When I arrived at Yale, I began to hear the word “racism” used in an odd way. I had been taught that “racism” and “race-based prejudice” were more or less synonymous, but at Yale and in the broader social justice community, the prevailing use of the word refers to a system of race-based oppression. This definition is popular in academia, but has also gained a following in pop culture and among many of my friends and peers at Yale.
Linguistically, I believe that the former definition is correct; “racism,” like other isms, should refer to a set of beliefs. But as a friend of mine pointed out, “racism” is more than just a word; it is an immensely important tool for advancing the causes of disadvantaged people of color. By this logic, we should use the definition most useful to the people who need it.
But defining “racism” as a social system rather than a belief system leads to some incoherent conclusions. Proponents of this definition claim that because white people and not people of color benefit from racist systems, only white people can be described as “racist.” It is a convenient way to discredit claims of “reverse racism,” as the movie “Dear White People” does. But this definition of racism is actually detrimental to the cause of racial justice. When the meaning of “racism” leads to conclusions such as this, it makes it easy for opponents of social justice to discredit the term and those who use it. Alternate meanings will pop up. “Racism” will become a gray area. Actual racists will be able to evade the term with equivocation, and we will lose a potent tool for social justice.
The flaw in this definition comes down to whether the effect of prejudice is all that matters or if prejudiced thoughts are required for the label “racism” to apply. Using “racism” to describe a system of oppression grounds the term in effects. But when calling someone a racist, the point is not really the effect of their racism; we are angered and offended by racist people and racist thoughts even in the absence of racist actions.
Some say that words are just words and that the things they refer to are all that matter, but “racism” isn’t like other words; its power to inspire disgust and visceral hatred of the thing it describes is practically unmatched by any other phrase.
Suppose there is an island where people of color and white people have coexisted in harmony since the dawn of humankind, a place as idyllic as the first five minutes of any Disney movie. There is no history of oppression on this island and no power structure of disadvantage. Surely we can still call a person “racist” and condemn them as morally reprehensible. If this racist lived not in America but on our utopic island, should we view her with any less contempt? Is she any more or less horrible a person because the social structure around her echoes her thoughts? When applied to a person or an idea, the revulsion that “racism” connotes does not derive from any system of oppression, but rather from the individual person or idea’s intrinsically repugnant nature.
Unless racism and reprehensibility can be separated, using “racism” to describe a system of oppression is at odds with its use of describing individuals. If “people of color by definition can’t be racist,” then neither can white people, since to claim otherwise creates a double standard. If, by definition, only white people can be racist, we need a new definition.
Define racism in whatever way works best. Let it apply to a system of racial oppression or a system of preparing ice cream cones. But however you define it, recognize the ability the word has to condemn, and make sure that condemnation is consistent.
Kathan Roberts is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .