All Mixed Up

29 June 2008

Further Thoughts on Racism

Change my world ... by CARF, with Creative Commons licence The best ideas are at the edge of reason, always pushing at accepted practice, redefining the unspoken hypotheses by which we live. Definitions should be of the moment, often unsettled because new ideas push out old and explain life in more precise, more realistic ways. In a recent post on racism I upheld the Wikipedia definition as the best we would get, given that it encompassed race and discrimination in a manner that reflected us, humankind, in all our bitterness and complexity. But I’ve been thinking more about this stain on our self-consciousness lately and there could well be definition still to add. Not incidentally, the many editors working on the Wikipeda article think so too, but they’ve confused detail with explanation in a retreat from the way things are.

First, let’s consider the changes made to the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article, which is the touchstone for the ideas contained therein. The original paragraph read as follows:

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.

As I mentioned in my initial post, this is by no means a precise definition, but it settles on racism not as a matter of fact but as a matter of opinion. In other words, racism is a contestable act of judgement.

Yet the new definition struggles to remove the inherent choice in such a position. It claims that:

Racism, by its simplest definition, is discrimination based on the racial groups people belong to. People with racist beliefs might hate certain groups of people according to their racial groups, or in the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits. Racism typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, even though anybody can be racialised, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination.

The first sentence is clearly just a clumsy re-write, seeking to add ‘discrimination’ where it really isn’t needed, which allows ‘hate’ to slip into the sentence that follows. Clearly this is a more emotional definition, and it offers examples such as institutional racism and the United Nations definition to limit the scope of what people might imagine racism could be. But most interesting is the third sentence, which has been shifted from a discussion of presumed taxonomic difference (a difference of type underlying racist beliefs) to merely ‘pointing out’ inherent somatic differences, whether or not those differences in physical appearance make any difference at all.

What difference, by moonpies for misfits, with Creative Commons licence What these changes obscure is that the new definition staggers towards indecision – what once described complexity is now ruled by equivocation. The anonymous ‘ points out similar problems with the definition in the discussion page attached to the article. I’m left with the feeling that someone has wanted, but not quite managed, to write that all observation of difference between people of varying physical appearance is racist. That would be as ludicrous as claiming races are strictly definable when inter-relations between ethnic groups have been inherent in the very expansion of humanity.

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A Pause to Consider

13 April 2008

Why Wikipedia’s Definition of Racism is the Best We’ll Get

Four Noble Truths, Miguel Ramirez, with Creative Commons licenceDefinitions 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.

Differences / Diferencias, by victor_nuno, with Creative Commons licenceThat’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.

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