Ask the White Guy: Is the Oxford Dictionary Definition of Racism Too White for You?

Oxford University PressThe two most contentious issues on this website are the definition of racism and the concept of white privilege. The concept that racism is power based—and flows from power to lack of power—is hard to grasp for majority people (defined in this country as white, male, heterosexual, Christian and with no disabilities). I can understand the frustration: Racism is hard to grasp. But white privilege is almost impossible for a majority person to truly understand. The comment below is on a column I wrote years ago. (Note: The person commenting used a lower case b for Black; we use an upper case B.)

By your definition, black people (for example) cannot be racist to a white person.


Um, black people cannot subscribe to “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”?


Is that what you’re saying? Or is the Oxford definition of racism too “white” for you?

Actually, it is. If you look up who runs the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find that the staff fits the very definition of “too white” (as do the top editors of the OED). Therefore, the definition of racism found there lacks nuance and is incomplete.

Racism is directed from majority to those not in the majority and has its roots in economics. In China, for example, racism would be directed from Han Chinese to any of the other 55 ethnicities. Instead of “white” privilege, China has “Han privilege”—same concept—and from Tibet to Xinjiang (where the Uyghur people live), there are protests, sometimes violent, over Han economic domination.

It is deep in the human psyche to think of life as a zero-sum game—that denying some people access to resources will concentrate your power. This might work in a hunter-gatherer society, but in an economic system, we all gain when everyone participates; the innovation and industriousness of a free people will trump a group whose freedom is limited. This is why the United States is still the world’s dominant economy: Despite our problems, a person can achieve more of his or her potential here than anywhere else on the planet. It’s also a major factor in why our DiversityInc Top 50, expressed as a stock index, trumps the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500.

The concept of white privilege confuses and frustrates many white people, especially people who don’t perceive themselves as being in a position of power (a recent comment started with “I grew up in a trailer park”). This is an important point because white privilege is leveraged against ignorant white people to do the bidding of more powerful white people who have an economic agenda—the Koch brothers, for example. It’s been used by people from Father Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh to whip people up and build audience share for financial gain. Most of the white people killed on behalf of the Confederate government in our Civil War owned no slaves—but they died for the right to compete with enslaved labor. Most recently, we’ve seen this with the organized and vigorous effort to smear Trayvon’s character. I’m almost certain that this is emanating from the gun lobby, which is concerned about maintaining the tremendous boom in handgun sales that the combination of “Stand Your Ground” and “Shall Issue” concealed-carry laws has generated.

It’s a problem for corporate leaders—you have to manage people who are susceptible to hateful messaging as this “jobless recovery” turns a lot of majority people who were previously “haves” into “have-nots.” This is exacerbated by a trend that economist Enrico Moretti wrote about in his recent book, The New Geography of Jobs: There is a migration of smart people to cities that have the perception of being successful. The folks who are left behind are even more economically depressed than before—and far more susceptible to racists who will provide an easy rationale to their problems.

Racism is more subtle than bigotry, and the concept of “majority” privilege is far more subtle than racism. It’s extremely important for leaders to understand racism—and white privilege—for this is a core limiting factor in their potential success, and therefore a fiduciary responsibility. Racism can be measured: Black households, for example, have one-twentieth the wealth of white households. Majority privilege can be measured, too—no company we measure has achieved equitable talent development—and the average women representation in the top levels of corporate management in the DiversityInc Top 50 is half of college graduation rates (roughly 25 percent versus 50 percent for people in that age bracket).

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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72 Comments

  • Good column. It is all about power. And we each of us need to accept the ways that we
    have privilege. It doesn’t mean that we asked for it. But just by being in the world with a
    lot of power differentials, there are assumptions made, and privileges exist.

