The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse
The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse
By Carlos Hoyt, Jr. /
Aug 23, 2016

Racism is a term on which a great deal of discourse does and should turn in all realms of social work theory, practice, policy, and research. Because it is a concept heavily freighted with multiple and conflicting interpretations and used in a wide variety of ways, the idea and action of racism is not easy to teach or learn in a simple and straightforward manner. It is a term the meaning of which has been the subject of so much argument and mutation that its utility as a clear and reliable descriptor of a crucial form of ideology or behavior is less than certain. In this article, an analysis of the dispute over the proper definition of racism is undertaken, and an approach to teaching about the term is offered in an effort to provide both teachers and students with a clear, consistent, and useful understanding of this important and challenging phenomenon.

Having taught courses in which the concept of racism is a phenomenon of critical focus, I have been consistently struck by the challenge students confront when the subject of how to define this term becomes a topic of consideration and discussion. Although several key concepts in the study of diversity, social bias, and social justice are somewhat nebulous and overlapping (for example, “culture,” “race,” and “ethnicity”), there is perhaps no term that provokes the level of confusion, consternation, and conflict that the term “racism” does. As will be seen in this article, this is due to the dispute that has destabilized use of the term for much of its short history and boils down to a sharp disagreement among both professionals and laypeople about whether the original definition of racism, the belief in the superiority/inferiority of people based on racial identity, should be revised to exclusively and strictly mean the use of power to preserve and perpetuate the advantages of the dominant social identity group—that is, white people in American society.

In this article, an analysis of the dispute about the definition of racism within academia will be conducted to elucidate the arguments by those who promote the revised definition and those who resist the revision. Following this analysis, based on the strengths and weaknesses of each, a pedagogical approach to teaching the definition of racism that resolves the dispute will be presented. At the outset it will be useful to provide the definitions of key terms in the discourse on racism. The following definitions, while not copied verbatim from any dictionary, reflect what can be found in standard dictionaries and usage and will serve as the meanings of the terms used in this article.


Prejudice—preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience; bias, partiality.

Racism—(original definition) the belief that all members of a purported race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or other races. Racism is a particular form of prejudice defined by preconceived erroneous beliefs about race and members of racial groups.

If one is to be thoroughgoing a la Muir, then racism is in evidence at the point that one subscribes to the notion of race itself, because belief in race is the fallacious prerequisite for the belief in differences between races (Muir, 1993).

Power—the capacity to exert force on or over something or someone.

Oppression—the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.

With a clear understanding of these terms as the atomic elements of the discourse on the definition of racism, we can proceed with an elucidation of the problem. 


In my teaching experience, I have found that when asked to share their sense of the meaning of the term racism, students are usually able to supply definitions or descriptions of one or two forms of the term. These are typically either personal/psychological/doctrinal racism or systemic/ behavioral/structural racism. Either a person is a racist because she or he holds a belief that members of different races are inherently inferior or superior to one another, or a system (workplace, institution, society) is racist because it practices and perpetuates discriminatory or oppressive treatment of people on the basis of their racial identity.

Awareness of these forms of racism is commendable, and there is nothing mutually exclusive or controversial about these two manifestations of racism. They both root directly and strongly in the false and pernicious idea that people can and should be sorted into subgroups based on arbitrary phenotypic markers, assumed to have attributes that correspond with the markers, valuated on the basis of the possession or lack of possession of the markers, and treated differentially according to the valuations (Province of Ontario, 1994). Things tend to become challenging when the question of who can and cannot be a racist (and the factor of power on which that question turns) is introduced into the conceptualization and definition of racism. Advocates of a revision (for example, Pinderhughes, 1989; Tatum, 1997; Wellman, 1993) of the term to feature the element of power typically point out the difference between mere prejudice and racism, clarifying that prejudice is a baseless bias against or for something or someone. We all have our prejudices, and we can be prejudiced about things, ideas, or people. Hence anyone, regardless of color, can harbor prejudicial, even hatefully prejudicial feelings about any race. To be guilty of racism, however, to be a racist, say the revision proponents, one must have power, and power of a special sort. For the revisionists, racism is prejudice plus power leveraged at an institutional level to maintain the privileges of the dominant social group. (Henceforward I refer to this formulation as the R = P + P formulation, meaning racism equals prejudice plus power.) This line of thinking leads to the obvious-seeming conclusion that because in our society white people are the dominant social group, black people, who do not control the levers of macro level, institutional power, cannot be said to be racist.

In my experience (and as is reflected in the writings of authors reviewed in this article), there are usually some students who agree that the R = P + P formulation makes sense (and then interpret disagreement with it as resistance to acknowledging the collusion of white people in a societal structure of privilege and advantage). Other students, however, experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when presented with the R = P + P formulation and decry what they feel is an abandonment of logic and a tendentious reengineering of a perfectly good term to isolate white people as evildoers and let black people off the hook even when they commit similar offenses. This schism that emerges in the classroom reflects what exists in the professional discourse on the definition of racism. (Pinderhughes [1989] and Tatum [1997] illustrated this dissonance in their classroom discussions of the definition of racism.) The remainder of this article traces the history of the term “racism” and the dispute over its proper meaning and concludes with a means of resolving the dispute.


The discourse on the meaning of racism begins, of course, with the coinage of the term and its original usage. From there, as is natural with etymology, the term has evolved, adapting to the needs of those who use it in various sociohistorical, sociopolitical, and psychosocial environments. Contextual alteration in the meaning of terms is normal. The use of a term is not made difficult because it can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. Usage and utility become problematic when a term’s variable meanings are not just relative to the context in which they are used, but when there is conflict and competition over the one right way to use the term at issue, no matter the context. The term “racism” has come to this point of conflict and contestation. For students endeavoring to develop and refine their understanding of social identity, social justice, and diversity, the result can be and often is a cognitive dissonance that renders the term a signal for con- flict rather than a useful descriptor of a crucial social phenomenon.

The frustration and exasperation with conflicted meanings of the term has led some to want to abandon it altogether. Historian George M. Fredrickson (2002) admitted that in writing a book on white supremacy in the United States and South Africa, “I concluded that racism is too ambiguous and loaded a term to describe my subject effectively” ( p. 152). In the same volume, Fredrickson quoted the sociologist Loic Wacquant as advocating “forsaking once and for all the in- flammatory and exceedingly ductile category of ‘racism’ save as a descriptive term referring to the empirically analyzable doctrines and beliefs about race” ( pp. 152–153).

Despite justifiable frustration and even discouragement over the term, it is unlikely that it will be expunged from popular or professional discourses. We are obliged to make efforts to resolve the conflicts that have grown into the understanding and usage of the term “racism.”

Original Intent

Terms are created to capture phenomena for which we need a frame, a handle by which to grasp and share understanding of the phenomenon under consideration. Racism is a term originally crafted to frame a phenomenon that, by the early part of the 20th century (having emerged in the 19th century enterprise of classifying peoples according to a racial hierarchy) was powerful, distinct, and in need of nomenclature.

As noted by Fredrickson (2002), “[racism] came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” ( p. 5). The atrocities of the Nazis were based in the fallacious theory that people can be methodically and reliably sorted into biologically distinct subspecies of which some are superior and some inferior to others, and that regardless of what might be contained in the character of any given individual (beliefs, talents, and so forth), her or his physical being, as categorized in racial terms, is the necessary and sufficient basis on which to accept or reject her or his value and worthiness of social consideration—from recognition as an equal human being to the very right to live. The horrible crimes committed by the Nazis could have been conducted under a different aegis—territorial conquest, manifest destiny, a struggle to secure resource, sheer madness—and they were possible because the Nazis acquired the power necessary to commit the crimes. What made the Holocaust a racist tragedy was not the genocide itself, but that it was based in a belief in the superiority/inferiority of races. As noted by Fredrickson (2002), “the logical outcome of the blood-based folk nationalism increasingly embraced by the Germans was the total exclusion and elimination of the Jews” ( p. 94). Grafting Power into the Definition of Racism As noted earlier, there is nothing particularly unusual or problematic about contextual adaptation of a term or the evolution of meaning of a term. What has led to the problem with the use of racism is that there are some who insist that it has a particular, strict, and exclusive meaning all bound up with a notion of power, such that for one to qualify as a racist one must be in a position of power. On the other side of this retooling of the term are those who appeal to the original doctrinal basis of the term and, while including race-based abuses of power as forms of racism, recognize the possibility of passive racism (the simple awful belief that races exist and that people can be sorted into races and valued according to the race to which they belong).

