Does Racism Have More Than One Definition?

Racial identity.  Half of America seems to want to avoid talking about it altogether.  The other half wants to talk about it, but only on their own terms – whether it’s a lecture, a know-it-all assessment of every racial issue under the sun, or blatant condescension toward anyone who disagrees with them.  Unfortunately, no single individual holds a monopoly on clarity when discussing privilege, discrimination, and bigotry.

In recent decades, the national discussion over racism has erupted between two extreme camps.  The first camp is composed of predominantly white apologists who deny the existence of racial privilege by insisting that our society must strive to always be “colorblind.”  Leftists and progressives tend to comprise the second faction, which insists that the only true definition of racism is “privilege + power”…and that any and all racial animosity directed toward white people is merely “prejudice” or understandable “backlash” from the oppressed.  Both of these worldviews, however, are flawed insofar as they refuse to recognize racism as the multilayered, complex topic that it actually is.

Caleb Rosado, an urban studies professor at Eastern University, embodies the classic fallacy of defining racism strictly in terms of power and privilege.  He makes the cardinal mistake of “ranking oppressions” by matter-of-factly stating that racism is “the most important and persistent social problem in America and in the world today.”  Although Rosado highlights the necessity of eschewing Anglocentrism, he openly marginalizes stereotypes, emotions, and behaviors as byproducts of “prejudice” rather than “racism.”  He then proceeds to embrace an exclusively macroscopic definition of racism as being strictly perpetuated by whites against people of color.  What he is trying to say – without actually saying it – is that the racial animosity against people of color is truly racist, whereas such attitudes and behaviors directed against white people are really no big deal.

Rosado is hardly alone in clinging to this sterile academic celebration of political correctness.  But, on the other end of the spectrum, there are white Americans (and conservative-minded people of color) who insist “I don’t see race” as a way of romanticizing the concept of colorblindness.  This delusion also takes us backwards, because they are refusing to learn history or to translate it when comprehending egregious and racially-motivated acts that occur in the present.

I’m not a scholar.  I’m not a sociologist.  However, I am a fairly intelligent person who understands the need to combat injustices and bigotry.  I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about race relations.  To be fair, I doubt that anyone out there does – not even the chairs of Sociology Departments who believe that “only whites can be racist.”

What I do know is people.  Attitudes and anger translate into mistreatment of others.  Those attitudes are a reflection of society.  The environment in which one was raised may also be a factor.  If one’s upbringing has been toxic or ignorant, whether or not one ultimately breaks away from those learned attitudes determines how much of a racist (if at all) we each are.  But we always hear people saying (rightfully so) how we need to talk about race – so, today, I’m going to speak about my perspective on it as honestly and candidly as I can…even though I’m *only* a white guy.

Let me establish the general framework I use when seeking ways to combat racism.  No, we (“people in general”) are not ALL inherently “racist.”  Every human being has prejudices; but how we channel those prejudices will determine if racism (or any other form of discrimination) rears its ugly head.  For this reason, I reject the notion that racists are “predominantly” white people – or, inversely, the supposition that “most white people are racist.”  I don’t see racism as something you can quantify – although we can use statistics to identify societal epidemics that are racist in nature (e.g. rates of police brutality inflicted upon those who are pulled over for “driving-while-black”).

White privilege is very real.  I will discuss the plethora of ways in which racism can be systemic, momentarily.  But we shouldn’t treat it as an either/or proposition; the acknowledgment of white privilege doesn’t automatically negate other “-isms” that exist in life – nor does it excuse the tendencies of those people out there who prefer to “rank oppressions” as a way of avoiding discussion of intersectionality.

It’s also important to recognize the core differences between prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination.  Prejudice is an attitude that someone harbors based on assumptions they make about other people based on group characterizations.  Discrimination is an action that is inflicted upon another person based on prejudicial attitudes, thereby hindering the oppressed person’s quality-of-life.

I always say that bigotry is the “weigh-station” between prejudice and discrimination whereupon the former transforms into the latter.  Bigotry happens when one’s prejudices morph into an overall worldview by which someone lives and breathes.  Embracing that worldview will compel the bigot to actively discriminate against others in a manner that violates the confluence of equity and equality.

So if we accept the premise that people mistreat each other based on bigotry, the question becomes:  at what point does an attitude or a belief turn into a tangible adverse action directed against another person?  In my recent op-ed on “sectarian privilege” (discrimination based on political affiliation), I divided that form of bigotry into three subcategories:  institutional (systemic), cultural (group-based), and social (individual-based).

