Saturday, December 24, 2016

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Race?

In my previous entries (1), (2), (3), I've talked about white supremacy and some of its fallacies. In these next several posts, I will talk about racism: what it is, how to recognize it, and how to recognize it in ourselves.

First, unfortunately, I have the tedious task of laying the groundwork. I hope to make the subsequent entries more interesting. Let's look at the terms: race, racism, racist, prejudice and discrimination.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Race?

"Race prejudice has unfortunately become an American tradition which is uncritically handed down from one generation to the next. The only remedies are enlightenment and education." Albert Einstein [1].

"Donald Trump is for Americans first. ... And Mexico, Mexicans, that's not a race. You’re not racist if you don't like Mexicans. They're from a nation." Ed Martin, former head of the Missouri Republican Party [2].

The words race, racism and racist get tossed around and too few seem to recognize what they mean. This confusion comes in part because, as with most words, they have multiple meanings and multiple layers. These include dictionary definitions and historical meanings.

For the purposes of this essay, these three definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary apply to race (noun) [3].

  • a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
  • a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics.
  • a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits

So, race is not only a major subdivision of the human species such as black or white (definition 3), it is used to refer to people of a nation (definition 1) or with shared interests (such as religion, definition 2).

Using pseudoscience or genetics are more recent approaches to defining race, therefore, historically, the above definitions were once roughly the same: the categories of humankind were nation, ethnicity and culture. Nations were often described as separate races to fit prejudices.

There was (is) the notion of the Irish race and Irish racism.

"[Of Ireland:] I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours."
—Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley, 1860 (more on this topic can be found at reference 4.)

In summary, race can be any of a variety of groups: people are described at times by nation, ethnicity, culture, or religion. In some cases and sometimes for purposes of discrimination, such as Jews and Mormons, religion and race have been used interchangeably.

Racism, Prejudice and Discrimination.

Again, Merriam-Webster.

Racism: racial prejudice or discrimination [5].

This is somewhat helpful, but introduces two more critical terms: prejudice and discrimination.


Merriam-Webster has several overlapping definitions of prejudice. Here are two.

  • preconceived judgment or opinion.
  • an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.
These describe thought processes: judgment, opinion, and attitude.

Discrimination (M-W).
  • the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually 
  • prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment

Put together, not surprisingly, racism is prejudging a someone of a different race (a thought process) or discriminating against the person (most commonly, an act).


This leaves one more definition on my list: racist.

Merriam-Webster fails here, saying only that it is derived from racism. The Oxford Dictionary online presents two significant meanings. The first of these is an adjective.

racist, adj. Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another.

The second is a noun.

racist, noun. A person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.

The first problem is that these include the words "feels" and "believes." Short of mind reading, or having the person inform us (truthfully), we don't know what a person feels or believes.

"Shows" discrimination or prejudice is easier to judge. However, even when the person performs a seemingly racist action, there are some potential problems. A person may be rude to everyone. Alternatively, the person may be insensitive toward the member of a particular race without that insensitivity being race-based. And finally, there are, on occasion, genuine misunderstandings, particularly those between cultures unfamiliar with each other. Beyond this, of course, is the degree of racism displayed, mild is more easily misattributed than flagrant. I'll talk about the different forms of racism in the coming posts.

I'd like to propose this rule for racist as an adjective. It doesn't matter whether you can prove intent. In the case of someone who is rude to everyone, I would put that person in the category of "racist-plus." In the second and third examples where insensitivity is misattributed to racism or where a misunderstanding occurs, these are rare enough so that, for an innocent person, a single incident can be shrugged off (assuming that it was not particularly flagrant or hostile), and multiple incidents fall beyond the realm of coincidence: they demonstrate a pattern of racism.

The second problem is for the noun: how often does a person have to commit racist acts before they are a racist? Once? Twice? Regularly? To some extant, there is a "I know it when I see it" factor here.

Again, I'm going to make a radical suggestion. Rather than worrying about whether a person is a racist, look at whether they perform racist acts. If they perform racist acts, they are functioning as a racist, even though the true intent or how hardcore a racist that person is, may be difficult to determine.

My ultimate goal is this. To construct a means by which we (myself included) can examine ourselves and answer the question: Is what I did racist?

Coming up next: the different forms of racism.

Citations and notes.

[1] Albert Einstein. Interview the Cheyney Record, October, 1948 as cited in Einstein on Race and Racism.
[2] Ed Martin, as quoted in St. Louis' Riverfront Times, August 30, 2016.
[3] The Oxford Dictionary online presents this sentence example along with its definition of race:
A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.
'we Scots were a bloodthirsty race then'

[4] As cited in Wikipedia.
[5] The Oxford Dictionary has a more complete definition of racism. "Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."
[6] The four relevant definitions of prejudice at Merriam-Webster.
  • preconceived judgment or opinion
  • an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
  • an instance of such judgment or opinion 
  • an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics

A couple of other relevant definitions moved here to speed along the above discussion which is already definition heavy.

bigot: (noun)
a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. (The definition of bigotry doesn't add much. It is ""the state of mind of a bigot" or "acts or beliefs characteristic of a bigot.")

intolerant: (adjective)
unable or unwilling to endure
unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression especially in religious matters
unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
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