- Many people consider a "racist" to be someone who is racially prejudiced, contrary to standard definitions.
- The term "bigot" refers to individuals who are prejudiced against others because they belong to a disliked group.
- Assigning a new meaning to a word happens frequently, but redefinitions sometimes produce undesirable consequences.
- Using the term "racist" to describe individual bigotry creates psychological distance and eliminates opportunities for meaningful dialogue.
I see and hear the word “racist” more often today than I did in the past. Is that because racism is more prevalent now than it was 20 or 30 years ago? Maybe, although I doubt it. Another explanation—one that emphasizes the fluid nature of word meanings—seems more likely.
According to Britannica (2023), a racist is a person who holds “the belief that humans may be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called races … and that some races are innately superior to others.”
Juanita Mcleod (2021) at the National Institutes of Health defines racism as “different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”
The American Psychological Association says racism is “a form of prejudice that assumes that the members of racial categories have distinctive characteristics and that these differences result in some racial groups being inferior to others.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission says racism is “more than just prejudice in thought or action. It occurs when this prejudice—whether individual or institutional—is accompanied by the power to discriminate against, oppress, or limit the rights of others.”
According to these definitions, white supremacists are racists because they believe the white race is innately superior to other races. Hitler was a racist because he believed Aryans and Jews were separate races, Aryans were inherently better than Jews, and Jews should be eliminated.
Is a racially prejudiced person a racist? Not according to the standard definitions.
The Popular Understanding of Racism
Imagine we surveyed thousands of Americans and asked them to define “racism.” How many would give an answer that essentially matched the standard definitions? Very few, in my opinion.
Most of the respondents’ answers would sound something like this: A racist is someone who is racially prejudiced, who prejudges someone on the basis of their group membership, who dislikes or undervalues certain individuals because of their race; a bigot.
Some readers may be unfamiliar with the term “bigot” because it’s not used much these days. A bigot is someone who is prejudiced against an individual because the individual belongs to a disliked group. Some rabid Red Sox fans, for example, are bigots because they think poorly of anyone who is a Yankees fan.
In a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans said it had become more common for people to express “racist or racially insensitive views” since Trump was elected president (Horowitz, Brown, & Cox, 2019). Note the wording of the question. The pollsters apparently thought “racist” and “racially insensitive” were essentially synonyms. If the pollsters thought the two terms had substantially different meanings, they would have asked two separate questions. The fact that nearly two-thirds of respondents said racist views are widespread leads me to believe that most respondents interpreted “racist” to mean “racially prejudiced.”
Shifts in Meaning
The meaning of a word can change over time. In fact, it happens a lot. Hip-hop used to be what bunnies did. Trauma used to mean “organic damage to the brain as the result of a severe blow to the head.” Headhunters were once feared, but now business executives are flattered to be contacted by one.
Shifts in meaning should not surprise us. After all, the meaning of a word is arbitrary. We can define a word to mean anything we want, and we can change a word’s meaning if we like. However, just because we can alter the meaning of a word doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Giving an old word a new meaning may have consequences, some of which may be undesirable.
When the meaning of a word becomes more expansive, the number of cases that meet the definition usually increases. When the meaning of “milk” is not restricted to “a secretion of mammary glands,” the kinds of milk available for purchase expand to include nut and grain juices such as almond milk and oat milk. The number of individuals who identify as autistic has increased dramatically since 2013 when mental health experts expanded the definition of autism to include individuals previously diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Psychological Consequences of Redefining “Racist”
My concerns about how people use the word “racist” go deeper than mere head counts. As a social psychologist, I’m especially concerned about the downstream psychological consequences of redefining "racist" to include individuals who are simply prejudiced or insensitive.
When we call someone a racist, we psychologically distance ourselves from that person. We “other” the person in a way that is difficult to overstate. We are saying, albeit indirectly, that the person is morally flawed and undeserving of sympathy. We do not want to be associated with the person. The R-word today is like the scarlet letter A in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time.
This same sequence of attributions doesn’t happen (or happens to a lesser degree) when we say someone is prejudiced, in part because we recognize—if only privately—that we have had prejudiced feelings in the past and may have them again in the future.
When we learn that someone is a racist, we perceive that person differently than we perceive someone who has a racial prejudice. Prejudices need not be permanent, as evidenced by the rapid decline in bigotry against gays and lesbians after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Racists, however, are usually seen as fundamentally flawed entities; they hold a strong belief that is unlikely to change. It is similar to how someone who is “a schizophrenic” is usually seen as more chronically ill and less treatable than someone who is “currently experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia.”
Finally, calling someone a racist typically eliminates any opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with that person. If you call me a racist, you become my enemy and I want nothing to do with you.
For all these reasons, I believe we should not use the term “racist” to describe someone who is racially prejudiced. By definition, a racist holds a specific set of beliefs about racial superiority, whereas a prejudiced person simply likes or (more often) dislikes someone because they belong to a particular group.
American Psychological Association (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/racism-bias-discrimination
Australian Human Rights Commission (n.d.). Retrieved from https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/race-discrimination/what-racism
Britannica (2023, January 5). Racism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/racism
Horowitz, J. M., Brown, A., & Cox, K. (2019, April 9). “Race in America 2019.” Pew Research Center. At https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/
Mcleod, J. (2021, March 11). Understanding racial terms and differences. Retrieved from https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/understanding-racial-terms-and-differences