  • Mealy mouthings and weasel words, Luke. Your upper case B and your “blacks can’t be racist ’cause they’re not a power group in America, so when blacks discriminate on the basis of skin color, they’re merely bigoted, not racist” song and dance routine reminds me of Rachel Jeantel trying to expound to a CNN interviewer on the difference between ending the n-word with -a versus -er. Or maybe you’re more like a black entertainer explaining how it’s perfectly acceptable for blacks to spew that n-word “because when we use it, we own it.”

    Total blather, Luke. Empty words. Nothing.

    • Luke Visconti

      Anyone may use any language they wish, Andy. There are repercussions for language, however, and my column (and this publication) is targeted toward people who are interested in having their communications understood as clearly and accurately as possible, without hurting people they don’t wish to hurt. Bigotry and racism are of the same nature, but racism, having the leverage of power, does more damage. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Raymond Lee Moser

        Luke what if your employer is black. Your supervisor is black. And you live in a city with a black mayor and majority black city council. Can the bigotry expressed by those in power toward that white employee in that circumstance be considered RACIST?

        • Luke Visconti

          No, it would be bigotry. Why are you racists so wrapped up with this issue? It seems like you want to have racism work both ways so you can absolve yourself of your self-loathing and guilt. It’s like all the people obsessed with other people’s genitals and what they do with them—they (like you) are consumed with the issue. You need counseling for this lifestyle, not a change in definition of one word or another. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • lostprimeau

        wonderful article, maybe racism / bigotry it would be easier understand if Americans were walking in the shoes of native Americans… thinking of the racist mascots like the Washington redskins or Cleveland Indians… Americans like to think racism is a black and white issue .. they always forget the genocide and living Holocaust if the American indigenous community…

  • Will Saunders

    Very good article. This raises the notion of how we need to realize we share the world with others and we have an obligation to embrace others, even those who are not like us or who’s beliefs differ greatly from our own. Honestly, I cannot imagine living in world with everyone who looks, thinks, acts, and believes the way that I do. It’s the diversity that everyone brings that makes life so much more interesting.

  • Well said. Thank you.

  • So to be sure I understand correctly, an ethnic minority can be a bigot, but not a racist.

    • Luke Visconti

      You are correct. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • John Reynolds

        So by your reasoning it is impossible for South African whites to be or have ever been racist, as they are not and never were the majority.

        • Luke Visconti

          Good comment. Numerical majority is immaterial. Power is about monetary superiority, which white South Africans still control, as the wealth distribution program has failed. Monetary oppression from minorities against majority peoples is the basis of the current crisis among the Uighers in China and the revolution in Syria; it was also behind the downfall of the CIA-installed Shah of Iran and the CIA-installed Saddam Hussein. All of these examples have racist elements, especially in China. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • Juan Herrero

            Moving the goalposts?
            [Racism is directed from majority to those not in the majority]
            Noun

            majority (plural majorities)

            More than half (50%) of some group  [quotations ▼]

            The majority agreed that the new proposal was the best.
            Those opposing the building plans were in the majority, so the building project was canceled.

            The difference between the winning vote and the rest of the votes

            The winner with 53% had a 6% majority over the loser with 47%.

            (dated) Legal adulthood

            By the time I reached my majority, I had already been around the world twice.

            (UK) The office held by a member of the armed forces in the rank of major

            On receiving the news of his promotion, Charles Snodgrass said he was delighted to be entering his majority.

            Ancestors; ancestry.
            https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/majority
            I trust an anonymously contributable, majority-moderated dictionary is unbiased enough for you.

          • Luke Visconti

            It’s well known that the Wikipedia community is very white and very male. Here’s Wikipedia’s own article about it: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Systemic_bias Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • In the past few weeks, a five year old niece was told by a White male classmate that he didn’t want to play with her because her skin was too dark, and a four year old daughter of a friend was told by a White female classmate that her dark skin was ugly. The friend told her daughter she was beautiful. Her daughter replied by asking how could she be beautiful since her skin was dark. White kids growing up the U.S. don’t have to deal with that stuff. That’s privilege.

  • ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE. THANK YOU.

