Who Gets To Define Racism?


In our current global political climate, it is often said that white people should not determine what is and what is not racist. We have heard this narrative on television, radio and social media throughout the world, from the United States, Europe, and all the way to our sunny shores in South Africa.

For some, these arguments have been accepted purely out of political correctness, but it remains important to counter what is being purported.

Many debates on the right vs left political spectrum, as well as the libertarian vs authoritarian spectrum, tend to provide ample room for discussion. Political content by its very nature remains open to interpretation as long as a communal point of reference exists. The same is true when it comes to race and racism. Yet, when we accept without scrutiny the notion that only some of us get to define race and racism and layout the communal points of reference, we are on a slippery slope.

In a conversation about the meaning of words, there will obviously always be a variety of interpretations, yet these will be based on concepts with universally, or at least widely, accepted definitions. In the debate about the meaning of the word ‘racism’, the contemporary view that racism is ‘new’ and ‘unique’ to this day and age severely limits our thinking and ability to find solutions. And to take the view that it is a ‘one-way street’, where only certain groups can be at the receiving end of racism is reductionist thinking that deviates from the points of definitional reference so crucial for constructive debate and discussion.

Racism started long before Europe colonised Africa and America. Slavery, based on race, existed in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China, pre-Columbian America and (dare we admit it) in pre-colonial Africa. In the long history of humanity, division, suppression and dehumanisation have been based on race, religion, sex, ethnicity, nationality and numerous other identifying or exclusionary ‘characteristics’. Racism has been part of our human history as an extremely prominent blade of the division. It has been part of our most tragic histories, and we South Africans still feel and see the cuts and scars of the sharpest knives of some of the most efficient dissectors. Yet, it is inherent in the most fundamental understanding of racism, that the knives of racist division can be wielded by any group of people misled or villainous enough to do so.

Describing racism solely within a ‘black and white’ context is therefore deceitful. More importantly, it leaves us vulnerable to repeating the most abhorrent ways in which racism have shaped, destroyed, carved, hewed and skewed the world we still live in today.

Holding prejudiced dehumanising, insulting and derogatory opinions or stereotypes about particular groups of people is bigotry – no matter who you are. Treating people unjustly based on these prejudices is discrimination. If your prejudice is based on race then you are racist. If you treat people unfairly based on racist prejudices, it is racial discrimination. Any attempt to fudge or negotiate away this most fundamental understanding of discrimination based on race betrays an intellectual dishonesty, a devotion to narrative rather than truth, a pettiness and a lust for score settling rather than truthful, honest debate and discussion.

Racists acts remain racist, no matter who the perpetrator. When we say that the most important aspect in considering whether or not a person is a racist, is the race of the person making the claim – are we not guilty of racism ourselves?

Granted, racism is often about power and influence, and it has certainly evolved over time. But power and influence are shifting, and in South Africa significantly so.  The ‘prejudice plus power’ exclusionary redefinition is therefore also dangerous. We should be able to call out racism in all its forms at all times, regardless of who holds power.  Racism is a ground on which people hold prejudices and discriminate. To wield the knife and carve asunder because of skin colour is always raced-based discrimination, and we all should have the guts to say it. Whether or not the person holding these prejudices and acting discriminatory holds any power is only secondary in terms of its contextual relevance. It is primarily about prejudice and discrimination.

In our modern world, words are being unashamedly and crudely redefined constantly. Dictionary definitions of words do not aim to ‘fix’, to set in stone that which it defines, but rather aim to capture with accuracy what is meant with its use. These widely-accepted meanings of crucial words are the communal points of references without which any and all discussion degenerates into the impotent and irrelevant making of sounds and etching of symbols.

Despite the best efforts by ideologically-motivated academics and some of their followers, the word ‘racism’ will for most of us remain to mean race-based prejudice. South Africans using the ‘dictionary’ meaning of the word racist, should still hold anyone who has white supremacist views accountable.  They will also react when racism takes on new forms and manifestations. A single overarching principle that applies to everyone and which proclaims that prejudice and any categorisation that assigns superiority or inferiority to anyone along racial lines, comes down to racism.

Responding to racism with racism leads to social regression and dampens progress. As South Africans, we also need to challenge the term “reverse racism”. Racism is racism irrespective the direction or trajectory of its travel. If a person murders the grandchild of the person who killed their parents, it is not reverse-murder. The same applies to racism.

The basic definition of racism is perfectly up to the task of describing any South African who holds race-based prejudices. To seek alternative meanings to hide behind poisons the well of the harmonious society all South Africans can draw from.

It is time to call out the racists of all races and smoke them out from their holes of historical ignorance or dishonest definitional convenience. We need to call a spade a spade, otherwise, we’ll all just plunge deeper into the hole the racists are digging.