And another thing. . .or two

If I’m worried about the future I see for education, I sense even more trepidation than optimism when it comes to the things I see outside the ivory tower. Here are some topics I’d like us to consider:

Everyday usage: we all use English every day (sorry, math people). One thing that complicates the effective use of English is the way that the meaning of words can evolve quickly–so quickly that communication between generations (or even races or genders) can be compromised. A case in point: people my age define racism as a form of prejudice based on race. More recently, however, I’ve noticed the claim that racism actually refers to prejudice plus power. If I understand this correctly, a member of a minority group cannot be racist, though that person could be prejudiced.

I’m not here to suggest that the evolution of the word is wrong. However, it seems to be a change that obscures meaning rather than lending greater clarity. There are logical inconsistencies as well. If I’m a white male living in a predominately African-American city, is it impossible for me to be racist? I wouldn’t think so! Yet that seems to be a conclusion courted by the “new”definition.

Another new phrase that gets my goat is “check your privilege.” I find absolutely no substance to the phrase. When used in a heated discussion, what I hear is one person judging the alleged privilege holder by what he or she looks like rather than continuing to debate an idea–a new form of ad hominem. If I hold dear the idea that supply side economics works well for everyone (and I don’t believe this, by the way!), and an opponent tells me to check my privilege because supply side economics only works well for wealthy whites, we’ve stopped talking about policy, we’ve started talking about how my opponent perceives me. This phrase ultimately encourages us to judge people by their demographic rather than their actions.

With all this in mind, I hope we can make our everyday usage more precise–more useful–in the coming semester.

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22 Responses to And another thing. . .or two

  1. Brianna Ladnier says:

    Race seems to be a taboo subject recently, and it is completely understandable. To an extent, I do agree with the new meaning behind the new definition of the word “racism”. However, I’m mainly going to focus on the “check your privilege” phrase. I’m not here to call every white, cis gendered male’s opinion invalid, that is not at all what is being portrayed. It is undeniable that physical factors about yourself that you cannot change determine how hard (or easy) it is to travel through life. The reason I’ve seen people use the phrase is when someone who does not understand another person’s struggle, is attempting to push their opinion on their life situation. People will roll their eyes at me for saying this, but having men govern things such as women’s health care, women’s birth control, and abortion is very frustrating. It is conceivable that a man can rule something unnecessarily when they have never been in the situation themselves. Although I would never use the phrase because I find myself a very privileged person, I can completely understand where certain persons use it.

  2. Devon Matheny says:

    Race is a testy subject, but some people take it way out of proportion. I think it’s great to stick up to the people who actually are being racists, but I don’t think people should be hypocritical either. What I mean by this is for people to call someone racist for saying a race joke then dogging on someone else because they made a race joke. And I mean, if it were against their race, I guess they have the “right” to make the joke, but, overall, being nice is the key. Unless you know someone well enough to where they wouldn’t be offended by cruel humor, it is good to keep your mouth shut.

  3. Ty Crook says:

    Dr. Easterling…thank you for inviting me to be a part of your very thought provoking discussions. I hope that I can add something to the discussion that further facilitates understanding and learning. Specifically, the sentiments expressed in “And another thing…or two” is of special importance to me, as my work while in the “ivory tower” centered on issues of diversity, race, multiculturalism, inclusion, and other similar subjects.

    Highlighting the words and statements that are intertwined in our “everyday usage” is a very timely topic. Words have power! I can think of no other word that brings forth power than the term racism. Because of its inherent power, more definitions of it have entered our everyday usage that have come about as a result of many things. For example, the social justice movement, with its focus on historically marginalized groups and the push for equity and equality, have led to definitions of racism to acknowledge and recognize the negative influences of institutional power on marginalized groups within the US. In other examples, movements such as the Alternative Right (recycled hate groups) have sought to lessen the “sting” or diminish the stigma associated with racism in an effort to paint their efforts in a more positive light.

