Anyone Knows You Can't Define Racism In A Couple Of Sentences

A couple of months ago, I posted a clip of Ibram X Kendi giving an embarrassingly circular definition of racism on Twitter:

Racism, I would define it as a collection of racist policies, that lead to racial inequity, that are substantiated by racist ideas.

It’s unclear whether the nervous laughter that followed Kendi’s “definition” was based on the fact that he’d used the word he was supposed to be defining three times in quick succession, or whether his audience simply thought he was joking.

But whichever it was, Saoirse wasn’t laughing. In fact, she thought it was unfair of me to expect Kendi to give a workable definition of the most fundamental aspect of his supposed field of expertise…during a talk about that field of expertise:


Saoirse:

Anyone with common sense knows that you cannot explain or define racism in a couple of sentences. You can mock his phrasing if you choose, or try to interpret it reasonably (even if you ultimately choose to reject the claim made).


Steve QJ:

Anyone with common sense knows that you cannot define *anything* with the term you’re supposed to be defining.

Also, racism is the belief that one race is superior to or should be treated preferentially to another. See how easy that was?


One of the many harms I believe people like Kendi and DiAngelo have done to racial discourse is popularising the belief that racism is complicated.

As they’ve mainstreamed idiotic ideas such as “all white people are racist” or “all racial disparities are evidence of racism”, they’ve had to continually redefine the word “racism” so it can keep pace.

Yes, some of the implications of racism are complex. Yes, the historical effects of racism can show up in subtle and surprising ways. Yes, figuring out how (and whether) to address specific racial inequities can legitimately be a life’s work. But describing what racism is? That’s heartbreakingly simple.

The fact that Kendi’s “definition” didn’t immediately destroy whatever credibility he has left, is a testament to how confused some people have become.


Saoirse:

So according to your definition, the 1865 Special Field Order 15, which allotted "40 acres and a mule" to certain freed slaves, was racist. (It was, of course, reversed during the Andrew Johnson administration.) Nice and easy.

FWIW, I don't think your definition is bad by any means. But you can't capture the notion of racism in a single sentence.


As Kendi likes to say; “The only cure for past racism is present racism. The only cure for present racism is future racism.” This (along with many other things Kendi says) demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is.

Hopefully it’s clear where this eye-for-an-eye “logic” leads on an individual level. But on a systemic level, it doesn’t even make any sense.

Fixing past injustice, racial or otherwise, means repairing the harm done to those who suffered it. If the people who suffered it all happen to be of a certain race, then they’re not being preferentially treated based on their race, they’re being compensated based on the harm done to them.

Failing to understand this distinction is, again, a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is.


Steve QJ:

This is almost offensively dumb. 40 acres and a mule was *restitution* (woefully inadequate obviously) for slavery. It had nothing to do with race except that coincidentally all the slaves were black.🤔 The implication that it was somehow discriminatory is just...wild.


Saoirse:

I'm just applying your definition. It was a policy that preferentially treated one race (it was NOT a coincidence that all slaves were black, that was by design). Of course, I think it was a good policy, one that unfortunately white Southerners thwarted.

And again, I think your definition is getting at something reasonable. We should not give preference to one race over another. But theory gets tricky to put into practice when you live in an actual society that in the past gave preferential treatment to one race.


At this point I’m seriously beginning to suspect that I’m being trolled. Did she really just inform me that the fact that all the slaves were black people wasn’t a coincidence? REALLY?!

I mean, even if my own ancestors hadn’t been slaves, does she honestly think I (or anybody in the entire world) don’t realise this??!!


Steve QJ:

Jesus, how are you not getting this?! It "preferentially treated" former SLAVES. I'm well aware that black people being slaves wasn't a coincidence. Obviously. That was my point. That's why white people weren't offered it. They weren't slaves. Is this a joke? Am I on camera??


Saoirse:

So when you look at something like African-American home ownership and asset accumulation, you agree that the current situation today is heavily influenced by the limitations of African-Americans to acquire land during the period when America was settled and redlining policies?


This is something I see a lot.

