The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, January 04, 2008

Is it Racist if it's true?

Just because it’s easy, I grabbed Wikipedia’s definition of “racism,” which is pretty close to the definition I groove to: “Racism has many definitions, the most common and widely accepted being the belief that humans are divided into more than one race, with members of some races being intrinsically superior or inferior to members of other races.”
Is it Racist if it’s True?

Note that that definition doesn’t have anything to do with whether the belief is ACCURATE or not. Of course, if you believe something, you think it’s accurate. And because we’ve been conditioned to believe that “racism” is bad, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance when we harbor a negative attitude toward a particular ethnic or racial group.

It is a plea for bigotry. “Blacks just aren’t as smart” “Mexicans are lazy” “white people are evil” “Asians are sneaky.” Whatever.

I’m not going to let people off that hook. If you have a global, negative opinion of a group, that’s your business. If it’s true, it might be important to broadcast said opinion. But if your opinion is self-serving (it puts you and your group above the other) and self-labeled (based on observations and measurements devised and administered by your group) and ESPECIALLY if it excuses or justifies present or past violence or oppression of that “other” group, I’m going to be rather skeptical. There is absolutely nothing more common than members of group “A” saying they’re better than members of group “B.”

That said, it is a bit unfortunate that the connotative definition of “racist” or “racism” has to do with the accuracy or honesty of the perception. Personally, a person can think the average black is less intelligent, but if that person is a gentleman I would consider them “racist” but not necessarily what I call a “bigot.” That would depend on whether they evaluate each person separately, as best they can.

I can’t look at something that is damned near universal (us-themism) and consider people who feel or think that way to be “below average” in ethics or morality. Pretty much by definition, they ARE the average. Rather, I’d say that someone who ACTS on such beliefs (spreading lies they know to be lies, instigating violence, etc.) to be BELOW average, and those who (and yes, this is self-serving as hell) think the way I do about this to be ABOVE average in this regard.

Almost every person I’ve met who had “racist” beliefs was given the foundation for those beliefs in childhood. I’ve met far fewer people who STARTED by thinking people were pretty much equal, and down the road somewhere became bigots. That one’s a rarity to me. I’m sure it happens, though.
Oh...and on the question of an Obama candidacy and black sexual images in film...both questions spring from the same core, one of unconscious negative assumptions and associations regarding blackness. I think that Obama, like Will Smith and Oprah, has transcended race as few human beings ever manage to. In one sense, were he white, he'd be a shoe-in. In another sense, the fact that he's half-Kenyan is a fantastic visual metaphor for the possibility of America, and for genuine change. I think that people are 80% reacting to him DESPITE his race. But one thing I've seen over the course of my life is that if you manage to struggle to excellence despite the obstacles, even bigots seem to understand you have done something extraordinary, and give you a certain respect. It's odd, but seems to be true.
So...I would have bet that the movie thing would happen first. And I'm still betting that way. My guess is that 2008 is the year. We'll see.


Lynn said...

I think a lot of racism comes down to a "mote in your neighbor's eye" tendency. We tend to notice the negative things about "them" and ignore or excuse the negative things about "us". It seems "obvious" to some white people that Blacks commit more crimes, are less intelligent, can't talk right, etc. but here in Oklahoma it is overwhelmingly obvious that the people who commit more crimes, are less intelligent and can't talk right are whites of the sort who are commonly labeled "white trash" but a lot of whites twist things in their minds so that stupidity and trashy behavior seem to them to be more common among black people.

Pagan Topologist said...

I it racist to say or believe that white people are more prone to sunburn than other people? I think there is a danger in using such a broad definition is problematic. On the other hand, I have a problem with the view stated by some people who say that by definition black people cannot be racist.

Steven Barnes said...

Saying white people are more prone to sunburn would be, by strictest definition, racist. By MY definition, no, unless you thereby conclude that they are lesser or greater because of it.
The position taken by some that "blacks can't be racist" is folly (in my book) but relates to a specific definition that the term "racism" must relate to an institutionalized attitude, or the ability to express power over the other group. In other words, blacks can't be racist because they are outnumbered and have no power (as a group) over whites. I understand what they're saying, and mark it down to a linguistic blip.

