EDIT: Based on comments received, I now believe that this should be rewritten to make it clear that complaints about racism are often well-founded and that White people ought to listen more to people of color and think about what they say. I’ve been trying to work periodically on a reprise, but find I’m not ready to finish it yet. As I note in the comments, when I posted this I did not expect it to get external links and a lot of traffic. I’m leaving it up so readers can see the comments and reactions.
This is an edited version of what I wrote for my students after a class discussion about the responding when someone calls you racist. The discussion started when a student described an upsetting experience of a homeless man calling her racist because she would not accept a jar of pennies in payment (it was against company policy). I made points I’ve made before about Whites overreacting to the r-word, including the story about teachers overreacting. I cut off discussion prematurely because of concerns about not getting farther behind in lecture materials due to the expectation (which proved correct) that I might miss class the following week, so I sent them this memo, which I think may be of interest to some readers of this blog.
Some of you were upset* because I seemed to be saying that it was OK for minorities to use the word racist as name-calling and Whites should just ignore it, while others were upset with me for seeming to say that any use of the word racist is just name-calling. I actually did not mean either. What I should have been trying to draw out is the whole complexity of the situation and the different perspectives different groups bring to the table. I’ve written some material (below) to explain how I see this, by developing two contrasting points of view – the “minority” (especially Black) view, and the “majority” (White) view. These are both extremes and there are many people who don’t fit these extremes, but I hope it will help to explain the point.
Second, some of you misunderstood* what I was saying when I gave the example of a community activist calling all-White construction crews “racist” [in a meeting about racial disparities and my being upset because some of the Whites at the table claimed it was divisive to use the word "racist" even though he was not using it about anyone at the table]. He wasn’t saying that the workers were racist, or making any attributions about the opinions of Whites in general. He was saying that construction work is manual labor that a lot of Black men are just as qualified for as White men and that he saw no possible justification for having all-White construction crews on tax-funded projects in a city that is (in point of fact) not all-White. That’s why he called it “racist.” He meant that he thought the situation was due to employment discrimination. He might have been wrong that employment discrimination is the correct explanation for the all-White construction crews, but from his (and my) point of view, it is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise. He wasn’t using the term “racist” as name-calling, he was using it to refer to a pattern of structural racism.
My point was that I thought objections to using the word “racist” in that context were distracting and pointless squeamishness, as the group obviously had to address the impact of employment discrimination on the problem of racial disparities in criminal justice. If people thought it was also illegitimate to talk about racial discrimination in employment because this is insulting or threatening to the employers who are accused of discrimination, or because they think this is somehow “playing the race card,” then he (and I) would believe that they were just trying to defend White privilege.
Here is my discussion of the two different extremes of points of view about using the word racist. Of course, both are extremes, but I’m trying to capture the dynamics of two different ways of looking at the same thing.
I. The “minority” (especially Black) perspective that sees calling something “racist” as reasonable, even if you are not sure it is discrimination.
You and your friends and relatives have had many experiences of overt and obvious racial discrimination. You have had many other experiences that are more ambiguous, that certainly seemed unfair to you, but you realize maybe you didn’t know the whole picture. Whites seem arrogant, stand-offish and sure they are right. You know your group has suffered overt historical discrimination, and you know your group is still suffering overt discrimination in employment and housing. You know your group has a high rate of arrest and imprisonment. You personally have been followed around in stores by sales clerks, have been stopped by police and asked to justify yourself when you were doing absolutely nothing illegal, and have been called race names by Whites on multiple occasions. You see stereotypes of your group in the mass media, and you know many Whites believe those stereotypes are true. You do not believe that your group “deserves” to be poor and unemployed and segregated you believe the situation is unjust. It is common in your group to use the word “racism” to refer to the whole structural package of White domination and minority (especially Black) subordination. “That’s racist” is often used to describe any situation that seems unfair or insulting to minorities. You sometimes call people of your own race racist. In your group, there is nothing wrong with calling a situation racist even if it later turns out that it really wasn’t. Finding out that something you thought was racist really isn’t can be a valuable experience for everyone involved.
Your culture values directness of speech. Children are usually expected to be polite and submissive to adults, but people who are equals to each other may often argue in a pattern of escalating verbal challenges that is entirely acceptable behavior within your group culture. Some people believe you should treat Whites the way you treat anyone else (i.e. by arguing with them), while others believe you should be polite and submissive to Whites, as that is what they expect and will get upset otherwise. Your group has lots of discussions about whether it is better to just “go along” and not get into disputes with Whites, or whether your pride and self-respect depend on standing up for yourself when there has been mistreatment. Calling something “racist” when it might be is a way of standing up for your group and not just accepting possible mistreatment. Depending on your age, mental state, and the context, you might be open to a discussion about the situation, but you are always going to be suspicious about motives, because your experience has taught you that people often offer non-racial reasons for racial discrimination.
