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The Evolving Definitions of Racism (and Why There’s No “Reverse”)

July 3, 2014
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I find most of the discussion around the term “reverse racism” troubling. Partly for the obvious reason that some people still think such a thing exists, but also because the usual line of reasoning given to disprove it is frustratingly counterproductive. The problem, I believe, lies in the definitions of racism, and particularly the tension between its original, commonplace definition and a newer, evolving definition.

The prevailing counter-argument to the concept of reverse racism is usually given thus: Racism is prejudice + power; in other words, it is an institutionalized form of discrimination deeply embedded in a society that provides one racial group with the power to act out their prejudice through systematic oppression of other racial groups. This system can’t be “reversed”, because the oppressed groups do not have enough power and influence to act against the dominant group in any significant way.

This is an extremely valid and important concept that I wish a lot more (white) people would take the time to really understand. The problem, however, is that it’s not the only definition of racism. It’s not, in fact, even the primary definition of racism, as both found in most dictionaries and used by most English speakers. Which is why I see the following miscommunication repeated over and over:

A: That person of colour used a slur against whites. Reverse racism!
B: No, reverse racism doesn’t exist, because racism is prejudice + power, so people of colour can’t be racist.
A: Wait, wait, WHAT?!

(Before I continue, let me divulge that prior to giving this topic a lot more consideration, I myself used a variation on the above bolded phrase in conversation with a Punjabi friend, who blithely retorted that it was racist of me to suggest that only white people could be racist. She had a point.)

In my unofficial survey of several free online dictionaries (including Merriam-Webster, Cambridge and Oxford) the primary – if not the only – definitions given revolve around racism as a belief in the superiority of a particular race; a feeling of hatred or intolerance for other races; or acts of discrimination or violence against other races. Sadly, of course, it is clear that these xenophobic tendencies are intrinsic to human beings of all varieties.

It is my impression that the primary dictionary definitions of the word “racism” reflect its primary usage in common speech as well. Only two of the six sources I checked (dictionary.com and yourdictionary.com) even included any mention of the “institutionalized discrimination” definition. The fact that both of these are uniquely online sources rather than inveterate standbys like Merriam-Webster would indicate that this a newer definition — one that I believe probably evolved precisely to explain why “reverse racism” can’t exist.

But any student of linguistics will tell you that people are very, very resistant to language change, especially language change that seems “forced”, and especially especially language change that involves creating a polysemous definition for a word already in common circulation. And understandably so; the potential for confusion is enormous. This is why I say that attempting to use a newer, restricted definition of the word “racism” in order to oppose the concept of “reverse racism” is counterproductive. People will confuse it with the older definition and look at you like you’re a space alien when you try to tell them that people of colour are incapable of racism — because while you mean institutional racism, they think you mean commonplace racism — and will thereby dismiss you as a delusional, raving Social Justice Warrior.

I don’t really know what the solution is. In writing, we could maybe differentiate between lowercase-r racism and uppercase-R Racism in the same way that we differentiate between the commonplace and institutional definitions of catholic/Catholic, but that doesn’t really help us in speech. I do think it is important to figure out how to remedy this problem, however, so that we can continue to discuss why, for example, Maya Peterson’s Instagram photo mocking white bros was not Racist:

 

maya-peterson-instagram-photo

Not being personally acquainted with Ms. Peterson, I can’t comment on whether she happens to hold any lowercase-r racist views. But a black woman who posts a photo making fun of a group of people who hold long-established social power and influence over her is not enacting Racism. She is not disparaging white males for the simple fact of being white and male; she is disparaging those white males who continue to propagate systematic prejudice against her for the simple fact of being black and female. She does not have a godlike capability to “reverse” centuries-old paradigms of oppression with one Instagram photo. If only.

Reblogged: All Known Health Frauds are, in Fact, Valid

June 10, 2014

Chandra:

Can I get a HELL YEAH. This is pretty much the exact post I would have written about this topic, ifIeverhadtimetobloganymore and if someone else (a.k.a. blogger Kim at But Seriously, a smart and funny human whose words you should read) hadn’t got there first. READ IT. And then let’s all shut up about gluten.