Steven Barnes said...

To put it more bluntly, in my mind a "racist" comment boils down to someone saying "my group is better than yours." Saying 'white people burn in the sun" isn't saying this. If you were to say "white people are weaker than black people. They burn in the sun!" that WOULD be racist (in the sense I mean). Sigh. Language sucks some time...

Lynn said...

What about "postitive" racism: "Blacks are better at sports," or "Blacks can dance better," and that sort of thing. I know it offends some black people and it makes me uncomfortable to be around people who say things like that. I don't know if I should call them on it or let it pass. And if I call them on it what could I say.

Anonymous said...

"To put it more bluntly, in my mind a 'racist' comment boils down to someone saying 'my group is better than yours.' Saying 'white people burn in the sun' isn't saying this."

Sure it is. (Or do you actually think that even us bleached-whites like frying like Crisco whenever we get more than a jot of sunlight? Ha!)

If a trait's desirable, and its opposite's undesirable, then saying that one racial group has the bad opposite trait is to ipso facto classify that group as inferior to other groups, along at least that one range of variation.

And as for this:

"By MY definition, no ..."

So you do concede that the dictionary definition is substantively misleading when applied literally? Because if it is, then I'd say that it's equally misleading to say something like this:

"Mike Frank and I were talking at Larry Niven’s New Years party, and he asked whether it was racist to make a negative comment about a group if the comment was true. I said 'yep.'"

If even true descriptions of racial groups are to be considered "racist", then we are left with the following choice:

1. Lie, and don't be racist.
2. Tell the plain truth, and be racist.

That works -- technically -- if we adopt the strict dictionary definition (which says nothing about the real-world use of the term "racism"). But if we instead go for the definition based on connotation, then I submit that we have no way to know whether somebody telling an inconvenient truth (ahem) about racial groups is "racist" or not, unless we claim the prerogative of mind-reading that person, or "looking into his soul" (a la Bush's reading of Putin).

I'd further submit that it's actually irrelevant. Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.

--Erich Schwarz

Josh Jasper said...

Lynn is spot on

Outside of some remarkably lame n badly researched instances of evolutionary psychology, there's no god scientific evidence that racial type in humans affects behavior. Culture certainly does. On the average, Japanese are more likely to bow in social situations than Americans are. Christians are more likely to invoke God than Buddhists. These are safe assumptions Some phrases will be insulting to members of one culture, and not to other cultures.

I tend to try and be predictive when dealing with people from different cultures, and to understand how they perceive my culture, and how my culture perceives theirs. Some of those predictions are negative ones. I do predict average members of certain cultures to behave in ways I disapprove of. I'm not sure if you'd count that as bigotry though.

And CHEERS FOR OBAMA! I'm so glad he took the first primary so easily. I hope he gets the rest of them, or at least enough.

Steven Barnes said...

I would say that saying "white people sunburn" is by strictest definition racist just because you've defined it in terms of race. But unless you add (explicitly r implicitly) "and therefore we're better" it isn't racist by MY definitions. In other words you might say "white people sunburn, blacks get Sickle Cell, Jews get Tay-Sachs..." as a way of talking about things that are found in different groups WITHOUT trying to place those groups in a hierarchy.
Positive racist comments are an interesting case. Blacks get upset about white people talking about "natural athletes" for two reasons, I think:
1) it discounts the amount of energy, focus, work and intelligence necessary to maximize physical potential.
2) it opens the door to saying: "blacks are better at sports, right? So what's wrong with saying whites are better at thinking?" Trust me: I've heard this one countless times.
The amusing thing to me is how easy it is to get most black people to express the opinion, privately, that blacks are indeed superior at sports. They just don't want white people saying it.

Lynn said...

I see your point. I have said that women are naturally better at housework but it sort of bugs me when men say it, especially when they start talking about what men are supposedly better at.

just a passing soul said...