    The meaning of words will continue to evolve! As such our everyday use of words must evolve as well. Because of the evolutions in the definition of the word racism, I think that it is imperative that we do the work to learn all of them within context so that we can have informed and substantive dialogue or vigorous debates regarding issues of race and racism. However, before we can have substantive dialogue or vigorous debates in an informed manner, each of us must be willing to do so in a manner that promotes each of these things, as opposed to stifling each. We must be willing and able to engage in meaningful ways in spite of apprehensions we may have or the potential for us to be pushed out of our comfort zones.

    In my experiences, statements such as “check your privilege” have been used in a way that stifles dialogue and understanding in discussions about privilege, racism, and justice. In using such statements individuals actually diminish, or cut off, substantive dialogue and debate about “privilege” that can help inform and bring about understanding regarding issues of race, fairness, and justice. As I have observed and participated in such discussions, I have often wondered what leads a person to want to cut off dialogue including these topics. In my reflections I was led to the works of psychologists, Derald Wing Sue, PhD, who put forth the notion of “emotional roadblocks” (For the record, I would like to submit this phrase for potential everyday usage!)

    Emotional roadblocks are strong emotions that surface when discussing issues of race, gender, culture, etc…, issues that are still unfortunately, taboo in our country. Feelings such as anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, and defensiveness lead to negating the worldviews of others, especially those from diverse backgrounds, and they actually protect us from having to exam our own prejudices and biases. My hope is that each of us is able to increase our awareness regarding our own emotional roadblocks, so that we can push through our “uncomfortableness,” and engage in conversations about race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, justice, etc… in an informed manner and in a way that values the lived experiences that we all bring to the table. My apologies for the length of my post

  4. Harlynn Robinson says:

    I’ll play the millennial and say that I do agree with the newer definition of racism. It’s the degradation of an entire group based on a superiority complex. The thing that separates racism from simple prejudice, it’s tamer friend, is this superiority complex. If this superiority complex is founded in a real enough socio -economic advantage, then that can evolve into racism. Racism is when a group uses their hatred and their advantages over underprivileged groups to oppress these groups. “Reverse Racism” is another millennial term that I don’t agree with though for the same reasons that I do agree with the new definition of racism that includes the possession of power by the oppressing group. The Holocaust began when the Nazi Party took power in the German government. If the Third Reich had never taken off then the mass oppression of Jews would not have taken place, it was only because they were in power that they could do that. I’m almost fairly certain that there were Jews that hated the Germans as a whole as well and probably believed them to be less than human too. Though their prejudices for all Germans were warranted for obvious reasons it wasn’t considered racism or “reverse racism” because the Jews were not able to exert any of the power that their beliefs held onto the Germans. Power and bias give rise to oppression and racism.

  5. Landry Filce says:

    I believe that you can be racist without holding power, but power makes it a hell of a lot easier. If you are a person who holds a lot of power in your community, then you have less to fear from voicing racist opinions, and you are less likely to face consequences for your prejudice. Racism becomes a bigger problem when those who hold that prejudice hold power, as well. It becomes enforceable, and opposition to racist ideologies can be punished more easily this way. A good example is the Jim Crow laws of the 1880s. White people, who were often racist, held the power in society. They used this power to abuse those they perceived to be below them, often to the point of execution for “offenses” as minuscule as looking at someone the wrong way. While some black people of that day surely hated white people (and with good reason), I am not sure this can be classified as racism because the white people of that day faced no repercussions due to their prejudice, and if it is indeed racism, I would suggest it doesn’t really matter because the prejudice has no effect. The last time I checked, no white man has ever been lynched for whistling at a black woman.

  6. Kamal Bhalla says:

    Words will always evolve as time goes by. Race in today’s world is ever more powerful as a word, than it was ever before. Looking at society today, our own president’s campaign can be seen trying to improve one race’s life. Calling him a racist may be just, but saying that a white person in a predominately black neighborhood, doesn’t really define them as a racist, unless they do racist things.

    The phrase of “check your privilege” is usually intended in a jokingly matter, but sometimes there is truth in there as well.

