Tag Archives: racism

On racism, sexism, donuts, and dictionaries

(updated 9/14 to include a little more nuance)

Yesterday I made a trip to the doughnut shop to look up words in old dictionaries.

Guess I’d better explain that. Our local doughnut shop, Top Pot Doughnuts, is decorated with four walls of bookshelves, holding gorgeous old books. Children’s classics, old encyclopedias, dictionaries . . . you name it. It looks like this:

(a picture of the walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle)

The walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle

It’s a lovely place to sit and have a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

But yesterday, I had a question on my mind: how have the definitions of the words sexism and racism changed over time? That question came out of the frequent arguments over whether “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” exist, which ultimately comes down to the meaning of the words themselves. And of course, people argue about that too.

Who’s the final authority on such things? Listen to what the Merriam Webster editors have to say in an entry on racism:

Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.

It makes sense when you think about it: a dictionary entry is not an authoritative answer but an attempt to define the actual usage of the word. But by whom? Everybody. So if there are multiple usages of a word, arguing over which usage is correct is foolhardy.

Or is it? When we argue over what a word means, do we change its usage? No one person changes it, but maybe our insistence of one definition over another is one little vote, to be added to the world’s constant project of language-making.

Context for the word “sexism”:

Here are two of many possible usages of the word “sexism”:

  1. “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex.”
  2.  “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex–specifically discrimination against women; behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.”

Which definition is the correct one? Neither, of course. Both are in common usage these days.

A better question: which one should we use?

Hence, my interest in the dictionary. Here are some definitions, starting from today’s and going back in time to when sexism existed, but nobody had a word for it.

Merriam-Webster’s online definition, as of 9/12/2016:

  1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially :  discrimination against women

  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

Webster’s, 1988:

Sexism [SEX + (racism)] discrimination against people on the basis of sex; specif. discrimination against and prejudicial stereotyping of women.

Webster’s 7th, 1967:

(entry not present)

Funk & Wagnalls, 1956:

(entry not present)

Well, of course it’s not present in 1967. It had only been coined two years previously, and it hadn’t made it out of feminist mimeographs. It wasn’t dictionary-worthy. Here’s some background from an online etymology dictionary:

sexist (adj.) Look up sexist at Dictionary.com1965, from sex (n.) on model of racist, coined by Pauline M. Leet, director of special programs at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S., in a speech which was circulated in mimeograph among feminists. Popularized by use in print in Caroline Bird’s introduction to “Born Female” (1968).

And the definition in “Born Female” (from a Feminism 101 blog post) is:

There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have used to keep the powers that be in power.

The quotation goes on to say that women can also be sexists, but the definitions provided makes it clear that she’s talking about women being sexist against women, not men.

Of course, the usage of a word in the past doesn’t dictate how it should be used in the present. However, in any argument over definitions, it’s worth noting that feminists coined the term for a specific purpose, and are still using it for that same general purpose. It includes some important context. For example:

  • there is widespread prejudice and discrimination specifically against women
  • people stereotype women
  • sexism is a tool for maintaining unbalanced power relations

When all that context is taken away from the term, something important is chipped away from the feminist movement too.

On the other hand, gender stereotyping and discrimination happens to men too. And to boys. This poster sums it up beautifully:


Another thing that might be changing about the term: its use to describe prejudice and discrimination faced by trans people. There’s definitely some argument about this. Within some feminist circles, people feel that trans women can use the word “sexism” but trans men should use “gender prejudice.” I don’t agree.

All in all, it’s an ongoing conversation, which is as it should be.

At the same time, there are anti-feminists who are using the word “sexism” to refer to slights made by feminists against men. That’s being advocated on ultra-conservative websites such as Breitbart as part of a feminist backlash. It sounds reasonable, but in reality, it’s a way of shutting us up when we talk about sexism.

For that reason, I propose that the moral right to define the word “sexism” belongs to feminists. (Of any gender.)

Context for the word “racism”:

The word “racism” came into popular use after the French word “racisme” was used, by people who were fighting the Nazis in the 1930s. Just to be clear, the Nazis were a group of white supremacists intent on killing off people they considered a lesser race.