I mean nothing by this except to state a first~~and I mean a VERY first~~visual impression or first-thought. But, upon last night's caucus results after cheering for Obama in my mind I couldn't help but see millions of less than happy people do a very good updated shocked impression of a scene straight out of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles when Sheriff Bart was first spotted and rode into a cheering and band-playing town, and then things went into uncheerful and no band-playing mode with some illuminating singular commentary.

I laughed to myself, yet I HOPE my meaning and explanation of this is fully understood.

Steven Barnes said...

Gotcha, Passing Soul. And Black Bart (I love that the joke was never stated directly) would approve.

Dan Moran said...

Racism is internal. It's intent. (So are most of the other isms.) A perfectly neutral observer might theorize, watching the NBA, that dark-skinned humans are genetically superior to white-skinned humans. No harm, no foul, just a theory, correct or incorrect.

Why people choose to focus on a given fact is where bias appears.

In my 20s I told a black guy that black guys couldn't do math. Why? I broke my right ankle, "White Men Can't Jump" was out, and abruptly I couldn't get to the rim any more. And this bastard rode me for (weeks, probably, though it seems like months, looking back) about how white men couldn't jump ... was that racist on his part? Another white guy who played with us who was the only guy who could dunk reliably, so obviously he didn't really think white men couldn't jump; he was mad at me and it was personal. Me sneering that black men couldn't do math was equally personal.

I don't think he was a racist, and I don't think I am. (Though we were both plenty stupid.) Doubtless some people would disagree with that conclusion, and fine. But it's the core of the intent argument -- facts can't be racist. Only people can be.

Marty S said...

I don't think believing one group or sex is better at somethings than the other is necessarily racist or sexist. My son and I are both mathematicians of sort. We are entirely different in how we derive solutions to mathematical question, he is very intuitive and tends to make big leaps I very methodical and tend to arrive at conclusions step by step. This doesn't make on of us smarter better, just different. As long as you accept others your equals you are not sexist or racist because you observe differences in some abilities.

Marty S said...

I'm not sure that this is the right discussion for this comment, but I am now betting on The Great Debaters being the movie to break the 100 million mark. We are getting together with some friends tomorrow and going to see the movie. My friend's wife suggested it saying all her friends told her it was a really good movie.
We're talking suburban white people who only get their news from FOX.

Edwin Voskamp said...

Steven, in the definition of racism you used, isn't 'belief' the key part of it? And, by the same Wikipedia, “Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise (argument) to be true without necessarily being able to adequately prove its main contention to other people who may or may not agree.”

By those two, would it not be impossible for a true statement to be racist?

Steven Barnes said...

The Wikipedia description applies to everything outside Cogito Ergo Sum. It's ALL belief at a certain point. Everyone's view of the world is based on faith, to a degree (faith for instance that our senses are accurate descriptions of reality). Saying a "true" statement, if you're being absolute, moves outside the system of what we can know. Such a statement would only be formulated by God. Now, then, something we BELIEVE to be true...well, then we're right back where we started, aren't we? We can agree that X or Y is reality, but that doesn't make us right. But within the system: IF there are substantive differences between racial groups that determine a hierarchy of value, THEN there would be "true" statements that would certainly qualify as racist. It's just that the racist position happens to be the right one. Heck, isn't that exactly what David Duke and the boys believe? That they know an unpopular truth?

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I have said that women are naturally better at housework but it sort of bugs me when men say it

I hate it when men say that, because the argument always seems to boil down to, women have a greater tolerance for being bored, so therefore we can get to be good at all the boring tasks, while men can get to be good at all the stuff that's interesting and challenging. Thanks a lot, guys.

If women have an especially high tolerance for boredom and routine, I demand to be one of the unusual tomboyish class of women that doesn't apply to, so I get to have fun like the men.

I think a generalization qualifies as sexist or racist, at the very least, any time it allows group A to grab more of the things that both group A and group B like, and leave group B with the dregs.

