The Other Columbus: It’s time to replace racism

In the interest of public health, Alive’s columnist suggests swapping out the word ‘racism’ in our conversations

Scott Woods
A statue of Christopher Columbus is in the water at Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia, on  June 9, 2020, after it was torn down by protesters. A protester's sign reads: "Racism. You will not be missed."

Let’s be honest: A lot of us are in a place where, after the protests and justice movements of the past 18 months, we’re kind of burned out. It’s kind of like pandemic burnout, but in this case people are burned out on justice. They're not burned out on racism; that's doing fine. They're burned out on justice. They're tired of talking about it. White people are tired of being responsible for it. People of color are tired of experiencing it. And then there's the pandemic. I get all of that. It's human to get exhausted by these things. I’ve been waiting my whole life for people to do more than talk about justice, so you know I’m exhausted.

You can catch it in the white eye roll and feel it in the energy of a response (or lack of a response) whenever racism comes up. Racism is a difficult issue to engage in part because we're not all working from the same definitions. If your definition is the archaic “prejudice based on race,” that's not very useful in the 21st century. If your definition is something like “a social system that uses power and privilege to reward or withhold resources based on race in unjust ways,” that's way more useful.

So, in the interest of public health, I'm all for not using the word racism anymore when what we’re really referring to is white supremacy.

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Think about it. Apply white supremacy whenever you mean racism and it will fit 99 percent of the time. If we’re defining it as a belief that whiteness is superior to every other ethnicity — which is how almost every American problem begins — it fits. I know white supremacy is a much harder phrase to hear. It places the blame solely on a specific group of people, which is always a rough way to start your week. And thanks to years of laying the phrase at the feet of the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and Nazis, it’s hard to pivot the majority of white-facing behavior into that particular pool of ne'er do wells. But we have other words for other things. Prejudice is a thing. Bias is a thing. When you say white supremacy, it keeps us from using the same measuring stick we apply to a nuclear bomb as opposed to a switchblade like so-called “reverse racism.” 

(Addendum: A friend of mine proposed an additional designation — genocidal. It’s what we would now call the people that years of Phil Donahue trained us to call “white supremacists,” such as the KKK, Nazis and Skinheads. It’s how we would differentiate between people who want to exterminate people of color from the more common strain of people who simply think they’re superior to other races, who want to touch our hair without asking and cut in front of us in line in coffeeshops. So the scale would be white supremacists, then genocidal people. We’d pretty much leave the neutered term of “racism” on the sidelines, or save it for middle school social study reports.) 

Another benefit aside from more useful application of cause and effect in racial discussions is that, when you encounter someone who can’t hang with the definition (which is dead simple), you know who you’re dealing with. That’s a person who doesn't want to feel bad, a person who doesn't want to put in any serious work. That’s a person who just wants to get past the part where white supremacy makes them feel icky. These are all people you should feel free to stop engaging on matters of race. I'm not telling you that you can't help your mother or a well-meaning co-worker along. Maybe they can change. In any case, that's not your homework; that's their homework. Do not burden yourself with other people's change in this respect. The internet and library cards work the same way for everyone. What a quick and easy way to clean up your personal bandwidth.

Just something to think about the next time someone wants to eat up what peace of mind the American Experiment affords you, in an attempt to assuage their own feelings while ignoring yours.