Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Use of Words and Reverse Racism

A friend of mine recently posted an article about "reverse racism" and about how it doesn't really exist.  This is in conjunction with a number of posts about reverse racism, especially this kinda-funny, kinda uncomfortable stand up routine:

I see the points that these folks and many other people make.  Racism isn't just about prejudice and discrimination.  It's about long-term systemic abuse of a race as well, and whites just don't have that.  I get it.  But I think most people don't.  And that has to do with the dictionary.

The World dictionary defines racism as:

racism or racialism  (ˈreɪsɪzəm, ˈreɪʃəˌlɪzəm) 
— n
1.the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows
some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
2.abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief

Thus, the dictionary definition of racism has more to do with prejudice than systemic causes.  This doesn't mean that systemic racism doesn't exist.  It only means that the word "racism" doesn't convey that meaning by itself.  It also means that, if you define "racism" as only having a systemic meaning, you can say that "reverse racism" doesn't exist.  But the rest of society, that sees the word "racism" to mean "racial prejudice or discrimination" reverse racism can exist.  To deny this is to deny the common meaning of the word. 

I have to say that although it sounds petty, this subject of the use of words is very important to me.  Language is the most populist medium ever, and words are owned by the people.  The purpose of dictionaries is not to say how a word *should* be used, but how it is used.  This is why dictionaries are at the forefront of clear communication, because they explore the use of words in the world and report it back to us.

When a person says, "This is what the word really means", in opposition to a dictionary meaning, what they are doing is imposing an elitist definition upon a word that is already popularly used.  I don't think any of us have that right.  And when we insist upon our narrow definition that is not used in a popular way, then our statements are confusing to most people, and it leads to arguments.  "Racism" according to the dictionary, is not used primarily in a systemic way.  To insist that this is the "real" meaning of the word, is not to change the word, but to create confusion. When I say "popular" I don't mean just Anglos, but PoC as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a half million words in its volumes, and modern English has the broadest vocabulary of any language that has ever existed.  We use words in combination to create concepts that have never existed before, especially when we draw on other languages.  So we have all the tools available to us to clearly communicate what we mean.  Why change the meaning of a word that is already there, and already means something different?

For this reason, I want to advocate for the use of three terms:
-Racial prejudice
-Racial discrimination
-Systemic racism
The majority of our conservative friends don't even recognize the idea of systemic racism, because those communicating it only use the term "racism" which means "racial prejudice" to most people.  If they would say "systemic racism" instead, then people might be able to understand what was being talked about.

Again, this isn't a matter of the idea.  The idea is an important one.  It is how we communicate the idea in order to change thinking.  As long as the term "racism" is used in a narrow sense, understood to people only who have been educated in that use, then we are only speaking to the choir, and the majority of people won't understand.

Some say, "Well, they need to be educated as to what the word really means, and then they'll understand."  Actually, the word really means something already.  What some are doing is using a narrow definition of the word to be the key to enter some kind of moral or cultural "club",  and if you don't use the word the right way, then you don't belong.  But our goal should be to have EVERYONE understand systemic racism, and to realize what it's about.  To do that, we need to set aside our ownership of certain words and allow it to mean what it means to most people and to clarify what we, those who do understand, with clearer terms.

Sorry .  I've had to deal with this same issue with other terms.  I really believe that people own the language and that we have to listen to the people.  In this one area-- probably this only one-- I believe in democracy. 

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