The Definition Of Racism
The word Racism, like Fascism, is one from which all original meaning has been stripped. Both have become little more than empty letters on a page, snipped alphabetic pieces between which, any longer, nothing cohesive stands. They’re detached from the reality they once conveyed. They have neither the clarity of a definition from which wisdom might be gleamed, nor the freedom of a lucid term in whose light the mind is brought to better focus. They have neither the frankness of a well-grasped word upon which, fundamentally, all civilized conversation depends, nor the strength of the linguistic agreements by which all our common discourse is lifted and moved.
Instead, the two words, Racism and Fascism, are floating high above us, caught in the nebulosity of our man-made clouds. Like feathers, they’re blowing in the changing breeze of our whim, dancing in the vagaries of our endless dialogue and we, the people, are the constant zephyrs by which they’re agitated and stirred. These days, they find nothing solid, doubtless nothing firm, to which they can be tethered, and we’ve made certain that there’s no rope of reason by which they might be lassoed and bound.
The latter, by its nature, is a political word—of which, we once agreed, only the most rebarbative of governments are to be considered deserving. Fascism, derived from the fasces-bearing Lictors of pre-republican Rome, is the term given to the worst of history’s strongmen and despots. It’s used in our characterization of the cruelest of actors, the deadliest of dictators, the severest of misanthropes to whom history has yet given a stage. It’s given to the savage irredentists of Mussolini, to the National Socialists of Hitler, to the deathly imperialists of Japan, and now, curiously, to all.
It’s that last group by whom I’m most troubled, to whom the word least naturally applies. In its inclusion of “all”, it simply casts too wide a net. Encompassing everyone, Fascism now defines no one. By the over-extension of its use, its impact has shrunk. Illiberal in its essence, it’s far too liberally applied and, as a result, it’s quite near to meaning absolutely nothing.
In the words of George Orwell, Fascism, more than any other political word in circulation not only in his time, but in our own, has been irremediably “abused”. For far too long a time, it’s carried on its back a weight for which it hadn’t sufficiently strong legs. It’s trodden under a heap of insinuation and misunderstanding, a pile of nonsense and scurrility by which, like an arthritic elder, the joints of its body have been degraded and shot. The word is crippled, and carries itself with an unrecognizable, halting gait. Now, having borne this load for so many years and through so many trials, it “has no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable”.
As is the case, always uncannily with Orwell, his insight is as true now as it was then. We see that Fascism, once a meaningful term, has been weakened, if not fully etiolated, to a point from which its prior meaning can’t be salvaged. Before our eyes, or, rather, because of our tongues, we’ve seen it wither away and crumble beneath the unremitting pressure of its over-use. Once alive, if not menacingly active, it no longer bothers to pretend to life. It’s become completely dispossessed of the specific strokes and morbid lines by which it was once unambiguously colored. Now, it’s merely an empty word, a blank page upon which, without much examination, one can paint his or her enemy. It’s nothing more than a pretentious, Latinate synonym for something that’s—well, bad. Nothing more, nothing less. As it happens, we have words for such things, among which fascistic need not be included.
Racism, on the other hand, was not intended, but has of late become a political word of the first order. It’s also far exceeded the confines in which its original definition cast it. As such, it finds itself competing with Fascism in the Olympic games of meaninglessness. It too has become a term devoid of worth, and it vies with Fascism for a gold medal in the category of abused phrases.
Now, with its supplanting of Fascism, Racism is the term from which there appears to be no escape, the three syllables beneath whose formidable weight all of our public discourse has been smothered. No other air, save for that infused with talk of Racism, is available to us to breathe. We taste no other wind on our lips, feel no other storm on our skin. It is, in our political atmosphere, not unlike the element Nitrogen—that invisible gas by whose ubiquity and percentage, all other meek particles in the sky are overwhelmed. As such, even as we see it not, and feel it less, it’s caught in our throat. It’s lodged in the guileless chasm of our nostrils, and it swims through the iron-coated cells to which our hearts give beat. We taste it with every turn of phrase. We breathe it unwittingly so long as we live. We practice it unknowingly with the passage of each day. And, without ever affecting our hunger (for truth, for moderation, for reason, for so many things by which we might be better nourished) we swallow it whole and are force-fed again.
Due to the feebleness of its definition and the propensity to its overuse, Racism, like Fascism, is susceptible to being abused. In this moment of heightened sensitivity, decreased literacy, relinquished scruples, and revolutionary zeal, the least objectionable displays and pronouncements are thought to be the most racist. A White man bouncing a Black child on his lap, a Hispanic trucker cracking his knuckles in the street, an honest assessment of statistics as they relate to crime in urban areas, a replacement of “all” for “Black” in one’s declared valuation of life, a preferment of merit as opposed to the endowment of skin—all of these things are said to be racist.
Of course, none of them is. We know, but can’t say this. We feel, but can’t express this aloud. Instead, we’ll watch in a state of quiet unease as the lords of language manipulate, provoke, and ultimately defeat us. We’ll sit in a posture of restive concern as Merriam-Webster—the most reliable dictionary of which, heretofore, I was immensely fond—alters its definition of the word Racism. It does so to the petulant demands of a clamorous few, caring little for the forces of distant etymology and ancient truth. All that was required to effectuate this hasty end, to instigate a fundamental change in this near-perfect, English tongue, was the crying out of an aggrieved but ill-informed graduate from a little-known university in middle of this land.
Racism, like Fascism, should have but one definition, despite the terrible multitude of the examples by which it’s come to be known. In my opinion, that definition was best articulated by Ruth Benedict, the twentieth-century American anthropologist and social reformer for whom, in no uncertain terms, racism was a veritable bête noire. For her day, she was quite progressive in her thought—an epithet from which I’d like to exclude all modern, political connotations. She was progressive in the best of ways, the noblest and most enlightened of ways. She spent much of her life combatting the scourges of bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and, most of all, Racism—a list of ills under whose combined influence, lamentably, much of the country still lived.
Racism, she said, was “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority, while another group is destined to congenital superiority”. That, in a word, is racism. No more need be said; nothing further defines it with as much eloquence, concision, and tact. Brevity, in her definition, confronts bigotry, a large and nasty human impulse over which her few, deliberate words are the ultimate victor. Her definition is simple and true. It matters not the color of said “inferior” or “superior” ethnic group’s skin; the epidermis of the dogmatist makes no difference. No matter its color, it is racism all the same.
In concluding his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell anticipated our modern predicament when he asked, “if you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” After all, one would be thrusting his lance in the doubtful direction of a ghost. This, ought to give us pause. Not to get too philosophical, but the question Orwell poses is something of an epistemic problem, a Grecian paradox the likes of which Meno—Socrates’ sophistic companion—might be the author. If, he asks, you know that for which you’re looking, inquiry is unnecessary. If, however, you know not that for which you seek, inquiry is impossible. Inquiry, then, is either unnecessary or impossible.
Perhaps the same might be said of Fascism and Racism. With the distortions to which their respective definitions have been heir, they’ve been left in a similar predicament. They face an epistemic problem. If, like Fascism, you don’t know what Racism is (and, with the alteration of its definition, and the excessive application of its use, we’ve most certainly lost our grasp on its original meaning), how can it be an issue against which we struggle? It becomes an impossibility. If it can’t accurately be known, it can’t successfully be fought.
Let us follow the wisdom of Ruth Benedict, and let us adhere to the ineluctable truth and the brief eloquence of her definition. Until we take this step, until we commit ourselves to a universal definition, a categorical truth, we’ll find it impossible to struggle against Racism—a struggle behind whose terrible gravity, all our best efforts will be joined.