Definition Disconnect: What Is “Racism”

As shown in this Google Trends report, the term “racism” has seen an uptick of interest from those in the United States in the past 7 years, coming to a head this past November.

The term has become, for many, one of daily use. It comes to us in songs, in movies, in news articles, and in late-night TV. In the U.S., the word is inescapable. It is in common use within our language.

The challenge, and beauty, of language is that it is always in flux. What language does is allow us to communicate our thoughts to another person. We’ve often witnessed or experienced challenges associated with speaking with someone whose language is different than ours—but the same challenges can exist even within our own language, and are infinitely more dangerous. When both parties know a word but have different definitions, it causes a disconnect where each think that they understand the other, and often don’t pause to test their assumption. This then leads to misunderstanding, frustration, and anger.

This definition disconnect is hardly more evident than with the word “racism”.

To some, racism is an individual action one takes against someone else because of their different skin color. This is why the term “reverse racism” is accepted by those who adhere to this definition, as by this meaning it is possible for African Americans to be prejudice against white people based on the color of their skin.

To others, racism is the combination of prejudice and power over those of different skin colors. It can certainly be individual and explicit, but it can also be subtle, and systematic, and baked in to a culture’s beliefs, narratives, and processes. For those who adhere to this definition, “reverse racism” cannot exist, as African Americans do not have the necessary level of power over white people.

The point here isn’t to debate which definition is right or wrong. The point is to simply acknowledge that these very different definitions exist.

I wrote before about how the impetus of social change is on those seeking change. So, too, is the impetus of communication on the communicator. As a person engaged in a conversation, it is your responsibility to identify these possible definition gaps and work around it.

In order to have conversations on racism with those who hold a definition different than you do, you must acknowledge this difference, and you must respect this difference. Arguing that your definition is “correct” will only force disconnect. But by working within their definition, you will be able to maintain a connection and have a more productive discussion.

This doesn’t mean to forget your own understanding. It’s just in how you approach it. “No, you’re wrong, racism is actually ____” is a very different tone than “Here’s my understanding of racism. This is why I see [mass incarceration] as a form of racism. Regardless of terminology, [mass incarceration] is a problem because…”

Often when you’re talking to someone about racism or other meaty topics, it’s not the definition of the term that you are really trying to focus on. Don’t be distracted by the definition, but be sure you are both on the same page before moving forward (even if that page is simply understanding that each person holds a different definition).

The “racism” definition gap has been hard to ignore. Surrounding the recent election there have been a plethora of blogs, articles, and comments referring to many conservatives as racist. Many liberals can’t understand how it’s possible that Trump voters don’t understand that their actions are racist—that their actions are contributing to a broader system that is harming those of other races.

It’s because many of these people understand racism to be the individual, intentional, and explicit definition explored above. They are offended that these liberals would insinuate that they have ever treated someone poorly based on their skin color, when they make it a point to be polite to everyone (except, of course, the internet trolls).

From here, there’s no hope of a connection. There is no respect from either party for the different definitions, or for the other’s point of view.

Keep an eye out for these moments of disconnect. Rather than responding in frustration, consider what perspective the other person is coming from. Do they have the same understanding of the word or concept? Ask them. And, importantly, rather than challenge their understanding, work with their definition. Speak in their language.

When in Rome.


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