There were two earlier words, “racialism” and “race hatred,” both of which were apparently less specific and could refer to racial prejudice against whites. But after Hitler’s rise to power, the use of the term “racism” supplanted both.

You can find out a lot about the word “racism” from a dictionary, but there’s another cool tool: Google Ngrams. It shows the relative frequency of words in all the books Google has scanned, so it’s a nifty little tool for watching the way our collective minds have processed words. It can also give you insights you won’t find in most etymologies – it shows when a word first became popular. It’s not exact science; this Wired article talks about its shortcomings. It also has the amazing ability of linking you to typical publications of the time.

Here are the terms “racialism” and “race hatred” up to 1930.


After about 1940, the term “racism” supplanted both, and then it really picked up during the Civil Rights Movement:


I could look at Google ngram for hours. Try it. It’s a bit addictive!

How about dictionary definitions of the word racism? Here’s something to consider: for most of Western publishing history, the people in charge have been white. So I’m taking their definitions with a grain of salt.

Funk and Wagnalls, 1956

Racism – An excessive and irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, on racial grounds alone; race hatred.

Websters 7th, 1967

Racism – 1) A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2) Racialism

Racialism – racial prejudice or discrimination

Websters, 1988

Racism – 1) A doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc. that asserts the superiority of one race over another or others, and that seeks to maintain the supposed purity of a race or the races. 2) Any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, etc. based on such beliefs.

In conclusion . . .

It’s fascinating: you can see the hand of history all over these definitions!

The word sexism came specifically from feminists and was apparently once more radical. Once it came into common use, it began more often to refer generally to gender and less often specifically to women.

On the other hand, the word racism probably did not come from the actual targets of racism, but rather from people doing antiracist work (fighting the Nazis). The earlier dictionary definitions were unlikely to have been written by the actual targets of racism. Because, you know, prejudice and discrimination.

When did people of color start having the power not only to define the word racism for themselves, but also to get their definition into common usage? Do people of color have that power?

Another way to put the question: are white people listening when people of color define racism? And if not, why not?

I proposed that feminists have the moral right to define the word sexism. By that same token, I acknowledge the right of people of color, fighting racism, to define the word racism.

Of course, what actually happens to either of these words is under nobody’s control. It’s up to the hand of history to decide.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go for a donut.

– Kristin


from mel-o-cream.com


We Didn’t Outlaw Slavery

You hear the terms “schools-to-prison pipeline” and “prison-industrial complex” and they’re really complicated and maybe they sound like this weird thing that came out of academia’s radical left and maybe you want to dismiss them.

Let me say it more simply: the United States Constitution didn’t end slavery. Our job is not done.

Here’s the exact text of the Thirteenth Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

That’s one hell of a loophole. And in fact, it was exploited from the beginning of Reconstruction, with “Black Codes” that criminalized normal human activities for supposedly free blacks.

It’s still being exploited. That’s what the “War on Drugs” was all about — adding a crime for which someone could be duly convicted and enslaved, simply for possessing banned property. Somebody benefits from that. Actually, a whole lot of corporations benefit from it. Private prisons, for instance, get money from the government plus the nearly free labor of the inmates.

Where are we today? Check this out, from the article “Rooted in Slavery” by Jaron Browne.

It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work.

That’s what “prison-industrial complex” means. Such a fancy word for such an unconscionable institution!

The mass incarceration we see today has huge racial disparities. One in six black men are in prison, for example. Hispanics are imprisoned at high rates as well. Here are the disparities in full color, courtesy of Wikipedia.


There are a couple of important things to look at here. First: the obvious racial disparities. Second: the huge percentage of black men who are missing from their families. If 4.7 of my own male family members were missing, I would be pissed! And hurting. Children whose parents were torn away. Third, and something not usually explored, is that despite the disparities, our prison system has also extended this system of enslavement to white people.  That’s why the statement “No one is free until all people are free” is so very relevant.

How far, exactly, are we planning to let this system continue to expand? Here’s the trend, up through 2012.


rise in prison population

Dear white people: Democrat and Republican alike, we let this happen. We let the “War on Drugs” go on. We let laws like “Three Strikes You’re Out” and mandatory sentencing laws get passed.

We allowed slavery to continue from the Civil War into the present day.