  7. Vera L. Taire says:

    Morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language. Along that same vein, Lexicology is the study of words and how they make up a language’s vocabulary. The linguistical side of this argument is simply fascinating. The lexemes racism, racist, racial, etc. are riveting in their etymologies…

    Richard Henry Pratt (in 1902) is the first person recorded as having used the word racism. Oxford English Dictionary recorded his speech against the evils of racial segregation. (Pratt is remembered for a different, much more racist remark, however.) Pratt was heavily involved with Native American issues, and that’s the context in which he first used the term. You can read more about the story here:

    The etymology of racism is different- it didn’t become a widely used word until 1932 (then as an adjective in 1938), stemming from ‘race’ + -ist. ‘Racism’ is in continual use from 1936 (from French racisme, 1935), originally in the context of Nazi theories. These words replaced earlier racialism (1871) and racialist (1917), both often used early 20c. in a British or South African context. There are isolated uses of racism from c. 1900.

    In the U.S., race hatred, race prejudice had been used instead, and, especially in 19c. political contexts, negrophobia. Anglo-Saxonism as “belief in the superiority of the English race” had been used (disparagingly) from 1860. Anti-Negro (adj.) is attested in British and American English from 1819.

    So this isn’t a new concept. The meaning has continued to evolve, largely lead by the people. Which brings up the argument- who determines what a word actually means? Or how a language actually works?

    For example, the French have la Académie française. The French Academy is an organization that acts as an official authority on the French language. It publishes an official dictionary of the language and a guide on French grammar. Its rulings, however, are only advisory, not binding on either the public or the government.

    I think this new definition of the word is being driven by the feelings of the people it is meant to be against. Chiefly young, angry African Americans. Is there any thought to it? Is there any clarification brought? Or is it merely a justification of the violence they intend to take in response? Are the powerless truly guilty for what they do to their oppressors? This is over dramatizing it, but food for thought.

  8. Aurelia Caine says:

    The meaning of words change day by day because of course nothing stays the same. The term “racist” and the phrase “check your privilege” are often used in a serious tone, but also rarely in a jokingly matter. The connotation of the word/phrase really depends on who uses it. “Racist” is used more seriously than anything, and also in a very negative way.
    With that being said, I agree that we should watch our usage of certain words. We often say things without thinking at all.

  9. Kendall Wells says:

    I’m going to focus on the race spectrum. I don’t completely agree with the new meaning of racism, but I can understand where it comes from. I believe it it much easier to be racist while attaining power, but people from minority groups can also be racist. What this “new meaning” suggests is that anyone other than a white male (the assumed highest superiority) can be biased against another race and their only being prejudiced, which I completely disagree with. Everyone should agree, if you are being prejudice against anyone of any race, whether you have power or not, you are a racist. Therefore, I agree more with the old meaning of racism.

  10. Amber Jackson says:

    I think the term “check your privilege” comes from people becoming/being color blind in certain situations. It’s kind of similar to the all lives matter situation, where people are failing to acknowledge that race does matter and that we are not all the same. When people say they “don’t see race”, I feel like its avoiding the issue and supporting assimilation. People should acknowledge races, it’s not fair to hold everyone to the same standards because everyone’s situation is different. So the phrase “check your privilege” is just intended to inform people that ,hey, things might be slightly easier for you in life because of how you were raised, your economic or ethnic background, etc. Everyone at this school is slightly privileged in the fact, that they had parents who cared about their education and instilled a positive connotation of learning in our minds at a young age. If I judged someone else who was not given the same opportunities as me, then I would need to “check my privilege”. Honestly, it’s all about bringing about an awareness.

