Evolution, Sexism and Racism – why definitions matter

Scientists often get annoyed, or even angry, when creationists claim “evolution is just a theory”. It’s often unclear whether creationists are deliberately using a widespread confusion about the use of the word “theory” in science to their advantage or whether they genuinely believe that the theory of evolution is simply a guess, an idea, that should be viewed as no more important or valid than any other idea about how life on Earth developed.

As a science teacher, I often emphasise to my students the precise meaning of the word “theory” as it is used in science and contrast it to the everyday meaning of the word which suggests a sort of speculation or guess.

Racism and Sexism are two words which seem to have obvious meanings. In everyday usage they may simply mean “prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race or sex”. However, to sociologists and others, “racism” and “sexism” are words used to denote something more than just simple prejudice based on difference – they are words which are used to refer to the systematic disadvantaging and oppression of non-whites and women.

I’m not a sociologist, but I do not know of any male academic who has had his views taken less seriously because he is a man, I do not know of any man who earns less for doing the same job as a woman in the same company and I do not know of any word like “nigger” or “paki” that can make a white person feel, indeed believe, that they are genuinely inferior human beings.

Whilst I agree that you might technically be able to apply the words racism or sexism when someone says something mean about a white man, just as scientists get angry when creationists misuse the word theory, I tend to get a little annoyed when these words are used in this context.

I’m not sure I’m right about this, maybe white men are genuinely the victims of racism and sexism and perhaps my views on this are shaped more by how I feel than by any watertight rational argument. I want to emphasise though, that I don’t believe one has to have been a victim of racism or sexism in order to appreciate the complexities of these subjects – empathy and reason will suffice.


  1. Alom, a clear piece from a well-explained point of view. I think it’s important to make the distinction you do, between actions which can be described as racist (which could be aimed at anyone) and the social context where racism is, sadly, usually directed at particular groups. I think I’ve linked before, but John Scalzi’s piece on privilege is definitely worth recommending.

  2. Over the last few days, I’ve been completely shocked by a lack of empathy and reason. I’ve heard privileged white people complaining about how hard done by they are, and how no ethnic minorities in this country walk round in fear, they just say they do to fit their own agenda. I’ve heard staff in shopping centres shouting “them paki bastards are marching tomorrow” with abandon and no shame across a crowded bus station (when in actual fact, its the EDL who are marching.)
    It’s utterly sickening that, in this day and age, people are able to separate themselves from other people on the basis of difference, so much so that they genuinely can’t understand why a couple of comments against us white people, who have the privilege of never being seen as an underclass does not equate to the sort of inhumane treatment people of different races are subjected to daily.
    I really wish individuals could just be treated as individuals.

  3. Quite so. Except ‘honky’, which correctly implies an inability to dance without biting one’s bottom lip.
    South Park has a rather excellent episode, Apologies to Jesse Jackon, dedicated to the question of empathy and being the victim of racist abuse. I found it quite wise (as most South Park is), as the conclusion is that support for anti-racism does not necessarily come from understanding the nature of offence, but merely an acknowledgement that it is clearly abuse. When a racist incident emerged at a local primary school recently, it was surprising to me how quickly very liberal, non-racist parents refered to the abuse by children as ‘playground banter’. In my experience, one can empathise with the horror of abuse without having been spat at, but not know what that actually feels like.

  4. I think the question is whether a person intends to mislead with their use of a word. In everyday usage, as you say, racism does often mean “prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race or sex”. Many people feel that this is wrong, even without power asymmmetry. They may believe that power asymmetry makes it worse.
    I don’t follow (or like) the person in question, but as far as I can see the comment that he called racist was “You do the insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers thing well”.
    I do think that one could call that remark racist, and not just on a technicality. I think for that very small period of time he was a victim of racism – he was being judged on his race rather than his arguments.
    I certainly don’t think he is oppressed, but it seems to me that opression is essentially the sum of many, many remarks like this. If everyone in the country were to make remarks like this about people of other races it would cause oppression (since there is a significant majority from one race which would drown out everyone else). Therefore we all need to avoid such remarks so that we can equitably eliminate oppression.

  5. I’ve been called snowflake a lot. Has been known to make folks cry. While I agree mostly with the whole “racism requires an inherent power disparity thing” it’s important not to forget there are many places where that imbalance tips against whites. Having spent time living in Asia (and a predominantly black neighborhood in my home country) I assure you racism against whites is something that can and does exist, even if a vanishingly small percentage of whites have ever experienced it

  6. ‘Theory’ has dual meaning: a hypothesis (which creationists use), and a set of principles on which something (evolution, for example) is predicated. The definitions of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ do not have dual meaning in the same way and do not preclude white people or men.
    The original comment to Dawkins was:
    ‘You do the insufferable smug white male making snide comments in loafers thing well.’
    If we wish to eradicate racism and sexism, I’m not sure whether comments referencing anyone’s race and gender followed by a stereotype is going to help, however mild. I’m from a working-class background and do not mock those from affluent backgrounds, despite some arguing it’s permissible since it’s ‘punching up’. People should be judged on their ideas, not on things they have no control over.
    I agree with the rest of your post but Dawkins never discussed the lack of parity between race and genders (or ‘power asymmetry’ as he put it) and never claimed to be oppressed as the usual offenders tweeted. Like a true pedant, he merely argued for hours (!) about semantics.

  7. You are categorically incorrect. There is no definitive definition of racism and sexism as purely systemic privilege in sociology. There are some sociologist that define it as such but this is far from universal within the subject.
    This is why in most academic discussion about this is put in context such as institutional, structural, systemic or linguistic. There is also the more complex discussion of prejudice within groups which makes the subject more complex than your simple representation.
    Defining prejudice by the group being oppressed is a very naive interpretation. Only allowing it to apply to none-white/female groups is also a very blinkered affluent western focused view of the subject, and fits into the white male oppressor stereotype of prejudice. How are you defining white?
    Racism and sexism are global issues and you’re really not giving it the considered and nuanced approach it deserves.

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