The Racism of “Racism”: The Complicated Origins of the Term

“Racism,” like race, was invented. The term “racism” has done a lot of heavy lifting for anti-racism advocates, helping to frame anyone discriminating by race as misguided. Just as with classism or sexism, not only does the word racism give name to an evil, it helps to create the thing as evil in the first place. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

“Racism” traces its roots (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to a diatribe by Richard Henry Pratt against segregation in 1902:

Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.

Henry Pratt, however, is better known for a different contribution to the English language ten years previous: “Kill the Indian…save the man.” In context, the phrase was progressive. His essay was in direct response to the popular idea that ‘the only good Indian is a dead one,’ and proposed instead that we ought to kill only the savage in the people, rather than continue the path of genocide.

He was encouraging a civilizing mission, which meant educating Indians in Western practices. With the Plains Wars almost over and the Native population decimated, a group identifying as “Friends of the Indians” lobbied and got Pratt, a Second Lieutenant in the army, the chance to turn a former military post in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, into a boarding school. Named the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the institution practiced forced assimilation—taking Native children and forbidding the use of their native language, for instance. At risk of beatings, students also had to adopt Christian practices and Western dress. Of course, this school provided students with food and shelter they might not otherwise get on their reservation, but the conditions were otherwise pretty bad, with reports of sexual abuse and Tuberculosis.

Students at the Carlisle School

The Carlisle School became the blueprint for 26 other Indian Schools organized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They turned out a generation of Native children—many of whom were forced into the schools by coercive federal agents. In turn, the culture and languages of many tribes were lost to time, crippling the independence of those people. In other words, this alternative to racism incorporated the violence of colonialism.

This case reveals the problematic history of progressivism, for Richard Henry Pratt was undoubtedly a progressive for his time. Yet his positive missions of eliminating racism and saving the Indian led to cultural imperialism. And that’s an important lesson to keep in mind when even our contemporary society makes efforts to eliminate some evil in the world: to bear in mind the potential consequences and the possible, hidden whiteness of the means. So that, even when we argue about racism, the word’s contextual history must bring to mind the sometimes difficult line between destruction and progress.


The Ugly, Fascinating History Of The Word ‘Racism,’” Gene Demby, NPR.

  • Chris

    Very interesting.

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