There’s been a lot of talk about how racism is prejudice plus privilege. I think that statement is correct. I do take issue with the statement that if you don’t have privilege, ipso facto you can’t be a racist.

I’ve had plenty of debates with friends of mine and was giving this a lot of thought. Hell, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now. But I think I’ve finally debugged the problem in my head.

The “-ism” applies to a broader context; both for “racism” as well as many of the other “-isms.” The statement that “whites aren’t affected by racism in America” is correct. The context here being America. Racism is the broader sense of the set of disadvantages you get by, for example, being black in America. Context is still important, but I’ll gloss over it for now and leave things broad for this discussion.

The action of doing something based on a racial prejudice is being racist. Racism, which is the more general cultural or social construct, can induce people to make racist actions.

The word “racist” can describe a single action, or perhaps even thoughts. If someone does things consistently that are racist, that person can be described as racist.

Similarly, a law that is prejudicial can itself be racist. Laws such as these can and do further racism in that they define the culture in which people are operating. They also provide the framework that entrenches the privileges that one group has over another.

Neither a person nor law can embody “racism” since the context has to include a broader slice of a society. A person or law isn’t racism. However, the context of racism they are operating in can be and can be reinforced by the racist acts.

I think the confusion is mixing the term “racism” and “racist.” In America (again, broad context), whites don’t feel racism. But that doesn’t mean that a black person can’t act in a racist fashion towards a white person, despite the fact that the white person doesn’t feel racism in their context. The notion of societal privilege doesn’t come into play with the individual actions that one does. As before, the action can be even a thought, so there doesn’t even have to be two people involved in the situation.

For example, if there is a white person that acts in a racist manner towards a black person, the white person is acting like an asshole. In doing so they are reinforcing the overall racism that exists in the context. While this increases racism, the act isn’t itself racism; racism exists in the overall society. Flipping things around, if a black person acts in a racist manner towards a white person, the black person is acting like an asshole. The key difference is that this second example does not involve racism.

I do want to make a special call out to things like affirmative action. Laws like this, by the strictest reading of the above, can be described as “racist,” but I don’t think they are. They are providing a mitigation to the privilege and racism in the context of the present. As such they are not racist.

The two words are very different and shouldn’t be conflated even though they are obviously related.

I think this is a self-consistent set of definitions and will use these going forward.