If you ask most white people to define racism they’ll say it is racially based prejudice.
If you ask most people of color to define racism they would tell you that racism is hegemonic systemic white supremacy based on a formula of prejudice+ power.
So who’s right?
Drum-roll please….I’m about to give a brilliant definitive answer…
Both! Neither! It doesn’t matter!
Wait…where are you going? Stick around and let me explain.
First of all, English is a flexible language, and if enough people use a certain word in a certain way–that becomes a legitimate usage of the word!
For example: If enough people use the word literally to mean figuratively–boom! it literally means figuratively–and not in a figurative way.
I would argue that despite either conscious definition, most people use racism fairly fluidly between both definitions, with people “getting” which meaning is implied through context clues. There’s an excellent episode of Blackish (Season 1 Episode 10) that illustrates this nicely. (If you haven’t watched Blackish I highly recommend it!)
But regardless…or irregardless…my point is, that now that we know that both usages of the word are, we can stop frame battling over them, move past the argument of whether or not “black people can be racist.”
Since there is no Black Hegemonic Systematic Oppression, the important conversation is not whether the word racism includes white systemic hegemonic oppression, but what are we–all of us–going to do to make this world a fairer, freer egalitarian society with equality, liberty and justice for all?
What are we going to do to stop cops from killing unarmed kids? Or at least prosecute and jail them if they do? What are we doing to make our schoolrooms and our board rooms representational of the beautiful diversity of this country? What are we doing to acknowledge or privileges and challenge our prejudices?
White people: when you hear a POC say “Black people can’t be racist” just…let it slide. Even if you prefer the first definition–now you know the second one–replace racist with white supremacist in your head and see if you still want to argue the point. I know, I know, I grind my teeth every time my 12 year old daughter says she “literally died” but you know what, it’s not a battle I can win, or that’s even worth fighting.
If you want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem, you will accept this second understanding of the word racism, and move on to more constructive conversation.
POC: if you really want to argue with a WP who has just described being beaten up every day at their minority-majority school while being called whitey, latte and snow-bunny that that wasn’t racism–I mean, be my guest–but dismissing peoples lived experiences as just being mean or just prejudice is unlikely to win them over to your side or do much besides give you a headache or a smug feeling of being right.
Post Script: I explained all this to my Girlfriend: Her reaction: “But the first definition is right! It’s in the dictionary!”