The Vicious Cycle of Gluten Fuckery. Credit Kim at butsrsly.com

The Vicious Cycle of Gluten Fuckery. Credit Kim at butsrsly.com

Originally posted on But Seriously:

Author’s Note (6/10/14): Huh! Looks like we’re at 9k FB shares. That’s 8,996 more than I expected! So, that’s a win. Apparently a lot of people think the system is broken. Ok. Now, what do we do about it it? I’ve added a new bit at the end.  

::::::::::: RANT ALERT :::::::::::

Remember how six months ago, everybody had a gluten allergy? Remember how, as of last week, nobody has a gluten allergy? Remember, she said as a casual aside, my last post about social systems and pendulums?

I walked into a meeting yesterday where four people who know nothing about medicine, were confirming to one another that gluten allergies have finally been proven a hoax. My boss, a super-intelligent biologist, handed me the links cited below as proof that there are no gluten allergies in anyone ever.

I have issues. For starters:

One: Both links (same article), actually say

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Interlude: Go read this blog and dismantle some privilege

April 22, 2014

I have resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to get any more posts written until after I’m finished the online math course that is eating up all my free time. In the meantime, I have found something wonderful for you to read:

Across Difference | Working against privilege.

This blog is a propitious convergence of so many topics that interest me – language, education, privilege, gender, etc. – written in clear and accessible terms, with altogether more professionalism and less caustic snark than I am sometimes capable of. It is well worth a perusal, so go peruse it, I say.

If you happen also to be interested in adult education, one of the authors, Kate Nonesuch, is a literacy practitioner with an equally excellent education blog. Having previously attended one of her numeracy workshops, I can attest to the high level of knowledge, skill and insight she brings to her approaches.

This is not one of those posts where I try to be level-headed and diplomatic

February 2, 2014

I didn’t plan for my first post of 2014 to be an angry rant, but then a celebrity overdosed on heroin and the usual flotilla of sanctimonious douche canoes descended. Heads-up: there is a lot of swearing below. Sorry not sorry.

Fucked-up Things People Say about Addicts who Die of an Overdose

“Why should I feel sad about someone who chose to take drugs?”

Because they are a human being who was probably in a lot of pain, and most non-sociopathic people are capable of feeling sad when other people are in so much pain that it causes their death.

“They made bad choices. It’s their own fault.”

Ever played chicken as a teenager? Ever jaywalked? Ever texted while crossing an intersection? Ever drank too much at a party and passed out? Ever ridden a bike without a helmet? Ever got behind the wheel even though you barely slept the night before, or answered that one really important phone call while driving? Ever taken a shortcut across railroad tracks? Ever stood on the top part of the ladder that says “no step”? Ever swam out further than the lifeguard told you was safe? All of these things are bad choices with potentially fatal consequences. Unless you are a fucking saint you have no right to judge.

“There are better ways to handle pain. I have been depressed before too and I didn’t take drugs to deal with it.”

How nice for you. You have not lived the same life with the same circumstances as every other depressed person.

Most people don’t decide to become addicts.  Most of them start experimenting with alcohol and drugs in youth, when their judgement and ability to understand long-term consequences is not fully developed. They want to feel good and escape from reality. They do not believe it will snowball to the point where they are no longer in control. By the time it does, it is already too late.

“Addiction is not a disease. Taking drugs is always a choice.”

Never mind the fact that medical science is just maybe a better authority on this than you, let’s pretend that you’re right, and every time a person overdoses, it is entirely an act of free will. So we shouldn’t feel sympathy for these people because……… ? They were in such misery and had so little regard for their own well-being that they didn’t give a shit about what they were doing to themselves? If that causes you to feel less sympathy rather than more, you are not someone I want to know.

“People who turn to drugs are stupid, weak and cowardly. They get what they deserve.”

If you were crossing a bridge and you saw a person about to jump to their death, what would you do? A) Call the police or try to talk them down. B) Shrug your shoulders, decide that they are too stupid, weak and cowardly to bother with, and move on. C) Push them off.  If your answer is anything other than A, you should probably be seeing a psychiatrist.

