What is Racism?

While posting a picture from the grocery store of separate packs of white and brown eggs for sale, I joked with a hint of genuine curiosity, “I wonder if racism enters into egg purchases.” A foreign friend commented with the question, “What is the definition of a racist person?” A conversation broke out which appears to have been productive so I have transformed it into the present blog article.

The definition of racism in modern America is the subject of debate. I can think of four things that are, in my view, properly called racist. I can think of four other things that are not racist and are in fact necessary for scientific progress, but they are often mistaken as racist.

Four Racist Behaviors

  1. Propagating racial stereotypes.
    1. To say that black people like fried chicken or that Mexicans can’t swim very well are racial stereotypes.
    2. Notice that some people will use these stereotypes as the basis for a joke. That will be offensive in some cases but it could be allowable in other cases. Whether it’s stated in a permissible context or not, it would still be a racist joke.
  2. Mistaking a racial norm for a necessary quality for all members of a race. This is a racial generalization and it is a special case of logical extrapolation.
    1. For example, the average Asian is shorter than the average white person. Phrasing this as “Asians are short” could be considered racist because it can be interpreted as making a statement on the entire population instead of a statement about the average case.
  3. To inaccurately attribute causality to race.
    1. A person may be an idiot for any number of reasons. If you hastily attribute their idiocy to being a member of a race then this is an inappropriate and offensive race-based or racist explanation.
  4. Treating someone as inferior or refusing to associate with someone based on their race.

Four Scientifically Necessary Behaviors that are Not Racist but are Often Mistaken as Such

  1. Careful statistical claims about correlation or even causation using genetic, ethnic identification, or other racial factors.
  2. Statements of observation or anecdotes which are not generalized.
    1. Collecting such anecdotes allows for systematic exploration later on.
  3. Sociological, historical, and other non-statistical analyses done in a careful way to assist in the conceptualization of race and to assess the way race affects individuals and society.
    1. We shouldn’t fall for the semantic trick that any discussion about race becomes a racist discussion.
  4. Innocuous cultural appropriation. For example, if a white person enjoys Chinese food and opens a restaurant making Chinese food or fusion cuisine should be taken as necessary for social evolution and technological innovation, not some immoral or offensive act.

An Application to Racial Marital Preference

After hearing the above points, my foreign friend proceeded to ask, “Is someone who wants to only marry a black person a racist?”

I answered that, in my opinion, it would be racist and close-minded to say “I absolutely will not marry someone from race X.” In my opinion, it would not be racist to say “I usually prefer someone from race X.”

The latter statement is just a statement of probability and preference. The former statement amounts to an unreasonably broad claim on the necessary character of every member of a given race.

Race can be thought of as a series of properties, but these properties vary widely with respect to each other. Asians may usually be shorter than white people, for example, but this rule doesn’t always hold. We can make reasonable probability statements, statements about the usual or normal case, but it is almost always erroneous to make comparative statements about two entire populations because there is so much variation.

Social values, intelligence, personality, and so on vary widely across and within every racial category. A person who overweighs visual appearance as the sole criterion of marital suitability is vain and foolish in the first place, but even visual traits vary widely across and within every racial category. Virtually any trait, however strange or particular, is likely to vary within and across races to a sufficient degree such that absolutely barring an entire race from suitability is just an error in judgment, intelligence, awareness, prejudice, and so on, on the part of the person declaring preference.


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