Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Cultural Definition of a Word Matters.

Definitions of racism from the dictionary:
1  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
2  a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine.
3  racial prejudice or discrimination.

Some people might think it presumptuous of me to even talk about racism. I am white, and I grew up in the South.  But there is power in open, honest, respectful reflection about sensitive issues, and I believe we all can benefit from it.

I love it here in the South for many reasons: the weather, the food, the geography, many parts of the current culture (nowhere on Earth is perfect).  But I am not proud of our history.  Some people do cling to it like an old, ragged security blanket*, but many of us acknowledge that our ancestors did terrible things, know that there are still places in which prejudice abounds, and try to be better people because of it.  

Personally, I like pickup trucks, country music, fried chicken
and equality and basic human rights.

I have noticed, though, that white Southerners often shout "racism" whenever someone dislikes them just because they are white people from the South.  Does that ever happen?  Of course it does.  But I don't think it's racism.  They are using semantics- yelling the above definition in purple at the top of their lungs- to compare a few people hating or hassling them to an entire system of hatred and disenfranchisement that black people have endured in this country and often still encounter every day.  

Yes, "racial prejudice" is one technical definition of racism.  And it isn't a good thing.  But do we not see the two other definitions?  Can we not see how much worse those are?  Let's call the abhorrence of a certain race hate, stupidity, prejudice, arrogance... but let's stop calling it racism.  I think this is one case in which language needs to evolve.  Racism's cultural definition is written in blue, and I think it's the one that matters.  Slavery happened.  Jim Crow laws happened.   While I don't think we need to spend our lives atoning for the faults of others, we at least need to remember that and admit that it's worse than being called a c******.  

Protesting integration in Little Rock.
This happened.

No one has ever thought me stupid just because I'm white.  No one has ever barred me from a restaurant or concert because I'm white.  No one has ever denied me the vote or good medical care or a decent education because I am white. That all might happen in a few individual cases, but it doesn't happen because of a screwed up legal system or a widespread belief that skin pigmentation or ethnic background means something about one's intellectual and emotional capabilities.  

There are, unfortunately, always going to be people who hate.  There are people who would hate me because I'm from the South, or female, or Christian, or because I have one leg longer than the other.  And sure, there are people out there who would hate me because I'm white.  But the moment I call it racism, Ygritte's words echo in my head:

You know nothing, Jon Snow.

*Not a sweet, threadbare one with bunnies on it.  One with lice.  There is a difference between being interested in/knowing your heritage and thinking that it was a better time before slavery was abolished.

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