II. The “Majority” White Perspective that sees using the word “racist” as bad.
You and your friends and family have never seen people discriminate against minorities in front of you or, if you have, you see the perpetrator as an exception. You believe that most people’s experiences are similar to yours and that racial discrimination against minorities is rare. In fact, you know of cases of discrimination against whites and know many people who believe that minorities get a free pass. You know many people who believe that there is employment discrimination against whites and/or that whites are discriminated against in college admissions. You know that there are problems of Black poverty and crime (you have seen them on television and possibly in person) which seem to be due to problems of poor education, drug abuse, bad families, or poor personal choices. You have been taught that it is wrong to notice a person’s race and that everybody ought to be “colorblind.” Being racially prejudiced is a personal choice and a personal moral failing. You either have little experience with people from different cultures, or have had bad experiences that have made you uncomfortable. You know that prejudice is wrong and you personally work hard to treat everyone the same regardless of background, and you believe that most other white people are the same as you. Depending on the context, when someone says a situation involving you is “racist,” you feel personally insulted and angry about an unfair attack on you about behavior, and may feel threatened. You feel the person is just “playing the race card” and there is nothing you can say back.
White subcultures differ a lot on this (as do many non-white ethnic groups), but if you are White, you are likely to be from a cultural background in which the overt display of anger or disagreement is considered rude and insulting. People are expected to maintain politeness, friendliness and public agreement. Any disagreement is upsetting. When someone says something you think is wrong, you clam up in frustration, because you feel you cannot say anything back without expressing disagreement, which violates your standards of behavior. You complain about people behind their backs, but not to their faces. Expressions of disagreement in your group are made indirectly and vaguely so as not to give offense, and it is even common in your group for people to expect others to know what they meant without them having to say it. It is certainly rude for anyone to be angry with something you have done, and rude for them to raise their voice or use impolite language with you. You are unlikely to say anything at the time if you believe a waiter or store clerk or medical professional or public official has mistreated you or your case, even though you might be very upset. If you are in a service or professional position, you find it very upsetting and demeaning if anyone criticizes your behavior on the job.
III. Reconciling these two positions in real life.
A. If you are the aggrieved “minority” person: Focus on the actions, not the person. Don’t say “You are a racist,” say “What you said sounded racist” or (even better to avoid setting off the r-word alarms) “What you said sounded prejudiced (or stereotyped)” or “You seem to be treating people differently depending on race in this situation.” Of course, even a calm assertion that you are observing racial discrimination is likely to get a hostile response, but you do want to stay on the terrain of actions and their consequences, not motivations and personality.
Here’s Jay Smooth in a popular video blog on the subject:
B. If someone says you or your actions are racist or discriminatory, you further have to decide what your goal is.
1) If your goal is to try to make the other person as well as yourself feel better about the situation, you have to consider the particular context.
a. Where extended conversations are inappropriate, try a quick friendly acknowledgment of feeling and a reassertion of the fairness/neutrality of what you are doing/saying. “Johnny, I know you are upset. I care about you. I want you to learn. That’s why I want you to sit down and do your worksheet.” or “I’m sorry this seems unfair to you. It really is a company policy. I’m not authorized to do that for anybody.” or “I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I hope I didn’t ruin your day.” A lot of this is tone of voice. If you respond person-to-person as a human being with some sympathy for the other person as well as yourself, it is likely to defuse the situation, or at least not make it worse. It is using the same skills you would use for any other person who didn’t use the r-word but is upset at something you did.
b. Where an extended conversation is appropriate, say. “I am certainly not trying to be unfair. Why do you feel that way?” or “I didn’t realize that would be offensive. Why do you feel that way?” or “What are your concerns?” Let the r-word (or any other accusation of prejudice or discrimination) begin the conversation rather than end it. You can listen to what the other person thinks and then, after listening, give your point of view. You may not end up agreeing with each other, but you might increase the amount of understanding going around.
c. This does not mean you should take abuse or get manipulated into doing things against your judgment. Teachers need to control children. Criminals will use any available tools to get what they can from you. Men will be rude to women on the street, and call you racist for ignoring them. Another kind of over-reaction to the r-word is losing perspective and judgement, and letting people who call you racist talk you into things you know you shouldn’t do. You can and should ignore people who make inappropriate overtures. You can and should tell people you expect to be addressed more politely. But again how you say this makes a big difference, and you should remember context and the other person’s perspective. (I’m reminded of the 911 staffer who hung up on a caller whose father was dying because the caller used profanity.)
d. If you want to make both yourself and the other person feel better but you are from a culture that makes it really difficult for you to deal with overt conflict, try to imagine scenarios that could come up and how you could deal with them in ways that are culturally appropriate for you while recognizing that other people’s perspectives and cultures may be different from yours. Or if a conversation went bad one time, try to imagine what you might have been able to do differently the next time.
2) If your goal is to make yourself feel good without having to change your own perceptions or behavior, your three best strategies are:
a. Accuse the personal of attacking your integrity as a human being by having the audacity to call you racist; try to move the conversation away from what you might have done that hurt someone else onto how hurt you are at having your integrity or behavior questioned. This is known as “derailing.” It is the preferred strategy for people you know with whom you will have ongoing relationships. Also if what you did made the news.
b. Accuse the person of being over-sensitive and/or unable to take a joke. Again, the key is to make it all about what is wrong with them and not about anything you did.
c. Just ignore the person and tell yourself it is another example of someone just playing the race card.
* References to what the students thought is based on their journal comments. As I’ve said before, I highly recommend getting immediate feedback from students if you teach controversial issues.