I had a fight with my boyfriend this past weekend. Which isn’t exactly headline news for most people, but we hardly ever fight. And when we do, it’s usually over something so trivial it’s embarrassing to think about once we’ve both calmed down. Is Lady Gaga a truly unique artist or is she completely overrated? Is “American Idol” a reliable source of finding legitimate talent?
Those types of debates are not about pop stars or televised talent competitions. What is usually at stake is our egos. We both hate to be proven wrong so much that it borders on pathology. But this latest argument was different.
We were in my car, talking about a little bit of everything when the topic turned to race. I’m black and he’s white, so the subject comes up frequently. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it involves horrendously offensive jokes and hysterical laughter. This was the .01% when it did not.
The taboo topic du jour was whether or not something had to be intentionally malicious for it to be considered racist. I argued that of course it did not. I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. It was the “racism equals prejudice plus power” equation that is the corner stone of most sociological, psychological and academic anti-racist arenas. By that definition, only white people possess the ability to be racist because they are the ones that hold the power.
My boyfriend was having none of that. He was steadfast in his belief that for something to be racist, it has to have harmful intentions. And what did he use to prove the accuracy of “his” definition? The dictionary. Merriam Webster’s mobile website version to be exact.
I was livid. Actually, no, I wasn’t livid just yet. More like baffled. I’d been with this man for nearly two-and-a-half years. How was I just now discovering that he’s one of those white people? The kind that has no clue about racism yet has the audacity to try to debate about it. The man grew up in a nearly all-black neighborhood, has mostly black friends and possesses a full deck of honorary black cards. We even joke about how in some aspects, his degree of “blackness” is higher than mine. All that and he doesn’t even know what racism is? How the hell did that even happen?
In my opinion, “my life” was enough to articulate why I was right and he was dead wrong. But when I told him that, he brilliantly countered with, “No, that’s not what racism is. It says it right here on my smartphone. See?”
The fact that he thought an 11-word definition had more credibility than I did was beyond insulting. It was hurtful and it displayed a level of arrogance and prickdom I didn’t think him capable of. Bottom line, neither he nor Merriam Webster are the authority on racism and the concept is far more complicated than either of them can capture in only a handful of words.
My definition came from countless collegiate classes on the matter, tons of books and papers, an advanced degree and working and volunteering for nonprofits whose mission is to offset the systematic implications of racism through tireless service. Oh, and from also being black for the past 28 years.
I’m the black one. We make the rules. Duh.
But later, during our post-argument argument, I realized that Merriam Webster isn’t the only thing that shaped his interpretation of what racism means. His definition of the word has been molded by spending a childhood getting his ass kicked for being the white boy in the mostly black neighborhood. My boyfriend begins to list his own terrible racially based experiences. These are things that I knew about, but had completely neglected to consider in the midst of my own anger. I was so busy being offended that I forgot he had reason to be as well.