Can you define Racism? (By Ebony Foreman)

Can You Define Racism?

When you hear the term racism on the news, read about the rising concerns in the newspapers, or witness an act in public places, how can a person be certain that the concept of “racism” is being used appropriately? Is there a way to constrict and confine such a sensitive topic into a small ridged box? I’m sure if I could gather ten individuals from, let’s just say the United States, and ask how they would define “racism” in their own words, I would collect ten very different answers. As defined by The American Heritage dictionary of the English language racism is: “an emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events; policy or practice based on racial considerations.” Even with the term clearly defined within the dictionary, it’s not explained in a way that truly expresses the entirety of the word as an action, a belief, or an idea. The ambiguous nature of the definition makes the task of challenging it a little easier, the lack of specification, and elaboration leads me to interpret it as a term that is being misused and misunderstood within American culture.

(Ebony’s Note: I like the flow of the introduction and as well as my challenging statement. I’ve never written an essay that somehow undermines a definition or something that’s considered an authority, so I was a little uncertain on how to structure the paragraph.)

Who determines whether a definition is factual or even definitive? Those who have influence, power, and privilege. These three things have typically and historically been denied specifically to those who the dictionary definition applies to. Generally, whiteness has been characterized as physically, socially, and politically superior to that of non-white races. The automatic assumption of power stems from those who belong to a specific race, and thus exist at a different end of the “color” spectrum than the “others” who co-exist at the opposite end; blackness, for example, socially has been defined (historically and stereotypically) to be inferior and powerless in comparison to whiteness. This contributes to the idea that those do not and have not experienced racism misuse, misconstrue and distort its definition.

While researching evidence of the lack of validity of the current definition of racism I began with the Credo reference search engine attached to the PCC library database. When the term is typed within the search text-box three thousand nine hundred and twelve pages on the subject emerge all of which are connected to various encyclopedia related pages with extensive details on the term and the concept of it. From that alone it’s easy to understand so many misunderstand the core idea of what racism truly means and is.

After shuffling through a few pages I (finally) settled on The Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics article; it states that: “racism is a social-political construct; an invention to institutionally divide power along lines based on color of one’s skin.” To test this I decided to ask a random person on the street, so that there was no apparent biased or in favor of my own opinion, what they thought of this definition. I spoke with Charlotte Miens, a middle-aged white mother of two who is married to an orthopedic surgeon, briefly about the topic and made sure not to reveal too much of the assignment out of fear that it would alter her opinion.

(Ebony’s note: Introducing a nonbiased, opposing opinion contributes more strength and validity to my essay and thesis. I will be able to prove exactly why I am challenging the definition and readers will therefore understand why the authoritative definition is insufficient in my eyes.)

Initially, I set out to interview Portland citizens to not only get a better understanding myself on how to better challenge the definition of racism, but to also to test of the theory of the idea that  it’s easier not to comprehend how a term or concept is defined when it doesn’t apply directly to you or loved ones. Many believe that if they accept the reality of “racism” than that makes them a “racist.” Thus, this justifies why so many either deny its existence, or are oblivious to the behaviors. According to Charlotte, her opinion on definition was this, “I don’t believe there is such a divide of power in America, at least not as the definition you’ve read suggests. I think that Americans feel powerless because the massive gap between the wealthy and the poor, more and more people of all races are succumbing to poverty in this country.” We discussed this topic in length for ten to fifteen minutes, and while numerous topics came up I found this comment to be the most significant. Ultimately and rather ironically, Charlotte is assuming that there some level of equality in her analysis or interpretation of the definition. In this case, Charlotte’s ethnicity as well as her upper-middle class status, plays a crucial role in why she deflects from this specific definition. As a white woman she has the privilege to believe that her opinion is legitimate because according to the definition, “racism” doesn’t apply to her.

(Ebony’s note: Instead of seeking out another person to interview, mainly because no nice enough to speak with me like Mrs. Miens was, I reworked a good chunk of the paragraph and added a solid introductory topic sentence to it.)

The original concept behind racism is that the human population is divided into separate races thus justifying the belief that some are inferior to others and that in turn also justifies differential treatment of the dubbed inferior race.  What most people are taught today about racism, and what the definition provided above suggests, the term should just be called prejudice, discrimination, or bigotry and not the commonly misused term “racism”. I believe that the idea of racism is more of a sociological concept that is based mainly on the minorities who experience it, and that includes those who have a deep-rooted hatred against specific races and continuously act out these behaviors based on this sociologically based hatred.

Much like Charlotte Miens, many white people in the United States don’t experience racism (unless reverse-racism is applied); hence it’s easier to approximate a definition for the word then it is to actually outline the word entirely. On a larger scale racism should be better defined as the systematic oppression of minorities, because within North American (specifically the United States) racism as minorities witness and personally experience it is the constant refusal to that of even the basic of privileges.

(Ebony’s note: Instead of one large paragraph overloaded with information, I decided to break up the paragraph to fix the pacing and flow of the information.)

