Redefining Racism

[rey-siz-uh m]
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Synonyms for racism
noun prejudice against an ethnic group

  • apartheid
  • bias
  • bigotry
  • discrimination
  • segregation
  • unfairness
  • illiberality
  • partiality
  • racialism
  • sectarianism
  • one-sidedness

Definition and synonyms courtesy of and, respectively. 

Institutional racism, according to Wikipedia, is “a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions, as distinct from racism by individuals or informal social groups.” (Emphasis mine.)

There has been a movement in the past few years to redefine racism. This meme provides a breakdown. As you can see, prejudice is defined as a “feeling of dislike for a racial/ethnic group” + a belief in this dislike. Discrimination is Prejudice + “Actions that harm those you have prejudice against.” Racism is defined as Discrimination + an “institutionalization of this discrimination, which is perpetuated in society.”

Definitions by math


The dictionary definition of racism includes three meanings, all of which are synonymous with “discrimination” and two of which are synonymous with “prejudice.” But this meme defines each as a discrete unit, each one different than the other.


What this meme defines as racism, the reference material defines as institutional racism.

There is an initiative to redefine racism to mean only institutional racism. People who buy into this initiative insist that prejudice and racism are two different things. Some of them will also argue that only white people can be racist, because racism is about institutional power.

I have been told that this movement in redefining racism stems from the concept of “reverse racism.” Reverse racism, according to that trusty Wikipedia, is “a phenomenon in which discrimination, sometimes officially sanctioned, against a dominant or formerly dominant racial or other group representative of the majority in a particular society takes place, for a variety of reasons, often initially as an attempt at redressing past wrongs.”

I think I can simplify that definition. Reverse racism, in essence, means prejudice against the majority. Prejudice against white people.

White people cry “reverse racism,” so racism needs to be redefined as institutional racism. Why? I was told it’s because people take cries of racism personally, so we have to stress that all of it – discriminatory banking practices, biases in law enforcement, differing standards of health care, and so on – is racism. Because then, we can transcend the personal and see the flaws in the institutional. We can depersonalize racism.

So, to stress the fact that institutional racism is the most problematic kind of racism, we’re going to remove the word “institutional” from the phrase “institutional racism” and redefine racism itself.

Let’s redefine beauty. From now on, the concept of beauty applies only to that which is physically beautiful. If you look like Sandra Bullock or Leonardo DiCaprio, you’re beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you’re also mean, vulgar, and dishonest. You’re beautiful. Meanwhile, it doesn’t matter how kind, generous, or loyal you are, if you look like Rosie O’Donnell, you’re ugly.

When Republicans started bringing snowballs into Congress and saying, “So much for global warming,” the scientific community responded by changing the dialogue entirely. Global warming is out, climate change is in.

Maybe this is a place where being a technical writer and loving the structure of language just isn’t going to … If you watch Elementary, there’s an episode that introduces Fiona, a computer programmer with autism. Sherlock asks her to say the sky is green. She can’t do it. The sky is not green, so she can’t say it is, even in jest. I think that’s me with this whole racism == institutional racism thing.

More than that, though, redefining racism and getting people to buy into that redefinition seems foolhardy. We could actually fight institutional racism if we called it that, instead of asserting that prejudice is different than racism, and then arguing over whether people of color can or cannot be racist. It seems like an unnecessary step to me. Is there some reason that we can’t emphasize that institutional racism is the problem and work towards a solution? Do we really need the battle over semantics?

2 thoughts on “Redefining Racism

  1. The only kind of racism I care about is institutional racism (or whatever you’d like to call it). I don’t care if people don’t like me. I do care if people are allowed to make my life worse (keep me from being hired, keep me from buying a home, assault me/beat me/ murder me with little or no repercussions) by following the rules as set forth by said racists.

    The reason why calling white people crackers or honkeys (sp?) means nothing is because both the person that said it and the person that were called it know that there is no power behind those words.

    • “The reason why calling white people crackers or honkeys (sp?) means nothing is because both the person that said it and the person that were called it know that there is no power behind those words.” – Unless the person who is saying it is also wielding a baseball bat and beating the crap out of the person to whom it is directed. Just sayin’.

      Does institutional racism “matter” (for lack of a better word) more than individual racism? Yes. Systemic racism is far worse for people of color as a whole. I don’t see the need to redefine racism, though, to mean only institutional racism. That was my entire point.

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