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.
Curiously enough, racism is much more about appearance than fact, because the very notion that humanity can be divided into distinct races is relatively recent, and always shifting. Although trying to be helpful, Wisegeek offers this somewhat ambiguous summary, which could well pass for the received wisdom in North America:
A race is a group of people that come from a common background. That group is generally determined based on skin color. Commonly, but not always, people are categorized into one of five races: White, Black, Latino or Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous or Native.
How, then, do we classify the dark-skinned peoples of the Philippines, the Ifugao peoples of the north or the other Negritos of the centre and south: as indigenous, which they certainly are because they pre-date the Malay Filipino majority, as Black, because their skin-colour is dark, or as Asian, because they live in the region? Can they be all three or, alternatively, none?
The problem is obviously compounded when you climb many a family tree. Consider my family: I’m a ‘white’ Australian and my wife is a Filipino. Our two younger kids share those designations – they once would have been considered half-castes. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that my great- grandparents were English – no real change there – and further back you’ll find Irish, Scottish and German ancestors. All ‘white’, but in days gone by, and often still today, classified as the Celtic and Germanic ‘races’. Not so easy now, is it?
But the real kicker lies on my wife’s side of the family. She’s Filipino, sure, but her mother is the daughter of a Spanish woman and a Chinese man. Her father was the son of an indigenous Negrito Filipino and a Malay Filipino. So where does that leave our kids? Well, going by the Wisegeek classification they’d be White-Black-Asian-Indigenous.
Ludicrous, isn’t it?
I’m not trying to undermine the brutal fact of racism by toying with the notion of race. I understand full well that my kids will suffer less racism than their mother because they have very pale skins. But the point I’m trying to make is that racism depends on categories that shift and change, and it can only succeed if it pins them down and formalises them. And the disappointing reality of the situation could well be that our brain physiology makes that search for racial precision relatively easy.
Adrianna Jenkins, C. Neil Macrae and Jason Mitchell recently published the results of experiments on activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain when people are asked to think about themselves, then think about people who appear to be like them and people who appear to be different. They found that when people thought about themselves and similar others they used the front of the medial prefrontal cortex, and when they thought about strangers they used the back. In other words, when people think about what they consider their own ‘race’ they think in an entirely different way than when they think about another ‘race’.
So for any definition of racism to be workable, it has to encompass that sort of neurological division and still be sufficiently unified to present a realistic description. Is that possible? On Wikipedia it is.
The Wikipedia article on racism is like many others on the site – not well structured, a little deficient in some areas and too verbose in others. It first defines the concept (I’ll get back to that soon), then covers types of racism, how they have been deployed and their history in the broadest possible sense. At first appearance it’s a little disjointed, but much of the more specific material has been moved – Wikipedia’s list of racism-related topics has 91 entries, all linking to separate pages.
This might seem like a hopelessly complex situation, but it’s not. Look at the discussion page – more than twice the length of the article itself with archives stretching back to 2001 – and you’ll find evidence that committed editors have argued, agreed and agreed to disagree about the most minute aspects of what should and shouldn’t be considered under the rubric of racism. It’s probably best to think about the debate as a collective pause to consider a very important concept.
The most striking aspect of the discussion is that the editors constantly refer each other to Wikpedia’s ‘rules’ – that all references and statements must be verifiable, that no unpublished research can be cited, and that a neutral point of view must be maintained throughout. In a sense, the driving characteristic of the article is not racism itself, but how racism as a concept can be presented coherently.
Of course these ‘rules’ (Wikipedia calls them policies) cause a good deal of tension within the community of editors. HalaTruth, in particular, hasn’t been too happy about how they have been applied the section on Israeli racism. And some editors attempt to derail the discussion by redefining its terms. Last year, the anonymous 220.127.116.11 (although anonymity is really a matter of degree at Wikipedia) claimed that races were a “biological reality” to which the other editors should “wake up”. But editors like Rokus01 and Tazmaniacs prefer to discuss and carefully redefine, moving contentious sections to the discussion page for something close to an objective assessment that seems to be lasting.
So what’s the result? How is racism defined? The article currently starts with an admission that nothing is really settled:
Racism has many definitions, the most common being that members of one racial group consider themselves intrinsically superior to members of other racial groups. Racism inherently starts with the assumption that there are taxonomic differences between different groups of people. Without this assumption, prejudices against different peoples would be categorized as being prejudices related to national or regional origin, religion, occupation, social status or some other distinction.
The article on racial groups also points out that ‘race’ is a term in flux, but together these two positions leave a powerful image – that difference is a matter of classification, that racism is a contestable act of judgement.
Even though racism might well have a neurological basis in the way we are forced to think about strangers, it’s neither a natural outcome of brain chemistry nor a credible way of viewing the world. Despite its hedging and lack of precision, the Wikipedia definition of racism really is the best we’ll get. Puzzling, at odds with how the world appears, it speaks to us in the language of our own complexity.