The Meaning of Racism

The following is an essay I wrote about a year ago for my upper-division writing class at San Jose State University, hence the APA format and restrained nature. The assignment was to focus on a word used by someone else and present an argument on why that person was using the word incorrectly. Naturally, I wrote about how the word "racism" was being used incorrectly by those Avenue Q assholes in that one shitty song. Enjoy!

The Meaning of Racism


San Jose State University

Racism is a system of oppression that continues to privilege White people by torturing People of Color, and the only way to end racism is to vehemently oppose it.  Apparently, not everyone thinks so.  Avenue Q, a musical comedy on Broadway, has created a song that greatly makes light of racism (as cited in Songlyrics, 2013).  Titled “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” the song portrays the problem of racism in a very inaccurate manner and, therefore, connotes an incorrect definition for the word racism.  Let us begin by establishing the true definition of racism.  Then, we can examine the historical and academic usage of the term.  Afterwards, we need to address the notion of White privilege.  Finally, all of these revelations will allow us to understand the reality of racism and undo the apathy.

Before we can comprehend the true definition of racism, we need to comprehend the false definition.  With lines such as “Ethnic jokes might be uncouth / But you laugh because they’re based on truth / Don’t take them as personal attacks / Everyone enjoys them, so relax” (lines 49-52) and “Hey guys, what are you laughing about? / Racism / Cool” (94-96), Avenue Q obviously does not see racism as a serious issue.  The author defines racism as innocent, inconsequential prejudice and mockery.  Furthermore, the song implies three additional features: Avenue Q insists that People of Color are equally culpable for racism; White people are equally harmed by racism; and the only way to end racism is for “P.C.” (line 128) People of Color to stop whining.  The author’s definition of racism is more than just an oversimplification; it is, for whatever reason, a complete misrepresentation of life in a White supremacist society.

Indeed, it is insulting to dismiss racism as a trivial concern and foolish to equate racism with mere prejudice.  There is nothing trivial about Black and Latino students being far more likely than Whites to attend schools of concentrated poverty (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012).  There is nothing trivial about labor market discrimination restricting employment opportunity for People of Color (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Pager, Western, & Sugie, 2009).  There is nothing trivial about college-educated Blacks being nearly twice as likely as comparable Whites to be out of work; college-educated Latinos being about 50 percent more likely than comparable Whites to be out of work; and college-educated Asians being about 40 percent more likely than comparable Whites to be out of work (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012).  There is nothing trivial about police officers linking Black faces to criminality (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004).  There is nothing trivial about a Black youth being six times more likely to be incarcerated for a crime than a White youth even though the crime details and prior record are no different (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2007).  Racism is not innocent and inconsequential; it is devastating and torturous.  Racism is not just prejudice and mockery; it is a system of oppression.  Racism is not a two-way street; it privileges Whites at the expense of People of Color.  Racism will not end with complacency and mockery; it will only end with fervent resistance.  Racism is a system of oppression that continues to privilege White people by torturing People of Color, and the only way to end racism is to vehemently oppose it.  Now that we have established the true definition of racism, we can further support the definition with its historical usage.

The historical usage of the term racism has always alluded to the urgency of racial inequity.  Take for example Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Written in 1963, this document contains insights that are still relevant today.  Dr. King wrote it as a rebuttal to a statement from eight White Alabama ministers that expressed their concern for Dr. King’s direct action demonstrations, a statement that “fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 39).  Besides stating his disappointment with the White moderate’s lethargy, Dr. King directly points out the existence of a White power structure in American society that has produced “the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 39).  In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King used the term racism correctly.  When Dr. King spoke of racism, he did not see it as innocent or inconsequential.  When Dr. King spoke of racism, he spoke of apartheid; he spoke of separate and absolutely unequal segregation.  He spoke of White supremacy.  He spoke of being “harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, never quite knowing what to expect next […] plagued with inner fears and outer resentments […] forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 40).  Along with the historical usage, the academic usage of the term also puts Avenue Q to shame.