This is a hard truth and a bitter pill to swallow. It’s no wonder so many people are looking the other way. But understanding the problem is the first step toward reaching solutions.

The solutions are there.

I didn’t have to look very far to find all these statistics. We don’t have to look all that far to find solutions, either. Black feminist Angela Davis has written and spoken widely on this topic. A quick google search and here we go: “Bigger Than Incarceration: Angela Davis Talks Mass Criminalization, Mental Health and the War on Drugs.”

And then there’s this article, which traces abolitionist movements from the end of the Civil War to the present day. “Slavery and Prison – Understanding the Connections” by Kim Gilmore.

And there are movements of organized prisoners too: “Texas prisoners organize: threaten to strike on April 4th with IWW Prisoner Union.”

Dear white people: we don’t have to think up our own solutions. We just have to throw our support behind the people who are already hard at work!

Because Black Lives Matter.

If racism were volleyball

This post is for white people who feel unjustly accused because they’ve been called out on something. I know how you feel, because I’ve been there too.

So you’re in the middle of a great volleyball game. Everybody’s having fun, you’re really into it. Then you step on somebody’s toe.

“Ouch!” they say. “That really hurt!”

You’re shocked. You look around at all the other players and you imagine a scarlet J (for “Jerk”) has just appeared on the front of your jersey. You gotta protect your reputation.

“I didn’t mean anything by it!” you protest. “Why are you so sensitive?”

You’re absolutely right that you weren’t a jerk for stepping on the toe. That was an accident. You were a jerk for what you said next.

Now there are a half-dozen volleyball players shaking their heads. They go back to the game slightly annoyed and it’s not so fun any more. The person whose toe got hurt thinks you’re a jerk. They were going to ask you out on a date, but they’ve changed their mind. Or worse, somebody starts arguing about whether it was your fault, and next thing you know there’s a big fight. The game’s cancelled.

It’s a bit of a contrived situation. That’s not part of your typical volleyball game. Here’s what would usually happen instead.

“Ouch!” they say. “That really hurt!”

“I’m sorry!” you say. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Everybody goes back to the game and has a good time. The end.

If that’s what happens when you accidentally step on somebody’s toe, how come it’s not what happens when you accidentally make a racist remark? (I’m not talking the n-word here — there are a thousand tiny slights that people of color experience, which cumulatively add up to a badly bruised toe.) The intent is about the same, the harm is about the same. The difference is in our culture. Racism is taboo. You make a racist remark, pretty soon you imagine you’re walking around with a big “R” on your shirt. You’re thinking about you, not the other person.

But there’s a simple fix. A casual “I’m sorry!” usually erases that imaginary R. And it magically helps the toe feel better, too.

How come I know all this? First, because I’ve done it both ways. I go home a lot happier if I said “I’m sorry.” And second, because I have friends who have gotten their toes stepped on, and they’ve told me what it’s like.

Questions? Comments? Thoughts?


Desegregation, Segregation, Integration

Corrected 4/30/218 – see comments

NPR just did a story on desegregation in Little Rock. (I can’t remember which day, so I’m not sure which one.) I only caught snippets of it, but from what I heard there was some good stuff and some parts that completely missed the boat, in the same way that adults have been missing the boat for a while.

Good stuff first: they made the distinction between desegregation and integration. A school is desegregated if it includes white kids and black kids. But it’s not integrated unless those kids actually hang out together. I went to a desegregated middle school in the 1980s. Kids in the advanced learning program, mostly white, were bused to a school that was mostly black. Today’s name for that would be “magnet school.” Good intentions . . . but most of the classrooms were still segregated, because so many of the kids in the advanced learning program were white. It was kinda half a solution.

Thirty years later, we’re still doing the same thing. The NPR program talked about the way the kids had separate classrooms and sat apart from each other in the lunchroom, and it included some student voices talking about how they could take responsibility for the problem. That’s good.

But what it did wrong, its blind spot, is that it placed the blame for the segregation on the high school kids and not on the adults who set up the classroom situation in the first place. If the classrooms are segregated, is it any wonder the lunchroom would be too? I know it’s a tricky and difficult situation, and the adults are taking steps to change this. But we can’t just let the kids shoulder all the responsibility and blame.

