What is the definition of racism?

Definitions are important, crucially important. Whether the conversation is theological, political, social, or spiritual, if different people in a conversation understand the words being used differently, a productive conversation is virtually impossible.

Amos 3:3, “Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?” (NLT)

Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (ESV)

Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (ESV)

In case you haven’t noticed, there is quite a bit of corrupting talk, words unfitly spoken, and people not agreeing on a direction (or anything else) regarding racism in the USA in the past several years. I am convinced that a significant part of the problem is the definition.

I would define racism as, “Feelings / attitudes of dislike or hatred towards a particular group of people based on their ethnicity / skin color.” I think most people mean something similar to that when they use the terms “racism” or “racist.” I have noticed, though, that another definition of racism is increasingly being used in the Black Lives Matter, and similar, movements. In her 2018 book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo defines racism as, “a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power.” (page 24)

According to DiAngelo, a racist is someone who participates, even unknowingly, in the deeply embedded historical system of institutional power.

Huh? Say what?

This is part of the reason why the race conversation is going nowhere fast. Maybe some white people appear “fragile” because the definitions of words are changing so fast we can’t keep up. Perhaps the reason people are responding so angrily to being called racists is because they are understanding the term how it is almost universally defined.

Instead of drastically changing the definition of a word and/or using a word in a sense it has not been used before, it would be more beneficial to use a different word – or invent a new one. Yes, the definitions of words often change over time. But, you can’t invent a new definition and expect it to be immediately understood and accepted.

Again, racism is a universally known concept with strongly negative overtones. To my fellow human beings created in the image of God in the Black Lives Matter movement: You can’t take a pejorative like “racist” and use it against people without causing a strongly hostile reaction. When you use that term, virtually no one is going to interpret it as “participant in the deeply embedded historical system of institutional power.” No, the vast majority of people are going to understand being called a racist as meaning, “You hate people who have a different color skin than you.”

Most white people in the USA would recognize and admit that there are, in at least some situations and circumstances, privileges / advantages to being white. So, if “a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power” is the definition, why not invent a term like “systemism” or use an existing term like “institutionalism” instead of “racism”? Not only would either term more accurately reflect the definition being discussed, but they would also not spark a strongly hostile reaction. Why do some in our current race conversation continue to use “racism” and “racist” when they know what the reaction will be?


I am beginning to wonder if they are using “racism” and “racist” because they want the strongly hostile reaction. If you want a peaceful, respectful, and productive conversation, you don’t twist the meaning of words. You don’t accuse people of something with a strongly negative meaning while claiming you mean something different by the term.

If I call a man a “bleepity bleep,” he is going to interpret it as “bleepity bleep,” not as “annoying.”

So, again, my fellow image of God bearers, why do you continue to use the term “racist” when you know it is preventing a productive conversation about race? I encourage you to strive for a productive conversation that might result in solutions and long-term change.

While racism (of all the various definitions), prejudice, and discrimination are still problems in our nation, it is my conviction and observation that most people in the USA do not view or treat people negatively based on the color of their skin. So, how about we leave the term racist for the people who truly are.

Maybe then we could actually agree on a direction.

S. Michael Houdmann

See also: https://www.gotquestions.blog/racism.html


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What is the definition of racism?