The academic usage of racism easily matches the correct definition.  There is a bevy of articles that support this, but how about we focus on one peer reviewed article by Kenneth T. Ponds (2013) called “The Trauma of Racism: America’s Original Sin.”  The title alone conveys the real meaning of racism: It is one of trauma and sin.  In no uncertain terms, Ponds discusses the direness and inequity of racism.  Racism is:

power plus prejudice […] the superiority of one group over another […] broader societal systems support[ing] the notion that whiteness represents superiority and non-whiteness signifies inferiority.  Systemic racism disadvantages people of color and operates to the advantage of whites, whether or not they are aware of these privileges or even want them […] Racism maintains domination, power, and control.  It also provides the rationale and justification for debasing, degrading, and doing violence to people of color. (Ponds, 2013, p. 23)

Now that we have established that the correct definition of racism is used in the academic field, we can address White privilege.

White privilege consists of all those unearned benefits that come at the expense of People of Color’s disadvantage.  Already presented in a previous section, all of the evidence concerning racism’s impact on People of Color (inequality of educational opportunity, employment discrimination, unemployment, and persecution by the justice system) can be seen from another perspective: its impact on Whites.  If America’s education system forces Youths of Color to go to worse schools, then it also allows White youths to go to better schools.  If American employers are biased against People of Color, then they are also biased in favor of Whites.  If America’s justice system persecutes People of Color, then it also gives White people too much leeway.  If society puts someone down, then it also props someone up.  If America forces some people to be underprivileged, then it also allows others to be overprivileged.  Now, I know that overprivileged is not in the dictionary.  I know that Microsoft Word is going to put a squiggly red line underneath it, but I do not care.  It is a word that needs to exist.  If people can understand the concept of White privilege and the other preceding revelations, we can finally begin to undo the apathy.

Apathy is nothing new.  In 1963, about two-thirds of White Americans believed that Blacks had equal opportunity with regards to employment, housing and education (Gallup, 2001).  In 1962, 94 percent of White Americans told Gallup they believed that Black children had just as good a chance to get a good education as White children (Institute of Government & Public Affairs, 2011).  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963.  Let that sink in for a moment.  White denial has been around for quite some time.  The vast majority of Whites were apathetic about racism during the Civil Rights era and, frankly, they are still apathetic about it today.  Do not follow in their footsteps.  If people could just accept the truth and understand the correct definition of racism, we can break the long-standing tradition of ignorance, complacency, and apathy.

Racism is not innocent; it is evil.  Racism is not inconsequential; it is traumatic.  Racism is not an even battleground; it is inequity.  Racism will not end with jokes; it will only end with tension.  The true definition of racism, supported by its historical and academic usage, is the foundation required to understand the notion of White privilege and the reality of racism.  Knowing this reality will allow you to undo the apathy.  The importance of such endeavors for People of Color is obvious.  As for White people, I have a quotation for you from Dr. King: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.  I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 40).


Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofm&AN=513173282&site=ehost-live

Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 87(6), 876-893. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.6.876

Gallup. (2001). Black-White Relations in the United States 2001 Update. Gallup Poll Social Audit. Retrieved from http://iws2.collin.edu/lstern/GALLUP-RACE-AUDIT.pdf

Hornsby, A., Jr. (1986). Martin Luther King, Jr. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 71, No. 1/4 (Winter - Autumn, 1986), pp. 38-44. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717650

Institute of Government & Public Affairs. (2011). Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretation 2011 Update. University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://igpa.uillinois.edu/system/files/Trends%20in%20Racial%20Attitudes_3-4B-Sup.pdf

National Council on Crime and Delinquency. (2007). And Justice for Some: Differential treatment of Youth of Color in the Justice System. Author. Retrieved from http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/justice-for-some.pdf