  • So what do you call Blacks who hate whites?

    • Luke Visconti

      Black people who hate white people they don’t know, just because they’re white, are bigots. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Wrong, a bigot is a person who is intolerant of people who hold other opinions, viewpoints or ideology. Doesn’t have to do with race. Ironically, you seem to be a bigot yourself, as you attack people who disagree with your assessment of meaning of a word even though every dictionary disagrees with your definition.

        • Luke Visconti

          Wikipedia: Bigotry is a state of mind where a person strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. Mind you, I’ve already commented on how white and male the minders of Wikipedia are.

          I don’t know why the concept—because racism involves economic power—that blacks cannot be racist drives haters crazy, but it does. It’s a word that defines a condition, not an indictment of white people. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Excellent column. I’m involved with several organizations where we’re pursuing diversity and inclusion efforts — and examining majority privilege is a critical part of that process. While it was a tangent, the column states: “Despite our problems, a person can achieve more of his or her potential here than anywhere else on the planet.” Last Sunday, Fareed Zakaria’s show GPS examined recent studies on the geographic discrepancies in social & economic mobility in the U.S. The panelists went on to discuss why the U.S. is now falling behind some other countries in upward mobility (see Zakaria’s GPS website). Maybe this could be a future DiversityInc column.

    • Luke Visconti

      Thank you. Regarding Fareed Zakaria’s latest show, I read the column associated with it on CNN’s website. There’s no doubt that the U.S. is going to fall behind developing countries in upward mobility as the global middle class grows explosively. However, there’s a big difference between economic growth in a country like India and ability to achieve your potential. In my opinion, an SC/ST person (Dalit) will still have a better chance to succeed in America than in India—and will for years to come.

      This is due to economics. In our country, we have a far higher demand for talent than they do in India—it’s why almost half of our workforce is women (college and non-college educated); in 1960, it was only 21 percent (and I’ll bet 90 percent of that 21 percent were nurses and school teachers). Our economy grew to the point where women were fully integrated. This is a virtuous cycle: As more (formerly excluded) people are pulled into the workforce, both quality and innovation increase, as excluding people by factors irrelevant to talent (like gender and race) is a self-limiting factor.

      This is counterintuitive to most majority males. If it weren’t, 50 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs would be women, 50 percent of Congress would be women, etc.

      I’ll close with something that some people might feel too jingoistic: It was our victories in World War II, Korea and the Cold War that paved the way for developing countries to start down this track. And as limited as it was at that time compared to now, it was “inclusion” during World War II that facilitated our winning that war. When World War II started, we had the 17th largest military (behind Romania). We came from behind to vanquish the oppressors—and it sowed seeds of revolution globally, including in our own country. There’s no doubt in my mind that Black men learned military organization during World War II and Korea and used it back home to manage the civil-rights movement.

      In closing, our helping the French recolonize Vietnam—and our subsequent involvement in that war—are widely acknowledged to have been a tragic mistake; I think our incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan are/will be considered mistakes as well. We’re not perfect. But our overall trajectory is on the right side of history. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Ramdas Sankaran

    In my long journey to understand racism I came up with what I call a mirror test i.e standing in front of a mirror and asking the question whether I have said, did or at least thought something that others would not describe as being racist. I have been an ethnic minority person all of my 62 years; firstly in India and the last 35 years in Australia and I failed the Mirror Test. I doubt that the capacity to pass the mirror test has anything to do with colour, gender, ethnicity, power etc

    Power is an important factor in understanding systemic/institutional racism but much less so at the individual level.

    Arguably, it would be more productive to focus on what is racist and deal with it appropriately rather than determining who is racist!

  • It should be called, “Racial Majority Privilege”. People only call it, “White Privilege” because they live in a majority white nation. Any minority, likely can face discrimination regardless of the nation they are in. But by saying “white privilege”, that implies white people are impervious to hate.

    No human being is impervious to hate.