In this same vein, racism manifests itself in three general forms:  institutional racism, cultural racism, or social racism.  These dynamics can inevitably overlap in many scenarios.


As a white dude, institutional racism is something that I will never personally experience.  That doesn’t mean I’m a racist or a bad person; it means that America has been run by government institutions that are based upon slavery, segregation, and cultural insensitivity.  Historically speaking, white males have been the ones in power who’ve perpetuated these institutions.

The only way that I can come close to understanding systemic racism is by, first, listening to people of color, and then, discussing these issues – assuming that someone else is willing to engage in that dialogue.  Another way to educate oneself is through reading texts about systemic practices generated by racism; usually, these writings are most meaningful when authored by actual people of color themselves.

Institutional racism against people of color has persisted into the modern era due to factors such as the slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and justifying mass incarceration.  Over time, not even the successful abolition of racist laws has ended government-supported practices that distinctively target people of color:  the underfunding of public education in urban areas, the so-called War on Drugs, and voter suppression at the state level.  In 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall (during his San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez dissenting opinion) said that the education system itself is discriminatory when it fails to acknowledge a correlation between socioeconomic disparities and school quality.

Whenever the Confederate Flag has been allowed to fly over and outside of buildings, imagine black parents having to explain the meaning of that to their children.  Or when parents of color must have, what they refer to as, “The Talk” with their children – how to navigate the racism of police officers without getting killed in the streets.  Being racially-profiled in stores or while driving.  Being subjected to “stop-and-frisk” or other warrant-less searches.  Having fake evidence planted on you.  Children of color being killed for merely playing with toy guns. Police brutality against people of color has been a continuous reality since the earliest days of slavery.

According to social justice scholar Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, young black girls are disproportionately targeted by school dress codes and punished according to double standards when juxtaposed against their white counterparts.  The Nation’s Dani McClain speaks from both personal experience and research data when citing how black women are one of the highest risk groups for suffering pregnancy complications due to stress caused by fear of mistreatment or neglect from hospital staff.  Even “texture discrimination” – discrimination against people of color due to natural kinkiness of one’s hair, or the unwillingness of stores to stock hair products conducive to the follicular genetics of darker-skinned consumers – are obstacles that many whites routinely trivialize.

These are all burdens that white people in America don’t have to directly face.  On top of that, the opportunity gaps and achievement gaps continue to exist when interracial school districts are neglected by state and federal legislators.  With a lack of educational and occupational training, adolescents of color keep being herded through the school-to-prison pipeline; when treated as though they cannot become productive contributors to society, they may turn to crime out of anger or hopelessness.  Is it any coincidence that the prison industrial complex is the largest employer in the United States?

It doesn’t end there.  Congressional districts will be “redistricted” to reduce the access that multiracial populations have to federal representatives.  There’s the USDA’s history of racial discrimination (especially in regard to The Farm Loan Program) when interacting with farmers of color.  Eminent domain can be abused to confiscate minority-owned property based on lack of socioeconomic resources. ICE raids are conducted against citizens who are even suspected of being undocumented due to their skin tones or surnames.

Or we can even look at the unspoken media blackout where the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were systemically ignored throughout the last few months of the 2016 presidential election season.  These mostly-white journalists who often declined to report on the police brutality against indigenous people and potential threats to public water supplies are now the same journalists who are whining because Donald Trump is making noises about cracking down on them.

For those of you who fail to understand why a public figure such as Colin Kaepernick is so angry – these are among the reasons why!

Institutional racism is the subcategory for which hypothetical legal remedies exist. However, American politicians’ unwillingness to implement solutions is why systemic forms of racism still persist.  While institutional racism needs to be fought by changing laws, cultural racism and social racism can only be combated by changing hearts and minds.


Whereas only people of color can be adversely affected by institutional racism, both whites and people of color alike can be the targets of cultural racism.  I don’t like the term “reverse-racism”…largely because I view there as being no such thing.  Either something is racist, or it isn’t.  Gray areas might be present to an extent, but they are based on context rather than the superficial characteristics of the recipient.

The main distinction here is how cultural racism involves observing perceived patterns of behavior in people who belong to a similar racial/ethnic group…and then jumping to the conclusion that anyone from those groups will necessarily fall into those patterns (i.e. when someone says something to the effect of, “Oh, I know a lot of Latinos who are into sex and gambling, so ‘most of them’ probably gravitate toward that”). 

