Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Abuse of “racism” (and issues relating to racism)


This article originated as one in a series of blog entries on unfair argumentation. As soon turned out, it became too long and complex to make a good blog entry (at least without further subdivision)—and I chose instead to write an article for my website with the intended blog entry merely linking here.


Abuse of words out of ignorance is something we are all occasionally guilty of. Some words, however, are not always abused out of ignorance, but in a deliberate attempt to gain something, e.g. to discredit an opponent. “Racism” (with variations) is a common victim of both. Below I will discuss some related issues, e.g. what racism is, use and abuse of “racism”, and similar.

What does “racism” actually mean?

In its core that there are races of different value and (almost always) that ones own race is the superior, (typically) with a right or obligation to to take a correspondingly superior role. In an extended sense, an alternate version focusing on different abilities could be considered an acceptable use; however, I would, personally, be wary even of this, because of the different implications and because the latter is usually an opinion held about aggregates (allowing for considerable individual variation)—while the former tends to involve a generalization where race is the sole determinant.

Notably, it does not automatically follow that a racist is hostile towards the “inferior” races. On the contrary, it is quite possible that a charitable attitude is taken, along the lines of giving a helping hand to the less fortunate or, obviously, The White Man’s Burdenw.

Forms of abuse

The forms of abuse are manifold, starting with the, possibly, harmless seeming use of “racism” for “racial discrimination”: While most racial discrimination is likely based in racism, racism is by no means a pre-requisite; and it is quite possible to be a racist without engaging in racial discrimination. Equating the two is like equating “communist” with “revolutionary” (or, on the outside, “communist revolutionary”).


A particular complication is that many alleged cases of racial discrimination are nothing of the kind to begin with, and additionally slapping on a label of “racist” on the alleged perpetrator leads to grave injustices: For one thing, legitimate actions (e.g. a firing due to incompetence) are often incorrectly blamed on skin color; for another, even actual mistreatment is something that happens to people of all colors—including white Christian men. In both cases, the pertinent question is not whether something bad happened to a member of X, but why it happened and whether things would have gone differently if he had been a member of Y.

The same applies, m.m., to e.g. sexual discrimination.

However, in the political sphere it does not end here, but abuse includes (at least) two more sinister cases:

  1. Extension of “racism” to include feelings based on other factors than race, notable nationality, religion, and culture. (I deliberately do not use “ethnicity”, because it too often has a racial component.)

    Here the distinction is crucial because racism focuses on “nature”, while e.g. dislike of Muslims focuses on “nurture”—in the one case, it is inborn characteristics that are important, with one of two people (allegedly) being superior by his very genetical make-up; in the other, the difference lies in who was raised in what manner, with an implicit reversal of superiority, should the two have been switched with each other at birth.


    Differentiations based on nationality, likely, used to have a strong (sub-)racial aspect, at least in Europe; however, the differences in looks between different European “breeds” are so small compared to what is observed globally that any dislike of Frogs, Krauts, or Island Monkeys is dominated by other factors. This development is strengthened further by the increase in migration and intermingling: When I grew up, the mother of one of my class-mates was considered exotic—being from the UK. Today, about one in tene of the people I encounter are foreigners.

  2. Extension to include opinions and actions that are only tangentially related, e.g. criticism of a particular immigration policy. (Cf. e.g. my discussion of Sverigedemokraterna.)

In many cases, unfortunately, this is not a sign of mere ignorance, but a deliberate attempt to “monstrify” the alleged racists in a manner similar to the one described in my discussion of Hitler on propaganda.

Further, “racism” and similar labels are often used as an ipso-facto “proof” that the opponents arguments are wrong. Generally, instead of arguing against a particular opinion, a label is applied and by the mere application of the label and the associated set of opinions, the opinions are rendered “invalid”. This even extends to labels that are only negative within some groups: “You want lower/higher taxes? Then you are a libertarian/communist. If you are a libertarian/communist, you are wrong [or evil]; ergo, we do not need to discuss the pros and cons of lower/higher taxes, because we know that you are wrong [or evil].” Obviously, this leads to a situation where it becomes impossible to seriously discuss a great number of issues: Either someone agrees or he is, ipso facto and per definitionem, wrong.

Criticism of Obama/Democrats

A sometime US issue is that criticism of Obama (or the Democrats in general) is consider racist—not because the contents have anything to do with race, but merely because Obama happens to be black.

Is some of the criticism directed against him based in his race? Quite possibly. The point is, however, that most of it is not: It stems from the fact that he is Democrat with ideas that are considered too far to the left by many Republicans (or wrong for some other reasons). As always, the question is not whether he is a black man who is criticized, but whether a white man with the same ideas would be treated differently.

Other words with similar problems

The word “racism” is not the only one, not by far, to have such problems; however, it is one of the most common—and contains some of the most outrageous examples (e.g. concerning The Bell Curvew).

Other notable examples include “fascist” and “sexist”/“misogynistic” (on a reasonably global level); while many other words have had the same problems at particular times or in particular regions, including “communist”/“socialist” and “capitalist”/“imperialist”.

An interesting variation is the use of particular words to convey a strong approval or disapproval in manner that is not founded in actual facts: The majority of all uses of “unconstitutional” (in the US) seem to mean “I feel mistreated. This just cannot be right.”—which, however, does not automatically make whatever happened unconstitutional. Indeed, there are many things that are both ethically wrong and actually illegal that do not violate the US constitution. Similarly, formulations concerning “democracy” are often used to convey meanings that are independent of, or even unrelated to democracy. Examples include referring to “a democratic society” in the meaning of “the kind of society I, personally, prefer” or counting certain rights (e.g. freedom of speech) to democracy. (Freedom of speech is a part of most definitions of democracy; however, it is quite possible to have it without also having democracy. Further, freedom of speech is something good, taken in and by it self—not because it would be democratic.)

