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Many of my social justice advocacy colleagues have felt forced into a corner. The corner I’m referring to is that of explaining systemic oppression/systemic racism to people who don’t necessarily understand the subject. As a result of the difficulty of communicating effectively what is meant by “systemic racism,” many have redefined the word racism to mean exactly that. This is problematic, and in my view, dangerously guilty of intellectual cowardice. Let’s explore this.
Alan J. Levine’s Redefining Racism
To begin, let me make a clear distinction between what I’m advocating, and what clear racism-apologists are advocating, by defining the latter. In the article Redefining Racism, Alan J. Levine (a historian with expertise in World War 2 and Russian history) argues that people who are attempting to redefine racism to mean ‘western-centric historically white oppression’ are the ones being racist. Why? He doesn’t make a strong case for the connection between racism and redefining a word for the sake of its utility in an argument, but it’s important to point out the distinction. He claims to be victimized as a white man by racism-hunters, insidious (note: make-believe) characters who are out to ruin the lives of white people. Levine goes into his own version of the history of the evolution of the word ‘racism’, and sets the groundwork for his argument that the word has been ever more loosely defined over time.
However, when anyone attempts to more strictly define the word ‘racism’, he doesn’t like it. Why? Because it supposedly victimizes him in that way, so we should apparently go back to semi-loose (but not too loose!) definitions. Let’s call a spade a spade. Alan J Levine is a racist who thinks the 1950’s were the “good old days,” and really misses the time when black people just weren’t getting in his face about all the problems they encounter. This internal feeling, betrayed by his modern writing on subjects outside of his expertise, exposes where Redefining Racism is coming from. Now, is he a racist in the same way some Aryan Nation skinhead is a racist? No. He’s more like a Bill O’Reilly papa bear kind of racist, who probably wouldn’t consciously dislike anyone for the color of their skin, but who subconsciously is doing more harm than good in his ignorance. It’s still racism.
Dictionaries Are Usually Right
The appeal to dictionary is a common tactic in online discussions. It seems flawed on the face of it, but is actually a solid strategy. An appeal to dictionary is literally an appeal to authority. Dictionaries are upkept by academics who are authorities on the respective language. An appeal to authority isn’t problematic or fallacious if you’re appealing to an actual authority. So now that we got using a dictionary as being unproblematic out of the way, what do various dictionaries say?
Racial prejudice or discrimination
Those two should be fairly uncontroversial; however, they leave out racism as a system of oppression. I believe the dictionary definitions are out-dated in their current form. There should be two definitions in the dictionary, one of the traditional definition, and one of the post-modern “system of oppression” to appease proponents of that use. The current definition is, at the very least, ignorant of a large body of recent academic work on the subject of how racism should be defined and what racism is. That being said…
The Old Definitions Work
It’s time to update a definition when there’s a thing that could be defined that isn’t reflected in the dictionary, when the definition is outdated in colloquial use, or when it can be argued the definition is untenable. With our current definition of racism, systemic racism IS already definable. It’s known as institutional racism. Whatever hole the old definition of racism leaves unplugged, the definition of institutional racism covers.
If we redefine institutional/systemic racism to “racism” we open up a new hole to fill. The people who are of an oppressed race in their country, and who both believe themselves to be of a superior race and act on this belief, can no longer be defined as ‘racist’. This is intentional. Let’s look at two scenarios.
Person A: I don’t hire black people because they are inferior workers.
Person B: I don’t hire black people because they are inferior workers.
Now what if I told you Person B was Latino and based on one of my former managers, and that Person A is based on a hypothetical white person? Irrespective of their race, you would call them racist. But if you ascribe to the belief of the modern definition being true, one person is a participant in racism and the other is not. See the problem? Now what if we go to Japan where the Ainu people were subjected to systemic oppression based upon their race?
Person C: I don’t hire Ainu people because they are inferior workers.
Person B: I don’t hire black people because they are inferior workers.
Person C in this hypothetical is a Japanese businessman and Person B is my old Latino manager. Are neither of them not racist because they aren’t white and only white people can be racist? Well no. According to the modern definition Person C is racist and Person B is not racist. This is because Person C is of the race of people who are the oppressors against their target, the Ainu.
Now Person B could reasonably be explained as behaving in lateral racism or horizontal racism. The idea that an oppressed race/class goes after another oppressed race/class to get closer to the non-oppressed class by comparison. I accept this explanation. And someone would say that’s why it’s not real racism. However I have to say that lateral racism being called not racism then breaks the definition of lateral racism. If we redefine racism a large number of contingent definitions relating to racism fail. It’s an act in futility for the sake of having a rhetorical tool. If we abandon the old definition of racism, we lose the opportunity to have weight behind explaining the definition of concepts like lateral racism because they are contingent upon the former.
Why This Redefining Began
The redefining of the word racism can go back to people like the above cited Alan J. Levine’s cries of reverse racism. To combat the disingenuous rhetoric of reverse racism, my allies on the left made a mistake. Instead of describing concepts like lateral racism and communicating using existing terms, my social justice friends have decided to redefine the word as a trick so that people can’t claim anyone but white people in America can be racist. This is deceptive and manipulative at best, and many who adopt this definition today don’t even realize the real reason why it began: intellectual cowardice.
Why back down from explaining concepts to those that might understand them? If someone isn’t going to understand institutional racism, what makes you think they would accept a redefining of the word racism so as to conflate systemic/institutional racism? This is a step in the wrong direction. Correct inaccuracies, don’t try to pave a path around them. The weak position is to redefine racism, the strong position is to engage in an open dialogue and correct mistakes that people make. Tack on the word systemic racism when you are referring to racism on a systemic scale. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?
What We Ought To Do
Plenty of discussions, online and otherwise, have been derailed as a consequence of this semantic battle. What a monumental waste. Too much is at stake, and we need every tool available to us to beat the racist rhetoric of subtle white supremacy at its own game. Using their terms against them in a discussion is entirely possible, and not too difficult, and that leads me to believe that splitting hairs over definitions is counter-productive.