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I’m a speaker, consultant, and higher ed attorney with an interest in race and institutional equity issues. I invite you to read, comment, and reach out.

Call Racism What It Is (Spoiler: You’re Probably Not Going To Like It)

This week, I want to discuss a subject that is as fundamental to anti-racism work as it is controversial: examining and refining the definition of racism itself.

While I understand that the more accurate definition discussed here may alienate readers, I believe that accepting this more precise definition is vital to understanding white supremacy’s vast and unrestrained grip on American society.

The Previous (Inadequate) Definition of Racism

One of the most productive ways to explore the most accurate definition of racism is to first examine what racism is not. Perhaps the most commonly-promoted definition of racism involves the belief that some races are better than others, manifested by poor treatment of or violence against others because of their race.

The first obvious problem with this definition is that it requires violence and/or bad treatment. One need not carry out violence toward another in order to be racist. I’d hope that most wouldn’t hesitate to identify someone as racist if they possessed hateful views toward black people, but never acted on them.

Imagine a white person who always conducts themselves in a respectable manner, expressing kindness and politeness toward all people, regardless of race.

Now imagine that this same person is cut off in traffic by a black driver, and, in a flash of rage, under their breath, calls the driver a “nigger.” If their passenger were to hear this, they would not hesitate to identify the person as racist. The driver is racist, even though they never expressed outward violence or even public negative treatment toward black people.

This same, simplistic definition leads to the false belief that racism is simply a human problem: anyone can be racist (i.e., if you dislike another person because of their race, you’re racist).

In the U.S., racism is not a human phenomenon. It’s a white one.

Racism in the U.S. was literally invented by white people in order to strip African slaves of their humanity and establish and maintain their inferiority to white people. It was a purposeful system of control. And it was sadly very successful.

By extension, the intentional social and political oppression instituted in the generations following slavery (the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950 and ‘60s) have always moved in the direction of white-to-black. From America’s formation through the present, the overwhelming majority of negative feelings or actions by black people against white people were and continue to be reactionary (often, completely warranted and justified), a response to the effects of racism and white supremacy.

You wouldn’t call an African slave racist for hating or even carrying out violence toward his white master. Likewise, most negative feelings black people have toward white people today would not exist were it not for the continued institutionalized and systematic oppression from which black people continue to suffer and from which white people continue to benefit.

Those well-versed in the topic of race relations in the U.S. know that racism isn’t simply about violent actions or even prejudiced thoughts and sentiments. It’s about systemic and institutionalized white power.

Thus, over the last few decades, a much-improved “prejudice plus power” definition, or a close variant, has become the most widely accepted within academic and social activism spheres.

This definition is a bit better because it takes into account a necessary (but not sufficient) truth: in order for a person to be racist, the offender must maintain a position of institutionalized – not individual – power over the other. For example, a white person can be racist, having benefited from a lack of systemic racial inequality and oppression, while a black store manager in a position of individual power over her white employees cannot.

It has taken significant work to convince white people that racism requires an element of power. The difficulty stemmed in large part from white people’s difficulty in accepting the fact that, per this definition, black people cannot be racist against white people (because our race has not been afforded the necessary element of meaningful institutional power).

I have found, however, that once white people learn about the institutional inequalities that persist, and, by extension, the way in which their whiteness shields them from those inequalities, they eventually come to understand that racism requires an element of structural power.

Redefining Racism and the Implications of Being “Racist”

The most accurate definition of racism is even more expansive — which is why I am apprehensive about sharing it.

At bottom, my fundamental disagreement with the aforementioned refined definition of racism is that it erases this country’s history and focuses only on clearly-defined negative thoughts or actions toward black people. It absolves individual white people from racism, so long as they do not express negative attitudes or opinions toward, or carry out discriminatory actions. It allows white people to distance themselves from racism and ultimately ignore issues of race, generally.

It maintains the term “racist” as a horrible label, a vile slur. It assigns racism as an extreme caricature, conjuring images of overt hate: southern politicians who obstructed integration and terrorized black people during the Civil Rights Movement, the modern Ku Klux Klan, Tea Party members holding signs with racist depictions of President Obama, or tiki torch-carrying white supremacists. These individuals are embodiments of racism, but they do not define it.

Previous definitions exempt white people from racism so long as they perceive themselves as at least neutral on the topic of race. This is problematic because, in reality, racism most commonly manifests itself in a seemingly neutral and harmless manner.

More importantly, it shouldn’t be presumed rare and surprising when it’s witnessed. The isolated definition commonly used today requires extreme negative harm or thought, and is such difficult to apply to one’s own daily behavior. Indeed, if the below definition is accepted and adopted, white people will begin to notice institutional and structural racism in places they might have never imagined—not because they’ll be fabricating racism where it doesn’t exist, but because they’ll begin to recognize it as a basic and fundamental tenet of the United States’ original formation and current system of values. They’ll begin to notice the so-called white privilege they receive as a product of white supremacy’s tenacious hold on American norms, policies, and culture for what it is.

