Racialism: it’s not the same as racism. Or is it?

The word “racialist” got tossed around in public for a day or two last week after Hillary Clinton used it in a speech.

Here’s what Clinton said:

No one should have any illusions about what’s really going on here. The names may have changed… Racists now call themselves “racialists.” White supremacists now call themselves “white nationalists.” The paranoid fringe now calls itself “alt-right.” But the hate burns just as bright.

She was drawing attention to a certain kind of person, along the lines of what Adam Gopnik referred to in May as crypto-fascists: those folks on the farthest political fringe, who most politicians studiously avoided just a few years ago, but who this year are suddenly part of the equation (and part of the discourse), and which Trump and his campaign, such as it is, have often courted directly or indirectly.

But is it as simple as Clinton describes it? Is racialism just racism with two extra letters? Let’s take a look.

Racialism and the related word racialist have been on my blogging “to-do list” for several years (last mentioned here) but I’ve never gotten around to them. It seems appropriate now.

Let’s first split the terms — racist and racialist — apart to keep things as clear as possible. Also, for simplicity in the following explanations, anything said about one form of the word (racist and racism; racialist and racialism) can be taken as applying to the other form, whether I specify it or not.

Most people are familiar with the word racism. It means, in a nutshell, the belief that one race is superior or inferior to another. You’ll find more elaborate definitions, but that’s always the core. Of course, there’s a lot more to racism than this: the definitions can’t (or choose not to) go into the fact that certain extreme forms of racism can be appropriately described as an ideology in modern America.

Most people are NOT familiar with the word racialist, and I’ll wager that when most people hear it they either think the speaker made a mistake by adding the extra syllable, or they assume it’s just a fancy word for racist. But it is a separate word, and it’s meant — according to many — to embrace a separate concept. While racism posits that racial distinctions place races into a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority, racialism claims to simply be a recognition that racial differences exist. It purports to take the high ground, remaining neutral and non-judgemental: racial differences are real, but they don’t indicate superiority or inferiority, only difference.

It might be important, in a technical sense, to show that these two words have different meanings, but it’s increasingly clear that in practice they are equivalent. At least one major dictionary (the OED) has reached this conclusion and collapsed the definitions: racism and racialism are the same word for them, with racialism simply being older (although they’ve retained separate entries and citations for each).

American Heritage differs from the OED by giving racism and racialism separate entries, and citing the racism/racialism equivalence as “Chiefly British.” Merriam-Webster gives the words separate entries, too, but tellingly cross-references racialism back to racism.

Many readers might be surprised to learn that all of these terms are relatively new. Racism first appeared in 1903, racist about 20 years later. The first uses of racism seem to have been in the context of non-whites in the US, but both racism and racialism appear to have been more commonly used to describe what we’d today call nationalism, specifically German nationalism, in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the words were shifting closer to their contemporary American use, and after World War II that solidified.

Racialism is slightly older (first citation: 1901), and in those citations there’s an impression of trying to be more academic or intellectual in the way the word is used. By the way: if you’ve looked up this word in other online sources, you might have encountered the much-repeated assertion (even in Wikipedia’s entry for racialism) that W.E.B. Du Bois used racialism in his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk. I’ve done a full text search through it, however, and while he may have described the idea, he didn’t use the specific term. For that matter, he also didn’t use the word racist in that volume.

At this point, although I’ve tried to show that the words are equivalent, you might still be ready to treat racism and racialism as different things. You probably shouldn’t.

The idea of applying racial distinctions to human beings is anachronistic, if not outright offensive. The concept of “race” has long been discredited scientifically. The United Nations, for one, has viewed race “as a social myth” since 1950. The American Anthropological Association last issued a clarification on the issue in 1998, in which they noted that race is “a social mechanism invented during the 18th century” to justify slavery, which then spread to the rest of the world, with predictably unpleasant consequences.

With race unmasked as nothing more than a social construct, then the idea of racialism as a neutral concept collapses. One can’t hold out racialism as a neutral alternative to racism when the concept that both are based upon — that different races exist — is mere pseudoscience. When the concept of race is debunked, we’re logically reduced to only one conclusion: racialism is, indeed, just a different word for racism.

There are defenders of the word racialist out there. I’m not interested in directing traffic to such sites but if you’re interested in what they have to say, just do a few searches.

On this blog I’ve repeatedly noted that the practical definition of a word sometimes isn’t in alignment with what’s recognized by the dictionaries. We have a living language, and actual use can overtake documented meaning. If racialism ever deserved a clear distinction from racism, that’s no longer true: in practice the words are the same.

But even if you disagree with that conclusion, you should take note of another concept that I’ve mentioned frequently here: the skunked term. Skunking is the practice of avoiding a word because its meaning is in flux — some readers will think it means one thing, while others will think it means another. The user of such a word invites confusion. Even if you are someone who insists that racialism isn’t the same as racism, you’re likely to find that some of your readers disagree, and they take away a different meaning than what you intended. For that reason alone, you should avoid using racialism.

While you’re at it, you should also try your best not to be racist.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Racialism: it’s not the same as racism. Or is it?

  1. Pingback: Racism, Racialism, Racial Essentialism: Does Race By Any Other Name Smell Just As Sour?

  2. This post was linked to from another blog’s defense of the word “racialism.” (pingback link above)

    The linking blog’s author, John Rosenberg, makes a good effort to reclaim racialism as a neutral term which can be used without harm. We can agree to disagree, to an extent. But I don’t think the argument succeeds.

    A focus of my blog is to provide advice on best practice to contemporary users of English (primarily
    writers). Which is why, regardless of a user’s intent, I recommended skunking racialism.

    The linking post avoids the important point made in the the last third of my post, namely that the modern idea of race–yes, it’s true–was created primarily to justify slavery and other cultural evils.
    The final three paragraphs of the linking post come close to throwing in the towel and allowing that what’s really going on here is entirely sociocultural.

    Perhaps I could have been convinced if the author had chosen to make the post an argument in favor of “essentialism,” or maybe raised another idea, such as “the ineffable.” But in reviewing these posts and some other material while composing this response, I had to conclude that essentialism, when applied to human beings in this way, is most likely an attempt to politely invoke racism or racialism.

    My editorial recommendation for “racialism” stands: skunk it. And, by the way, we’re never going to move past racism if we don’t make better efforts to recognize why the entire concept was created: to justify the oppression of one group by another. If you enter a debate that involves the idea of race, you’ve already allowed the other side to frame the issue in their terms.


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