Everyone knows that racism is bad, but what is racism? What is race, for that matter, and how can the human race be comprised of many different races? Despite our agreement that racism is unacceptable, the fact is that many of us might find it difficult to define.
Before continuing, we must acknowledge that race is a sensitive issue, for many have suffered because of racist policies and racially motivated abuse. We’ve got a history so full of mistakes. Despite this sensitivity, it’s important that this concept is not spared from scrutiny and comprehension. In fact, sensitivity only increases the necessity for understanding, since ignorance makes a feeble shelter. Let’s begin by attempting to forge agreeable definitions of race and racism.
Race, although commonly understood to describe the differing clusters of humans found across the globe, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Some believe that a race is any people group that displays unique physical or genetic traits, but since we know that every population is unique, there seems to be an implied minimum level of difference. Instead of debating the exact population size or genetic dissimilarity required to categorize a race, let’s just think of a race in the classical sense: a group of humans which can be differentiated by physical appearance.
Now that we’ve defined race, it should be relatively simple to understand racism. The idea conjures a vast, potent array of imagery and emotion, much of which could be captured in two concepts: intolerance and inferiority. These ideas can be synthesized by defining racism as the belief that some races are more valuable than others and should be awarded special rights. Having isolated our terminology, let’s examine how racism is commonly misidentified.
The following sentences are examples of statements that could be misunderstood to be racist in nature:
- Asians are short.
- Americans are fat.
- The French are great lovers.
- Australians are laid back.
- Jews control the movie industry.
That’s right, these are not racist statements. Although they are statements about race (or nationality), they are actually stereotypes – oversimplifications or misrepresentations of a group, often founded on anecdotal evidence. None of these examples imply that a race is inferior to another or that they should be treated differently. They are merely identifying, accurately or not, general characteristics of a people group.
Stereotyping, though distinct from racism, can evoke racism by affirming negative views of other races. However, it is important to understand that believing a stereotype does not make someone a racist, even if that stereotype mocks or denigrates another race. Mockery isn’t racism. In fact, it’s often a sign of acceptance.
A person may also be prejudiced against a race, branding members of that group with qualities informed by a stereotype, but this also isn’t racism. As stated earlier, a racist view doesn’t merely perceive differences between races, it asserts inferiority.
Stereotypes are often based on exaggerated or isolated examples, but they can stem from verified sources as well. The fact that one in eleven African-Americans is incarcerated could be used to support the stereotype that African-Americans are criminals, which might then lead to the racist idea that African-Americans are inferior because of their criminal tendencies and should be treated differently. Here’s another example of how a legitimate observation could lead to racism:
- Aboriginals have historically struggled with alcoholism (observation)
- Aboriginals are alcoholics (stereotype)
- This person is aboriginal, therefore they are an alcoholic (prejudice)
- Aboriginals should be restricted from purchasing alcohol (racism)
It’s crucial to recognize that an observation that could be used to support a stereotype may still be useful. We should not discard such information, since, as we already mentioned, ignorance is not a proper defense against misunderstanding.
Although the distinction between racism, stereotype and prejudice may seem trivial, we must comprehend the difference between these ideas in order to correctly identify the motivation behind statements like the ones presented in the examples above. It’s also essential that we avoid incorrectly labeling people and policies as racist when they are, in fact, not racist at all. In addition, we must be careful to avoid the frivolous application of such harmful titles, lest we erode their meaning and needlessly offend.
This differentiation applies to other areas as well, including sexism, which is not merely the observation of differences between the sexes, but the support of intolerance toward or perceived inferiority of a sex.
The purpose of this clarification is not to excuse the reinforcement of stereotypes or the prejudgment of others for any reason, but merely to educate on what constitutes racism. In the same breath, we must not shy away from issues of race and sex, for that would mean denying the very features that define us.
Just because we aren’t equal doesn’t mean we aren’t of equal value.