Now, I just heard a snippet. It could well be that NPR covered that ground later in the program. Regardless, this is a huge blind spot that we have. The adults need to be doing our part to make sure that we break down as many barriers as we can to integration.

Instead, sometimes we’re putting more barriers in the way, like when Seattle Public Schools shut down a successfully integrated K-8 program called Summit. Or when it closed down a schools race and justice curriculum last year.

We’ve got to get this right.

And we also need to be explaining to our kids that the work of desegregation is not yet done. Our school is celebrating Martin Luther King right now, and talking about the civil rights movement and the ending of segregation. This is misleading. Our school is 61 percent Caucasian and 7 percent African-American. If my kids grow up thinking segregation is over, they’ll also grow up thinking that our country is populated by 61 percent white people and 7 percent black people. Not true! In our school district, whites are a minority, at 43%. (Full detail: American Indian 1%, Black 19%, Hispanic 12%, Asian/Pacific-Islander 19%, White 43%, Multiracial 6%)

At the same time, while I need to explain that we still have plenty of troubles, I can’t be filling my kids’ heads with doom and gloom. Kids need to know the hard truths, but they also need to have hope.

Enter Ruby Bridges! She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school. Last year, my daughter got a book about her from the school library, The Story of Ruby Bridges. So this year, when she was assigned a Great American Leader biography project, she chose Ruby Bridges. Martin Luther King is an inspirational role model, and so is Rosa Parks. Big, important people. But Ruby Bridges is a child. My daughter can identify.

I wasn’t so sure that Ruby Bridges would fit the bill of a Great American Leader, though. It’s not like she had a choice to attend that all-white school. Her parents made that decision, and she had to live with it. It was a long, hard road for a lot of those first kids who attended all-white schools, and nobody came out of it unscathed. (It’s STILL a long, hard road.) So I had to find out what happened to her later in life. Here it is:


To summarize the video . . .

When Ruby Bridges first walked into the school, she was surrounded by an angry mob. Fortunately for her, she didn’t understand at first. “I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. . . . They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” White parents pulled their kids out, and all the teachers but one left the school. Ruby was all by herself at that school, except for another white student, five-year-old Pam Foreman Testroet, whose parents refused to go along with the boycott.

Fast-forward past the consequences Ruby’s family faced for their heroic efforts, and whatever hard and scary things Ruby had to endure, because my daughter is not ready for this yet. Now, as an adult, Ruby is continuing the important work that she began.

She visited her old school, the one she helped desegregate, and was reunited with her schoolmate Pam. It was a time of celebration, but Ruby also pointed out that the school is now all black. The work of desegregation is not done.

It’s a grand, epic tale about a Great American Leader. But what really touched my daughter? The reunion with her classmate Pam.

That’s where integration happens: in our hearts and in our children’s hearts. If we let it. Image


Are you racist?

Are you racist? That’s quite a loaded question. And an important one. I’m sure you have an answer of one kind or another. But never mind that for a minute. Think about how it feels to be asked that question.

I’ll tell you how I feel: instantly defensive. I’m guessing it’s a pretty typical white person response. Here’s what I think about white people. I think we all know, deep down, no matter how hard we not to, that we have racist thoughts and feelings and reactions. And if we’re thoughtful and conscientious people, we’re ashamed of them. We know we shouldn’t be racist. So we don’t want to be thought of as racist. The unspoken thought process goes like this: racism is bad. Racists are bad people. I must be a bad person if I’m racist. I don’t want to think about this any more.

This defensive reaction isn’t going to help us fight racism. It makes us shut down whenever conversation turns to questions of race. How to get around it?

There are a thousand answers to this question. Here’s just one. The word “racism” is a big, knotty, knarly, tangled ball of yarn. It means too many different things at once. For some, being racist means that you outwardly and unashamedly diss people for the color of their skin. That’s explicit racism. There’s also implicit racism — the bundle of prejudices we all carry, even if we don’t want to. And there’s institutional racism, which is the social, economic, and political systems that combine to oppress people based on skin color. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One answer to the question “Are you racist?” is that we are all swimming in racism. That’s what “institutional racism” means. How could it not get in us? So each and every one of us could answer “Yes” and not be wrong.