In terms of lexicography, what has occurred is that a precising definition has been asserted as superior to the stipulative definition that gave rise to the term racism. As described earlier, the coining of the term racism was catalyzed by a need to name an important phenomenon that, if not unique, was significantly distinct to warrant a label of its own. This initial action of language creation is referred to as stipulative defining. Originally the term racism was meant to stipulate a belief in essential biological and associated (social, intellectual, and so forth) differences between subgroups of human being that rendered some subgroups superior or inferior to others. Since the stipulative definition of racism, some have advocated forcefully that the original definition should be made more narrow, precise, and limited in its use (a precising definition). This has led to lexical definitional confusion and conflict.

Voices in the Dispute

The original stipulative definition of racism is akin to and as clear as the definition of any ism. A review of definitions of isms makes clear that the distinguishing essence of an ism is that it is a doctrine, theory, belief system, or attitude. In other words, it is a cognitive phenomenon first and foremost. All sorts of actions based on a particular ism are possible, but action is not what tends to define an ism. Those who advocate a precising definition of racism argue that racism should not be considered a merely psychological or cognitive phenomenon, but that, instead, it should be conceived as an action committed against its victims, and that to commit the action of racism, one must have access to the power required to inflict racist harm of the sort that promotes and preserves the status and privileges of the dominant social group and the subordination of the nondominant social group.

Racism = Prejudice + Power?

An author whose precising formulation is often cited by those in the R = P + P camp is the sociologist David Wellman. In his Portraits of White Racism, Wellman (1993) asserted that the sociology of racism has become more sophisticated in that it has shifted away from interpersonal race-based prejudice and toward analyses of institutional, historical, and structural dynamics that result in the perpetuation of social advantages of the dominant social identity group, that is, white people in America. Stating that racism “used to be a rather hard-edged, specific concept” ( p. 2) that “referred to a set of practices that assumed the inherent, and biological inferiority of non-northern Europeans and people of color” ( p. 2), Wellman declared that shifts in the dynamics of race (for example, shifts toward new economic and political realities such as more blacks achieving middle class, and racial controversies involving busing, affirmative action, and disputes about diversity and multiculturalism and away from strictly interpersonal instances of race-based cruelty or violence) rendered the racism-as-race-basedprejudice formulation less relevant and no longer useful. Wellman (1993) proposed a revision of the definition that would allow it to remain “useful and analytically powerful”).

That is, when racism is analyzed as culturally acceptable beliefs that defend social advantages that are based on race. Racism is not simply bigotry or prejudice, and it should not be confused with ethnic hostilities. Although specific expressions of racism clearly change … sociologically speaking the analytic features of the concept stay the same. Regardless of its historically specific manifestations, racism today remains essentially what it has always been: a defense of racial privilege. ( p. 4)

It is important to note what appears to be a tendentious interpretation by Wellman (1993) when he described racism as having always been a “defense of racial privilege.” This, of course, as we have seen in the review of the origination of the term, is not at all what racism was coined to represent. It is most certainly the case that white privilege, white supremacy, and too many atrocities stem from the doctrine of racial difference, which was the essence of racism at its inception, but it is a serious and misleading revision of the history of the term to portray racism as having always been about the defense of racial privilege.

Despite his misconstruing the original essence of racism, Wellman’s precising definition of racism resonated strongly with many authors and educators.

In their textbook, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, Adams, Bell, and Griffin (1997) defined racism as

The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). This subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices in society. ( pp. 88–89)

In her essay, Defining Racism: “Can We Talk?” in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Tatum (1997) embraced and promoted Wellman’s revision of racism as a “system of advantage based on race,” stating, ​

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The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse