Despite President Biden’s inaugural emphasis on unity, he sure hasn’t made much progress during his first three weeks in office. Even a Jeep Super Bowl ad encouraging Americans to embrace their common ground received instant backlash, and Jeep has since removed the video from their YouTube page.
Yet, there are still a few things most Americans can agree on. Despite the recent rise of white supremacist groups and hate crimes, the vast majority of the nation is still against racism, fascism and white supremacy. A 2020 poll found that 76% of Americans say racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States. If you went on the street and asked people if racism is bad, I’m sure more than 95% would say yes.
However, no one seems to be able to agree on what racism actually is or what should be considered racist. There are two primary competing definitions for the word, and, without a proper understanding of each of them, talks about race end up counterproductive.
Nothing shuts down any semblance of productive dialogue faster than an accusation of racism. This is especially true with conservatives who are not well versed in the progressive language of anti-racism, or “wokeism,” as it’s known on the right.
I often cringe when hearing well-meaning conservative commentators dismiss accusations of racism with half-baked arguments.
“I’m not racist!” they say with indignance. “How could I possibly be racist when I have black friends? There was a Muslim dude at my high school, and he was cool!”
If we take a more expansive view of racism, it is glaringly obvious that the existence of a “black friend” is a weak alibi to deflect a racial critique. In fact, CNN referred to this type of defense as a racist microagression in itself.
For someone using the progressive definition of racism, the use of this microaggression serves to further prove that the person denying their own racism is racist, which results in more accusation.
If you’ve continued to this point in the article, it is likely you have seen these kinds of arguments, deep in YouTube comment sections and Twitter threads.
The easiest way to avoid these mind-numbing conflicts is to simply get off social media, but that is not a long-term solution for our nation’s division. Instead, we need to understand what racism means to the two mainstream ideologies in America.
Many conservatives still refer to a more traditional definition of racism, which Merriam Webster defines as “a belief that race is the fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Using this definition, if a person does not actively believe race is the fundamental determinant of human traits or that one race is superior to another, they are not racist. The only racists are people that are part of self-identifying racial supremacy groups or folks who still go burn crosses in white hoods every other weekend.
Because of this restrictive view of racism, an accusation of being racist is truly serious. Some activists, such as White Fragility author Robin D’Angelo, would consider this strong reaction to a racism accusation as a symptom of, well, white fragility. However, I believe that a swift denial of being a part of a hate group should be a natural human response, and so their reaction makes sense, given that “hate group” and “racist” are nearly interchangeable to some conservatives.
If racism is simply a belief that race determines human ability, then it would seem logical that the best way to be anti-racist is to ignore race altogether. This is why phrases like “I don’t see color” are so common among conservatives. If someone truly does make any distinction between races, there is no way for them to be racist in this sense of the word.
However, it is also recognized that the phrase “I don’t see color” can be an erasure of unique cultures and a whitewashing of racial discrimination in the United States. After all, if you don’t see color, how can you begin to address what 76% of Americans say is a big problem in the country?
Additionally, with this definition, some conservatives claim that “Democrats are the real racists,” because of their “obsession” with racial differences in the country. Again, this argument makes sense if racism is merely an acknowledgement of racial differences, but if we use the progressive definition, this accusation falls apart.
The progressive view of racism has been part of academia for several years, but only recently found its way into Merriam Webster. The dictionary defines this racism as “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”
Therefore, an accusation of racism is not necessarily a personal attack, but rather an acknowledgement of an issue most people already agree exists.
In this case, however, in order to be anti-racist you must break down systemic oppression. Sometimes, this oppression is not always clear to white people, nor is it always intentional.
However, according to progressives, it is up to white people to fix this oppression. After all, if society has barriers that make it harder for minority races to get ahead, and society is made up of people, a majority of them being white, nothing will change if white people fail to do anything about the issues.
Unfortunately, most arguments about race never get to the solutions part of the discussion. Conservatives end up wildly offended when being told they are racist, and progressives end up wildly offended at the conservatives’ perceived microaggressions — all because of a misunderstanding of the definition of racism.
This problem of dueling definitions applies to several other buzzwords, including fascism, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia. Most people in this country can agree that these are bad, though these words are a surefire way to create sharp division when used in an argument. There is no simple solution to this issue, but understanding differences in definitions can be a start.
I do not want to gloss over the serious ideological differences between people in this country by claiming that a simple conversation will change our culture. There are real self-identified white supremacists and fascists, just as there are violent extremists on the left that are not interested in dialogue. I do not expect Antifa and the Proud Boys to come together once they read both definitions of a word in a dictionary.
However, most of America recognizes similar issues with society, and I believe that the best, and perhaps only, way of solving them is for both sides to regain respect and understanding for each other, even if it does not always result in ultimate agreement. If we lose a shared meaning of words, it will eventually become impossible to have any dialogue across the political divide.
If you want to engage in a good faith discussion on the issue of racism in America, particularly with someone with radically different political views from your own, please lay out what you mean by racism. In order to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges, we first need to have a shared understanding of what it is.
Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.