"ism" and "ist"

It’s important to call racist things racist. But we should remember the weight of the word and the weight of any word is fluid.

The “-ism” words are shorthand for clumps of ideas. In my music history class, impressionism was shorthand for techniques and musicians that overlapped with expressionism and modernism and romanticism; shorthand, themselves, for techniques and musicians that overlapped with still others. The “-ism” words are fuzzy.

Accusations of racism, sexism, classism, and the like carry enormous stigma, as they should. But they only bear the meaning we work to assign them. Calling something racist does little to describe its harm. We’re very good at dehumanizing other people; there’s little at which we’re more creative. We rightly refer to prejudice with the appropriate “-ist” but doing so is only as descriptive as the word “square” is of a jail cell.

We assume an argument inherent in the word – it’s racist – but prejudice is never a foregone conclusion. We label things racist for damn good reasons. Reasons that are worth articulating. All the time.

Last month, Roseanne Barr compared a black woman to an ape. Straightforwardly racist. Comparing the color of Donald Trump’s hair to that of an orangutan is different. There is no corresponding history of abuse and enslavement of angry billionaires justified and trivialized with demeaning orangutan cartoons or junk science. No one should have to explain that ape references are racist, but everyone should know why they are, and therein lies the rub.

Racism is a powerful accusation. Little in this country carries with it a more fundamental indictment, nor should it. Sexism is not far behind (though it is behind, apparently) and classism and other forms of prejudice imply something similar. But there are always those who suggest that straightforward prejudice is not what it clearly is.  

There are always dissemblers and those who can’t or won’t see past the dissimulation. Explaining likely won’t do any good; many know what they’re saying and others are content not to. But maybe there’s a way to at least inoculate against the dishonesty. It takes a handful of extra words and considerably more attention. “Square” is a perfectly suitable word for describing a jail cell, but does little to expose its function or power.  

Cramped, desolate, iron, impersonal, rusted, flickery, dark, monotonous, sad, hopeless.

Prejudice should never be given a fair hearing, but there’s a difference between allowing something into the daylight and taking time and care to ensure the door is secure and the lock turned. Racism and its related “-isms” strike out at the dignity of human beings. Their effects are profound enough to warrant the attention that specific words provide. When we divorce the words from the actual damage, then we rob them of their potency.