OED Definition of 'Racism'

| | Comments (7)

I pulled this definition of 'racism' off the Oxford English Dictionary website. Most people can't access it unless they have access through a university or other academic organization, so I'll quote the whole thing here. My question is: what's wrong with this definition?

[f. RACE n.2 + -ISM; cf. F. racisme (Robert 1935).]

a. The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race. b. = RACIALISM.

1936 L. DENNIS Coming Amer. Fascism 109 If..it be assumed that one of our values should be a type of racism which excludes certain races from citizenship, then the plan of execution should provide for the annihilation, deportation, or sterilization of the excluded races. 1938 E. & C. PAUL tr. Hirschfeld's Racism xx. 260 The apostles and energumens of racism can in all good faith give free rein to impulses of which they would be ashamed did they realise their true nature. 1940 R. BENEDICT Race: Science & Politics i. 7 Racism is an ism to which everyone in the world today is exposed. 1952 M. BERGER Equality by Statute 236 Racism, tension in industrial, urban areas. 1952 Theology LV. 283 The idolatry of our timeits setting up of nationalism, racism, vulgar materialism. 1960 New Left Rev. Jan./Feb. 21/2 George Rogers saw fit to kow-tow to the incipient racism of his electorate by including a line about getting rid of �undesirable elements�. 1964 GOULD & KOLB Dict. Social Sci. 571/2 Racism is a newer term for the word racialism... There is virtual agreement that it refers to a doctrine of racial supremacy. 1971 Ceylon Daily News (Colombo) 18 Sept. 8/5 Mr. Seneviratne is welcome to his ideal of inter-racial marriages as panacea for Racism. 1972 J. L. DILLARD Black English iii. 90 In the British sailors' reactions to the slaves.., the very early existence of racism is as well documented as the difference in language. 1974 M. FIDO R. Kipling 50/2 In The Story of Muhammad Din he wrote one of the most economical and bitter attacks on British racism ever penned. 1976 Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) 4 Mar. A2/4 The Vatican radio said,..�Racism might have different faces but it will always be reprehensible.� 1977 M. WALKER National Front vi. 155 A strike of the Asian workers against racism in the factory.

I should say something about what dictionaries do and why it's highly appropriate to question them. Some people wrongly think of dictionaries as authorities that we go to when we want to find the real meaning of a term, as if its being in a dictionary makes it the definition. Dictionaries are descriptive records of what words mean, judged by word usage. The OED is probably the best English dictionary available. Still, dictionaries are attempts by fallible human beings to record how people use the words. Over time, words change their meaning, and when a sufficient usage becomes accepted it will make it into the dictionary. It's usually accepted and thus correct long before it makes it into the dictionary, though some holdouts who don't understand language change still object to seeing these real meanings appear in a dictionary. What's most important for the word 'racism' is that dictionaries are supposed to analyze what people mean when they call something racism. If it turns out to hopelessly wrong, as I think this case is, then the people who wrote the entry simply failed at their task.

This definition just looks hopelessly unaware of how the word is used. First, how many people think of racism as a theory? I'll acknowledge that the word was once used this way. People talked about a certain ideology and called it racism. Some of the examples given below the definition do seem to me to fit that. However, it's really out of step with how the word is used today. Almost every usage of the word that you will find nowadays does not take racism to be an ideology. Many people talk of something as racist if it involves an attitude of dislike that of people for racial reasons. A large enough subset of uses of the term has to do with oppressive practices when there isn't necessarily an ideology against a certain group or even a negative attitude. This is called unintentional racism. I've gone into more depth on this here, so I don't want to repeat my arguments. I just want to note that those who objected on the basis of a dictionary definition have missed the point of a dictionary definition. I was arguing that the dictionaries get the definition wrong.

Second, the real reason I thought it was worth posting the whole OED entry above is because it's even got evidence within it for seeing their definition as not the only one. Look carefully at the first example they give for seeing racism as an ideology. "If..it be assumed that one of our values should be a type of racism which excludes certain races from citizenship, then the plan of execution should provide for the annihilation, deportation, or sterilization of the excluded races." A view would be that certain races should be excluded from citizenship. A practice would be of excluding those races from citizenship. The racism here does in fact exclude those races. That means it's not an ideology but a practice. The same example also takes racism to be a value, which sounds more like an attitude than an ideology. Another example puts it in parallel with vulgar materialism, which is a lifestyle or an attitude and not an ideology. Materialism is a mindset or a constraint on one's value hierarchy, that material possessions are near the top of the list. That's not an ideology.

