The word “racist” is getting a lot of air time lately.  From Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter and the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man, accusations of racism abound.  But there’s an important distinction missing from these accusations that’s keeping us stuck and stoking anger: bigotry is not racism.

In my work as a diversity and leadership expert, I define bigotry as “individual, interpersonal acts of meanness” directed by one individual (or small group) to another. These individual acts can be intentional or unintentional.  What makes them bigotry, not just meanness, is that they’re based on the recipient’s racial, ethnic or cultural identity (or what the bigot thinks is their identity).  By this definition, anyone can be bigoted.  Black people can say and do nasty things to White people because of their Whiteness, White people can say and do nasty things to Black people because of their Blackness, Latinos can be bigoted towards Asians, Japanese can be bigoted towards Chinese, and so on.

Bigotry doesn’t feel good to those on the receiving end no matter what their race or identity, and bigotry is not acceptable from anyone. However, bigotry is not racism.

Racism, using my favorite definition from Solid Ground is “the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are White and the exclusion of people of color.” This distribution can be intentional or unintentional, and these systems are largely unconscious and invisible to White people.  But they are real, and they have meaningful impacts on people’s lives.

Some say that, by these definitions, anyone can be a bigot, but only White people can be racists. However, if racism is about systems that inequitably confer resources, power and opportunity, then no individual person can be racist.  Only systems like education, health care, housing, the political system, the legal system and the financial system can be racist.

Not only can these systems be racist, they are. Keep reading!

3 Comments

  • Avatar Tim says:

    OK, OK, OK…

    I *like* your definition(s) but have the following observation: When you say “systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society” (noting that I extracted less than the complete sentence) then when my white wife (true story) lost out on a promotion to a “person of color” whose performance was far lower due to workplace racial quotas – – then this would NEED to – by definition – be an example of racism. Am I correct? Or are people going to try to give me the old (or at least now tired and nonsensical) song and dance that racism can only go in one direction?
    Axe-grinding moment: Has nobody stopped to consider that Critical Race Theory concepts – though based on attempts at “social science” (a very inexact “science” I might add) are just that: THEORETICAL! Why are these new concepts and vocabulary entries being laid on all of us as though these are the new facts and we need to adapt accordingly (and mindlessly)??

  • Avatar Tim says:

    To clarify: my “axe-grinding tantrum” was not directed at you. I like everything you said and the way you said it. For me, it was refreshingly insightful, truthful, and added a dimension of reality that I’m not seeing much of in our publicly accessible conversations these days. I also took the time to read your bio (the whole thing which is quite impressive). Bravo! I wish we could have a cuppa coffee but that’s never going to happen, so I can only hope and pray to meet your acquaintance at some point in the next life!

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      Thank you Tim! I appreciate both of your comments and you taking the time to read and reach out. I think I answer your question in the piece when I say “Some say that, by these definitions, anyone can be a bigot, but only White people can be racists. However, if racism is about systems that inequitably confer resources, power and opportunity, then no individual person can be racist. Only systems like education, health care, housing, the political system, the legal system and the financial system can be racist. Not only can these systems be racist, they are.” I then go on to provide evidence which goes beyond theory.

      As for your wife, I’m sorry to hear about what happened to her! A few thoughts. One, racial quotas in hiring and promotion are illegal in the US. It’s a common misconception that these are at play in the workplace. Two, there’s no way of knowing for sure why the other person was promoted over your wife without there being a violation of confidentiality in her workplace, which would be illegal. I therefore assume she’s going off of her experience of the person and may be missing some pieces of the puzzle. Third, if indeed this person was promoted despite their lack of competence, it’s probably due to crappy leadership, which sadly is more common than I’d like to admit. I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples of incompetent or rude folks being hired or promoted over others, regardless of race? I know I can! Fourth, if race was at play in the decision, it would be an example of bigotry, not racism, as I explain in the piece.

      Thanks again for reading, Tim!

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