I Know You’re Mad But You’re Still Using The Word Racism Wrong


Part of the fallout from a President-Elect Trump ascendancy is the rise in the word “racist”, which I find fascinating because most of the people using it above mean are white people. When the election was still unfurling, it wasn’t as common as it is now, a week after The Purge of 2016. It’s as if white people suddenly discovered Trump was racist, or more realistically, were willing to say it out loud. During the campaign Bernie Sanders was practically the only one on a platform calling out Trump’s dog-whistles as they happened with any consistency. All water under the bridge now, but I am a little amused by the uptick in the use of the word now as if it were a new observation into the discussion of what a Trump presidency was founded on.

More, I find it fascinating on a different level because in my experience, calling white people “racist” is like hitting them with logic repellent. The minute you utter the word the conversation is over. There are at least three reasons why this is generally true:

1) They’re using the word “racism” when they mean “white supremacy.”

Here’s an experiment: go to a bakery and ask them to make you a cake. When asked what color you want the icing to be, say “color.” When they ask you which color, just keep saying “color”, as if there is no variation, as if there is only one true color and it should be clear which color you mean. You don’t know what all those other shades are, but color is color and always has been. Then tell them to get to piping icing roses.

To a lot of people, the word “racism” is like the word “color”, but for 90% of white people this is a real blind spot. Thanks to a few thousand years of world conquest they’re used to being the arbiters on everything, so they’re not accustomed to getting too deep in the weeds on anything that makes them look bad by definition. Like most people, they prefer their criticisms to be self-inflicted if they must exist at all.

Avoidance is why most white people are bad at discussing racism. Practice makes perfect, and minorities are at the gym every day with racism, climbing the lynch-rope wall and running forty acre obstacle courses. We might check in with a nutritionist now and then to make sure our intellectual levels are carrying the appropriate mass, but the average white person shouldn’t even be in the same racism gym as the average black person. They should be at rehab gyms, with patient trainers and parallel bars because they haven’t ever used their intellectual legs when it comes to racism.

Most people still labor under the traditional dictionary definition of racism, the one that basically says:

Racism = Intolerance, hatred, or a belief in the superiority or inferiority of others based on race.

…which has shown itself to be woefully lacking in usefulness for years now. You can do a lot of racist things and not subscribe to that definition. You can become President of the United States of America, enacting all manner of policies that adversely affect racial minorities and, without a whiff of irony, never see yourself in that definition at all.

There are decades of research and examples exposing the conditions under which minorities collectively suffer during even America’s best times. Not only have the conditions been recorded, the case has been made and won that the definition of racism does not serve the oppressed people it describes in any useful way beyond kindergarten. Enough white people have made this case at this point that one needn’t point to a black scholar, teacher or activist to make the case when a sugar pill will do: if it’s easier for them to hear it from the likes of Tim Wise, fine (though they should be aware that there is a lot of racism operating on multiple levels in that decision, which Wise would be the first to tell them).

The popular definition is wrong. It is many generations old, which can be ancient in the field of sociological concepts, so I get why it’s entrenched. It’s a simple definition with a convenient exit sign hanging off of it for when someone’s yelling at you about oppressing them. But the more appropriate definition, while requiring a little mental dexterity, is worth its weight in application:

Racism = An institutionalized system designed to create patterns of discrimination based on race.

There’s no escaping that one. This one is action driven, not intent driven. It keeps people from treating racism like a cold that they might occasionally or accidentally catch, but eventually overcome if they just rest a while and sip artisanal soups. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point further. Just know that this is how everyone should be processing racism now; not as bar of intellect, class, and hygiene one just has to stay above, but as a systemic institutional disorder.

The old definition still has some life left in it, it just needs to be reapplied. You should be calling that “white supremacy” or “black supremacy” or “prejudice”, depending on your situation. Recycling: it’s not just for trash.

2) They’re conditioned to believe minorities are over-reacting.

Minorities are seen as sensitive, angry, loud, and generally unpleasant beyond entertainment value. And many white people can’t imagine, for the life of them, why so many random people should be that way. And look: they all look alike too. Huh. Must be in their genes. It certainly isn’t society and history (I mean, who would even remember? Most Americans haven’t read more than one book a year since high school). Society and history has been GREAT to them. This is a lot like seeing the victim of a hit and run accident and wondering why the victim bleeding on the side of the road did that to themselves.

3) They live in a reality in which they don’t have to consider race.

Returning to the gym analogy, when it comes to racism, white people could generally be described as the one dude who doesn’t work out because he doesn’t have to. I don’t mean because they have good genes. I mean because there’s no point. When it comes to race discussions they’re like the person who is so rich that they don’t need to work out to net all of the things being attractive and healthy provide on a surface level. People treat them swell, cater to them, and offer discounts or free concessions for them despite the fact that they could buy the whole place. They don’t need to work out to feel good or to live a longer life or to get laid. They’re rich. If money can’t buy it, they don’t want it.

White people can turn off the entire issue of race whenever it suits them and the world adjusts to their level of engagement. They live in the cultural and political equivalent of a video game’s god mode. When they turn off racism, you can’t make them turn it back on until you’re blocking them on the freeway with a protest, at which point they’re really mad you’re suddenly reminding them that they should go work out at the gym that day.

One thought on “I Know You’re Mad But You’re Still Using The Word Racism Wrong

  1. Oh, this is so SO good. I’m so glad Graeme introduced me to you and your words. Thank you for this. I look forward to reading back through your work to learn more about you and from you.

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