    • Luke Visconti

      You make a good point and I agree with your reasoning. “White privilege” is the common phrase in this country. I’ve noted in several columns how “privilege” applies to the majority—and the majority isn’t always white. There are other “privileges,” too, such as religion and orientation. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Susan Blake

    To me it seems has if the definition is tries to combine “racism” and “racial discrimination”, which leads to less clarity.

    Rasim is the believe that one race is supirior to others on the basis of physical charatistics.

    Racial discrimination is the practice of letting a person’s race or skin color unfairly become a factor when deciding who receives a job, promotion and being treated equal.

    • I agree, Susan.

      Racism is when a person believes that a person belonging to (mostly any other) race is limited/inferior by birth.

      Racial discrimination is when a person’s belief (racism) makes that person interact/behave differently with a person of another race. It could be minority discrimination by a majority (average African American pay is lesser than average White person’s pay for the same work) but it could be otherwise (eg: Asian waiter serves more to Asian customers than White customers).

      Racism is not entirely an economic or power struggle. There could be an impact but what racism is at the core is the belief that a particular race is inferior.

      • Racism always has a economic root, not understanding that will lead you to incorrect conclusions. Bigotry, on the other hand, is independent of economics. -Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • It seems to me that any awareness at all of the race of any individual that influences any decision whatsoever from employment to romance to whomever one chooses to sit next to in a theater or church is racism. If racism is present and it catapults a person into behavior that constitutes any kind of discrimination, that is bigotry.
        Speaking as a white person, I worked for many years in our City Hall, and I faced racial cruelty of every stripe from black people. It hurt me, almost daily. I’m not kidding or being facetious or sardonic; I am completely serious.

        • It’s very unfortunate but fortunately, you only have to deal with it at work. You don’t have to worry about acquiring a home mortgage. In 2012. Country Wide Financial lost a suit in the discrimination of over 200,000 mortgage applicants. 200,000 and that’s only one court case. There are far more discriminated against for loans or jobs that do not take the steps to address it. I’m guessing that you find yourself preparing each morning for how you are going to handle this treatment to get through each and everyday. If you were Black, you would have to ask those same questions every time you went to the store; a movie theater, a restaurant and at any company you worked for in every office or position. When you get pulled over by police officer, you don’t have to wonder whether the officer is going to treat you with respect as an American citizen. You don’t have to worry about the racism your grade school children are going to have to endure while attending grade school. When you are Black and apply for a job, you have to ask yourself each and every time, whether the person interviewing you will judge you equally and fairly and will not be influenced by your race. I am a manager at a large firm and I know of several specific ways companies discriminate in their hiring practices. I plan to write about it. One of the largest frustrations for some African American’s is that unless you are Black, you don’t have a fair chance of understanding the plight of the individual’s who are Black. – Many of the situations I spoke about above are invisible to every single person who does not have to endure and experience these situations. This is not an easy subject to understand and it can take years but unless people are open to the wisdom and care that lies within the human soul, it will never be resolved. And that would be so unfortunate. I do hope you take the time to at least try to understand and just perhaps, you will be able to share your wisdom with others.

          • You make a lot of assumptions about this person’s personal life, struggles, and experiences based on her race. You have no idea where she lives, what her community looks like, or what she deals with outside of work. I live in a community where I am the minority and it is infuriating to be told I have no idea what it’s like to be a minority from the majority!! And no, the majority here is not white. It isn’t anywhere in this area. I’m made fun of in public (kids at the grocery store make comments), constantly insulted by my neighbors, and that’s all in addition to what I’ve faced at work. I count myself lucky that I currently work for a business where I don’t feel discriminated and put down multiple times an hour every single day at work. Don’t make assumptions about the personal experiences of others based on race. It doesn’t make you a better person and it won’t fix the problems this world hady with race.

  • Mark Bird

    Racism is so much more prominent these days than when I was young. Take the film Dambusters for example, nobody batted an eyelid at the name of the black labrador (“Ni**er”). It’s all so political these days, as a result of the media perhaps? People are more offended when it’s in their face on a global scale.

