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.
DEFINITIONS OF CRITICAL TERMS IN THE DISCOURSE ON RACISM
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.
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