Opinion

'Racism means what the victims of racism decide it means'

White people will always define racism in the kindest or vaguest way possible — but now at least they can't cite the dictionary

28 June 2020 - 00:01 By
The Merriam-Webster dictionary recently updated its decades-old definition of racism.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary recently updated its decades-old definition of racism.
Image: 123RF/Feng Yu

A few years ago our firebrand-in-chief, Julius Malema, twisted a bunch of knickers into Victoria's Secret knots by tweeting that black people couldn't be racist. Many members of the non-melanated community were incensed.

Malema's tweet, to hear them tell it, was nothing short of textbook racism. So textbook, in fact, that even the dictionary would back them up. At the time Merriam-Webster defined racism as “the prejudice against someone due to the colour of their skin”.

Once displayed at all assembled parties, this definition would be the soap box on which some people would stand to pontificate about the dangers of reverse racism and how Malema needed to be stopped. The dictionary-defined meaning of racism was the teddy bear to which many people could cling to soothe their guilt, or the cudgel others could use to ward off uncomfortable accusations.

But as of this month, those people are up a well-known creek with nary a paddle in sight.

Thanks to a request from a 22-year-old university graduate, Merriam-Webster decided it was time to update its definition of racism. Now, when you Google “racism” you'll find this on the Merriam-Webster page:

  1. A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
  2. a) A doctrine or political [programme] based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles, b) a political or social system founded on racism.
  3. Racial prejudice or discrimination.

Conversations about what racism is and what it means have been around since before most of this country's population were sperm cells, and the dictionary definition of the term has often been over-represented in that debate.

It's easy to see why. Defining racism as simply prejudice against a person or group based on the characteristics of their largest organ makes racism vague enough to be everybody's problem.

After all, we all have skin and every one of us makes decisions and judgments based on the colour of our skin. More insidiously, the previous definition of racism made it easy for white people to believe that the only way to exhibit genuine racism was to be a caricature of it.

The previous definition of racism made it easy for white people to believe that the only way to exhibit genuine racism was to be a caricature of it

I mean, Eugene Terre Blanche was obviously racist. Steve Hofmeyr is racist. The AWB is racist but little old English-speaking Charlotte, who's worried that her son can't get a job because BEE's made it impossible for qualified white men to enter the workplace ... she's just voicing a concern.

There's a reason the debate about what racism actually means is so old. Depending which side of the fence you sit on, that reason is obvious. We experience racism differently.

As the architects and primary beneficiaries of a system founded on the tenets of white supremacy, white people are always going to be the ones to define racism in the kindest or vaguest way possible.

Anything less than that would be an admission of guilt on their part, and from a practical standpoint admitting guilt essentially means putting yourself at the mercy of others, in this case the people you oppressed.

Beneath all the hand wringing, virtue signalling and general peacocking about how not racist they are, there's a thick, greasy layer of white guilt underpinned by fear. Deep in the cockles of their hearts, white people fear retribution. It's why some people wax lyrical about moving to Australia or the UK.

And it's why the ones who can't move away react badly to initiatives that strive towards black empowerment. Most importantly, it's why so many were so quick to whip the dictionary definition of racism out to defend their positions. The dictionary definition was the water with which they could clean the blood off of their hands.

But honestly, dictionary definitions mean sweet bugger-all. Look at what most words literally mean vs how they're used. “Racism” isn't any different. Regardless of what they decide, no collection of English professors will ever be able to define the terms of their oppression to the oppressed with any kind of legitimacy. At best they can either fall in line with the zeitgeist or get left behind. Either way, racism means what the victims of racism decide it means. End of story.


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