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Between Racism and Racialism: What’s the Difference?

When is one racist or racialist? Is there any practical difference between racism and racialism? Or is the difference merely semantical, if not lexical?

I was browsing online news feed when a news item titled “We are all racist, says priest” (http://www.cbcpnews.com/?q=node/5129) flashed on the monitor that I was using. The news is about a comment of the Executive Secretary of a Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People of the Philippine’s Catholic Bishops Conference concerning the BBC show’s –“Harry and Paul” – alleged racist portrayal of the Filipinos.

The prelate equates racism with racial stereotyping. For this, he further says, the word racism should not be feared because “each country has their own way (of) perceiving certain nationalities like in the past, the Filipinos used to (look) down on Chinese.” To be racist according to him is “(to make) prejudicial judgments about others based on their race or even their perceived race,” and an example would be how the Filipinos abroad “mimic their host country national.”

(Actually, the Catholic priest still has a lot to say about the subject. But let us just focus on understanding more deeply his nomenclature by comparing and contrasting it with the word “racialism.”)

If one consults the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition), racialism is an emphasis on race or racial considerations. As such, it entails a belief that we can or may categorize people on the basis of existence and significance of race, but does mean neither a hierarchy, if not a pecking order, between and among the races, nor any political or ideological position of racial supremacy.

Thus, it is racialist to correlate race and intelligence or race and crime. Less controversially, it is racialist to link race and height or race and disease.

Notwithstanding this lexical clarification about the term racialism in contrast to the word racism, some – including the good priest in the preceding – use these words synonymously.

More deeply, racism refers to the socio-political effects pertaining to individual attitudes, institutional discrimination, and certain ideologies based on the concept of race. Racialism, on the other hand, is the basic epistemological position that races actually do exist, and there are significant differences between and among people of different races.

Interestingly, though, the use of these terms and their meanings has seen their inversions in history. When the word racialism was coined (Oxford English Dictionary suggests that its first recorded use was in 1907), the word meant “belief in the superiority of particular race.” The word racism (first used in 1936, according to Oxford English Dictionary) is “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race. Further, the Oxford English Dictionary holds the two synonymous, with both meaning “belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

However, by the end of World War II, racism started to acquire the same supremacist connotation as racialism – implying racial discrimination, racial supremacism and (their) harmful intent.

However, in the 1960’s, some authors – especially the Black Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois – defined racialism as the philosophical belief that differences exist between human races, be they biological, social, psychological or spiritual. Note that this is racism’s definition before the World War II. Likewise, he reserved the term racism to refer to the belief that one’s particular race is superior to the other (cf. the inversion of the Oxford English Dictionary definition).

At the end of this writing, one may ask: why the interest in semantical difference between racism and racialism?

Well, I think of the former Nazi Germany’s racialist (or racist) policy with its concept of “Groβdeutschland,” or Greater Germany, alongside its racial (or racialist) ideal based on the Nordic race. Too, Malaysia promotes racial (or racialist) supremacism with its policy of “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy), along side its concept of “Bumiputra” (Sons of the Soil or Earth).

Even in the US in the 2000’s, racialism (or racism) defines the white separatist groups such as Christian Identity, Aryan Nations, the American Nazi Party, and White Aryan Resistance.

Then, the semantics becomes praxis.

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  1. Brian C. McGuire

    On April 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm


    I liked your article very much. It is very much inline with my personal information. The only comment I would add to this article is that racism was coined in 1936 by Black Nationalist, Malcolm X; and, we all known what he meant by the use of racism. The Oxford University Press, I believe, deliberately excludes his name from the dictionary.

    Also, for anyone interested in learning more about racism, look for any books written by James M. Jones (1971-1995). He is most famous for his development of a three part definition — individual, institutional, and cultural raicism.

  2. Brian C. McGuire

    On April 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm


    I liked your article very much. It is very much inline with my personal information. The only comment I would add to this article is that racism was coined in 1936 by Black Nationalist, Malcolm X; and, we all known what he meant by the use of racism. The Oxford University Press, I believe, deliberately excludes his name from the dictionary.

    Also, for anyone interested in learning more about racism, look for any books written by James M. Jones (1971-1995). He is most famous for his development of a three part definition — individual, institutional, and cultural racism.

  3. ramjet

    On May 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm


    Since there is but a 30 year difference between the lexical attributes, the meanings are AT the very LEAST similar. Those who do their utmost to separate the two to gain an acceptance of the older word are being disingenuous. Everyone knows RACISM is unacceptable, so using the more archaic terminology will seem acceptable. Socio-economic differences DO exist & the denigration of any race by attaching stigma of those differences is morally wrong.

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