Examples:  Filipinos are likely to be “poor.”  Muslims are likely to be “terrorists.” Black people are likely to be “angry criminals.”  Mexicans are likely to be “illegal.” Egyptians are likely to be “violent.”  Indigenous people are likely to be “lazy.” Oriental Asians are likely to be “shy.”  Indians and East Asians are likely to be “technologically-savvy.”  And white people are likely to be “intolerant.”

These stereotypes cross the line from being prejudicial attitudes to becoming something more daunting whenever people use them, preemptively, to silence and berate others in public and private spaces.  This mistreatment isn’t technically illegal – but it can destroy a person’s self-esteem and self-worth.  It breeds intimidation, hostility, resentment, and violence.  One person’s bigotry can quickly escalate by spawning reciprocal bigoted responses in many additional people.

Instigators will use race-based predatory fears to scare others into conflict.  Others will claim ownership of art, pop culture, historical accounts, or fashion – based on nothing more than their ethnicity (or belonging to a group) per se.  Or, if someone wishes to speak candidly, they will be accused of “aggression” due to their racial identity.  These “Gotcha! ” moments provide a convenient excuse for bigots to construct “logic” as a tool to counteract freer opinion-sharing.

Again, the victims of cultural racism can be white, black, Asian, Latino, Arabic, indigenous, or multiracial.  Their oppressors can likewise be a member of any of these races.  In fact, members of the same racial or ethnic group can even be culturally-racist toward one another – usually because someone (along with their like-minded ilk) is pushing an agenda and they have decided to leverage some aspect of race as a wedge issue.

Clearly, the construct of “whiteness” has been abused and manipulated by power brokers for their own benefit throughout American history.  Writer/researcher and community organizer Anthony J. Williams defines whiteness as the propensity to define everything along Eurocentric lines – including how we view history or contemporary problems.  Williams emphasizes how everyone – including people of color – is indoctrinated by these conventional standards of whiteness.  He also calls out some forms of black nationalism as being an inverted bastardization of whiteness.  Williams takes issue with the #NotAllWhitePeople hashtag, qualifying how different white people (as well as different people of color) possess various levels of having “unlearned” such supremacist conditioning of whiteness.

The past and present are unavoidably interconnected.  Ibram Kendi, author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, chronicles how America’s traditional concept of “blackness” was associated with the devil in Christianity.  Civil rights struggles related to resisting slavery, census data, or Jim Crow laws have created an artificial supposition that blacks (or darker-skinned people) are “more likely” to commit crimes and have greater pain thresholds than their white counterparts.  Carol Anderson, the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, points out the hypocrisy of expecting one individual to speak on behalf of his or her entire race; after all, a rational person wouldn’t expect Timothy McVeigh or Dylan Roof to suddenly function as an avatar for all white people.

As with most things in life, balance is essential.  Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla deems that it’s flawed to cherrypick which groups are recognized for being part of a diverse society.  Focusing exclusively on social diversity is an approach that can come at the expense of failing to teach younger generations to have keen awareness of our economic systems and international relations.  Meanwhile, many would articulate that, although race-based affirmative action is still necessary, it doesn’t fulfill its intended purpose when its focus is on arbitrary identity over personal experience.  Lilla also dismisses the thought process of chalking up Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory to “whitelash,” as that assessment ignores the myriad of pointed reasons why Americans of all racial backgrounds are disenchanted with our current government.

Social scientist Robin DiAngelo criticizes the modern colloquial definition of racism as being limited to individual prejudices and intentional actions while excluding systemic references.  Unfortunately, DiAngelo herself turns right around and advocates emphasizing the systemic while sidelining the cultural or social.  She endorses the approach of framing racism exclusively around power structures and governmental decision-makers.  In the process, she trivializes culturally-racist attitudes toward whites as simply hurt feelings or white people acting like babies because we’re afraid of losing power.

Predictably, DiAngelo is an architect of the theories of so-called “white fragility” and “white tears”a belief that when whites claim to be the victims of racism, it is primarily due to a sense of entitlement or because those individuals wish to dominate others.  Her fallacy represents a disgusting blame-the-victim or bully-becomes-the-martyr worldview – serving as a pretext for “gateway invectives” such as “whiny,” “snowflake,” “whitesplainer,” “thin-skinned,” or “entitled” to be leveled against Caucasians…even when a white person has a legitimate beef with someone’s racial bigotry that has been directed at him or her.

I tend not to trust sociological textbook definitions pertaining to race relations, as they are usually filled with disingenuous talking-points trumpeted by the Robin DiAngelos of the world.  This doesn’t mean all forms of oppression manifest themselves equally.  People of color face institutional racism whereas whites don’t; but when you factor in cultural racism and social racism, white people aren’t exempt from being the recipients of racism per se.