  11. Yousef Abu-Salah says:

    English is a continually evolving language, and that is what makes this language so beautiful and complex. Some phrases and words used fifty years ago now possess extremely different connotations and meanings, and this just cannot be avoided. Race has continually been rising in America as a hot topic, and this is a byproduct of that. I do not agree with this new form of racism, but I rather believe that the old definition is far better. Any race can be racist against another, and white people are not the only group that can be racist. We must shed the past and the bias that is clearly evident in our modern society to understand each other, and as long as this is still present, racism will always have a connotation of white people.
    For the “check your privilege” phrase, I believe that this phrase possesses a far more light-hearted tone compared to racism. Racism possesses a serious connotation that is rarely ever used in a joking manner; however, “check your privilege” is far different because it is a phrase that is most common in memes. It has been cultivated by the meme community to be an incredibly light-hearted phrase that is used in many sarcastic phrases. It is great!!

  12. Emily King says:

    I haven’t noticed this shifting meaning of the word “racism” that you describe. Insofar as I know, it still means prejudice based on race. Some people redefine words like this to meet their own ends, which I think is what you’re perceiving: for example, people like to say that “reverse racism doesn’t exist” (when, in reality, it does: it just isn’t as big as a problem and people try to use it to distract from larger issues), but the definition is still technically the same. This does lead to a lot of misperception, though.
    As for “check your privilege”—which, incidentally, I’ve also never heard before—I tend to think that it is indeed important for people to recognize the fact that their own experiences lead to the formation of assumptions which often aren’t true for those of a different gender/race/class/sexuality/etc: however, that doesn’t mean that that negates everything they have to say.

  13. Liam McDougal says:

    I think that despite the fact that English is a constantly changing language, the meaning of racism should not have changed- a popular topic now is the existence of ‘reverse racism’, and its definition- which, to me, makes no sense. “Reverse racism” is a term used to describe prejudices felt by minorities towards the racial majority, but I feel as if there’s no need for the “reverse” part. Racism is racism. Assuming that someone does something because they are a certain race is racist. Assuming someone is racist because they are white is racist. There’s no difference. The entire system of perceived privilege is another topic, and a particularly fresh one in my mind after some thought. Yes, it is undeniable that there are some factors in which one may have an advantage, sometimes unfair, over others due to some circumstances. A 6’5 250lb. man is going to be better than me at football because he is a half a foot taller than me and nearly double my weight. Is he privileged because he was born with the genes that let him grow to that size, and I was born with the ones that are going to limit me at 6’0 or 6’1? Probably. The issue with privilege is when it ties into things that are earned. Going back to my opinion on “reverse racism,” my opinion on privilege comes from my experiences, especially with my old friends after coming to MSMS. After telling a few of my old classmates about programs I hope to work with this summer, I was told that it was because I’m in the upper class (I’m not.) and that my parents are rich (They’re not.). This really made me mad- rather than congratulating me on working hard to achieve my goals, or even considering how many hours a week I work to get where I want to go, they decided to take the most convenient explanation and credit my achievements to personal circumstances about me that aren’t even correct. I think that assuming that I’m rich and don’t have to work for anything because I’m white is the same as assuming that I’m a racist because I’m white: it’s racism. It saddens me to see that people are trying to justify exceptions for racism, or add conditional words to it: racism is and always will be racism, full stop.

  14. Samuel Patterson III says:

    You seem confused so I will clarify, being that I am a minority and have heard these terms used excessively. However, before I describe this I must disclaim that this is me narrating as I have been told, not my views. “Check your privilege,” more commonly “White privilege,” is mostly used when a white person says or does something that a minority wouldn’t be able to do without being arrested or chastised. There are a lot of things that white people are able to do with little to no repercussion, while minorities would be thrown in jail for 25 years. I could get into them, but I’ll be typing all day. This phrase also shows the divide between socioeconomic standing and bitterness, especially between black and white people. Racism is exhibited by every race, and sometimes within a race. White people are targeted because their actions can be easily tied to a gloomy past of similar behavior, it’s unfortunate but until we smart humans realize that color of skin means nothing, we will be asking questions like these until armageddon.