And white people, we kind of need to get used to answering “Yes” and admitting that we do at times have racist thoughts, feelings, and reactions. And we make mistakes. We need to desensitize ourselves to the question and get over this defensive reaction so that we can have thoughtful conversations about race. So that we can change.

On the other hand, we’d better be careful what we tell our brains. Do we really want to be telling our brains that we’re racist? Maybe we need a different question. Or multiple different questions. Or a thoughtful answer that isn’t a yes/no answer.

This is the part of the blog post where I am supposed to say something insightful. But today I don’t feel like I have good answers. Plus, other people have already done it better than me. So here are a couple links to some thoughtful articles.


Racial segregation of schools in the 21st century

Seattle Public Schools is rezoning right now, to meet capacity shortages that were caused by their decision several years back to close a bunch of schools. The closures occurred largely in the south part of Seattle, which is the most racially diverse area. There were closures in the north part of Seattle too. The school that our kids now attend was slated for closure. The community fought back and won, and two years later it was completely overcrowded. So the closures made no sense.

Something else happened as a result of the closures. When capacity shortages started to happen, the Summit K-8 program at the Jane Addams site was closed down, and about half of the students, who bussed in from South Seattle by choice, were sent back to South Seattle. What could the district do? There really were not enough seats to go around, and the Jane Addams site was being underutilized. And the choice to close schools in the north, while a mistake, was in the past.

That’s how racial segregation of schools is working in the 21st century.

Now the school district is rezoning to meet capacity needs. Some neighborhoods were once assigned to schools within walking distance. (It’s actually called a “walk zone” because Seattle has quite a few geographical barriers to walking to school, such as hills and freeways.) But this isn’t happening equitably. The district, which is probably shorthanded because of budget cuts, drew preliminary boundaries and then requested community feedback. Now, mysteriously, it appears that more diverse neighborhoods are losing access to nearby schools than less diverse neighborhoods are.

Why? How could this happen?

Let me back up and explain why I even know about this. In Seattle we have a community blog called Save Seattle Schools. I think it started back when the original school closures did. Bloggers Melissa Westbrook and Charlie Mas report and comment on district goings-on. And they provide a forum for parents all over the city to share information and perspectives.

IMO, they’re among the best investigative journalism around schools in Seattle.

Anyway, they posted open threads for parents in the different areas of Seattle to comment on these boundary changes. The thread for Southeast Seattle has a blogger, JvA, with a theory about why this has happened. Here’s what her neighborhood looks like:

Mid Beacon Hill is far more mixed, with white, Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese each only comprising 17-26% of the population. There is no racial or linguistic majority at all. The majority of residents speak a language other than English.

Her neighborhood was rezoned out of its walk zone. So was another neighborhood, Georgetown. Both neighborhoods, quite rightly, protested the change. However:

As far as I can tell, the district didn’t consider any such cultural or linguistic factors when assessing the input. I mean, it’s obvious white / US born / English speaking populations speak up more often than other populations, right? It’s obvious this is a farce, right?

She’s not even sure that the non-English speakers were notified:

Has the district even translated any of the materials about these radical changes to Beacon Hill, let alone tried to distribute them? My daughter goes to Maple, so I know for a fact that there have been no handouts in her backpack about it. Is it up to me to try to explain to all the folks on my block (Tagalog, Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Eritrean…) what is going on?

This is how racial segregation of schools happens in the 21st century.

And this isn’t just about that one neighborhood. No, there’s a pattern:

–Citywide, families at 28% of Title 1 (low-income) schools would lose official Seattle Public Schools-designated walk zones, compared to 12% of non-Title 1 schools.

–Under the new proposal, 67% of Beacon Hill schools would lose walk zones, compared to 13% for the rest of the city.

–All of the Beacon Hill schools losing walk zones are Title 1 (low-income) schools.

Poverty and racial inequity. What a winning combination.

There’s just one thing in her comments I disagree with:

I know it’s not very Seattle to talk about racial / cultural inequity . . .

Plenty and plenty of people in Seattle care about this. Plenty don’t, of course. I do.

What’s going to happen with this small neighborhood? Stay posted by watching JvA’s blog, at: