The word “racist” has been thrown around a lot lately. Yesterday it was being used all day when a deranged 88 year old man decided to go into the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and start shooting, killing one of the guards there. Supposedly, once they looked into the man, he was a self described race-hating neo-nazi who had a website spouting all sorts of hate, something he’d been doing since the 70’s.

Nijmegen Racism
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Last week the brouhaha was centered around President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, and a comment she made back in 2001, where she was quoted as saying “I would hope that a wise Latina Woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

This led to a bunch of people, okay, all Republicans, deciding to call her a racist. Two noted media personalities, who I decline to name because they don’t need any more publicity from me, were happy to toss that appellation around, though one retracted it a couple of days later, and the other actually decided, after his initial knee jerk reaction, that he might actually like her on the Supreme Court after all.

The biggest problem with the term “racist” is that most people have absolutely no idea what it means, otherwise, unless they were minority, they wouldn’t be using it. One problem in the United States is that people start blending terminology together so that they believe it means the same thing, and it doesn’t. They also try to equate their own experience with that of someone else, and that doesn’t work either.

Let’s start with the term “racist.” Actually, you have to start with the term “racism”, which gets you back to “racist.” Every legitimate dictionary you find will have some sort of description like this for “racism”:

“Any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, etc, specifically such as a program or practice that upholds the political or economic domination of one race over another or others”

Let’s look at this more directly as it applies to the U.S. How many races in this country have had the power to set programs and practices against other races? Only one. How many races in this country have had the power to uphold political or economic domination over other races? Only one. So, based on the definition of the word “racism”, which I typed above, how many races in this country are capable of actually being racist?

So, that one is done and over. Argue it all you want to, but you lose. Now, what you might want to argue instead is that it’s possible that Sotomayor, and many other minority and, for that matter, the majority in America, is bigoted. Ah, now there’s a word one can sink their teeth into if they want to go more universal. The dictionary definition of “bigot” is:

“a narrow minded prejudiced person.”

No, that doesn’t quite fit either, mainly because it throws another word in there that we now have to consider, that being “prejudice.” Lucky for us, it’s also in the dictionary:

“suspicion, intolerance, or irrational hatred of other races, creeds, regions, occupations, etc.”

Unfortunately, that’s not complete enough, so we need to add:

“a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known; preconceived idea, usually unfavorable”

Rock Against Racism
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Now we’re getting somewhere substantive; we have something to work with at this point. Everyone prejudices something in their lives, probably every day. If we go to a new place we usually form an opinion before we go inside. If we’re supposed to be meeting someone for the first time we prejudge them based on the conversation either with them or about them beforehand. This doesn’t mean we go in with negative feelings, just that we go in with an impression that often turns out not to be what we were expecting; remember, the main word above describing prejudice, at least in this instance, is “usually”. I know I’ve shocked many people I’ve talked with on the phone who weren’t expecting a black man to show up if they didn’t check the bio page on my website.

Let’s face a major fact here, one I used to say more often on this blog in the early days. There are white people in this country who have never seen a black individual in person. Or, maybe they’ve seen one or two. There isn’t a single black person in this country, or Latino, or Asian, or any other minority group, that hasn’t seen a white person. It just can’t happen, and doesn’t happen. Minorities have to work with whites; whites never have to interact with a single black person if they don’t want to.

What’s my point here? It’s that, when it comes to the unknown, minorities are at a major advantage because whites aren’t unknown to them at all. Sure, there are levels of mistrust, sometimes based on what someone else has said, but more often based on what has happened to that person in their own lives at some point while growing up in America. The experiences are much different for sure.

I’ve had white people say to me on occasion “I know what you feel like as the only black person in a room because it happened to me once.” Once? You have absolutely no idea what it feels like if you only went through it once. I’m glad it’s not something that hold me back in any way, thank goodness, but trust me, it’s not close to the same thing. If I prejudge something, am I basing it on an experience I’ve never had, or do the experiences I have give me more qualification for expectations that, more often that not, come true?

If, at nearly 50, I’m walking on a particular side of the street on my own and someone is coming towards me and suddenly decides to cross the street before they get to me, and it happens over and over again, am I the one making prejudiced judgments, or am I basing my belief in the history I keep experiencing over and over? Does the fact that this country finally has a minority president really mean that everyone else now gets a free pass on racism, bigotry, or prejudice?

Nope; not in my world. But it does give us a reason to define our terms so we can move forward. Everyone can be prejudiced, but obviously, the degrees change as more is known about the other party. This also means everyone can be bigoted, though, based on the word “narrow”, it seems this one may also be a degrees type of thing. But racist? Not everyone can be racist. Just can’t happen. Power can’t be perceived; it is what it is. Political and economic control can’t be perceived; it is what it is. You can’t throw Oprah and athletes at us, saying their rich, and therefore have power; they’re less than .0001% of minorities in this country with any real money.

Deal with it; not every group can be racist. This doesn’t make one group better or worse than the other; it’s just a definition. Isn’t the dictionary a wonderful thing?

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