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The semantics and substance behind 4 pesky words

BY Chris Rabb | Sunday, March 27 2005

Diversity. Democracy. Racism. Progressive.

Four words no longer recommended for polite online and on-land conversation.


This is what I've concluded navigating the various predominantly white environs and institutions in which I've lived, studied and work for most of my life. And in retrospect, I see that I have all but avoided such exchanges in the blogogsphere since actively blogging while black -- until recently, that is.
In the heat of renewed, more mainstream discussions about diversity in -- and for -- the blogosphere, I am reminded of three other words I've increasingly sought to avoid using casually in light of my realization that most people either 1) choose not to think substantively about the range of meaning the word "diversity" itself holds for different groups or 2) simply refuse to define it for fear of revelations that might challenge their rhetoric.
One such example is my anecodatal observations about how many white people perceive diversity versus most people of color. Simply put, as a Black person, when I case a room, event, or organization for racial diversity, I don't look to see if there are people of color. Rather, I see how representative our presence/participation/employment is relative to our population in society, a particular neighborhood or industry/vocation. My impression of many of my white counterparts' view on diversity, is that if there's more than one or two of us, that's grounds for declaring something diverse. That's what many of us whiny minority-types call tokenism.


There's Webster's definition, then there's the real world set of definitions and connotations democracy inspires that raise as many questions about and for the definer as each definition seeks to answer. I will not attempt to proffer my working definition here. But I will say that if red to you is blue to me and this isn't communicated explicitly on the front end, I suspect the ensuing exchange will become quite colorful.


And speaking of colors, the term "racism" seems to have taken a back seat in the U.S. in recent years to "bias", "discrimination" and "racial bigotry". At the Institute on Politics, Democracy and the Internet conference in DC a few weeks ago -- on a masochistic binge -- I indulged the pendantry of the head (whose name I've not chosen to remember) of the Right's, better known as
After trying unsuccessfully to win me over to his anti-choice ideology by making an analogy between human fetuses and enslaved African-American adults of Antebellum Era America, he casually referred to "reverse-racism". When I replied that I was not familiar with "reverse-racism", he bristled a bit. I added, "I'm sorry. Are you referring to a time when a Black person acted in bigoted fashion?" Yes, he said semi-surprised/confused. I added again, "I didn't know that's what 'reverse-racism' was; I just thought that was being an asshole."
He laughed, but saw in my look that there was more to my quip than I chose to verbalize.
That being said, I will not spare you the subtext of that exchange.
To some, racism is when one person discriminates against another person or group of people based on race. To others (and assuredly a far smaller contingent), racism is a systematic power dynamic that confers privilege to one often at the expense of another, which in the U.S. (and elsewhere) affords a unique birthright to white people inherently harmful to true democracy and social justice. The good news, as Tim Wise and other progressive whites, readily acknowledge -- such a distinction is not an indictment, it is an asset with the potential for the that enlightened subset to leverage for the uplift of everyone.
Interestingly, there is far more consensus on race between whites and people of color on the Right, then there is on the Left. Ironically, the white elite of the Right and Left seem to want the same thing: for people of color on their side of the political spectrum to talk about issues of race and diversity only through their eyes. Black, Brown and Yellow conservatives seem to be on message with very few exceptions; however many of us coloredfolk on the Left choose to be stakeholders in defining and distributing the message in its underlying values and assumptions.


I have repeatedly allude to "the Left" here, a big tent which, as I see it, encompasses the paleo-liberal (to quote CTSG's Dan Carol) to the radical/revolutionary. And within these rhetorical bookmarks there seems little consensus where "liberal" and "progressive" fit on the left side of the political spectrum, given that there seems no resolve to define them -- and equally disturbing, to acknowledge that the too are not synonymous.
The best short-hand for this quagmire was aptly characterized by my comrade, Micah Sifry, who with his deft sardonic humor stated (and I paraphrase): "Progressives believe all people should make their own decisions, and liberals feel that representing the interests of the less fortunate is best left to them."
The web, e-mail and now the blogosphere have allowed those of us in the growing digerati to accelerator and strengthen our communication and affinities with like-minded people and causes. However, these tools have not and cannot without willful hands span the huge chasms that have only been expanded in cyberspace.
We have built some amazing virtual silos so far, but virtually no navigable bridges to connect them. And until these silos are created within and by the communities in which they are built, are given the exposure and support they deserve from an array of people, organizations/institutions and media (within and without) AND commit to building secure and bridges link them to others, the Internet -- and especially the blogosphere -- will be vastly more segregated than the society we live in now.
The good news is that we are the authors of whatever collective destiny we choose to set for ourselves. And if this prospect emboldens you, then it is incumbent upon all of us to lead by example and now cower from constructive criticism, awkwardness and informed dissent.
This is not only the challenge for the "A-List bloggers'; this is the opportunity for 21st century America to shrug off the malaise of a half-century of desegration and commit itself to a level of inclusion and integration this country has never really known.