludicrous. By definition then when the dominant population of then reaches PoC then the concept swithches to only PoC can be racist? OK, then what happens in the case of when there is balance of power/control between whites and PoC? Would it then be impossible for there to be a racist between those two groups? Like I say the definition is weak.

    Imagine if the experts added “only on Tuesday” to the definition. How many out there would buy that definition?

    I submit a more reasonable definition and one more likely to be consistent over time is the one I found at:


    Or a half dozen other sites.

    The common definition (the one the masses understand) is adequate. Deep inside we all know what being racist is. Even a PoC that acts on his prejudice feelings against any other race is “racist” I don’t care where he/she lives of who is in power/contol. That is NOT reverse-racist it’s racist. I grew up in a racially mixed family. I’ve seen/heard racist remarks from both sides. The origin I believe is instinct from tribal survival strategies. We as a race need to outgrow those ancient instincts. It’s like our appendix. It’s worthless but still there. To invent weird weak definitions does nothing to support this.

  71. Racism is a system of power and privilege organized within the social context. Race as a social construction, does not inherently indicate biological difference or meaning. Thus, white people and black people are biologically the same race. If "race" as organized is a socio-political, socio-historical construct, then it is composed of sets of social, cultural, political behaviors and practices that are perceived as "race". Engaging such practices effectively reproduces the idea of race, though it is not a true or distinct biological reality. Therefore, "being or acting white" constitutes subscribing to and engaging a specific set of cultural practices and behaviors, unrelated to location, but context. In the current multicultural context many persons access and utilize these sets of cultural practices to acquire and deploy power and privilege in the said social context. Subsequently, inequitable, unfair or racist advantage/privilege (power) can be attained by any person astute and competent enough to successfully position themselves in the social context that rewards the set of behaviors and practices. Clarence Thomas is very dark-skinned Black man who is married to a white woman, but Jesse Helms, an avowed racist, said he loved Clarence. Clarence practices racism on a regular basis. Racism is a complex mechanism that defies a single definition. Is it not reasonable to utilize multiple approaches to illuminate the multiple strategies and functions of racism? Excusing people of color indemnifies their actions that are racist. Thus, you see large institutions purposely placing people of color in roles of authority (human resources, diversity positions, hiring and firing roles) and power precisely because it is assumed and believed that they cannot be racist. The institutions are smarter than we recognize.

  72. Racism has a definition: making judgements about a person based on race. There are many differnt levels and types of racism. So, if you would like to talk about racism in the context of "majority/power" towards the "minority" then do so using extra words that explain your thoughts. That is why we have other words. Don't change the definition of a word in a way that limits that word's use and clarity. If people get offended by the words you use, look them up and explain the defintion. Many times people get offended because they missunderstand the word. Making up your own defintion does not help anybody.

  73. There is an easy way to solve this problem. The racism definition anti-racist groups us seems to me more like the definition of institutionalized racism. So when you want to refer to that type of racism maybe put the institutionalized qualifier there. When you want to talk about racial prejudice then we can all use the good old fashioned word racism.

  74. In my experience there is rarely a word or a phrase that applies in every situation and is acceptable to every person communicating within that situation. In my opinion, this is the problem with English language and for using colonized forms of communication to resolve long standing issues of colonization, power, and privilege. As its been said: you can't use the master's tools to tear down the master's house. I tend to agree with this idea.

    Our society is sick. the way we (meaning most everyone) communicates within this dysfunctional system carries parts of that sickness. When we find ways to communicate outside of the system with traditional understandings of balance and healing - is when I believe these issues can be addressed. Until then, we make do the best way we can - as imperfect as those ways might be...


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