It's time to pinch our noses once again and descend into the heady world of outrage culture. This time, it's all about racism and language.
(And I'm actually going to give this one a trigger warning: this installment will be going into some pretty dark places with historical racism, and this may be disturbing to some readers.)
Something interesting has been happening with language over the last few years, particularly in the white privilege debate: the word "racism" has been redefined such that it now requires a power relationship - otherwise it is not considered racism. And this is very problematic.
It is far narrower than the traditional definition of the word, which does include discrimination as one of the trappings of racism. However, it also includes prejudice, antagonism, and beliefs that a given race has certain characteristics that make it superior or inferior, not all of which need to be present for an action or belief to be racist.
And, the history of racism in North America bears out the traditional definition of the word, with little support for the white privilege "racism requires power" thesis. For example, Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries were treated like second class citizens, facing sometimes violent discrimination such as the 1891 lynching of 19 Italian-Americans accused of being members of the Mafia. Italian immigrants looking for work in the aftermath of World War II would sometimes encounter signs reading "No Italians Need Apply," which for decades earlier had read "No Irish Need Apply." They, in turn, discriminated against each other, along with ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Jews. This, too, could become violent, with incidents like the lynching of African Americans during the 1863 New York City draft riots or the Irish-Italian gang wars during Prohibition.
My own family history bears this out - the fact that my grandparents and great-grandparents had "white" skin provided no protection against prejudice and discrimination the moment a Star of David was involved. In fact, the more one looks at the history of racism, the more the exceptions to the white privilege argument outnumber the rule. While visible minorities may have often gotten it worse than non-visible minorities, this seems to be the case because they are easier to spot from a distance more than anything else.
When you look at the history of racism, certain patterns are quick to emerge. The racism is driven by identity politics and tribalism, with members of a given ethnic group banding together and treating competing groups as the "other." And this means that to deal with and defeat racism, we must confront, understand, and dismantle the identity politics and tribalism that guides it.
And this is where the narrowing of the term becomes very problematic.
For one thing, it refocuses the discussion on a single trapping. This leaves those who would fight racism concentrating on power relationships. This is not without its uses - one cannot combat discrimination and institutional prejudice without addressing the power relationships involved. However, it also leaves any solutions on the surface level, which in turn prevents the deeper causes from being addressed. It treats the symptoms while ignoring the disease.
Far more disturbing, it legitimizes the exercise of identity politics and tribalism against anybody who has a perceived power relationship. The white privilege debate is a prime example of this: it judges all white people as having economic advantages due to their lighter skin, with zero regard for whether these advantages actually exist - something that can only be determined by looking at the economic environment, geo-politics of where somebody lives, family history, and social class, among others. A poor white family barely surviving in an economically depressed area with zero job prospects gains no advantage from the colour of their skin. Likewise, while a black person is likely to suffer from institutional discrimination in the United States, in Canada they are far less likely to encounter it - while racism and institutional discrimination does sadly exist in the country I am proud to call my home, it does not tend to be based on skin colour, and is more often against Muslims and Indigenous peoples.
This takes a darker, more sinister tone when one considers that the justification for most atrocities against an ethnic group tend to boil down to a declaration of the targeted group being secretly powerful. Further, there is no such thing as a "white race" - there are any number of European ethnicities, from Anglo-Saxons to Latins to Slavs, all of which are defined by nationality and geography instead of skin colour. There is one group that buys into the idea of a "white race," however - white supremacists, whose historical predecessors created the concept of "whiteness" to help control African slaves in the first place.
I've written about this subject before, and pointed out that to truly combat racism, we need to attack the identity politics behind it. But, before we can do that, we need to take a close look at the discussion. Racism and discrimination need to be fought wherever they might appear, but so long as we are defining it solely in terms of power relationships and using concepts embraced by, and originating with the predecessors to, the white supremacist movement, we are engaging in this battle with one hand tied behind our backs. And that is no formula for victory.
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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