With accusations of racism being flung around in the news constantly, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about what racism actually is and why it is wrong. What is important for me is to provide a definition of “racism” that allows me to simultaneously diagnose sin and dismiss bad accusations of racism. Today I’d like to try to define several different kinds of so-called “racism,” including one that may actually be useful.
Before I begin, I want to observe that much of the difficulty around this issue is that racism is essentially an inward disposition or motive. This means that to accuse someone of being a racist is to make a projection about that person’s inner psychological state. Therefore one of the main issues I have with the way the word “racism” is used today is that it is used to label anything that could be motivated by racial prejudice, not things that actually are.
There are a lot of different terms for this; sometimes you’ll hear the term “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Sometimes you’ll hear about “unmasking.” The basic idea is that you second-guess a person’s stated rationale for something and impute a more cynical motive to them. I’ll clarify this observation with the specific examples below, but this is the basic issue I want to fight against.
Here are at least four different kinds that I can think of:
- Preference racism
- Cultural relativism racism
- Generalization racism
- Prejudicial racism
Preference racism is when you don’t like something from another racial group. For example, if you think Indian food is stinky or that black people play their music too loud, then you’re engaging in preference racism. This is interpreted as racist because you are making a negative statement about another culture or racial group. But because these are just preferences, it is possible to engage in “preference racism” without actually being racist; it is possible to genuinely dislike certain foods, and it is possible to have a threshold for volume.
Underlying the accusation is a suspicion that a person has the preferences they have because they disdain a different group. If they heard the same music or smelled the same food, but thought that those things were produced by their own racial group, then perhaps they would perceive them as good instead. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible to genuinely prefer something. The question becomes one of distinguishing the motivations for having certain preferences, and it seems that the distinguishing principles that are used by the PC/SJW crowd are the principles of suspicion and skepticism.
Cultural relativism racism is when you make a value judgment about another racial group. For example, it taken as racist to point out that the population of chronically under-performing blacks in America (those in the “ghetto”) possess many anti-social tendencies which actually serve to generate and reinforce poverty and crime; this is considered racist despite the fact that those same behaviors are universally condemned when performed by “white trailer trash.” The only difference is whether the value judgment crosses racial lines. It’s fine for white people to point out the antisocial tendencies of white trailer trash, but when it’s pointed out that those same tendencies are displayed among a different racial group (black people in the ghetto), it’s racist.
The worldview underlying this accusation of racism is cultural relativism. You can only criticize people inside your group, because you don’t understand other groups enough to be able to criticize them. You do not have enough “context”. Or, you are a part of a group that has a history of mistreating that other group, so you do not have the moral authority to speak about their failings. Add to this the general air of skepticism and suspicion of the PC/SJW crowd, and what you get is a preference for understanding absolute value judgments as manifestations of an otherwise hidden prejudice instead of as a sincere attempt at moral knowledge.
If you believe that there are moral absolutes, then you believe that it is possible to legitimately call something wrong; say, if that thing were sinful in some way (like gangsta rap or sharia law). But the suspicion is that even our perception is colored by prejudice, so we only believe something to be sinful, when in reality it is merely our hatred for the group associated with it that makes us think that way. If we didn’t hate them, then we would see clearly that the thing we take as sinful might actually be good.
To me, this line of reasoning seems to end in the eradication of any notion of absolute morality; if we are always suspicious that our preferences, all the way down to our value judgments, are nothing more than a mask for our prejudices, then it seems that the only way to prove to ourselves that we aren’t prejudiced is to eliminate all preferences and value judgments.
Generalization racism is when any generalization at all is considered racist, even if it’s a good generalization. This would be like pointing out that black athletes are the top performers in various sports, and it would also include observing that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. The point here is that any kind of generalization can count as racist. The problem here is that you have to attack the idea of generalizations in general, which is self-refuting, both in principle and as applied by the PC/SJW crowd.