How can the OED be so wrong about the definition of the word 'racism'? I have no idea, but I think it's just plain a fact that the definition needs to be updated to fix this. It's not just that the word has changed its meaning to include things not originally included within its semantic range. Even these older examples show a more fluid usage, which means those who saw it as only an ideology weren't even very good at assessing the usage in their own time. Since it's changed to make the definition they list sound more archaic, I think it's an outrage that they have the entry as it is.

Update: Compare the Wikipedia definition:

Racism refers to beliefs, practices, and institutions that negatively discriminate against people based on their perceived or ascribed race. Sometimes the term is also used to describe the belief that race is the primary determinant of human capacities, or that individuals should be treated differently based on their ascribed race. There is a growing, but controversial, tendency to state that racism is a system of oppression that combines racist beliefs - whether they be explicit, tacit or unconscious - with the power to have a negative impact on those discriminated against on a societal level.


The problem with this definition is that it is tries to take over the definition of racialism. Racialism is the premise of the existence of biological race which doesn't have any meaning attached to it. You can believe in biological race and still stand for a government which does not recognize race.

Without a distinction between racialism and racism, which on the other hand calls for some social standing to be attached to race, you cannot even talk about race without being racist. It's like refusing to acknowledge the fact that people believe in god. To even speak of god would be theist and consequently bad or necessarily a harbinger of conflict. The fact is that people need to acknowledge race, it cannot be defined out of existence.

I think it's actually worse than you describe it, for a few reasons. One is that I know of at least three different definitions of 'racialism' in the race literature. One is the view that race is biological in the traditional sense, a view that doesn't fit with the facts (though I've argued before that there is a way in which a somewhat different understanding of a biological category of race does make sense genetically speaking; it's just a biologically arbitrary but socially important biological category). The second definition of 'racialism' is merely the thesis that race is real, even if it's not biological. Anthony Appiah, I believe, uses it this way. The third definition of racialism is that it's a specific view of race as being related to moral significance and intellectual and other abilities, i.e. the same definition the OED gives for 'racism'.

Peripheral vision Jeremy.

Some see Angels, where others, Ghosts.

Interesting. Before coming to this site, i had just looked up racism using the online OED and said it is woefully lacking. You said you don't know why the OED has it so wrong. I have an idea. It is because humans don't like talking about the misdeeds of their nation. Especially if that nation spawn something that has done massive damage the world over to human relations.

I don't think that has anything to do with it. Academics are fine talking about racism. They just seem not to have updated this one word when they've done updates.

OK in reply to where is the racism in the bible I would first ask are you sue you mean racism and not racialism as perhaps we should just replace with where do religious doctorines encourage discrimination between races this could fill an entire book in is own right I do have some insight into other relgions but being brought up a catholic I offer this for conscideration:
Consider the following from the book of Exodus:

Let us look at Exodus 21:28 "If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible."

Let us also look at Exodus 21:29 "If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death."

Let us look at Exodus 21:31 "This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter."

Hang on here comes the point...

Now, let us look at this verse Exodus 21:32 "If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull must be stoned. (but not to death)"

Notice how in Exodus 21:28, if a bull gores a normal human being, then it must be put to death. Also, notice that Exodus 21:29 punishes the owner for not stopping the bull's habit by stoning him to death when his bull kills a normal human being.

Notice however, that in Exodus 21:32, if a bull gores a slave male or female to death, then the bull will only be stoned but not to death. Unlike in Exodus 21:28, the bull will survive.

I think we can conclude from the above that according to the Bible, even an animal has more value in it than a human slave.

I have no idea what you're referring to about the Bible. That doesn't seem to appear anywhere in this discussion.

As for the Exodus passage, you're ignoring the context. If my bull gores my slave, I've already suffered the loss of a slave, who is far more valuable both intrinsically and instrumentally, than a mere bull. On the other hand, if my bull gores my neighbor's son or daughter, that's no loss to me in terms of my own immediate affairs. So a harsher punishment must be inflicted. Pay close attention to the text and what it says about the intrinsic value of anything in it. You won't find anything. That means you're reading your own desired conclusion into a text that neither says such a thing nor assumes it.

But I'm not sure at all what this has to do with this conversation, which is about what the word 'racism' means in English.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04