One public figure I’m calling out is feminist writer/speaker Ijeoma Oluo, who references the ridiculousness of many white people trying to be spokespersons for their entire race to give a “well-rounded” rebuttal to anger about systemic discrimination.  But then, Oluo goes on to state how she knows “white culture” better than most white people – and likens “white culture” itself to supremacy. Piling on the presumptuousness, she regards art, fashion, music, and pop culture as monolithic in her interpretation of “white culture.”  Yet, Oluo makes no clear distinction between institutional racism and cultural racism amid this narrative; instead, she defends her exceptionalist “understanding of white people” while trying to illustrate the proper way to “educate” whites about understanding ourselves.

In an online piece challenging the complacency and sanctimony of many people on the Left, poet/activist DiDi Delgado makes some salient points about the inanity of neoliberalism and tokenism displayed by self-proclaimed progressives. However, she completely undermines her own credibility by asserting how “the average white person” is apparently uneducated about the systemic injustices that have followed the abolition of slavery.  Much like within Oluo’s glorified poetry slam, Delgado is using the ignorance of many white people to demonize an entire race (in this case, Caucasians).  Furthermore, if someone made blanket statements about “the average black person” or “the average Hispanic person,” I’m positive that Delgado and her ilk would rake them over the coals.

In some cases, certain white people themselves can be the most culturally-racist against other whites.  Such an affliction has been exemplified by Idaho Democratic Party executive director Sally Boynton Brown, who ran for DNC Chair this past year.  While discussing strategies for giving people of color a greater voice in the public discourse, Brown asserted that her tactic (as a hypothetical white DNC chairwoman) would be to “shut other white people down” when they express disagreements about racial prejudice.

This belief, my dears, is folly.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s a racist philosophy. Neither people of color nor white people are monolithic “as a group.”  The solution isn’t to use the actions of an individual sinner to direct blame or resentment against those who have cosmetic similarities to the actual aggressors.  Why should we find it any more acceptable for white people “as a group” to be generalized than it would be to generalize people of color “as a group” along ethnic lines? Fortunately, Sally Boynton Brown failed to gain any traction – whereas Tom Perez (a former Obama Administration cabinet member, who happens to be Latino) and Keith Ellison (a sitting U.S. Congressman, who happens to be black and practices Islam) ultimately garnered the highest portions of support amongst DNC members.

Again, generalized spite toward white people (as a group) isn’t “reverse-racism.” It’s not “reverse”-anything.  It’s another variation of racism.  Everyone knows at least one pretentious Sally Boynton Brown-style archetype in their daily lives. And that brings me to the third subcategory…


Does someone have dark skin, tan skin, or pale skin?  Does somebody else have slanted eyes, or speak with an accent?  Does yet another person have frizzy hair, a prominent neckline, or inflated glands?

Well…that’s life.  It’s called diversity.  Not all people were meant to look alike. Deal with it.

Social racism involves taking the bigotry that one harbors toward an entire group…and then applying that toward a specific individual based on that individual’s cosmetic similarities to the resented group.  Again, as with cultural racism, it goes beyond mere prejudice by adversely affecting how someone is treated or how they function in life.  It can be inflicted by a white person against a person of color…or by a person of color against a white person.  Or by a white person against another white person…or by a person of color against another person of color.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discusses his belief that there is still a need for Black History Month, or any other culturally-specific commemoration of disenfranchised groups, when systemic and social racism still persists.  He cites the ongoing tactic of Donald Trump questioning the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate – which was unprecedented in American presidential history.  Former First Lady Michelle Obama has publicly recalled having been mistaken for “the help” while shopping at a Target store…even after having become the most recognizable woman in the country.  In these cases, the Obamas, as individuals, found their own distinguishing features were superseded by racial identity in and of itself.

Or, as social justice writer/activist Malaika Jabali illustrates, it’s dually racist and ignorant if someone compares opposing the 2017 cabinet nomination of Betsy DeVos to the racial hatred experienced by Ruby Bridges in the 1960s.  DeVos is a wealthy lobbyist whose priority has been to net financial advantages for charter schools.  Bridges was a five-year-old girl who bravely fought and resisted segregation in the Deep South.  That’s one of the most appalling false equivalence analogies that a white person can make!

Social racism might be leveled at someone in spite of age, gender, class, religion, or political affiliation.  I personally value hearing perspectives from various people of color…but, at the same time, I don’t assume that all persons who happen to be people of color necessarily think “the same way” about every race-based issue out there – just like white people don’t think alike about everything.  Is someone’s race-based criticism legitimate…or gratuitous?