    What about when racism is mixed with comedy. Is that offensive? For example, I read an article about building development in Perth Australia, and the content seems very offensive against native Australians, but it’s all in humour. Is that racist, I don’t know.

    • Luke Visconti

      Thank you for your post. We took out your link (we almost always do), but to answer your question, racist humor is … racist. I think “humor” like the film Borat, or Chris Rock talking about Black people to an audience of white people, isn’t funny at all. I’ve been involved with humor within a group—for example, I’m an Anglo and a long-term member of a Latino professional group, and I’ve been in situations where ethnic jokes are tossed around among the insiders (I politely walk away), and I’ve joked around with other Italian-Americans about the old-school guys we grew up with, but it’s not a good idea. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Mark Bird

    I always try and see the positive side. If anything is said in jest that can be taken in jest then it can’t be a bad thing. It makes me think of people who wish to have a party instead of a funeral, to celebrate life instead of morning death. It’s about the reaction more than the source. With the word “n*gger” it wasn’t taken as offensively a few decades ago as it is now, but society dictates to us it’s offensive so that’s what we believe. I’m English and live in Australia, so I’m a “pom”. I hear that word all the time, and it could be taken offensively (along with the “English don’t wash” jokes), but to me it’s silly, it’s in jest, and I’m not going to get worked up and offended over it.

    No probs about taking out the link – I just thought it was really good. I loved Borat by the way!

    • Luke Visconti

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Might I add, Mark, that the society you speak of comprises all of us? Human beings are society. Therefore, as you said, we can all dictate what’s offensive. That means that people in the minority have the same right to speak up about what is offensive to them as the majority does (although minority voices are often unheard or disrespected). I dare you to find a “positive side” to racism. As a member of the minority its use offends the most, I can tell you that the ‘n’-word is, has been, and will always be insulting, particularly when used by people who are not Black. It is a slur. There is a long history behind it; look it up. Although I am not an advocate for usage of the term by anyone, I think there is something to be said for the move on the part of some Black people to try to reclaim the word and turn its meaning on its head. This doesn’t mean that non-Black people can use it now. By doing so, non-Black people appropriate the concept of the Black struggle, which, putting aside all mockery, actually exists. As you only shared your nationality, I am not going to make assumptions about your race. But you don’t get to equate being called a “pom” with being called the ‘n’-word. It will never be the same.

    The source can be more important than the reaction. For example, the source of your post is ignorance, and my reaction is of an incensed nature. See? I have an excuse for my irritation–someone tried to undermine the impact of a disparaging word born over a hundred years ago of pure hatred toward people with dark skin. Even if I weren’t Black I would be upset with your words. What’s the excuse for your ignorance? You have the internet at your fingertips. Take a minute to find out why “society dictates” that the ‘n’-word should not be used. We have our reasons.

  • Bill Krupar

    I have been told by black coworkers that since I only watch hockey and NASCAR because I can identify with men playing a sport with similar physical characteristics (eg height and weight) , and avoid football & basketball for the same reason, that I am a “racist”.
    Now that NBA participants have declared they are a “black league”, am I still the racist?
    I await your answer.

  • I’am currently in a heated debated about this topic and I don’t know how to respond to something that pops up quite frequently. I was wondering how would you respond to a comment similar to this.

    “My intent is not to put anyone down in anyway, I just don’t seem to understand how using the same term to describe for example two individuals’ very similar experiences is harmful. If one person is denied a job due to race and another person is denied a job due to race, they both are out of work regardless of if one was denied a job by a white person and the other denied a job by a non-white person. Their collective life experiences may be different, their difficulties with institutional racism different, but when making reference to the job denial, all I see is “racism”.”

    This person recognizes that there is white privilege and that there is institutionalized racism. but they can’t or don’t want to let go of that dictionary definition of racism. They argue that someone losing their job is economically rooted.

