Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

How Should Racism Be Defined?

An anthropological definition of racism offers conceptual clarity.

Posted Jan 11, 2011

Little Rock, 1959 anti-integration rally at state capitol

"Do you know why they call it lasgna?" she asked.

"No. Why?"

"Because it looks like lasagna!"

What makes this example so charming is the belief that words are related to the concepts they represent in some essential way--that there is a lasagna-ness in the word lasagna that makes it the best name for the food. Of course, this is incorrect. Words are just a bunch of sounds. There is no apple-ness in the word apple, since maçã works just fine in Portuguese, as do pomme in French and other words in other languages.

The word racism is now used in a variety of ways, but substituting other words for each meaning and employing it in a particular anthropological sense can clarify matters and make for greater precision--like distinguishing lasagna from spaghetti or macaroni.

Words may change their meanings over time or depending on context. Personality used to refer to one's artificial social exterior (persona means mask in Latin); now it refers to what a person is really like. Racism changes its meaning too, depending on how people use it in a given context--whether to refer to hostile acts, antagonistic emotions, negative attitudes, or specific beliefs. Distinguishing among some common meanings of racism allows us to avoid vagueness by using more precise terms.

One meaning is holding pre-formed negative opinions or stereotypes about a group or category of people. Prejudice (from pre-judging) and bigotry are good words for that concept.

Another meaning is treating people badly or unfairly because of their group membership or social classification. This involves actions stemming from prejudice, as opposed to passively holding biased beliefs, hiding negative emotions, or minimizing contact with those in disliked categories. Discrimination expresses that concept well.

The German "Nuremberg Laws" (1935) established a pseudo-scientific basis for racial discrimination.

Here are two examples of racism by this anthropological definition:

The belief that blacks are inherently superior basketball players. Actually, tall, muscular, well-coordinated, competitive people who practice a lot make good basketball players. The Mbuti pygmies in Africa would be at a disadvantage on the basketball court.

The belief that Eastern European Jews and Asians are inherently more intelligent than others. Cultures that place a strong emphasis on formal education, and that use a variety of rewards, punishments, and exposure to academic and intellectual activities and role models excel at promoting their children's cognitive development. Hmong children in the U.S. lag in school performance, because, although Asian, they lack the cultural emphasis on education.

The anthropological definition helps us to identify pseudo-biological explanations for cultural differences as the distinguishing feature of racism. Focusing our attention on pseudo-biological explanations prevents us from confusing racism with other forms of bad behavior.

Image sources:
Little Rock, 1959. Rally at state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School. Protesters carry US flags and signs reading "Race Mixing is Communism" and "Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ"
(Library of Congress)
The German "Nuremberg Laws" (1935) established a pseudo-scientific basis for racial discrimination. Only people with four German grandparents (four white circles in top row left) were categorized as of "German blood."

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