Is the definition of racism racist?

28 Mar 2019

Racism is even evident in the dictionary definition of racism.

Is the dictionary definition of racism racist?

Anyone who has spent any time talking about racism online has probably had someone reply to them with the dictionary definition of the word racism.

It’s a common debate tactic in high school. Before you construct your argument, you offer a dictionary definition of the keywords.  It provides grounding, a shared understanding of the topic under discussion.

And don’t get me wrong, dictionaries are awesome. Growing up in a pre-internet age I couldn’t tell you how many times as a child I turned to the trusty dictionary for advice. Even today I sometimes google the definition of a word to make sure I am fully across its meaning if I see a context for it that strikes me as odd, or if my gut tells me that the best word to use in a sentence is one that I don’t have complete confidence in.

Having shared definitions is important for effective communication.

What does “sequestered mean”?

Principal Skinner:
If the jury is deadlocked, they’re put up in a hotel so that they cant communicate with the outside world.

What does “deadlocked” mean?

Principal Skinner:
It’s when the jury can’t agree on a verdict.

And “if”?

Principal Skinner:
A conjunction meaning “in the event that” or “on condition of”.

So “if” we get “deadlocked”, we’ll be “sequestered” at the Springfield Palace Hotel. Where we’ll get a free room, free food, free swimming pool, free HBO. Ooh. Free Willy.

I still remember watching this episode as a teen and being blown away and the simplicity of the definition of ‘if’ and the realisation that even though I had mastered how to use ‘if’ in a sentence, I never would have been able to come up with such a simple yet accurate definition of it. The mastery of language to such a point was wondrous to me as a child with a love of the written and spoken language.

Definitions in dictionaries are not carved in stone by the angels and handed down to us mere mortals on stone tablets

Definitions in dictionaries are not carved in stone by the angels and handed down to us mere mortals on stone tablets though. They are written by a wonderful group of often never thought about people called lexicographers.

The definition of a lexicographer is ‘a person who compiles dictionaries’.

They fact that they didn’t write their definition as ‘brainy mofos who are way smarter than you chumps’ speaks to their humility and the seriousness with which they take their jobs, and is likely why I never explored a career in lexicography.

Lexicographers are not necessarily experts of the intricacies of each and every word within a dictionary though. And those who sit down to compile a new dictionary don’t write it from scratch. They build on previous works, perhaps adding some new words, or making changes to old ones as they see fit. And like most Western institutions, those previous works were predominately the domain of white people, mostly men.

Racism is therefore embedded throughout these institutions as even though it may be removed from the rulebook, it rarely has been within the social and institutional norms on which the institution is founded upon.

Racism is even evident in the definition of ‘racism’.

While there are some variations, most Australian dictionaries define racism in two key parts.

  1. A belief in racial hierarchies eg the superiority of their own group and the inferiority of others.
  2. Actions based on this belief, in the form of prejudice and discrimination.

These definitions focus solely on the belief and actions of the racist. They do not consider the perspective, understanding or experience of those groups who have endured racism throughout the centuries.

The definition of racism requires the explicit belief in racial superiority, and to be honest it often isn’t hard to see that this belief is evident in racist thought and action, but unless it is explicitly stated as such people will often attempt to let people off the hook for it.

We know though, that words change meaning over time. They grow and adapt, they develop added layers of complexity, and sometimes take on new meanings altogether.

One of the more interesting ways in which the word ‘racism’ has changed is that, for many, it doesn’t solely reflect the views and attitudes of white people anymore. (That is, everywhere except for in the dictionary). It now also considers the perspective of those who’ve been on the receiving end of it. And no, white people, I’m not talking about that Koori kid who was mean to you in primary school.

I’m talking about the comprehensive interrogation of racism as a system of power, and as a tool for the justification of the oppression and exclusion of non-white people. Racism that permeates every facet of societies like ours, that held up concepts of white supremacy and black inferiority as a foundational cornerstone to the building of a nation.

This belief is evident in Australian history from the moment of invasion through to today.