Orfield, G., Kucsera, J., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012). E Pluribus…Separation. The Civil Rights Project. UCLA. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/e-pluribus...separation-deepening-double-segregation-for-more-students/orfield_epluribus_revised_omplete_2012.pdf

Pager, D., Western, B., & Sugie, N. (2009). Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , Vol. 623, Race, Crime, and Justice: Contexts and Complexities (May, 2009), pp. 195-213. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40375896

Ponds, K. T. (2013). The Trauma of Racism: America's Original Sin. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 22(2), 22-24. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=89922670&site=ehost-live

Songlyrics. (2013). Avenue Q – Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. Retrieved from http://www.songlyrics.com/avenue-q/everyone-s-a-little-bit-racist-lyrics/

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2011. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsrace2011.pdf


  1. excellent, excellent, excellent piece. i am saving this on my favorites.

  2. Wow..I don't know what to say about this research paper,but I will say this..this was some awesome work.Really.. it is. This is very informative and god knows..truthful.

    It's easy for some White people to tell others about POC's experiences,but do they actually go out and live, breathe and experience their lives on an everyday basis? very few do and I kind of laugh when they tell the world our story. Just a week ago, I was reading about how most White people don't have as many Blacks and POCs as friends as the other way around. Sometimes, I just trip out when I hear some of them say the oldest racist excuse in the world " I have Black friends" Sure ,they do have them...if they are buying something from their mom and pop store or being around them at work,but it's not getting to know they real POC community.

    I also will agree with you about racism being evil. I just love it when people accuse Black people of being the angriest race in the world. No, the angriest people are White people. The wrong assumption about anger is that it has to be obnoxious and obvious but anger can be sneaky and sly. Everything that glitters isn't gold. To racist Whites we look angry but so are they. I mean ..I was looking at a website where a poster brought up a good point with Mike Brown. In it.. a poster is understandably is infuriated with the slow progress of raising funds for this child but how fast it is for Darrell Wilson's supporters to raise money like a speeding bullet. What a shame... and a good example of White racist anger.

    Sure, these devils..*cough*..people are not in riots( Where is the military police for them?!),but they are still angry. They are supporting a man who they know good and well murdered Mike. Nobody asked his parents how they were doing or anything like that. Some of them on the net even went as far to go on Go Fund Me with the racist tirade(it was eventually shut down).A non racist responsible person will acknowledge the problem and not play racist politics like these people are doing. The day when White society admits to racism and help contribute more in quelling this problem is the day POCs will stop talking about it

  3. This post reminds me of an article I read on Salon.com (by way of BrothaWolf) that was I nodding along with until the writer started saying stuff like this:

    "“Every fear hides a wish,” as David Mamet wrote in a play about a homophobic white racist who ends up as the submissive prison lover of an African-American man. If much of white America seems possessed by visions of black violence, black rage and black revenge, the wish that lies beneath those fantasies is for a ritual cleansing that will wipe the historical slate clean and allow us all to start over. This is a species of paranoia, but way down deep, I think I perceive a thin reed of hope. Much of the weirdness, self-hatred and general know-nothing misanthropy of white America, in my view, boils down to a deep-seated desire to be free of the burden of history, a desire not to have to be white anymore.

    ...They yearn to be free of white privilege and perhaps of whiteness itself, whose benefits were never as great as advertised and have long since been outweighed by its toxic side effects. Since they can’t make it go away by insisting that it does not exist, they dream of its destruction."

    Excuse me, but I am soooooo not buying the idea that white Americans secretly wish for the destruction of racism and white privilege. They wish that we would stop talking about it, pointing it out, calling them out on it. Has anyone watched TV or gone to a movie lately? Token, subservient POC in seas - oceans - of fluorescent white faces. A black man became President six years ago and we haven't heard the end of it. People of color - men, women, kids, all shades of brown - are stalked, harassed, and killed by the police weekly in America - does this strike any of you as a people longing to be rid of racism and white privilege? Or does it strike you as a group of people desperate to maintain supremacy by any means necessary?

