On Your Definitions of Race and Racism (They're Probably Wrong)


It’s okay. This is not your fault. Your definition of racism might be wrong but your humanity is still intact and you are still intelligent. I’m here to assist in making you even more humane and even more intelligent (so long as you choose to put the following information to good use). Let’s do this.

Before we dive into the true definition of racism, let’s first understand the idea of race.

Race is not real. The idea of race is real, and the idea of race is used as a means to describe human variation. The American Anthropological Association has been hosting a project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to try to make sense of this concept—could it be that something that seems so obvious, like the fact that black and white people look different, turns out to be nothing more than a social construct?

Yes. The AAA’s project has resulted in a book called Race: Are We So Different?, which examines the history, biology and human experience of race. The authors conclude that “[the] evolutionary process explains the variations and similarities among us. Race, on the other hand, does not.”

The fact that people of difference races sometimes have different hair, body shapes, eyes and complexions does not mean that there are actually a set number of races in the world with a set of traits. It means that humans have evolved to have an infinite variety of traits, and humanity has struggled to categorize and make sense of that variety by creating races.

Human variation is continuous. There is no clear place to pinpoint where race begins and ends. To put it visually, if people were to line up from the bottom of Africa all the way to the top of Scandinavia, there would be no definitive place where one could pinpoint someone’s skin color going from black to white. The color variations in skin color are continuous, as is the variation in all other phenotypes.

Human variation is real, but race is not, and society has been using race to describe variation. No matter how we might try, though, human variation does not equal race.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, it’s time for the fun stuff: the real definition of racism.

I’m a fan of the definition laid out by Jane Hill in her book The Everyday Language of White Racism. She describes a split definition of racism, made up of the “folk theory” of racism and the “critical theory” of racism. The folk theory comes out of everyday understandings of the world from everyday people, but even though they come from quote-unquote “normal people,” folk theories still have a large influence on real scientific theories and the scholars who create them. The folk theory of racism is what most people, including scientists, think of when defining racism.

According to Hill, there are three parts to the folk theory.

Part One: Race is Biological

Those who believe in the folk theory believe that race is biological. They believe that a person’s race can be traced to a distinct geographical location from which their ancestors come.

Part Two: Racism is Individual

Folk theorists believe that racism is an act committed by a racist person against a discreet number of people.

Part Three: Racism Will Go Away

The folk theory believes that racism will naturally go away in the future because of accomplishments against slavery and civil rights for people of color. Folk theorists posit that not acknowledging the color of people’s skin is all that it will take to reverse racism and create an equitable world.

While it would be nice to believe that race is biological and that racism is only practiced by racists, if we want to actually create an anti-racist future, we need to be cognizant of the critical theory of race and the way it contradicts all three parts of the folk theory.

Part One: Race is a Social Construct

Human biological variation is due to evolution, but that variation does not coincide with our idea of race. Race is a system humans invented to (poorly) explain human variation. Race is not biological.

Part Two: Racism is Systemic

Unfortunately, racism is not practiced solely by individual racists. Racism is an institutional system running deep in the veins of the United States (and, for that matter, everywhere). An individual black person with a college degree doesn’t have to run into a racist in an alley to be discriminated against—he need only apply for a job. He’s less likely to be hired than a white person with a criminal record.

Part Three: Racism is Here to Stay (Unless We Do More to Fight It)

While the idea of colorblindness (I don't see color! I see people.) is one with no ill intentions, it does not help. Refusing to see the color of people’s skin erases the struggles that people of color have faced while also enforcing a taboo on talk about race. We can’t act like the playing field is level when it isn’t. Doing so just contributes to further racism.


So what is the real definition of racism? Racism is a social and political reality, constructed by humans to explain variation but since used to actively oppress people. The folk theory might “feel right,” because it’s what we were raised with, but the critical theory of race is is the theory cultivated over years by anthropologists and scientists, and I trust it.

Jenny Aranda is a dog enthusiast and the queen of procrastination. She loves One Direction with no shame, books and movies, and she is addicted to the outdoors. On a typical day you can find her outside smiling at all passing dogs and drinking water from her reusable bottle.