Systemic Racism

The Semantics Of Racism

Or “The Secret Racist Language White People Use Without Realizing It”

Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. This means that if someone can say definitively, “I do not believe white people are better than black people,” then nothing they say outside of that statement can be racist.

Or so I used to think back when I used that justification.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how I used to talk about race and support racist structures without even realizing it. Because I never said out loud or even in my head “white people were better” – then I thought I was not saying racist things or supporting racist systems.

For example, if we were looking in school districts I would say things like, “That school has a lot of disciplinary problems.” Or I might look at the “free lunch” numbers and make judgements based on a school based on the amount of poor kids there. Since discipline problems are real numbers you can see, in my head I was avoiding discipline problems, not black students. Those two things were not related in my mind so I felt like I could talk about DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS and not be talking about race.

But here’s the thing I have learned in the years since I’ve woken up to systemic racism. IT IS ALWAYS ABOUT RACE.

One more time for the people in the back and for Zoot of yesteryear:


Our society has been functioning on racists systems for so long we don’t even see it anymore. Before the Civil Rights Act, it was legal to not allow black people to buy homes in white neighborhoods. So, even if you fought in the war, you still couldn’t buy a home. We kept black families down no matter how hard they tried to rise up in the generations after slavery. We also have criminal justice systems and classrooms that disproportionally punish people of color. If you suspend black students for the SAME INFRACTION more often than you suspend white students, then you are taking away the one thing (an education) that could save them from the cycle of poverty they are stuck in.

So – we have racist housing systems that we are just now trying to erase, but we still have racist systems in the schools and in the courtrooms so any time we talk about “discipline problems” we are really talking about race.

And even if you don’t believe in your heart that white people are better than black people, if you believe that “discipline problems” is not a result of systems built to oppress people of color, then you are blind to racism. And if you are blind to racism, then you are not going to be part of the solution.

I used to be blind to racism. I used to think there was nothing wrong with the War on Drugs – IT IS A GOOD THING! I thought the 3 Strikes And You’re Out policy from the Clinton administration was going to make us all safer! And because I was blind to all of those things, I was racist.

Because here’s the thing: Have you ever noticed how things disproportionally affect people of color in your day-to-day life? Like when you drive by the housing projects and see that there are more minorities there. (Non-Hispanic white households occupy 39 percent of public housing, considerably less than their share of the total renter population (66 percent).) If you notice that and then still say, “It’s not about race,” then you are somehow saying that white people ARE BETTER and that’s why they are not living in the housing projects at the same rate as they exist in the population. If you believe that is a justified difference that has no bearing on racist systems that raise white people up and hold people of color down, then you must think white people are just better at not being poor.

Or, if you see how African Americans make up 34%, of the correctional population but only 13% of the general population and you don’t think that’s a cause of systemic racism, then you just think white people are not as criminal.

I say this because this is how I looked at the world. Because I didn’t acknowledge the racist systems that built those disparities, then I was simply assuming white people were better and that’s why the numbers were skewed the way they were. I never actually made those connections when I talked about crime or poverty or discipline problems. I never said “there are more black kids suspended because they’re just worse than white kids” but, if I didn’t acknowledge the racial disproportion, then I was still saying it in the background of my comments about discipline problems in schools.

So it’s something to think about when we talk about crime and poverty and discipline problems. It is like the secret racism language we all use without realizing it is racist.

Here is the conversation I would have with Zoot of yesteryear when she talked about “discipline problems” at schools.

Zoot: I want to avoid that school because of the discipline problems.
Woke Zoot: That’s racist.
Woke Zoot: Do you know black students are suspended disproportionally more than white students? Why do you think that is?
Zoot: Um…because black kids are worse?

Or how about this.

Woke Zoot: Do you think our society traps minorities in a cycle of poverty?
Zoot: No.
Woke Zoot: So how do you explain the disparity between race in the general population and race in government housing?
Zoot: Um…because black people are lazy?

Until we are able to recognize this, that we have this secret language that supports racism that we are unaware of, we can not make a change. If you don’t truly believe black students are worse or black people are lazy or black people are more criminal than white people, then you have to open your eyes to the systems that disproportionally affect people of color negatively.

If you don’t want to open your eyes to those systems, then you are racist.

Look at this 2010 Census chart. If you can look at school suspension rates and crime rates and poverty rates and see that they DO NOT MATCH THIS CHART AT ALL, then you must think white people are just better. If you see that white people don’t make up close to 70% of the prison populations or welfare recipients and you still don’t acknowledge the racist systems that cause that, then the only explanation is that white people are superior. And if you’ll scroll back up to the very top of this entry you will see:

That is the very definition of racism.

5 thoughts on “The Semantics Of Racism”

  1. Omg this is so well said! I have tried to explain this concept to my parents before without success (we live in the deep south and they think the ratio of white to black people we see here is representative of the whole country). I will be more prepared if we have these types of discussions in the future. Thanks for writing it!

  2. This is so timely. I just had a very dear friend throw some horribly skewed and unvetted statistics at me regarding police brutality and I am taking a deep breath and trying how to respond in a way that keeps the door to dialog open. If it’s okay with you I might cut and paste some of your thoughts and paraphrase, because this is so clear and respectful. I don’t want to just throw statistics back and forth. I’m not sure he will listen but I’d like to try.

  3. Sharing on my Facebook page, because sometimes white people only hear it if it comes from another white voice. I normally try to amplify PoC voices, but, yeah.

  4. My wife and I were just saying at dinner that sometimes really important messages are obscured with unnecessary language. This is so direct and true. Thank you.

  5. Sharing this. It takes a conscious effort to understand what’s going on around you. If you don’t put the effort in then you’re not going to actually see.

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