After Spike Lee spoke at the All-School Meeting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in February 2010, a flurry of campus controversy and disagreement about the definition of racism inspired Carlos Hoyt, Associate Dean of Students and Graham House Counselor, to write a journal article on the subject.
The article, written in summer 2010, was published in the July 2012 issue of “Social Worker,” the professional journal of the National Association of Social Workers.
“Racism [is] the belief that all members of a purported race possess characteristics, abilities or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or other races,” writes Hoyt in the article.
The article, titled “The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse” discussed two conflicting definitions of the word “racism.”
The more popularly accepted definition is that racism implies the presence of a power disparity. This definition states that only groups that have the means to oppress another group can be said to be racist, according to Hoyt.
“If we want to make clear, for reasons of social justice, that some people in our society are in a better position than others to act on [a prejudiced] belief in a way that might be advantageous to some and disadvantageous to others, then what’s a good word for that? And that’s where we get into trouble. Because some of us politically, intellectually, personally wanted to really point out that you can’t oppress people if you don’t have power,” said Hoyt in an interview.
In his article, Hoyt called this the “racism equals prejudice plus power” belief. He argued that this definition is unfair because it vindicates those not in power for holding prejudices against other races simply because they are not in a position of social influence.
The alternative definition, which Hoyt argued is more accurate, is that racism is the belief that certain people are inferior or superior because of their race, according to Hoyt.
“You can’t oppress without power, but [racists are people who say] Asians are this and blacks are that, positive or negative. That’s racism, whether or not one ever acts on it. That’s racism and it seems to me that’s the common ground. It might be economical to say ‘No, let’s just keep racism as [a term associated with power] and call the rest prejudice, but that’s not intellectually sharp. And I’d like to think that we want to be more intellectually precise,” said Hoyt said in an interview.
Hoyt explored these two definitions of racism in multiple scholarly texts and articles, before ultimately drawing the conclusion that the latter definition is more appropriate. He also discussed the value in analyzing loaded words like “racism,” because their definitions inform how peoples interact with each other.
“[Defining racism] is not just an intellectual exercise, it does have some social ramifications in terms of how we interact with each other, how we write, how we talk—it’s social justice. Let’s not excuse anybody for being racist. Let’s also be alert to the fact that racists who have serious power can really harm people. They can oppress based on race the same way they could oppress based on religion, sex or age,” said Hoyt.
Hoyt wrote the article in the summer of 2010, following the Spike Lee’s presentation at an All-School Meeting at which Lee told the Andover community that “Black people can’t be racist.”
“When an authority figure, whether it’s in a book or standing in front of a classroom, says this is the formulation that is best right now, it’s too easy for students who want to admire their teachers, to buy that. I think that even for myself as a teacher, I have to step back and consider other ways that it could be—let’s give [students] a chance as a scholars to synthesize their own meanings. That I think should always be our bottom line agenda in scholarship,” said Hoyt.