“You can’t help people who won’t help themselves.”

I am the last person you need to tell this to. I gave up. I stopped trying to figure out how to help my brother when it became clear that there was nothing I could do. That doesn’t mean I stopped caring, or that I shut him out, or decided he deserved it. And it certainly didn’t make the fact of his death any easier. I hate, hate the fact that the way he died diminishes the significance of his death in some people’s eyes. Like it was any less traumatic. Like his life was somehow less worthy of our remembrance.

Both my brother and Mr. Hoffman did try to get help. I can’t speak for the actor, but in my brother’s case, he jumped through all the ridiculous hoops necessary to access the badly-underfunded services that do the best they can with pitifully minimal resources. It was not enough.

“I’m entitled to my opinion.”

Yes, you are entitled to be an insensitive and condescending prick. What good is that doing anyone? Do you think it helps already-tormented people to be told that they are weak and pathetic and shameful? Do you think it helps grieving family members and fans to hear that their grief is pointless and misplaced?

If you have not personally experienced the heartache of watching someone you love descend into this disease – and I sincerely hope you don’t, because it is not something I would wish even on a judgemental asshole – you have no fucking clue what you are talking about. Keep your ignorant and harmful opinions to yourself.

Why I’m Not an Atheist

December 18, 2013

I don’t really believe in anything. I definitely don’t believe in the omnipotent, authoritative, bearded-daddy-in-the-sky idea of God. I have thoughts and ideas on the subject of (for lack of a better word) spirituality, but I don’t mistake these speculations for confirmed truths.

I also don’t believe that all of the Big Answers can be found by scientists. Please note that I did not say they can’t be explained by science; I said found by scientists. I fully get behind science as a pure and abstract notion, but scientific inquiry is carried out by humans and therefore subject to human fallibility. People who are devoted to scientific research in a dogmatic way, and dismiss concerns about bias, ego, error, corporate sponsorship, and other confounding factors, are just as blinded as religious dogmatists.

Scientists haven’t explained the ultimate origins of matter, life, or existence any better than religious texts. We have the Big Bang Theory, but nothing to explain where the original dense ball of matter came from, nor the energy that powered its explosion. We know that biological evolution was kicked off by single-celled organisms, but nobody knows how the very first animate cells developed from inanimate materials.  Even a “simple” single-celled bacterium — a being that can self-propel and reproduce — requires a minimum level of systematic organization and complexity in order to exist. If biological complexity comes about in small intermediate steps through reproduction, how can it arise when you’re starting with inanimate materials that don’t reproduce?

Whether you’re talking about matter, energy, or life, it seems there’s always a point at which something had to come from nothing. How?

I’m not even going to try to tackle the question of the origins of the universe, especially after watching this video. But I have been feeling compelled lately to flesh out my ideas on the whatever-it-is that makes a person or a plant or a bacterium different from a rock or a vapour cloud. (There is no satisfactory word for this quality — “life” is too broad, “consciousness” is too Deepak Chopra, and “animation” is too Mickey Mouse –so I’m going to call it “animacy”.)

Now before I stick my nose any further into an area I have no professional qualifications for, let me be very clear that all of my thoughts on this subject are pure conjecture, completely unscientific, and not intended to convince credulous people of some theory in order to sell books to them. But like any human being who feels compelled to ponder their own existence, I try to come up with ideas that seem to fit with the limited knowledge I have, and then roll them around in my head for a while.

So here’s the idea that I’ve been rolling around lately: What if animacy exists in the universe almost as some type of element? As dark matter, energy, pure and unadulterated love, I don’t know what. And what if this element, even if it can’t have a measurable effect on the large-scale physical world, has enough influence to cause submicroscopic changes in physical matter – maybe to affect things like the spin of electrons around an atom or the bonds of energy between particles, that kind of thing – in order to guide the arrangement of the first unicellular organism? And then evolution would take its course from there.

babyanduniverse

Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”, and this makes more sense to me than the ideas either that we’re the creation of some completely separate higher being, or that we’re a completely random and meaningless occurrence. It makes sense to me that we might exist as a way to concentrate awareness and carry it around in a physical body for a while, so that it has the chance to learn about itself and experience things like joy and pleasure and sensuality.

