When I was in college, it seemed cool to buy my own domain name and I chose casualhacker.net. At the time I was so enamored with hacker culture as described in The Jargon File, which I had read cover to cover. It gives 8 definitions for hacker, including “a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems…” and “a person who is good at programming quickly.” So in my domain name it went. Meanwhile, in popular culture, hacker meant somebody who breaks into computer systems to steal information or cause trouble. Sometimes when I gave out my email address people would ask: “Is it safe to send you email?”
This used to upset me, and I’ve composed a few rants about how everybody was using the word hacker incorrectly. Surely the culture that it applies to gets to define the word. I’ve since learned that’s not how language works. Words get their meaning from how they’re used. I’ve stopped calling myself a hacker because having to explain what I mean is not worth the hassle. But the domain name persists. Fortunately, hacker no longer has exclusively negative connotations so it is less odd than it used to be.
Similarly, racism means different things to different people. This is understandable because, like hacker, it’s a word whose usage is changing. The word is actually surprisingly new. It was first used in 1903. An earlier synonym, racialism, was first used in 1880. That does not mean that racism didn’t exist before 1903. (See e.g. An act for suppressing outlying slaves, passed in Virginia in 1691, which requires any “negro or mulatto” freed slaves to leave the country.) Words allow us to talk about what’s going on in the world, but don’t themselves tell us what is actually happening.
Given that words change over time and might have different meanings depending on the speaker, it can be tricky to know what a word means if we’re not familiar with the speaker. This is one reason that dictionaries exist. They cannot tell us what a given person means when they use a word, but they provide us with a good guess, most of the time.
Dictionaries tend to capture the most common meanings of words, at the time the dictionary was put together. That means they can be a little bit behind the times. Dictionaries also only reflect the majority uses. Especially when talking about a word like racism, we should also keep in mind that the major English dictionaries are probably written by white people who experience racism differently than minorities.
While acknowledging these flaws, it is still interesting to see how dictionaries define a word. It tells us how the dictionary writers think a word is being used. It’s also the standard reference for people who are uncertain about a word’s meaning. I’ve compiled a list of definitions of racism to see how they changed over time.
Reading through those definitions, the first concept that comes up over and over is the belief that race determines people’s abilities. In fact, that is the only definition in any printed copy of Merriam-Webster dictionary I could easily find. About 30 years ago my grandma would have been an example of this. She thought it was natural that Turkish immigrants could bag groceries, but that they couldn’t be cashiers. (My aunt quickly set her straight.)
In 2008 the Oxford English Dictionary adds a different concept: Prejudice, antagonism, or discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity. In this definition it no longer matters what the actor believes, but it merely matters what they do. A good example of this type of racism were “whites only” bars and restaurants, which were legal until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Going to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary (which sadly does not expose its history of changes) we find yet another concept: systemic oppression of a racial group to the benefit of another. Slavery in British colonies is probably the most blatant example of this. More subtlely, this kind of racism is still happening today. While it’s hard to point at a specific way that minorities are oppressed, they consistently rank worse in all kinds of metrics. For instance, the poverty rate among black and hispanic Americans is more than double that of white Americans1.
On to less official sources, Wikipedia provides access to the full history of its racism page. I’ve picked a sampling of definitions from that history, and am just looking at the first paragraph and not the whole article.
In 2005, Wikipedia mentions a bunch of meanings. New in our list is belief that a certain race is inherently superior or inferior. At the same time it mentions that there is “a growing, but somewhat controversial, opinion that racism is a system of oppression — a nexus of racist beliefs … that combine to discriminate against and marginalize a class of people who share a common racial designation, based on that designation.”
A few years later Wikipedia gives a name to the system of oppression defined above: In the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits, or get preferential treatment. It also adds a significant note: there is no distinction between the term RACIAL DISCRIMINATION and ETHNIC DISCRIMINATION. Under these definitions e.g. the genocide of Bosniaks by the Army of Republika Srpska is also racism.
In 2009 Wikipedia mentions another kind of racism: reverse racism favours members of a historically disadvantaged group at the expense of those of a historically advantaged group. While most definitions we’ve seen so far focus on harming people, this one includes programs like affirmative action into the definition of racism.
You could probably fill several libraries with all the books written about racism. While they generally have an explicit bias, people still learn the meaning of words from popular books so they’re worth listing.
I’ve only picked the definition out of two books. White Fragility says that racism is a racial group’s collective prejudice backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control. This takes the individual out of it altogether, just talking about collective groups, and only those groups who have power.
How to be an Antiracist, by contrast, says that racism is a marriage of policies and ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. This highlights the power, through policies, but leaves the collective groups out of it. What’s more, it’s the first definition that focuses on outcomes instead of on actions. By this definition a society is racist if the racial groups within it have a different quality of life.
Since the books I quoted are on the left, I’ll balance things out by looking through Conservapedia, which was started in 2006. Its definitions are mostly the same as the dictionary definitions. In 2019 they do add making a moral judgment about a person based on skin color or ethnic heritage, which is different because it talks about morality.
We’ve seen 10 different definitions of racism, and there are probably even more in use:
- The belief that race determines people’s abilities.
- Prejudice, antagonism, or discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.
- Systemic oppression of a racial group to the benefit of another.
- Belief that a certain race is inherently superior or inferior.
- A system of oppression — a nexus of racist beliefs … that combine to discriminate against and marginalize a class of people who share a common racial designation, based on that designation. (Also called institutional racism.)
- There is no distinction between the term RACIAL DISCRIMINATION and ETHNIC DISCRIMINATION.
- Reverse racism favours members of a historically disadvantaged group at the expense of those of a historically advantaged group.
- A racial group’s collective prejudice backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control.
- A marriage of policies and ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.
- Making a moral judgment about a person based on skin color or ethnic heritage.
Some of these build on each other, while some contradict each other. Some talk about people, some about groups of people, and some about governments. All of these have a sizable group of people using them.
Having so many different definitions makes it even harder to talk about an already contentious topic. When two people argue about racism without taking the time to clarify what they mean, they’ll never make any progress. Until everybody agrees on what racism means, it’s best to start such discussions with a description of exactly what issue is being discussed.