You cannot complain about white people being racist without having the ability to generalize about white people. But if there is no way to generalize about a racial group in an intellectually serious way (say, because there are too many outliers or counter-examples), then you cannot make a complaint about white people being racist. As with the other forms, suspicion plays a role in how generalizations are understood. Nobody is really saying that we can’t actually make generalizations about people, but rather that our perception of different groups are too distorted by our biases and prejudices. But, again, as with the other forms, this is merely suspicion, which is different than an actual demonstration that the generalization in question is actually invalid.
Generalization racism is often associated with ignorance. This is actually a valid point to make, because it corresponds to the way we learn. When we first encounter something, such as a different people group, we only notice the most obviously different things about them (like skin color, clothing, and speech patterns). This causes us to lump all people in the group together without distinction. But as we gain greater knowledge about that group, we begin to discern differences between individuals, between sub-groups, and whether the group is homogeneous or heterogeneous.
This knowledge plays an important role in alleviating the fear that is commonly associated with strangers. It is common not to trust strangers as intimately as we trust people that we know well. Similarly, we tend not to trust “strange” people groups as much as we trust people that are like us (or are part of the “us” group). This fear is normal and, to a certain extent, healthy. But the way to overcome it is not to condemn it or criticize it but to simply encourage exposure and trust-building.
Of course, the encouragement to “learn” about different people groups is often code for cultural relativism, because the underlying sentiment is that absolute value judgments are both impossible and divisive, and therefore can only arise from willful ignorance and prejudice. Sometimes people are ignorant and need to learn. But sometimes their judgments are right. The point isn’t that all value judgments are right; the point is that it is wrong to say that all value judgments arise from prejudice.
On the other hand, unwillingness to learn about and trust those different from us is the basis of the next form of racism.
Prejudicial racism, which you could refer to as classic or common-sense racism, is when you have a prejudice against an individual because they belong to a certain racial group. This is characterized by actual prejudice held against a group. Prejudice here means an inward condition of the heart where a person stubbornly resists having their mind or heart changed about someone because of their race.
I have also noticed that this kind of racism often interacts with racial groups as a kind of hardened abstraction, almost like racial groups are institutions or corporations. This allows anti-Semites, for example, to talk about “the Jews” as if they were a single, monolithic entity. I see this same thing from SJWs when they talk about white people, too. For the SJW, “whiteness” is just an abstraction that covers all kinds of things like certain conceptions of legal procedure and property rights to bourgeois values to music–but it rarely applies directly to individual people.
There are a few important things to notice about this. First, it is actually normal for people to possess a combination of preference and generalization racism and then appear as if they were guilty of prejudicial racism. Most people have concerns about immigration on the basis of this combination: for example, I may not like it when Mexican immigrants loudly play their music. I may then be unhappy to find out that Mexicans are moving into the neighborhood because my preference regarding music combines with the generalization that Mexicans listen to a certain kind of music.
Of course, this may be a bad attitude to have about new neighbors, and certain something that ought to be encouraged toward charity and hospitality. But it hardly constitutes racism. It is the same as if white trash moved in, or if hipsters moved in, or if liberals moved in. These are all different kinds of white people, and the feeling would be the same for each. Because this kind of reaction can happen totally independent of whether the racial groups are the same, it seems inappropriate to label it as “racism”.
I have set out these distinctions because I think that secular progressives are often engaged in an aggressive attempt to guilt people into changing their minds, which is manipulative. On the one hand, it is important as a Christian not to overly defensive or refuse to acknowledge your sin. On the other hand, there is ample Biblical precedent against confessing a sin for which you are not guilty, and for two reasons. The first is that if you are genuinely convinced you are innocent, you should be honest and not lie by falsely confessing. Being open to the possibility that you sinned isn’t the same thing as going along with the accusation even if you aren’t convinced. The second is that this is precisely the tactic used consistently against the men of faith in the Bible, from Joseph to Daniel to Paul to Jesus himself. While Jesus did not defend himself when he was being interrogated before his crucifixion, he certainly defended himself in many confrontations beforehand. Paul, too, was not shy about defending himself against false accusations; consider that much of 2 Corinthians is Paul doing just this.
While I am not sinless, I simply do not agree that much of what I think and feel, which some would label as racism, is actually racist. I have made these distinctions largely to help clarify for myself why I feel the way I do.