It seems that historical definitions of the word "racism" use it to mean something similar to "racial prejudice" and "racial discrimination", without any reference to which race has power or doesn't have power. Whereas there seems to be a growing movement in some sectors to define racism as always being about a race with more power or privilege oppressing a race with less power or privilege in a given society. For example, here was a recent article I read: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/08/racist-against-white-people/

So, is there any general usage guidance we can give for the word "racism"? Should it now only be used to mean racial oppression of the powerful on the less powerful even though most dictionaries haven't caught up with that sense yet? Or should it only be used in the older sense that most dictionaries list for it? Should it be avoided because of this controversy? Should any user be careful to define his exact meaning if he uses it?

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    If Racist means prejudice per race, then why doesn't ethnicist mean prejudice per ethnicity, nor does icecreamologist mean prejudice per icecream, nor does cardiologist mean prejudice per cardiology?? Nov 20, 2013 at 23:25
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    @BlessedGeek: -ologist is not -ist. I can be prejudiced in favour of icecream but against icecreamologists. Nov 21, 2013 at 12:44

2 Answers 2


I would define racism thus:

treating people unfairly based on their race, even though their race is only partly or not at all relevant to the case

There is no reason why you couldn't treat the dominant "race" in a society unfairly in certain cases.

However, it is less likely to be considered unfair if you take some things from the dominant group and give them to a weaker group, and the same action will therefore often not be perceived as racist when it benefits a non-dominant group.

Even so, when a particular white individual is treated unfairly because he is white, that is more likely to be perceived as racism than when it concerns all white people as a group.

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    I agree. 'Racism' has a definition that is independent of which race is under discussion; this could mean that in some circumstances it is a good thing. If anyone (such as the feminists quoted) want a term that means only 'discrimination against people or races I consider underprivileged', a new word will be needed. Nov 20, 2013 at 23:16
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    @TimLymington: Misasthenia "hatred of the weak"? Nov 20, 2013 at 23:19

Any time there are common, contextually interchangeable, but substantially different definitions of a key term an author should be sure to clarify.

To some extent the usage should reflect the audience. If you are writing for the general public, I would tend to avoid using definitions that are 'new', even with explanation, as the reader is likely to impute the meaning they are used to. When writing for an academic/technical/specialized audience, use the definition that is common to that group.

I broadly agree with a sentiment expressed by others that there is a need for a term that refers to "racism against white men", but I don't think racism is that word anymore (if it ever was). I think bias and bigotry are the words for that. There is a real need to distinguish the differences in what happens on a person to person level from what happens on a systemic level where power is a prerequisite of meaningful impact on a population level.

The word 'racism' has a bunch of other nuanced problems. It evokes a notion of hatred and intent that are simply not required for much of what is now being labeled as racism. Further, it is becoming a politically polarized word with the whole notion associated with being on the left (at least in the US).

  • Your third paragraph seems to contradict your first two. The idea that "racism" means systemic racial oppression IS the new definition.
    – Spiff
    Oct 24, 2016 at 17:18
  • @Spiff I was trying to discuss the need for a term which encompasses the sentiments 'all white people are _____' by minority groups, and more generally, race based discrimination in a way that is decoupled from power structures. This is expressly outside the new definition of the word racism.
    – Mathily
    Oct 24, 2016 at 18:19

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