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The meaning of a word can be nuanced, multi-layered, and hard to fully comprehend. Adding to the confusion is that each one of us labors under our own biases and research has shown that we use language in very different ways depending on our political beliefs.
Thankfully, dictionaries exist, and it’s not a bad idea to use them often as a way of gaining a healthy objectivity on the language that binds and sometimes separates us. That said, a dictionary definition alone does not always provide the full picture, especially given that language is in constant evolution.
Racism is a word that many of us think we understand instinctively, but the commonly accepted basic definition of the word (simply put, prejudice based on racial identity/skin color) does not fully convey its more complex contemporary meaning. It seems that this word in particular is changing with the times.
Often, we think of racism as something that happens mainly on an interpersonal level, say for example in the use of slurs or violence. Less often we think of racism as a deeply ingrained (systemic) practice in present-day society that is not always overt or easy to spot in our institutions and cultural practices.
Responding to criticism from graduate Kennedy Mitchum, Merriam-Webster revamped its definition of the word, as this article explains:
In an email to Merriam-Webster, Mitchum wrote: ‘Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary. It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.’
The new definition that the dictionary opted for reflects a truth that is becoming increasingly acknowledged: that racism is a system of oppressive power dynamics that advantages the oppressing group(s) and disadvantages the oppressed group(s).
Definition of racism
1: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another
b: a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles
A Word on the Word Systemic
You might be thinking, “Wait! Don’t we already have a phrase that does the job of Merriam-Webster’s addition? It’s just a type of racism that is being described: systemic racism.”
This is not to say that we should no longer use the term systemic racism – it surely has a place. But, the new definition of racism as provided by some dictionaries rightfully acknowledges that discrimination based on race requires structures of oppression that operate in cultures, institutions, and throughout the entire infrastructure. Racism’s pervasiveness influences how we use language, the entertainment we consume, the employment opportunities we pursue, the housing we occupy, and the services we receive. Racism is baked in – it is systemic in the truest sense of the term.
Definition of systemic[…] d: fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice
What, then, is antiracism?
Sticking with Merriam-Webster, we don’t learn too much:
Definition of anti-racist
: opposed to racism
Antiracism is of course defined by the thing that it is “anti” to. It presumes that you already understand and accept the definition of racism, as discussed above. That definition of antiracism alone does not help us understand that racism is systemic. We must first know that ourselves.
The term antiracism (or anti-racism), as Merriam-Webster helpfully provides, has been around since at least 1943, but it was only after George Floyd was murdered and the protests that ensued that the term exploded into the popular imagination. Its huge popularity, however, means that this word has had a sort of rebirth. What antiracism truly is remains to be seen as society continues to change.
Antiracism may be thought of as a practice that one engages in every day – it implies action. Often, we hear that an individual is either “a racist” or “not a racist.” Proponents of antiracism argue that a “non-racist” is merely a neutral party; they are not working to oppose racism, they are resting on their laurels whilst still trying to claim moral righteousness. It is similar to “colorblindness” ideology, which is summed up in such statements as “I don’t see race,” or “There is only one race, the human race.” A better attitude is to be “color conscious,” where we remain aware of people’s differences so that we may stand against instances of potential or actual discrimination. Colorblindness perpetuates a feeling that people of color experience: not feeling seen. It is also symptomatic of white privilege, as this article says:
White people can guiltlessly subscribe to colorblindness because they are usually unaware of how race affects people of color and American society as a whole.
An antiracist is someone who actively works to disrupt and dismantle racism wherever it rears its ugly head. An antiracist knows that neutrality is never going to help solve racism. Instead, they are willing to do the work of educating themselves, listening to marginalized voices, confronting their own biases, rejecting and undoing racist policies where possible, and using their privilege to advocate for oppressed peoples.
The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what – not who – we are.
― Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
Understanding the word does not mean understanding the thing. Racism is a lived experience – an experience that has only increased in recent times – and a long-term reality for marginalized people that white people cannot necessarily appreciate. Being antiracist can be a painful process – it may even be a source of conflict with the people who are closest to you, it may come with feelings of guilt. But making white people feeling guilty is not the point – they must acknowledge, own, and move beyond such feelings if they are to be effective allies.
It is up to all of us as individuals to counter racism, even if we haven’t experienced it personally. This is a cultural phenomenon that has flourished for centuries and undoing all that harm is not a straightforward process, but it is never too late to do the right thing. What will you do today?
Resources for library staff
Libraries Respond: Black Lives Matter Lots of resources for libraries engaged in antiracist work from ALA.
Fugitive Libraries A long read on the history of racial iniquities in libraries and contemporary responses. “By choice or by necessity, many marginalized communities have established their own independent, itinerant, fugitive libraries, which respond to conditions of exclusion and oppression.”
Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE) Racial Equity Action Plans: A How-to Manual “This manual provides guidance for local governments to develop their own Racial Equity Action Plans after a period of research and information gathering.”
Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship This In the Library with the Lead Pipe article from 2015 is still just as relevant as it explores hiring practices in libraries and the long standing biases that shape those practices.
Anti-racist Librarians Facebook Group News, discussions, and resources for library staff who are active on social media. Accepts non-librarian library staff.
Conducting research through an anti-racism lens Resources for antiracist research from University of Minnesota.
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