Racism is a difficult topic to talk about. There are all the obvious reasons. It’s a sensitive subject that can be triggering for many people. Plus, it is hard for many people to be honest, even with themselves, about it. It can expose a disconnect between the person you are and the person you want to be. Psychology and sociology aren’t my areas of expertise, so I’m not going to talk about a lot of these obvious reasons. Instead, I want to look at why racism is hard to talk about by focusing on the language itself and some philosophy.
Like most words, racism can mean different things in different contexts. Merriam-Webster gives four definitions (Disguised as three):
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles b: a political or social system founded on racism 3: racial prejudice or discrimination
According to the first and last definitions, anyone can be racist. According to the two in the middle, racism requires power. That’s an important distinction. I tend to look at the difference as systemic racism vs. personal racism where systemic racism is a societal problem that touches everything and personal racism is the antipathy too many individuals feel towards people of another race.
Unfortunately, these two senses of the word racism tend to get confused when people are talking about it. One side of the conversation will be talking about systemic racism while the other is talking about personal racism. And sometimes, the speakers switch back and forth between the different types of racism throughout the exchange, making it hard for anyone to know what’s being discussed.
How many times have you heard (or read) some variation of this exchange?
Speaker 1: The police are racist.
Speaker 2: Not all cops are racist.
The conversation is bound to end in frustration or acrimony since the two speakers are talking about different things. Speaker 1 is correct, the act of policing in the US is racist. Just look at the history and the societal power structure. Think of the racist laws they enforce. I don’t have time to get into it here, but any American institution that has been around as long as the police is probably racist. However, saying the police are racist doesn’t say anything at all about any particular police officer. It is very likely that Speaker 2 is also correct. It would be shocking if every one of the thousands of cops, including the many African-American cops, turned out to be racist. But, that says nothing about the police as an institution. Speaker 1, of course, is talking about systemic racism while Speaker 2 is talking about personal racism. It only sounds like they are contradicting each other because they are using the same word.
I’ll grant that, too often, Speaker 2 is being disingenuous. The statement is made to cause confusion or derail the conversation. But, I have to give the benefit of the doubt that some of the people who say, “Not all cops are racist,” are sincere. And if both speakers are sincere, it’s important that each know what the other is trying to say. The point of talking about racism is to try to come to understand each other. For understanding to happen, we need to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.