Dan Gambiera said...

I was about to say all the right things. To hell with it. I'll just say what I believe. If people want to break out the tar and feathers that's fine.

One of the wisest things my father every told me was this.

"Everyone in the world believes 'In the whole world there is no group quite as good as my group. In my group there is nobody quite as good as me.'"

It's racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, whatever ism you want. It's part of being a human being. The particulars don't matter and can change. There's no difference between "Sun people", "Wa Wa Nihonjin", "Gig 'em Aggies!" and the Old School Tie. Are people racists? Yeah. Are most people racists? Probably, deep in their hearts. Is that important? Only if they translate that racism into discriminatory practices that keep others from achieving their potential or getting fair treatment and justice.

One of my dearest friends, you know the guy Steve, is a Volkish hairy-ass Wotan-worshiping kind of guy who believes that Germanic people are the best ones in the world. But I've never met a man who will go so far out of his way to treat people fairly. He's probably a racist. But he's not a bigot which is more important.

I'm not as interested in the secret contents of a man's soul as I am in how he'll treat me. With luck and work you can get people to push "us" further out so that more people get included in their private definitions of full human beings.

People are remarkably plastic about this. Hitler had his pet Jews. Cracker McRedneck works with a couple Guatemalans and a Black guy. They aren't like the rest of their kind. He's cool with them. Wouldn't want his sister to marry one, but they hold up their end, and their oldest daughter babysat his kids. It's all good. In time "us" changes and someone else becomes "them".

The long term solution is to use the inexhaustible human capacity for exotic nookie. We'll breed with anything that has more or less the right number of body parts. A few generations of that, and everyone will look like Tiel. Everyone will be heterozygous for everything. We'll all be High Beige. Then we'll have to find some other way to distinguish Our Sort from their crowd.

Race? If you want to get technical the biologists and geneticists recognized four the last time I checked (Out of Africa hypothesis, Mitochondrial DNA, Genetic variance within vs. between populations). There are the San (formerly known as the Kalahari Bushmen), the Khoikhoi (formerly known as Hottentots), another obscure group inhabiting a brutal godsforsaken piece of African wilderness and everyone else. It may have changed since then, but you get the idea.

Even if there were significant differences between populations there is always huge variation within them. There will always be such huge overlap that denying members of one group a fair shot will damage everyone as their potential is wasted and an inferior specimen of the superior group coasts on the basis of his or her racial membership.

If there were such differences, which I personally doubt, a just or just efficient system should allow each to rise or fall as appropriate.

Then there's the question of what is superior. Black people in America are terribly prone to hypertension and diabetes, much more so than pretty much anyone except members of the Pima Nation. To an ignorant racist it might be a sign of their inferiority. But in the context in which it arose it's a sign of increased toughness and ability to survive. The ability to store sugars and retain water were the predictors of survival in slave caravans in Africa and on shipboard during the Middle Passage.

There's some recent evidence that suggests Ashkenazi Jews are on average slightly but measurably more intelligent by several measures than most other groups. There is also evidence that the evolutionary cost in terms of deadly and debilitating diseases has been profound. Fitness giveth and Fitness taketh away. Red in tooth and claw be the name of Fitness.

Anonymous said...

Josh Jasper wrote:

"Outside of some remarkably lame n badly researched instances of evolutionary psychology, there's no god scientific evidence that racial type in humans affects behavior."

You're understating our ignorance. Until very recently we had absolutely no statistically significant ability to map any human behavioral variation to any genetic polymorphism at all, whether that polymorphism was unequally distributed between racial groups or not.

Also, until very recently, we had very limited abilities to efficiently and inexpensively map any genetic polymorphisms between populations at all.

Both of those limitations are dissolving, fast, because of the rise of new technologies to resequence the entire human genome for increasingly small costs ( and the growth of public datasets for genetic variation (

So saying that we have no scientifically established racial variations in genetically inherited behavior is true, but misleading, because it implies our current state of knowledge is final. It almost certainly isn't.