    Because that's going to be the new drone-speak...that white American secretly loathes itself and wants nothing more than to end the evils of racism and white privilege.

    1. Oh god! that has got to be the most ridiculous assessment that I ever heard from them. You're also right about them wanting to silence us. If they really care about Blacks and other POCs,they wouldn't do half of the racist things they are doing ,whether it's direct/indirect. I mean..it doesn't take much to change,but they are so absorbed in their White supremacy. C'mon now..let's be honest here,they have been taking the easy way out since the development of man. Do the author think that they want to mix their lives with difficulty? You know that they don't want that.

      Speaking of White supremacy, I was just reading about about a recent Vogue article about the " discovery" of big butts by White people. OMFGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!! I have never been so infuriated and offended in my life! Really ?! (much sarcasm) ..White folks discovers big butts..it's a phenomenon ?! Isn't this a load of crap?

      This is so funny and hypocritical. Saran Bartman was considered a freak and mistreated for having hers. Tyra Banks was told that she was "too big" for having hers. I guess they haven't heard the years of Black rappers like Sir Mix-sA-Lot singing how he liked big butts. That was years ago but they discovered them.Please!!I'm getting sick of White society criticizing then appropriating the very thing Black women have being proud of for ages and criticizing us for having. Black Twitter was on time with this story.

      I went inside a Sally beauty supply house to look for some natural hair care products for my mom. As I looking for a specific brand of it, I also looked how many well known White hair companies jumped on it.Being racially sensitive to black hair care..maybe,but with us , I also think it's a moneymaker for them.I thought about that experience and how..now some White folk want to say they have natural hair.

      Can White folks have natural hair? This was a question that was asked on TheRoot.com and other Black-oriented websites and I say no..at least not the natural hair they mock us for having. What White society don't get is that what Black people( and let me not forget about the People of Fiji. They also pride themselves with their hair and have been for ages) have is not THEIRS and have been since man. I'll give it a year and they'll claim that they have discovered natural hair. I'm just waiting for the lie.

      What they don't understand..or don't want to get ..is that our culture is not for sale ,nor is it a trend. It's who we are, accepted as and is a part of our history. When we express our love for being who we are, White society tell us that there is something wrong with being a minority because it didn't conform to their idea of what everybody else is supposed to look like yet attempt to take away and disrespect the very things that make POC's special.

      As a kid, I felt ugly but in spite of me living around White society all of my life, for some great reason, I have never wanted to be anything else but a Black/POC/religious minorities because of our differences and the history behind them. It also helped that I had folks who reminded me that there was nothing wrong with being " different" no matter what they say. Apparently, not if you have White folks appropriating POC culture..lol!

    2. So true! That is a lot of the new speak i'm hearing whenever i bring up white supremacy. It's just another expression of white guilt to let the person with the opinion off the hook without having to do any work to dismantle it!
      Pure bull, I'm glad you mentioned movies Ankh, they've done numerous studies that have shown that even white people are getting tired of the movie mayo fest and want to see REAL diversity in media and that this makes money. Hollywhite is always complaining that all white everything and whitewashing everything is what they need to do to make money. Yet the industry is falling apart and honest non-stereotypical representation could save things but they continue down the same path, why? To maintain white supremacy of course! The allure of cash was just a deflection and they've proven it by still adhering to the old rules.

  4. Great paper Ballisto. I couldn't agree more. I almost feel like racism is rooted in numbers and not real people. What I mean by that is a common argument is "XYZ" commits more crimes, low IQ or some other poor excuse for "facts" and those "facts" are excuses for what in any other situation is clearly injustice. Black/Latino/Asian/Native person shot by police? Then a "fact" is that they are most likely a criminal and the officer was doing his or her job. It just makes me feel as though racism = madness/insanity/paranoia. There just isn't any logic to it.


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