Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What's the Difference Between Prejudice and Racism? A Sociologist Responds

What's the Difference Between Prejudice and Racism?
A Sociologist Responds

Recently I had a conversation with a white man in his fifties who took issue with the n-word being considered unspeakable, sparked by this post on Racism Review. His problem with the strong reaction many black people have to this word, especially when directed at them as an insult by white people, is rooted in his belief that the n-word is an insult like any other. He suggested that using it is no different than calling someone a “dumb blond,” and that people need to “move on” from believing that race and racism are issues that deserve attention in today’s world. This conversation alerted me to the importance of clearly delineating the differences between prejudice and racism.

From a sociological standpoint, the dumb blond stereotype, and the jokes that celebrate and reproduce it, can be considered a form of prejudice. The Oxford English dictionary defines prejudice as a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience,” and this resonates with how sociologists understand the term. Quite simply, it is a pre-judgement that one levies of another that is not based in reality.

The man I had this conversation with argued that as a blond person of German heritage, he had experienced pain in his life due to this form of prejudice aimed at blond people. While that may be true, it is not true that calling someone the n-word is equivalent to, and no more harmful or noteworthy, than calling someone a dumb blond. Sociology can help us understand why.

While calling someone a dumb blond might result in feelings of frustration, irritation, discomfort, or even anger for the person targeted by the insult, that’s about where the negative implications of this prejudice end. There is no research to support the hypothesis that hair color might influence one’s access to rights and resources in society, like college admission, ability to buy a home in a particular neighborhood, access to employment, or likelihood that one will be stopped by the police. This form of prejudice, most often manifested in bad jokes, is not consequential from a sociological standpoint.
By contrast, the n-word, a term popularized by white Americans during the era of African enslavement, encapsulates a wide swath of disturbing racial prejudices, like the idea that black people are savage, dangerous brutes prone to criminality; that they lack morals and are compulsively hyper-sexual; and that they are stupid and lazy. The wide-sweeping and deeply detrimental implications of this term, and the prejudices it reflects and reproduces, make it vastly different from insulting a blond for being dumb. The n-word was used historically, and still used today, to cast black people as second class citizens who do not deserve, or who have not earned, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by others in American society. This makes it racist, and not simply prejudiced, as defined by sociologists.

Race scholars Howard Winant and Michael Omi define racism as a way of representing or describing race that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.” Racism begets a structure of domination based on race. Because of this, the n-word is not simply a prejudice, like the suggestion that blonds are dumb, but is racist, as it suggests that black people are inferior to white people, and in the minds of many, to people of other races too. The term reflects and reproduces a hierarchy of racial categories and peoples, and black people are placed at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Use of the n-word and the still widespread belief--though perhaps subconscious or semi-conscious--that black people are dangerous, sexual predators and sluts, and pathologically lazy and deceitful, both fuel and justify structural inequalities of race that plague society. The racial prejudices encapsulated in the n-word are manifested in the disproportionate policing, arrest, and incarceration of black men and boys (and increasingly black women); in racial discrimination in hiring practices; in the lack of media and police attention devoted to crimes against black people as compared with those committed against white women and girls; and, in the lack of economic investment in predominantly black neighborhoods and cities, among many other problems that result from systemic racism.
While many forms of prejudice are troubling, not all forms of prejudice are equally consequential. Those that beget structural inequalities, like prejudices based in gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and religion, for example, are far more troubling and worthy of critical address by sociologists.



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