Racism: Two Very Different Meanings of the Word

Racism means different things to different people.

Posted Sep 12, 2018

Everyone in our society should be very aware that there are two fundamentally different meanings of the word racism. Confusion about which meaning is being employed adds to the confusion in how we discuss and debate this sensitive topic.

One might be termed the “traditional” meaning and the other the “progressive” meaning. Folks can place whatever labels they want on these two meanings; my point is that both refer to important, but also very different constructs. 

The traditional meaning of the term refers to explicit beliefs (or messages or policies or actions) about the value and place of the various races, with a particular emphasis on the idea that some races are inherently superior when compared to others. I suggest we call this explicit racism. I think if folks are using racism this way it should be made clear. Perhaps we should even denote it, as in “e-racism."

The other definition of racism refers to the implicit and institutional structures that can bias the flow of power, influence, and resources towards some races and away from others. This is how many progressives define the term. I suggest we denote this kind of racism with an i attached to it, as in “i-racism."

Both constructs are important, and warrant being referenced via the term racism. But it is also the case that e-racism and i-racism refer to very different entities. As ongoing conversations unfold about topics such as the Serena Williams cartoon, tweets about white men from a New York Times editor, affirmative action policies at Harvard, and the behavior of the president, it is helpful for both listeners and speakers to be clear about which definition of racism is being employed.

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