    • Luke Visconti

      When I was going through flight school, there was a popular saying: “Never try to teach a pig to sing—it’s a waste of your time and annoys the pig.” I suggest you get a T-shirt made up and wear it around your acquaintance. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Gary Noble

    The author claims to be trying to make the language clear by redefining a well known word to mean something else, when in fact it will only lead to confusion and resentment – especially when the new meaning already has several perfectly useful terms that describe it (‘institutional racism’ comes instantly to mind).

    I would go further and suggest that the only reason to redefine such a strong and emotive word is to attempt to stifle and/or control debate on the subject. It is a scarily Orwellian tactic to attempt to change established language in pursuit of a political goal – especially when your change seeks to disenfranchise a specific demographic. By the actual definition of racism this needless change could be considered racist.

    • Luke Visconti

      1. If you’re scared, I suggest you find other reading material.
      2. Well-known phrases and well-understood phrases are sometimes far apart (for example, “global warming”).
      3. Do you “have a dog in this fight” or “skin in this game,” or are you just a troll?
      Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Some of your replies seem increasingly knee-jerk and perhaps based on fear that you yourself have. You don’t really address the man’s comments, you just shut him down by calling him a scared troll. I thought this was a more enlightened article, by internet standards, but I’m starting to have doubts. Your tagline says CEO DiversityInc, but anyone who disagrees with you is given some snyde remark with no attempt at meaningful dialogue. It seems you have no tolerance for diversity of opinion.

        • Luke Visconti

          That’s not true, Karl, but I have no tolerance for gay bashers, women haters, bigots and racists. I seem to have touched a nerve with you. I have “some doubts” about your motivation, Karl. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • The people writing dictionaries list meanings based on their common usage, not those decided by political movements. You can feel it’s inadequate, but it’s not going to change – being so entrenched – and people who use racism to describe discrimination on the basis on race alone will continue to be correct.

  • This all seems benign enough. The problem I have seen in practice is that this line of thought leads minority groups to think it is acceptable to to hold negative racial stereotypes against white people. Since you cannot be racist to white people is OK to call them honkeys, or crackers or racists devils. In fact it is admirable to hold white people and their white privilege in contempt. Not an attitude conducive with peaceful cohabitation.

    • Luke Visconti

      Gee, do you think it’s my website, or the evidence in front of their noses, that tells nonwhite people they have reason to think they’re being screwed over by our society? Let’s meet in Trenton, Camden, Newark, South Chicago, Oakland or Gary, Ind., to discuss further. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Luke,

        You’re own racism and bigotry shines through. You attack whites for the conditions of black people in those cities yet the majority of the political leadership is black in every one of those places so you should really blame black people for screwing over other blacks. It’s not my fault the minorities in places like Chicago and Baltimore continue to vote for the same politics and politicians year after year then blame white Republicns for all Thor problems despite the fact we have no power or political influence if any significance in these places. In FACT it had been over a half a century in these coyotes since strait white Christian males like myself had any power. So go look in the mirror and stop the lies and nonsense to cover up you’re own ignorance and racism. Then come up with phony concepts such as “White Privledge” to justify you’re hate and intolerance then useing it push you’re communist politics while calling for the redistribution of wealth and racist concepts like affirmative action in the name of fairness. The esucTed have known for 100 years this is front for communism. Heck the NAACP was in fact founded by communists but you are to ignorant and uneducated to know anything about history.

        • Luke Visconti

          If I urinated in your Wheaties, would you blame the resulting taste on yourself or General Mills? (Oh, how I wish I could try this for real.) Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Luke: Your response to Greg does not at all address what he said. Greg is saying that reacting to oppression with more hatred does not help the situation, and your response to him is, “Are you saying there’s no oppression?” No, that’s not at all what he’s saying.

        • Luke Visconti

          Busy today with my website, aren’t you, Karl. That’s not what Greg said, nor is it what I said. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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