Which is why the question of "do we face the possible alternative of being non-racist liars or racist truth-tellers?" is, for better or for worse, topical.

--Erich Schwarz

Josh Jasper said...

Erich, we have no replicable way to factor OUT social customs and social environmental pressures in terms of making judgments about behavior and genetics on a large scale.

Until then, evolutionary psychologists are working with a contaminated experiment, and pretending they're doing real science. That was my point. We still have no way of knowing what early childhood development factors influence complex behavior in large groups of people.

The hope that we may have it some day in the future has serious dangers in that people are willing to accept crap like The Bell Curve right now, and claim it really is science.

The question "do we face the possible alternative of being non-racist liars or racist truth-tellers?" absolutely has to be seen in the light of so many racist charlatans who've used that very question to prop up racist pseudo science.

It's like asking if we should continue to investigate psychic phenomenon. How many provably fake psychics have to come along before spending money and time researching it and treating it as if it gave real answers?

How many racists using fake science and presenting the same "do we face the possible alternative of being non-racist liars or racist truth-tellers?" do I have to point out before we all approach research into this with the foreknowledge that people who research it are probably bigoted racists, or at least con men who're pandering to bigoted racists.

Being extremely skeptical about fringe science is a positive, not a negative thing.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

and the growth of public datasets for genetic variation (

Which is parallelled by a growth of people making really weird uses of the minimal data we have so far. Just out of curiosity, after you and I, Erich, had talked on my blog about the haplo maps, I decided to Google what they'd found so far about haplotypes for Greeks (being Greek-American on my father's side). Most of it was pretty much what I'd expect - Greeks show some haplotypes that overlap with the rest of Europe, some with the Mediterranean, some with the Middle East.

But then there was the single study, somewhere in Spain, which showed some set of DNA or other, for Greeks, overlapping more with DNA of Ethiopians than did DNA of some other sets of people in the Balkans. And, wow, were there sites wanting to make political hay of some kind or other of that single study's finding (as yet unreplicated, as far as I could tell). There were the people wanting to use it to somehow argue that Macedonian Slavs have more of a tie to Macedonia than Macedonian Greeks. There were the people wanting to argue that ancient Greece had declined because of an influx of African DNA from the slaves (never mind that the Greeks drawn on those ancient vases have pretty much the same features and complexion as modern Greeks, so any African DNA we do or don't have was probably already present in the streets of ancient Athens). And there was the site about the wonders of African civilization that wanted to use that same study to claim ancient Greece as more an African success than a European one.

Put that overwhelming desire of people to seize on tiny bits of scientific evidence to prove the superiority and claims of their group together with all the environmental contamination that Josh talks about, and there's good reason to look at claims of genetic superiority with a really skeptical eye.

On the other hand, if there were such evidence, then there would be "true" statements that also qualified as racist. Because if "racist" doesn't apply to a generalized belief that one race is better than another (not just in peripheral stuff like ability to avoid sunburn, but in important stuff like intelligence and character), then what would it apply to?

Anonymous said...

Lynn Gazis-Sax wrote:

"On the other hand, if there were such evidence, then there would be 'true' statements that also qualified as racist."

I actually agree with this.

Only I'd go further to say: there wouldn't simply be "true" statements, there'd be true ones that did. Without any "ironic" quotation marks to indicate that they weren't really, genuinely true.

As I've said maybe three times in the last day: I fully agree that Steve's definition of "racist" is the correct one -- in terms of that word's recognized, standard denotation.

But I do think that, when one bothers to examine the connotation as well as the denotation of "racist", saying "even a true statement can be racist" passes silently over a huge social and scientific problem that, however conveniently buried out of sight for now, will probably not stay buried for much longer.

I think that very few people (outside of exceptional Web/Net fora like this one) are even trying to think coherently about what that opposition -- true racism versus lying non-racism -- really implies, both about our moral choices in a multiracial free society undergoing rapid social change and technological growth, and about the non-subjective external world that we have to somehow cope with.

--Erich Schwarz

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