I’ll be chatting with somebody who’s so woke their brain has been damaged by sleep deprivation, and out of nowhere, they’ll hit me with a “purity test”; a question designed to check whether my levels of racial sensitivity are on par with theirs.

These questions are never related to what we were discussing, they’re never about anything insightful or meaningful, they never require even a moment’s thought. They seem designed simply to check whether I’m aware that racism exists, and to demonstrate how sensitive they are to the issues us black people endure.


Steve QJ:

Yes, absolutely. That and practices like contract buying. But fixing that isn't racism. Say you and I are in a car and somebody crashes into us. I get seriously hurt and you don't. If I get compensation and you don't that's not discrimination. It's about harm.


Saoirse:

Are you okay with various places (schools, etc.) banning certain hairstyles that "coincidentally" happen to be popular primarily among African-Americans? They are banning a HAIRSTYLE, not a race. But, at least in my view, there is a racial preference going on.


Steve QJ:

No! Why are you asking me these questions? Did you really think I'd say yes to this?! There will be situations where people of different races have different needs. Addressing that fact isn't racist. This isn't complicated.


Saoirse:

First, apologies that I often get the tone wrong in phrasing questions. I don't mean to be accusing you of bad faith positions, but I can certainly come off that way. It's hard to communicate online where you can't read someone's reaction in real time to undo an unfair phrasing.

I must get to work, but I appreciate your conversation and will keep an eye out for your feed. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and giving me a chance to think out loud. I hope I didn't give a false impression of disrespect toward you. Sometimes I'm snarky when I shouldn't be.


Steve QJ:

No worries. Just as a rule of thumb, when you're talking to a black person about racism, don't frame questions in a way that suggest you care more about it than they do. You may know more about it than they do (in this case you don't), but you almost certainly don't care more.

Also, snark is a poor substitute for knowledge and critical thinking. And is especially infuriating when talking about an issue as important as racism.


Saoirse:

Your last two tweets hit the nail on the head. Among my faults, (1) I interjected myself in a conversation when I had no grounds to do so. (2) I misread subtext into your original reply that didn't exist, ascribing to you views you didn't hold.

(3) I didn't take a cursory look at your profile where I could have discovered my assumption was completely off base. (4) Even if you held the view I assumed you had, my smug reply was inappropriate. (5) As you point out, it's worse when the topic is as important as racism is.

Yet you showed me grace despite all of that. I am truly appreciative of that. It speaks very well to your character. I am sorry for my tone and underlying ignorance. If we have future interactions, I will strive to be better. Wishing you blessings today.


Well, damn.

As you’ll know if you’re reading this, I’ve had a lot of debates online. Literally thousands. After that many conversations, it’s tempting to generalise. You get a sense for the “type” you’re dealing with. You find yourself making assumptions about their character and their motivations. You find yourself mapping out the conversation in your mind.

This is especially true of “woke” people. I deal with so many nasty, ignorant, unwittingly bigoted people—who are nonetheless convinced they have the moral high ground—that after I hear a few common refrains I have to fight the the urge to rattle off a snarky reply and ignore them (in fairness, I was a little snarky with Saoirse. Her saying that I “showed her grace” is more generous than I deserve).

Yet here is a level of self-reflection and sincerity that I’not sure I’ve ever seen in those many conversations. It was a welcome slap in the face to have my one-dimensional impression of her shattered. People can be wrong, they can even be ignorant, without being bad. If only this lesson were easier to remember.


Steve QJ:

I just realised that I didn't respond to this incredibly gracious reply. Sorry for the delay. It's genuinely a pleasure when online interactions end like this, regardless of how they start. Thanks for topping up my faith in human nature.


Saoirse:

Thank you! Likewise, your graciousness and patience increased my faith in human nature.


I swear, I can have a hundred conversations with idiots and racists, and one conversation like this makes it all worthwhile. These little reminders that there’s a human being on the other side of the screen are priceless. Especially when that human being reminds me to be better.

Woke, alt-right, liberal, conservative, them, us. It’s all too easy, especially online, to boil somebody’s entire character into this single dimension and judge them accordingly. To put them into an arbitrary box, and treat them like everybody else who ever fit in it. But it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that this is also true of racism. In fact, that’s a pretty good one-sentence definition.