According to Scott Marshall, the author of an article published on the website Race & Ethnicity, “white people are considered the gatekeepers in society and sustain the power status quo, while non-white groups are left with nothing but to attempt to gain access to the so-called gates.” An when referring back to the original definition from the American Heritage dictionary, he would be correct, because in regards to these “gates” there would be specific types of keys that whites would have easier access to than that of non-whites, and in this country education is the key. Education unlocks and opens many doors like having the opportunity to accept a career instead of being content with a job, and having the ability to influence and alter policies through both personal and organizational constructs and make significant impact. So, while I don’t agree with the definition, there is some truth to its elementary explanation. Since non-white groups don’t have access to the inner circle, they also lack the power to be able to eradicate the racial discriminatory tendencies that govern policies, events, and practices.

Another definition taken directly from the Oxford English Dictionary states that, “racism is a belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” I by far agree with the key points of this definition compared to that of the American Heritage dictionary. Again, this simple definition doesn’t completely express what racism is, other than a belief of categorizing groups as either inferior or superior to one another, but it clarifies the preliminary steps of the institutional and sociological construct of racism. Unlike the American Heritage dictionary that only states that the emphasis of race is taken into consideration when “determining” situations, and does so without fully explaining why the emphasis exists.  One thing that both seem able to touch base on was the fact that race is the key determinant of whether or not a behavior, situation, policy, etc., can be classified as an act of racism.

(Ebony’s notes: I like the comparing and contrasting I did between the two dictionary’s key ideas of racism.)

I believe that there is a significant difference between what non-white groups believe racism to be as a term, an idea, and how it’s defined verses that of white people, who by “definition” cannot experience racism and thus cannot truly definitive or an authority on the term. In summation it is easier to use a false equivalency, such as the one the American Heritage dictionary provided, based on what people think racism is compared to what it honestly is. Racism can be defined as, in my own words, a systematic social-political institution of oppression that allows the human species to divided (and sub-divided) in to races based on traditions, shared traits, and specific types of cultural behaviors, and thus rank them substandard based on the idea that dissimilar races should receive significantly different treatment from one another. Challenging the definition of racism, in a small way, challenges the not only the entire institution, but also all the controversy regarding racism as a topic, word, and behavior. Maybe from altering language use and taking into consideration the origin of racism, and how it’s been used historically – we can create a definitive definition that explains racism in its entirety.

Credo reference. Philosophy, The essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, 2006. Web

Miens, Charlotte. Personal interview. 28 Oct. 2013

Editors of the American Heritage dictionary. The American Heritage dictionary of the English language (4th edition). Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Print.

Angus Stevenson. Christine A. Lindberg. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition). Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

“The Fight against Racism today.” Race & Ethnicity. Eserver, n.d, 2000. Web.



  1. Kimber

    Ebony- I found your essay/article to be very informative on the definition of racism and what it exactly is. I completely agree with you that if you were ask 10 people, or even 100 people, everyone would give you a definition that is a little bit different. And yes, even the dictionary definition still leaves some clues out and leaves me wondering! I grew up in an upper-class home and did not know anything about racism, except for what I maybe heard on television, but when I grew up I moved to Los Angeles and experienced it not only personally but witnessed it often. It’s a topic that people don’t want to talk about, but it also a topic that is crucial to open up about and teach out children about! If we don’t- how will it ever end?

    Great essay, good luck with everything!

  2. pccalberto


    I’ve enjoyed reading your work on this topic over the course of the quarter and seeing how you’ve refined your ideas. I think you’ve shown an increasing sophistication in your work.

    I think that the basic premise of the essay is to examine and undermine the current everyday lay definitions of racism and achieve a truer understanding of what it actually is–and thereby better combat it. That’s laudable.

    As a rhetorical device, I am not fond of citing dictionary definitions in a piece. It’s a tempting but inherently flawed tactic unless the topic at hand is only the etymology, specific usage, prescription vs. description, etc., of a particular word. What you’re doing in your work is looking at the uses and sources of sociopolitical oppression along racial lines, and the dictionary definition leaves out everything at the heart of what you’re addressing. I know that you are specifically seeking to subvert the dictionary’s authority–awesome!–but that is hard to do when you are relying on it to set the context. Introducing multiple dictionary definitions is a smart move to help deconstruct the idea of authority, but, for me, the reliance on them still reads as poor argument, and as too small for what you are doing.

    I do, however, love that you give us your own definition of racism. Given the way you’ve constructed the piece, it’s the only logical thing to do. It also helps that your definition is elegant. But–and this is a big but–I think it’s incomplete, in that you leave out stating that a (and in many case, the) key determinant is physical appearance. It would be useful, in attempting to define “racism” to spend some time defining what you mean by “race.”

    I think that the piece could go deeper in examining privilege and oppression as a means of establishing and maintain privilege.

    The attempt to contextualize differing definitions/perceptions of racism in people’s everyday experiences is an excellent idea–but I think that one interview does more harm than good. It’s not a valuable statistical data point, and as an anecdote, it does not give us enough of Charlotte’s own words to provide context. I think your analysis is sharper here, and I think that analyzing this interview (and more!) could have provided far more convincing insight into your position.

    I feel that having a sharper focus of the different perceptions of racism that white and POC have, and how white people are often blind to how it benefits them because that blindness is in itself a benefit–and exploring that more in Charlotte’s interview–would have made this piece far more impacting. It would have allowed you to explore a universal problem from a particular point of view, which could more successfully draw the reader in and over the course of the piece, influence them.

    Again, I have enjoyed seeing your thoughts and work evolve on this topic as you’ve engaged more and more critically with it. I am confident that your increasing sophistication is leading to more discernment. Thank you for sharing.

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