What right did cinematographer Bonita Tindle (a black female) have to confront and accuse deejay Cory Goldstein (a white male) of “cultural appropriation” on the San Francisco State University campus when Goldstein chose to wear his hair in dreadlocks?  What right did former U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (a Chicana politician) have to belittle the ethnic heritage of senatorial challenger Kamala Harris (who has ancestors from both Jamaica and India) by belting out an exaggerated war whoop in public? (or, if Harris did indeed possess indigenous heritage, would Sanchez’s antics have been suddenly acceptable?)  And what right did several of Hillary Clinton’s supporters have to demonize Bernie Sanders supporters for allegedly being categorically tone-deaf to the needs of minority groups based on Sanders being a white male (despite the fact that Clinton herself is a privileged white lady with an eight-digit net worth of her own)?


Diversity educator Jamie Utt uses the “Precision of Language Theory” to make the case that we cannot ignore systemic oppression when discussing the severities of any “-ism.”  He’s right about this, of course; generalizations along racial or ethnic lines shouldn’t be extrapolated from a situational instance that someone undergoes based on localized conditions (e.g. a white person being harassed, unprovoked, in a majority-black neighborhood).

However, where Utt falls short is his tendency to write off cultural or social racism as instances of someone merely “being an asshole” or creating hurt feelings.  If the idea is to get everybody outside of their comfort zones, it’s antithetical to taunt or mock them under the turnabout-is-fair-play model when they make those attempts.  It’s akin to that uppity tendency many so-called “progressives” have of scoffing at a random white person – “You’ll be fine” – under Donald Trump’s policies.  They are predicating that fallacy on the assumption that Random_White_Person will never be the victim of violence, railroading, job discrimination, or an inadequate education system – all of which, by the way, are imminent threats to the general public under the very regime Trump is trying to establish.

Utt’s doctrine can be counterbalanced by commercial litigator Alexander Zubatov’s rebuttal to “Casual Reference Theory.”  Racism, in its broadest terms, is a belief system thriving on supremacist thinking.  Zubatov reminds us how, although certain people on the Left want to define “racism” as being much more limited in scope, there’s no rule compelling all of the rest of us to humor them. Since the context of “power” will shift based on Time/Manner/Place, there’s no mathematical formula by which we can pinpoint it.

I just have to accept that there are some things I’ll never have to endure, as a white person; with that in mind, I must make a concerted effort to listen to people of color who choose to share their personal experiences, with an eye toward solutions.  But, in the name of lifting others up, that doesn’t mean there’s some prerequisite to “turn the tables on” or “bring down” other people just because they have “lily-white” skin.

Finally, what happens when one person of color thinks something or someone is racist…yet, another person of color disagrees with them?  Expecting someone to “speak for” all people of color is social racism – as is assuming that the beliefs of one person of color represent the beliefs of all people of color.  Even though Ben Carson, Julianne Malveaux, Benjamin Jealous, Ezola Foster, John McWhorter, Farai Chideya, Cornel West, Babette Holder-Youngberg, Ward Connerly, Jehmu Greene, Juan Williams, Star Parker, Don Lemon, Lenora Fulani, Richard A. Fowler, Michelle Bernard, Clarence Page, Melissa Harris-Perry, Larry Elder, Michelle Alexander, Angela McGlowan, and Lester Holt all happen to be black…does anyone seriously think they would be able to construct a package of sensible legislation together?

I wouldn’t say any group has “life in general” harder than all other counterparts; as humans, we share the common burdens of disrespect, illness, adultery, and death.  But there are specific areas of life in which certain groups have an advantage over others.  White privilege needs to be confronted anytime our local/state/federal governments, or powerful individuals, allow it to run rampant. At the same time, social and cultural forms of racism against both whites and people of color must also be taken with the utmost seriousness.  No single racial group’s experience should be able to dominate our discourse.  No single individual should be allowed to “speak on behalf of” their entire racial/ethnic group – nor should they be expected to, by default.

Racism comes in many forms, has multiple contexts, and affects everyone differently.  The key is not to silence any of these accounts – but to listen to multiple perspectives and have constructive discussions about them.  If you hear about the adverse experiences of someone whom you consider a friend, you’re likelier to give that topic credence than if you were to hear that same account from some random person off the street.

Each of our experiences are valuable; but none of us gets to define the narrative for everyone else.  Until people on all sides acknowledge that, we’re going to continue going around in circles ad infinitum.

Featured image by david pacey via Flickr.