  15. Meagan Pittman says:

    Growing up in public school in south Mississippi, I learned that minority groups can be just as racist as white privileged people. I can not forget overhearing a conversation in my eighth grade history class between boys of a minority race boasting of bad stereotypes they ~wanted~? to apply to them. I know that I can not understand their perspectives because I am white, but I do know that they were indeed being racist. It is common for privileged people to see the world through rose-colored glasses, making it hard for them to understand the struggle that some people began at birth. It can be hard to engage with these people in serious conversations about privilege/race, however, they can never change their ways if they aren’t shown the other side.

  16. Jackson Sparkman says:

    My mother always reminded me that I lived in a bubble, and the world around my bubble was completely different than mine. I remember as a child my mother caught me saying word I had heard regularly at my public school, which as you can infer it wasn’t an academic word. She then decided to show me what that word meant, she googled up lynchings, and the severe oppression of black Americans. I was shocked, obviously. I wondered what the word meant, my mother told me the pictures of school kids getting torn apart by a German Shepard was a use of that word.
    She picked up my hand and told me to remember that my skin was white, and because of that in America, I lived in a bubble because of it. Its what people now call “White Privilege”. She reminded me that the black and white picture wasn’t as old as I thought it was, and that black Americans are still treated like that today.
    As I’ve grown up, that’s all I see. I can only cringe when my grandparents use the word, but I find myself enraged when people use the word today as well. Racism isn’t dead by far, and as a card carrying member of the bubble, I find it to be my job to at least fight racism when I see it.
    I don’t fret when I hear the term, “Check your privileged,” because I know that no matter how I play it, I’m going to always be a part of the bubble.

  17. Mary Owings says:

    Just because somebody is in the minority definitely does not mean the he or she cannot be racist. Such a quality does not require a large group of people, obviously. I feel as if we have put it in this context of correlating racism with power because of recent events in our country involving people in powerful ranks incorrectly handling someone in a minority. The “check your privilege” phrase is devised from this; different people having inadequate rights and treatment when compared to those in a higher ranking or those in favor. However, this phrase has no context in supporting one’s position in a heated discussion.

  18. Mariat Thankachan says:

    Evolution, be it physical features or the English language, is inevitable due to the varying experiences and knowledge of different generations. In this age, people try to cut down on extra effort as much as they possibly can. This means that phrases are cut short for easier speaking and sometimes explanations of certain statements are left out in daily speech. In debates, especially, this new trend can make communication difficult as the audience may not perceive your words the way you meant for them to. For example, the word racism in one person’s eyes can refer to discrimination based on skin color, but another might interpret it as discrimination based on social or economical status. The idea of communication stays in the justification or explanation of your words.

  19. P. Patel says:

    As time goes on, things are bounded to evolve some for the better while other for the worse. No one has the right to be racist against anyone else. Being racist does not exclude minorities because even an individual that is not a minority can be a suspect of racism. Also, even though some people think it is fun to make fun of other people, they forget that words have a powerful effect and will hurt people. As Americans, I believe that we should live up to our motto “united one nation”.

  20. Shuchi Patel says:

    It is not racist until you do something that is racist, such as using a racial slur. Coming from a predominantly black school, I was not racist. In fact, I was a great target. I was the one who got made fun of for not being Christian or black.

  21. Sarah Swiderski says:

    To get this out of the way, I have never experienced true discrimination.
    I do not fear that my father and brother will be lynched.
    I do not have to sit at the back of the bus.

    However, I do not agree with the phrase “check your privilege”.
    The joy of living in a diverse environment is conversing with everyone in that environment.
    This phrase simply stifles that, and further suggests a prejudice on the basis of class or color.

    Yes, I was born in a bubble, as Jack put it.
    But no one should be stifled- privileged or not

  22. Darby Meadows says:

    I disagree with the “new” definition of racism. Anyone can be racist. I feel like the people that agree with the “new” definition do so because they see it as the majority has more people than the minority; therefore, the majority has more racist people than the minority. This might be true in some cases, but that doesn’t mean the minority can’t be racist because of it. “Check your privilege” is also an awful new trend. People can be born into a wealthier family or better circumstances than others, but that does not give those who are less fortunate justification to say that the more fortunate are wrong.

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