A Working Definition
of Racism: Revised 7/88
By Ricky Sherover-Marcuse
- Human beings are
members of the same species. The term 'racism' is useful as
a shorthand way of categorizing the systematic mistreatment
experienced by people of color and Third world people both
in the United States and in many other parts of the world.
But this term should not mislead us into supposing that human
beings belong to biologically different species. We all belong
to one race, the human race.
- The systematic
mistreatment experienced by people of color is a result of
institutionalized inequalities in the social structure. Racism
is one consequence of a self-perpetuating imbalance in economic,
political and social power. This imbalance consistently favors
members of some ethnic and cultural groups at the expense
of others. The consequences of this imbalance pervade all
aspects of the social system and affect all facets of people's
- At its most extreme,
systematic mistreatment takes the form of physical violence
and extermination, but it occurs in many other forms as well.
Pervasive invalidation, the denial or the non-recognition
of the full humanity of persons of color also constitutes
the mistreatment categorized as racism.
Putting the matter in these terms may clear up the confusion,
which is generated by thinking of racism merely as 'different
treatment'. If we examine the facts, we will see that what
is often called 'different treatment' is in reality inhuman
treatment, i.e. treatment which denies the humanity of the
individual person and their group.
- The systematic
mistreatment of any group of people generates misinformation
about them, which in turn becomes the 'explanation' of or
justification for continued mistreatment. Racism exists as
a whole series of attitudes, assumptions, feelings and beliefs
about people of color and their cultures which are a mixture
of misinformation, fear and ignorance.
Just as 'the systematic mistreatment of people of color' means
'inhuman treatment', so 'misinformation about people of color'
designates beliefs and assumptions that in any way imply that
people of color are less than fully human. These beliefs and
attitudes are not just neutral errors; they are impacted misinformation:
ideas and opinions which are glued together with painful emotion
and held in place by frozen memories of distressing experiences.
- Because misinformation
about people of color functions as the justification for their
continued mistreatment, it becomes socially empowered or sanctioned
misinformation. It is recycled through the society as a form
of conditioning that affects everyone. In this way, misinformation
about people of color becomes part of everyone's 'ordinary'
- For purposes
of clarity, it is helpful to use the term 'internalized racism'
or 'internalized oppression' to designate the misinformation
that people of color may have about themselves and their cultures.
The purpose of this term is to point out that this misinformation
is consequence of the mistreatment experienced by people of
color. It is not an inherent feature of their culture.
- The term 'reverse
racism' is sometimes used to characterize 'affirmative action'
programs, but this is inaccurate. Affirmative action programs
are attempts to repair the results of institutionalized racism
by setting guidelines and establishing procedures for finding
qualified applicants from all segments of the population.
- The term 'reverse
racism' is also sometimes used to characterize the mistreatment
that individual whites may have experienced at the hands of
individuals of color. This too is inaccurate. While any form
of humans harming other humans is wrong because no one is
entitled to mistreat anyone, we should not confuse the occasional
mistreatment experienced by whites at the hands of people
of color with the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment
experienced by people of color at the hands of whites.
- Racism operates
as a strategy of divide and conquer. It helps to perpetuate
a social system in which some people are consistently 'haves'
and others are consistently 'have nots'. While the 'haves'
receive certain material benefits from this situation, the
long range effects of racism short change everyone. Racism
sets groups of people against each other and makes it difficult
for us to perceive our common interests as human beings.
Racism make us forget that we all need and are entitled to
good health care, stimulating education, and challenging work.
Racism limits our horizons to what presently exists. Racism
makes us suppose that current injustices are 'natural', or
at best, inevitable: "someone has to be unemployed; someone
has to go hungry." Most importantly, racism distorts our perceptions
of the possibilities for change; it makes us abandon our visions
of solidarity; it robs us of our dreams of community.
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