Related misattributations

There are occasional misattributations of other kinds, the most common, possibly, being “every x looks alike”: This is not a matter of racism—nor is there any obvious reason or connection implying that this would be the case. The actual explanation is likely to be found in some combination of training, circumstances, and inborn abilities, with a common dependency on frequency of exposure. Looking at extremes, if we put one black man in a society of white (or the reverse), one man with a big nose in a society of small noses, one Kansas-sized person in Munchkinland, whatnot, then the majority will naturally and almost necessarily identify him primarily by the characteristic that makes him stand out—and if there are two, they will equally naturally be confused on occasion.

The need for differentiation

A legitimate discussion of any field requires a sufficient differentiation into categories. For instance, where immigration is concerned, it makes sense to differ between at least the following groups:

  1. Actual racists.

  2. Those critical of other cultures, religions, whatnot, in general.

  3. Those opposed to immigration, per se.

  4. Those critical of the current immigration levels and policies.

Unfortunately, the opposite is typically the case, with even what looks like a systematic and deliberate escalation often being present: If someone is anti-immigration, he is called “anti-immigrant” or “xenophobic”, or even “racist”; an actual anti-immigrant is called a “racist” or even a “Nazi”; and an actual racist is called a “Nazi”.

A similar listing for leftists:

  1. Want to start a cultural revolution in the style of Mao or Pol Pot.

  2. Want to start a Russian style revolution.

  3. Want to use democratic means to abolish private property.

  4. Want to have a society like the Swedish 1970s’.

  5. Want to have a society like the Swedish 2000s’.


A reasonable discussion of the left would be far more complex that for immigration; however, this simplified example is highly useful to put the first list in perspective: Many “anti-racists” would look at the first list and even see it as proof that the groups were equally bad—with the second list, they will be forced to see the difference (notably, most outspoken “anti-racists” are also leftists).

A similar, but less hierarchical, listing for religions:

  1. What does the religion, per se, say?

  2. What do the religious organisations (Churches, and the like) say?

  3. What do individual members of the clergy say?

  4. What do individual (non-clergy) believers say?

But there is no such thing as race!

It is not uncommon to hear highly naive claims that there simply are no races, with conclusions (on opposite extremes) including both that racism cannot exist (!) and that even speaking of races is racism.

While the critique of the concept of race varies, the bottom-line is typically something that would also invalidate concepts like fast, strong, sandheapw, forest, engineer, or even human. Race is a hard-to-define concept with many weaknesses and some degree of arbitrariness, but the same applies to fast—and to claim that there are no races amounts to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

In my impression, these attempts to deny the existence of races are usually ultimately based in politics or ideology—not insight and understanding. (With the additional complication that most espousers simply repeat what they have been told by others.)

Rhetorical misdefinition by the US PC movement

Subsequent to writing this article, I have become aware of an inexcusable misdefinition popular in the US PC movement—by all signs and a tokens a deliberate rhetorical trick: Racism, as a matter of definition, only occurs among those in power. The immediate corollary is that coloured USanians can never be racist, through lack of power. Worse, a common extension is that all whites, whether they know it or not, are racist...

While I generally advice to point out incorrect use of “racism”, I positively urge it whenever this deliberate abuse is spotted.

Those criticizing incorrect use of “racism” are often met with attacks (notably, the accusation of racism...) and general bashing. Attempts to divert attention are common, e.g. by refusing to discuss use and meaning of words, while racial discrimination is (allegedly) still present in society.

Different meanings of a word are occasionally used to “prove” evil (in one sense) and then to condemn it (in a worse sense). Consider e.g. comparison with the Nazis based on pure ideology (many other ideologies are in favour of nationalism, law-and-order, strong leadership, whatnot)—and then the rhetorical claim “X are Nazis!”, where, in context, the associations will immediately go to warfare and the Holocaust—not the ideological similarities used in the proof.


I have seen arguments like “Words mean what we want them to mean.” (with variations) used to defend abuse of “racism”. While this argument has a limited value with ordinary words, the above makes it entirely valueless were “racism” is concerned: Allowing this line of reasoning is opening the doors to horrifying abuse and a risk that language deteriorates rapidly were “political” words are concerned—anyone will be able to call anyone by whatever name he chooses.

Even generally, however, the argument is weak: Non-standard use increases the risks of misunderstandings, reduces compatibility of versions of the same language from different times, areas, contexts, whatnot, and is mostly negative in its over-all influence. Languages will, arguably must, change over time; however, it is in our best interest to keep the change slow.

It is important not to confound the inborn suspicion (or even fear) of that which is alien and unknown, be it strange people, animals, objects, food stuffs, places, or situations, with e.g. racism: Through most of humanity’s existence, that which was not familiar was a potential threat—rightfully viewed with suspicion and treated with caution.

A relatively common theme is to confuse “racial” and “racist”, as with e.g. “racial discrimination” above. A notable case is the claim that a racial slur would be a racist slur: Any given use of a racial slur can be intended to insult someone as an individual. This is just the same as with e.g. “bitch”, where the sentence “You stupid bitch/son-of-a-bitch!” is not in anyway sexist, but merely uses a sex-specific insult. Indeed, in Germany many words have different forms depending on what sex they refer to, e.g. “Idiot(in)”: “You idiot!” would be either “Du [male] Idiot!” or “Du [female] Idiotin!”. The same principle applies to many racial insults which are used just to give the relevant insult, not to imply anything about the races per se.