I’m talking about the comprehensive interrogation of racism as a system of power, and as a tool for the justification of the oppression and exclusion of non-white people

Take under representation in the media for example. Many would acknowledge this as a problem, but they would not stop to think “Why do we privilege white voices on television?”

It is not a long bow to draw to consider that Australia values white perspectives and experiences more than it does that of the ‘other’, based on the amounts of air time it gives. And from there it is easy to conclude that if you place more value on white views, that you consider them to be superior.

But so long as the powers that be don’t actively acknowledge this, then they will likely not be widely regarded as racist. These people almost certainly won’t see themselves this way. They might even have meetings to discuss how they can bring in more non-white views and voices into their shows. They might even hire non-white people behind the scenes. Probably not in positions of great power, but if they were racist then surely they wouldn’t hire anyone not white, and they wouldn’t agonise over how they can bring in more voices, right?

But it’s not like there is a group of people who sit around at the start of the year and decide who is going to be on all of television in a given year. It’s lots of groups of people. Some of these people, ‘industry legends’, have been around since it was more explicitly a ‘white’s only’ affair. Some of them have changed their views, but others simply recognise that you can’t so readily name it anymore, at least not publicly.

The same is true for all of our social institutions. Politics, police, print media, health, education, academia, they all centre the views and norms of whiteness. They are all institutions that were explicitly built to privilege whiteness and exclude the other wherever possible.

If you remove most of the explicit rules enforcing whiteness, which all of this institutions included in one way or another, but you do not change or challenge the social norms and the thinking that underpinned it, you see a continuation of the status quo within them – disparities in power, in representation, in decision making, in reaping the benefits of these institutions.

The inability to incorporate and empathise with the perspective of the ‘other’ is key to enabling their dehumanisation. It allows whiteness to create nonsensical narratives about the motives, character, deviancies and deficiencies of the other, who can only challenge these attitudes from the fringes, offered the right to respond, occasionally, but rarely given the opportunities necessary to set agendas outside of the boxes that whiteness puts all others into. Within some institutions we are allowed to discuss these issues, and are even encouraged to do so within reason, but never to actually act upon them.

For those who are on the experiencing the barriers of exclusion within these institutions the continuation and perpetuation of racism is obvious, but for those who think racism is only encapsulated by the dictionary definitions above, they do not see it. They cannot see it. They don’t want to see it. And their inability to confront it ensures its perpetuation.

They are the fire that keeps the pot boiling, and when it occasionally boils over in the form of an ‘over the top’ racist comment or action they condemn it and turn the heat down, for a moment, sometimes. But they never think about turning it off. They don’t need to. They aren’t racist.

Just ask the English Dictionary.

Or maybe forget the dictionary, and instead ask those who have developed an intimate understanding of racism through necessity, trying to survive it.

It is telling that on one show last night we saw a white Australian giving a passionate attack on racism against Aboriginal people in sport that basically equated to ‘But they are such great athletes!” rather than “But they are human beings”.

While on another show we got a small satirical taste of what breakfast television that centres Aboriginal people and perspectives could look like, knowing that it is a show we will probably never get.

But why not? Was anything said by Miranda and Nakkiah really that much more controversial than the racist crap so regularly spouted on Australian breakfast television?

Why is the very idea of Aboriginal people expressing their truths about racism so unpalatable when white people’s ill-informed, misguided, politically motivated, inflammatory commentary is seen as acceptable, even mundane at times, or at worst ‘essential to protecting our free speech’?

Why is this from Miranda Tapsell last night not seen as a form of free speech worthy of the same adoration?

“I’ll tell you about racism, because I’ve been living with racism since the moment I shot out of my mum! Thirty years of smiling, and making big eyes and not showing my anger! I’m done not being angry. I am angry. And if you don’t like me being angry, then by all means Australia, take my furious baton and run this race for me! Because we are dying in infancy, we are dying in custody, and we are dying decades earlier than you. And you should be as angry about that as I am!”

This is something we need to be hearing a lot more of, and not just in satirical form.

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