Is the Oxford Dictionary Definition of Racism Too White for You?

Is the Oxford Dictionary Definition of Racism Too White for You?

Originally published Aug. 6, 2013
By Luke Visconti

lawyersroomThe two most contentious issues on this website are the definition of racism and the concept of white privilege. The concept that racism is power based—and flows from power to lack of power—is hard to grasp for majority people (defined in this country as white, male, heterosexual, Christian and with no disabilities). I can understand the frustration: Racism is hard to grasp. But white privilege is almost impossible for a majority person to truly understand. The comment below is on a column I wrote years ago. (Note: The person commenting used a lower case b for Black; we use an upper case B.)

By your definition, black people (for example) cannot be racist to a white person.

Um, black people cannot subscribe to “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”?

Is that what you’re saying? Or is the Oxford definition of racism too “white” for you?

Actually, it is. If you look up who runs the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find that the staff fits the very definition of “too white” (as do the top editors of the OED). Therefore, the definition of racism found there lacks nuance and is incomplete.

Racism is directed from majority to those not in the majority and has its roots in economics. In China, for example, racism would be directed from Han Chinese to any of the other 55 ethnicities. Instead of “white” privilege, China has “Han privilege”—same concept—and from Tibet to Xinjiang (where the Uyghur people live), there are protests, sometimes violent, over Han economic domination.

It is deep in the human psyche to think of life as a zero-sum game—that denying some people access to resources will concentrate your power. This might work in a hunter-gatherer society, but in an economic system, we all gain when everyone participates; the innovation and industriousness of a free people will trump a group whose freedom is limited. This is why the United States is still the world’s dominant economy: Despite our problems, a person can achieve more of his or her potential here than anywhere else on the planet. It’s also a major factor in why our DiversityInc Top 50, expressed as a stock index, trumps the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500.

The concept of white privilege confuses and frustrates many white people, especially people who don’t perceive themselves as being in a position of power (a recent comment started with “I grew up in a trailer park”). This is an important point because white privilege is leveraged against ignorant white people to do the bidding of more powerful white people who have an economic agenda—the Koch brothers, for example. It’s been used by people from Father Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh to whip people up and build audience share for financial gain. Most of the white people killed on behalf of the Confederate government in our Civil War owned no slaves—but they died for the right to compete with enslaved labor. Most recently, we’ve seen this with the organized and vigorous effort to smear Trayvon’s character. I’m almost certain that this is emanating from the gun lobby, which is concerned about maintaining the tremendous boom in handgun sales that the combination of “Stand Your Ground” and “Shall Issue” concealed-carry laws has generated.

It’s a problem for corporate leaders—you have to manage people who are susceptible to hateful messaging as this “jobless recovery” turns a lot of majority people who were previously “haves” into “have-nots.” This is exacerbated by a trend that economist Enrico Moretti wrote about in his recent book, The New Geography of Jobs: There is a migration of smart people to cities that have the perception of being successful. The folks who are left behind are even more economically depressed than before—and far more susceptible to racists who will provide an easy rationale to their problems.

Racism is more subtle than bigotry, and the concept of “majority” privilege is far more subtle than racism. It’s extremely important for leaders to understand racism—and white privilege—for this is a core limiting factor in their potential success, and therefore a fiduciary responsibility. Racism can be measured: Black households, for example, have one-twentieth the wealth of white households. Majority privilege can be measured, too—no company we measure has achieved equitable talent development—and the average women representation in the top levels of corporate management in the DiversityInc Top 50 is half of college graduation rates (roughly 25 percent versus 50 percent for people in that age bracket).

For more of Luke’s columns, visit DiversityInc.