Shared vocabulary: The first step toward progress
Welcome to a new year, filled with interactions with more types of people than you can shake a stick at. These conversations with wonderfully different shades of people will eventually lead to a discussion on race and the use of the word “racist.” Rarely have I seen the utterance of this word not inject centuries of emotion and uneasiness between people. However, I believe people frequently misuse the word and others like it, often creating confusion about what actions, institutions, traditions and people actually deserve the label of “racist.” Because facts are constantly under attack, it is important that we all have a shared basis of understanding and agreement on what the words we say actually mean.
We’ll start with an easy one: stereotypes. This is when someone believes an oversimplified image or idea about a group of people. Whether good or bad, stereotypes are damaging to the people you are distilling into something easy to remember. You may think you’re doling out compliments, but stereotypes hurt people, period. Pigeonholing an entire group of people into the ideas you grew up hearing and believing not only stunts emotional development, but also the perpetuates hurtful perceptions of groups of people that happen to be a bit different than you.
While stereotypes are something you think, prejudice is something you feel. Prejudices are also opinions about particular groups of people, but are not based in fact, and rather are usually brought about by stereotypes. Again, these can be good or bad, but are still damaging all-around. Prejudices are often more dangerous than stereotypes because they are based on feelings, which are notoriously harder to explain or recognize when they are irrational.
Now for our first word that is harder to explain: bigot. Being a bigot combines stereotypes—reinforced by prejudices—to create a perfect storm of people trying to justify their hatred or ignorance toward others. These people are dangerous because they use their emotions to fill in any gaps in their flawed thinking and, when confronted, they can easily become hostile and effectively shut down any progress. Anyone can be a bigot, because all it takes is misinformation and an echo chamber (two things in abundance in today’s world) to amplify the very worst things you can ever think of feel about anyone. Examples include people who to believe that being a part of the LGBTQIA* community is a choice, when in reality it is something that is just as uncontrollable as a person’s skin color. Or people who say the Civil War was not about slavery (it was; there are tons of books on this campus that say it was) or those who thought for a second that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. America has a lot of bigots who find ways to spout their hate under the guise of the democratic process. They’re numerous, so don’t be surprised when you find yourself surrounded by them.
After bigots, discrimination is easy to explain. It takes the hatred discussed before and puts it into action. While bigots are dangerous, the majority of them are powerless and can’t influence others living their American dream. But when they can act on these twisted beliefs, things get bad fast. Denying home loans or jobs to black Americans, unequal pay between men and women for performing the same job, not allowing Muslims a mosque to worship, banning religious clothing, restricting voting and any other action that singles out a group of people all fall under discrimination. There are so many different types of discrimination that there are laws in place to protect the marginalized communities that are all too often on the receiving end of discriminatory practices.
Now, for the main event—how should you use “racist” when talking about a system or person? Believe it or not, it is not that much different than what has already been laid out here. Something or someone is racist if they discriminate against particular group of people based on prejudices and stereotypes over an extended period of time. Like a garden, racism has to be grown and nourished to become the real deal, but instead of jalapenos or calla lilies, you have slavery (which is still legal in the U.S.), the genocide of Native populations and the mass incarceration of black and brown people.
No one wants to be called a racist, and for good reason. It takes a lot to be a racist when the world feels smaller than ever, but there are still plenty of racist people and systems that exist. It is understandable that these conversations on what or who is or isn’t racist, but it is vitally important. Being able to properly identify the problem is the first step toward fixing it. Racism can’t be eradicated in a Student Life article, but we can agree to have a shared vocabulary to begin the process of progress.