Racism Isn’t About Race
by Ted Miller
(originally published February 2018 in Tumbleweird)
“The travel ban isn’t racist because Muslim isn’t a race.”
“Saying all Mexicans are rapists isn’t racist because Mexican isn’t a race.”
“Referring to some countries as shitholes isn’t racist because a country isn’t a race.”
“That can’t be racist because <insert name of marginalized group here> isn’t a race.”
I’ve heard this logical fallacy repeated by people trying to defend a clearly racist statement or action. But this argument is nothing more than a red herring, a deflection from the very real issue of racism.
Debating the meaning of “race” to avoid acknowledging the evil of racism is, itself, racist.
Race is an arbitrary distinction that has no scientific basis. According to dictionary.com, race is “a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture.” Arguing about whether a discriminatory action or statement is based on some narrow definition of race is irrelevant to whether it is racism.
I don’t mean to imply that race isn’t important. Race is a significant part of individual identity, like gender, culture, ancestry, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, eye color, body type, or any number of other factors that make us uniquely who we are. When race, or another facet of identity used as a proxy for race, is used to marginalize a group—dividing us instead of recognizing our common humanity—that divisiveness is racism.
In the United States we have no aristocracy, no birthright that gives any one citizen more rights than another. Our worth as a human being isn’t based on who our parents are, where our ancestors came from, or the color of our skin. The American ideal of human equality is captured in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” In two and a half centuries, our society and our laws have come a long way toward that ideal, but we still have such a long way to go.
There are those among us who work to undermine these self-evident truths. In their view of the world, people are defined by their race and deserve to be treated differently. To them, racial diversity is somehow a threat to America’s greatness. In their divisive rhetoric, people are, to paraphrase Dr. King, judged by the color of their skin and not by their character. In their mind, it is justifiable to marginalize entire groups of people based solely on an arbitrary definition of race or some other characteristic that ignores our common humanity and inherent self-worth.
Racism feeds on the idea that some of us are less human than others. Whether that type of bigotry is based on skin color, cultural identity, religion, or national origin, it is ignorant and hateful. And whether it is racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, or any other term that places one group above another, treating someone differently because of who they are is wrong and un-American.
History teaches us that racism can lead a society to do abhorrent things that are unacceptable; the subjugation of millions of Africans through slavery, the murder of millions of Jews in the holocaust, the internment of our own citizens based only on their Japanese ancestry. Few would argue that we should allow such history to repeat itself.
But racism exists in our society in ways that those of us with privilege are unaware of or purposefully refuse to acknowledge. Systemic racism still exists in housing, healthcare, employment, education, and criminal justice. We need to acknowledge this and work to overcome it. We must face the fact that black and Hispanic men are 2.8 and 1.7 times more likely to be killed by police than whites1. We must push for changes in laws that disenfranchise minorities through gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts. And we should continue to call out racism whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. – Bishop Desmond Tutu
Maybe your definition of race is narrower than mine, but that doesn’t change the fact that racism exists. Maybe we need a new word to describe racism, but no matter what you call it or how you define it, treating someone as less than human ignores our common humanity and diminishes us all.
Anytime we allow someone to be treated differently based on their identity, rather than on their individual worth as a human being, we are complicit in racism.
1 Source: “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in the use of Lethal Force by US Police, 2010-2014,” American Journal of Public Health, as reported by CNN, December 20, 2016).