Why We Need New Names For New Strains Of Racism

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In my review of Annie the other day, I said that we needed a new name for the subconscious racism that permeated our system: the kind that causes cops to shoot black people twenty times more often than white people.  The kind where, if you’re a black person on OKCupid, you lose three-quarters of a star rating on average merely by the color of your skin.
That’s not some sort of global phenomenon; it’s sadly American.  There’s a great chapter in Dataclysm, written by one of OKC’s data analysts, discussing how that sort of racial bias isn’t as present in other cultures.  But years of American standards have caused lots of people to equate “black” with “unattractive” and “threatening” – even to other black people.
And I said we needed a new word to describe that racism – that unthinking regurgitation of all the biases ground into you.
And others said, “Why do we need a new word for racism?  It’s racism!  That’s all one thing.”
Well, I love words because they open up new ideas.  It’s sort of like how the color blue is a comparatively new invention – people used to think of the ocean as black or wine-red.  But someone said, “Hey, that water deserves its own color,” and now we have a new way of thinking of stuff.
Likewise: abuse.  We could just say, “Wow, that guy totally abused his wife,” and be correct.  But it’s more accurate, and evocative, to say, “He totally gaslighted her,” indicating a complex pattern of mental abuse that involves manipulating the facts to undermine her self-confidence and sanity.
Or we could just say, “She perpetrated identity fraud” and be correct.  But it’s more accurate to say “She catfished him,” indicating that she led him on romantically by lying about significant portions of her life.
Or heck, we could just say “They lied” and be correct in both examples!  But the beauty of words is that they provide shading, nuance, the fine-grained ability to convey a concept that, perhaps, we didn’t have before now.
Likewise, “racism” is a big damn word that covers a lot of ground.  It’s a word spread so thin it’s almost useless, like “liberal” or “conservative” – it could mean anything.  Having more words to convey the specific kinds of racism that one can perpetrate is helpful.
And “racist” is such a loaded word – it’s one of the worst insults you can toss at a white person, for good or for ill.   You say that to most white folks, it shuts down conversations.  It’s often not helpful in terms of getting the people who have some racist inclinations to reflect upon what they might be doing (even as it can be terribly empowering for minority communities to call out racism accurately).
As such, having new words to make a differentiation between “You are a card-carrying member of the KKK” and “You are a decent person who has absorbed some unfortunate ideas from a racist society” will be helpful.
Not a panacea, of course.  The idea of “mansplaining” is horrifically useful for women trying to outline a specific form of condescension, but of course there’s going to be disagreement over what it is.  I’ve been accused of “mansplaining” to someone who expressed confusion about something I said, when I didn’t even know the gender identity of the person I was clarifying myself to.  And there are doubtlessly people who do mansplain to women (including possibly me), who would argue to the hilt that they’re not doing that.  So even if we got that word, we’d doubtlessly have people using it when it didn’t quite fit, and people misunderstanding it, and people denying it…
…but that’s not a reason not to want this word.  That’s what happens to every word that describes a negative behavior.
Now what’ll happen next is that people will suggest all sorts of words in the comments here that could describe this subconscious bias, but all of those words will suck. And that’s not your fault!  Words only really take root once they reflect a story that resonates within that culture.  It’s no coincidence that “catfish” and “gaslight” both took root after a movie expressed their story.  And they’re both catchy words that don’t actually describe the situation much; they just happened to connect with a tale that people could relate to.
So I suspect this word-for-subconscious-bias will be a while in coming.  It’ll need some clear narrative in this country that brings it into focus – and that’s hard to do when we’re dealing with a bias that we can’t see.  The Occupy movement got partway there with “the 99%,” bringing an abstract concept almost into focus with a lot of protests hammering on it.  It may be that the nationwide protests for black justice find some way of highlighting this issue and bringing it into being.
And I want to see that brought into focus.  Because right now, to most white people, racism involves intent – you meant to be nice to black people, you know you don’t actively work to undermine them, so you’re fine!  And anyone who tells you that you’re hurting black people – you know, maybe by pulling the trigger on them twenty times sooner than you would someone with paler skin – must be trying to smear you.
But no.  Truth is, we’ve got a long history of hating dark skin in this country.  It’d be surprising if we could just shake it off without some active investigation of how we think.  And I wish we could find a word to get across that needed nuance of “Harboring no active hatreds might not be enough to stop you from hurting people.”


  1. Carmel J.
    Jan 15, 2015

    Two thoughts that are not suggestions for words:
    1) I know the term “gas lighting” comes from a movie, but I haven’t seen it or even at this moment remember which movie it is. Also, even though we have the term out in public more, I don’t see it getting applied to real life situations enough, and the people I heard it from (victims of parental abuse) still aren’t believed enough. That the term is getting out there is good though. Maybe more will take these victims seriously.
    2) Your point that the eventual term will need a story behind it is interesting, and reminds me of a ST:TNG episode (I think called “Darmok”). The alien culture spoke exclusively in references to stories and were incomprehensible to our good crew. Yet if our culture has its own stories that we must relate with to u d’état and words we both become this and could also be just as incomprehensible to those both from other countries (talk about making English a harder language to learn!) and from other groups/cultures within our own culture. I think various parts of the Internet would also count in this case, considering the echo chamber phenomenon you have brought up previously. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, indeed.

  2. Carmel J.
    Jan 15, 2015

    yeah, auto correct. Leaving a comment via phone through the FB app sucks. I can’t see what I’m typing no matter what I do. 🙁
    I think the word that got screwed up was “concepts”, but I’m not sure. 🙁

  3. Misha
    Jan 15, 2015

    Ever since reading the below post, I sometimes think of them as “Racism 1A” vs “Racism 2B”, but that’s probably about as inaccessible as it could get.

  4. Yet Another Laura H
    Jan 16, 2015

    I dunno. Using a fully-separate term still has the mouth feel of “rape-rape” to me (ironically, because fucking that sedated thirteen-year-old seems to have certain parallels— he wasn’t committing rape so much as he was grooving with his cultural flow, baby. It would have been uncool and strident of him to say, “Uh… this is HORRIBLE parenting.”).
    But maybe an adjective? Particle racism, tiny bits of racism that get into everything, muck up the gears, and grind what should be mountains into bumps? Sedimentary racism, whole continents changing shape with stuff that will only attain value if you apply great heat and pressure?

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