If the more expansive and accurate definition of racism below becomes more widely accepted, it will be impossible for the term to maintain its current overly-dramatic stigma and thus make it possible for everyday white people to recognize and address it in themselves.

The Most Accurate Definition of Racism

Black people cannot escape the negative consequences of blackness in America. By extension, white people cannot escape the inherent benefit avoiding those consequences affords them. If we understand that racism is connected to structural institutionalized power, any sound definition of racism must highlight whiteness as its primary feature.

An honest and thorough analysis of our history forces us to admit that racism and whiteness are inextricably linked. Likewise, taken at its most fundamental level, considering everything we know about America’s history and the continued undercurrent of white supremacy, a true and precise definition of racism must read as follows:

Racism is existing as a white person in America, (i.e., enjoying the support and preference afforded by whiteness) while failing to use that favor to advance and elevate non-whites to a degree that outweighs those benefits.

An accurate and circumspect definition of racism can be more succinctly stated simply as whiteness, however, because it is a practical impossibility for white people to meet the more detailed definition’s imperatives. In other words, it is impossible for any white person to use their societal benefits to elevate and advance people of other races to a degree that outweighs the benefits whiteness provides.

Here’s why:

  1. White people cannot possibly be aware of every instance of privilege and support they receive from white supremacy as that support is too automatic, frequent, and self-serving. As such, it’s impossible for them to fully quantify those benefits, much less use them for the advancement of others.

  2. Even if white people could recognize every instance of favor they receive, it would be impossible for them to work to advance people of other races to a degree that would outweigh those advantages, as the benefits are too many and far too ingrained in day-to-day life, individually and institutionally. Such an effort would require a 24/7 focus on that advancement and a complete discarding of personal preference, happiness, and autonomy.

Racism is whiteness because the benefits and advantages white people receive automatically by virtue of their existence in a society that promotes and supports them are impossible to shed and necessarily occur at the expense of non-whites.

There you have it. The most accurate definition of American racism is simply: whiteness.

I suspect this assertion will elicit some ire, but after extensively studying and analyzing U.S. racism, its origins, and its continued effects, I cannot find a way around it.

If you’re white, there’s a good chance your feelings are hurt right now. You’re probably offended. You’re probably angry.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer a little more clarification, partially because even I find myself, at times, bowing under pressure to protect white feelings, but more importantly, because I want to make certain that those offended by these sentiments truly understand what I am articulating.

In the U.S., no other definition for racism makes sense. Every other definition leaves room for white people to excuse themselves from white supremacy and the advantages they receive from existing in a world that continues to promote it—to promote them.

White people will never know what it’s like to not receive the favor that accompanies their whiteness and thus can never know what it is like not to be racist.

My own white mother married a black man and gave birth to and raised three black children. My mom is the most racially aware, down-for-the-cause white person I have ever even heard of. In her own social circles, she is notorious for talking about race issues and promoting racial understanding. Yet, my mom would be the first to tell you that she still receives advantages simply because of her whiteness. She also understands that she receives advantages of which she is not aware.

My mom cannot shed these benefits and she cannot possibly use them in every instance to maximize the advancement of black people to an extent that outweighs those benefits—despite how much she would like to.

My mom is racist. (Sorry, Mom.)

If it’s any consolation, I truly believe that under this most accurate definition for racism, racism is (perhaps most) often not deliberate. Its reversal, however, must be. Remember, racism is not an individualized concept, to be examined on a case-by-case basis. It is institutional. It’s baked into every American’s upbringing, development, family life, relationships, and career.

Under this most accurate definition, racism is not a theatrical taboo slur, reserved only for the most outwardly hateful and violent; it’s simply an observation of the relationship between those who benefit from whiteness and those who do not. Racism is the inherent relationship of whiteness to other races.

If Racism is whiteness, where does that leave white people?

Before this definition, racial neutrality was the best and easiest way to “not be racist.” I would guess most white Americans who don’t consider themselves racist rarely think about race. I’d bet they do not possess overt negative feelings toward black people. I’m sure they’re not actively mean or rude to black people. They probably have black friends. They would say that they are not racist because, of course, they have nothing against black people. They are neutral.

Under this more accurate and refined definition, neutrality is complicity. White neutrality in this context, is not neutrality at all. It is acceptance and by extension aggravation and exacerbation of the problem.

Unfortunately, even if white people are actively fighting for racial equality, they can never shed their whiteness, nor the advantages they receive by virtue of their existence in a society where whiteness is hailed as supreme. To that end, if you are white, while you can and should use your benefits to advance black people, you can never stop being racist.

But you can resolve to do your absolute best to join in the hard work of dismantling the systems that support your whiteness—support that, by definition, occurs at the expense of non-whites.

You can become an active ally.


More to come on allyship soon.

What White Allyship Looks Like: An Open Letter

About that Biracial Life