After my previous post about the misuse of the term racism, a number of people responded in person and by email with the “I was just talking to someone about that myself” and then subsequently Jonathon Starling continued his series on race and racism and weighed in on defining racism.
I actually think that blogs (particularly ones without the noise of hysterical comments on race) can be good places to have this discussion. In Bermuda the topic of race traditionally produces more heat than light, but in this medium all sides can get their thoughts out uninterrupted and not fall prey to the heat of the moment in intense discussions and get sidetracked.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we don’t need to define race and racism, we need to use the existing definitions, and not so much dictionary ones as sociological ones.
I think that the problem we have in Bermuda is that we're trying to put a political definition on a sociological concept. Race and politics have become completely intertwined - and when you mix race and politics all you get is politics.
The result is that race has been hijacked as a political construct, rather than a sociological one. (On this front I feel a certain amount of qualification to discuss it rather than just bloviate like usual, as my degree is in Sociology and Political Science, where I studied both social and political theory. It was a while ago, but I'm not that old.)
The concept of racism is well defined and quite simple and doesn’t need to be redefined. But here’s what Jonathon says (read the whole post as well):
Christian defines ‘racism’ as ‘not an action, but a belief system.’ The action, according to him, is called ‘racial discrimination.’
Christian and I, apparently, have different interpretations of this word ‘racism,’ which adds to the importance of having a discussion about definitions - and yes, I’m fully expecting a flood of dictionary quotations in response to this post…
To me the belief system, the ideology, of ‘a belief in a racial group’s intrinsic superiority over another (or others)’ is what I call ‘racialism’ or ‘racial supremacy.’ Racism however is the action of discrimination, racialism/racial supremacy in practice. Racism can be overt, as it was in the days of segregation and organised repression, or it can be covert and largely unconscious. This covert form is what I consider institutional racism, and can be in the form of unintentional media or in hiring practices or so on.
Ok, let’s take this one piece at a time.
Firstly, an ‘ism’, is absolutely, 100%, by definition, a belief system. Ism’s don’t need power, just someone with a pulse and brainwaves. ‘Isms’ denote an ideology, and ideologies absolutely do not require action. They’re just thoughts. I can’t say this enough, or strongly enough, but I don’t want to bore you.
In Jonathon’s case, his idea of racism is properly referred to as racial discrimination; what I described in my previous post as the continuum from prejudice, to racism, to discrimination.
I don’t want to beat this to death but it’s important to get this right, and not redefine it in a way that feeds into divisive political agendas (not that Jonathon is doing that, but others are).
Jonathon goes on to argue that racism is active discrimination while racialism is the belief system.
I don’t mean to be flip, but that’s just wrong.
Wikipedia covers it well, and has perhaps the most straight forward definition and history of the term ‘Racialism’ and ‘racism’ (which used to be flipped in their connotations). Now they’re often used as synonyms neither require action, (because they’re –isms, see above), they’re beliefs.
Racialism has a subtle difference than racism, in that racialism doesn’t posit a hierarchy of races whereas racism does, but does see race as indicating certain traits for example (ie. mental, physical abilities etc.).
As Wikipedia currently defines it:
Racialism entails a belief in the existence and significance of racial categories, but not necessarily in a hierarchy between the races, or in any political or ideological position of racial supremacy. One racialist position is the controversial claim of a measurable correlation between race and intelligence, or race and crime. Less controversial observations on correlations of e.g. race and height, race and disease or race and penis size are strictly speaking also racialist positions.
This distinction between racism and racialism is less important to me than debunking the idea that racism requires power and denotes an action.
It quite simply does not. And I think in Jonathon's conclusion he underestimates or largely ignores the massive influence of Government power economically, which seems to be his focus. With a billion dollar budget, and a large bureaucracy and tight immigration controls, Government power (both economic and regulatory) in a small place like Bermuda is massive.
Jonathon goes on to say that “Prejudice by the way is a related form of racialism/racial supremacy. I connect it to a combination of the ideology with limited power.”
Again, prejudice doesn’t need power, limited or otherwise. You can be prejudiced but lack the power to act on it.
The reason I’m harping on this is because in Bermuda, and elsewhere, but I’m most interested in Bermuda, we can’t have a conversation about race if the discussion begins with complete misnomers.
It is important, as Jonathon rightly says and attempts, to get on the same page with definitions, but let’s use the correct ones and not the ones that have been thrust on us by politicians whose careers are dependent on maintaining their gatekeeper status on anything to do with race.
As I said some time ago in a Royal Gazette column, I have very little interest in participating in political directed and driven discussions on race, because they are completely incompatible.
Reaching some understanding on race, both historical and current, requires understanding and compromise. Politics too often involves the complete opposite. Politics is a zero sum game and is ultimately about winning.
As long as we continue to permit discussions on race to be politically directed we won’t make much progress, because political parties - particularly ones that heavily engage in appeals to group identity - have little interest in reaching a genuine understanding or compromising, the goal is to drive people into certain camps based on some common trait.
Many politicians have as far, if not further, to go on this topic as the general public.