I will freely admit that this idea also comforts me on a purely emotional level. It makes me feel more connected with everything. It helps me fathom the concept of oneness that so many cultures profess, which I have otherwise had so much trouble wrapping my head around; how can we all be part of some unified whole, when we are clearly so separate? Why can’t I feel my supposed oneness even with people I know, never mind total strangers? When I think of animacy as an element that… well, animates us, I can see an analogy with a substance like water, that can be held in separate containers and subjected to different circumstances, or poured together back into the same ocean. It comforts me to think that maybe everything we learn and experience isn’t lost when our bodies die; maybe it returns to some kind of ocean. Maybe something of my brother still exists, and he isn’t utterly gone.

So these are my weird ideas, which are not things that I believe, but merely things that I wonder about. I’m not an atheist because I don’t have any solid convictions about anything, one way or the other. And also because the ideas I described here might be some people’s interpretation of God. “God” is just a word that applies to a vague collection of concepts, after all.

My brother was my favourite person to talk to about all of this. He didn’t usually have much to say, but when he did it was about the fundamental questions that matter most. We would sit at the kitchen table late into the night, maybe once every couple of years, and throw around animated theories about the meaning of existence. I miss those conversations acutely. Wherever or whatever he is now, I hope he has his answers.

Russell Brand is No Revolutionary

October 26, 2013

Perhaps you have seen the video below circulating on your preferred social media website:

Russell Brand has a lot of good points to make. The Earth is being poisoned, the poor are getting poorer, and the political systems of the world’s most influential countries are largely at fault. These political systems need a radical overhaul in order for real change to happen, and our current electoral systems make that kind of overhaul seemingly impossible. Brand makes his points with impassioned delivery and engaging wit, and I don’t question the genuine frustration behind his words. He does indeed come across as the fiery revolutionary everyone is making him out to be.

I’m still not, however, buying it.

I might be more inclined to buy it if it weren’t for the fact that an alternative political party, whose platform addresses precisely the issues Brand is decrying, does in fact already exist — a political party that never gets to power because nobody ever votes for them. So either Brand is actually not politically astute enough to have done his homework, or he sincerely believes that the best way to take down the current political hierarchy is to continue to not to support the party that is actually trying to do that.

At the very start of his speech, he admits to not knowing much about politics, and reveals that he agreed to edit a political magazine simply because he was “politely asked by an attractive woman”. When cornered again and again by Jeremy Paxman to elaborate on his ideas about alternative political systems, he hedges and backpedals. This leads me to believe that all of his spirited rhetoric isn’t much more than bluster to cover up his voting apathy — because yes, Mr. Brand, “indifference” and “apathy” mean exactly the same thing.

I would like to be proven wrong. I would like to see Russell Brand, and every single person who shared his video all over the Internet, stand up and take some kind of meaningful action against the political status quo in their respective countries. I would like to hope that this viral video will not, instead, simply give even more people an excuse to disengage completely, and stay inside their warm and comfortable homes on election day. I would like to hope that this viral video doesn’t in fact play into the hands of the current political hierarchy by reinforcing the mistaken impression that all political parties, including the radical outliers fighting for actual change, can be lumped together and ignored. Remember that those at the top are perfectly happy when the disillusioned fail to vote.

So let’s see it, Mr. Brand. Let’s see you put your revolution where your mouth is.

Reblogged: If you can’t write, what rights do you really have?: Literacy and the exercising of personal rights

October 22, 2013

Chandra:

From Linguistic Pulse, some fantastic insights into how literacy privilege interplays with socioeconomic status.

Originally posted on linguistic pulse:

This past spring, I suffered a relatively minor medical emergency having to have emergency surgery to remove my appendix. I recovered quickly and without complication thanks to the excellent medical staff who attended to me 24 hours a day for a few days as well as my support system, including my wife who stayed with me constantly and my friends and colleagues who covered for and accommodated me while I was unable to go to work (and even brought me meals!).

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