Why Wikipedia’s Definition of Racism is the Best We’ll Get
Definitions promise a great deal of certainty but elude us with ease. It’s often difficult to insist that meaning can or should be pinned down in each case, every time. Last week I argued for the importance of defining knowledge as a concept, but I’ve also agreed that simplistic explanations deform our understanding of the world. Two different cases, two different opinions. And then there are concepts so laden with emotion, so imbued with the grit of life, that we need to define them even though the results will be provisional, even though the scope may well be insufficient. Racism is one of those concepts, and it’s not just back and white.
Writing about the treatment of maids in Hong Kong and the revival of eugenics around the world has been difficult recently without referring to racism. In both cases skin colour makes a very substantial difference in people’s attitudes. But the associated structures of thought echo heavily with considerations of anthropology, economics, science and sociology, not all of which break down to racial prejudice. I did add a racism category to archive the post on eugenics, but in both cases I wanted to block suggestions that I’d labelled any specific person racist against the evidence.
That’s an easy accusation to make, but only because racism is an easy term to abuse. Much of the problem lies in the lack of a universally acknowledged definition. We don’t have much difficulty agreeing about what sin might entail, or hate, but racism slips away. It seems to encompass those two terms – which is why it almost always has negative connotations – but is clearly something else again with the addition of skin colour. Or the presumption that skin colour makes a difference.