What Does "Racism" Mean?

Note: This post is work-in-progress. Please send me any feedback you have.

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 “hacker” incorrectly, and that surely the culture that it applies to gets to define the word. I don’t really believe that anymore. Fortunately “hacker” no longer has exclusively negative connotations so my domain name is less odd than it used to be. Some people continue to see it as negative, and I’m OK with that. I’ve long since learned not to call myself a hacker because the word means different things to different people.

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. It’s good to keep in mind, especially when talking about a word like racism, that the major English dictionaries are likely written by white people who tend to 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 the definitions of racism, 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.

Right from the start, Wikipedia brings up a concept not mentioned so far: the view that one race is superior to another race, or to all other races. This is closely tied to definition #1, but adds a judgment to the abilities. When we talk about racism “in the past” this is often what we think of.

The 2005 Wikipedia mentions another wrinkle we haven’t seen yet: hostility to people of certain races or a belief, conscious or unconscious. While other sources have mentioned this kind of hostility, explicitly calling out unconscious hostility is different.

2008 Wikipedia is the first to talk about a specific kind of racism: In the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits, or get preferential treatment. This gives a name to definition #3.

2015 Wikipedia adds a new lens to the definition, including ideologies and practices that justify the unequal distribution of privileges, rights or goods among different racial groups. Under this definition, statements that explain e.g. black people’s

  1. The belief that race determines people’s abilities.
  2. Prejudice, antagonism, or discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, or ethnicity.
  3. Systemic oppression of a racial group to the benefit of another (institutional racism).
  4. The view that one race is superior to another race, or to all other races.
  5. Hostility to people of certain races or a belief, conscious or unconscious.

1 https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html

About the author

Living the good life in Seattle, occasionally sharing something interesting with the Internet.