A lot of White folks think that a Black person calling someone or something racist is an insult, an attack on a person’s character and a slur that is just as hurtful and bad as the n-word. (This idea was more or less one of the main points in Permanent Collection, a play by Thomas Gibbons that I saw recently. More about that below.) Others who wouldn’t go that far think it is a way to stop a conversation, to put a White person on the defensive and give them no way to reply. I think this way of interpreting the r-word is both sociologically interesting and a big problem in its own right.
Overreaction to the r-word is a big problem in our schools. Some Black children have learned that they can get a big reaction out of naive White teachers who are disciplining them by calling the teacher racist. In one typical scenario, the White teacher backs off on disciplining the child until the child’s behavior is so out of control that she can justify kicking the child out of the classroom; in another, the teacher turns the whole thing into a conversation about trying to get the child to see how much the teacher’s feelings have been hurt by the name-calling. And parent-teacher conferences similarly fall apart – the teacher complains about the child, the parent says the teacher is being racist, and the teacher withdraws into a sullen angry silence, thinking “You are just playing the race card to avoid taking responsibility for your child.” But it is not just the schools, it is everywhere. You point to the vast disparities in Black and White arrest and imprisonment rates and say “this is racist,” and public officials say: “I treat everyone the same regardless of race. How dare you insult my integrity.” Even when the reactions are less extreme, many Whites just shut down when the r-word comes into play.
I brought this up when leading a discussion about race at church last week. (We are a UCC congregation inspired by all the controversy around Trinity UCC.) I heard the White people using the word “racist” in the dichotomous “you are or you are not” kind of way. I pointed out that this is not how many Black people use the word, that they use it to refer to actions or institutions or patterns that they think are or may be racially biased or unfair in impact, and that the standard White reaction makes it impossible to deal constructively with racial issues. I said I had a similar experience when at work if I said I thought something might be gender biased: even raising the question was taken as insulting to my male colleagues. It was impossible to ever talk about whether the gender problem was real because the whole conversation was turned into a complaint about my “personal attack.” What it feels like to me as a White woman in the gender case or to racial minorities in the race case is that you can’t ever talk about a possible problem, because it becomes all about the other person’s feelings, not your perception of discrimination. And I brought up the point I made above about the problem in the schools. The one Black congregant in the discussion expressed visible surprise that Whites think that way (“They do?” she said as I made the point). She then echoed my point, saying that Black school children will call her racist, because what they mean is that she is different from them and not understanding their point of view and that they feel unfairly treated. I told the group that when I asked Black people how a White person should respond if someone calls them racist, they said the best response is to ask the person what it is that seems unfair or biased to them. It seems that from the Black point of view, the r-word ought to begin a conversation, not end it. In this view, calling something racist is not name-calling, it is naming a problem.
One of the discussion participants, a White school teacher, told me and the Black teacher that this was the most useful conversation she had ever had about race. She said that it gave her a whole new perspective on what was going on when she interacted with children in her classroom, and said she had talked to all the other teachers at her school about it. And that’s why I’m posting this. I have argued for a long time to anyone who would listen that our school system needs to have an in-service for teachers on effective responses when a child calls you racist. (For the record, when I talk to Black people about this I say that they should understand how White people are likely to hear the r-word and perhaps avoid using it if they don’t want to shut down communication. However, this isn’t an easy fix as a lot of Whites shut down at any attempt to talk about racial discrimination, even if you avoid the r-word.)
Apart from the practical issues about talking about race, I have long found the White view of the r-word to be sociologically fascinating. You cannot really hurt most White people’s feelings by calling them cracker or some other race insult. But you can get a deep emotional response from a lot of White people if you call them racist. Many Whites view racism dichotomously: you are a racist or you are not. If you marched with Dr. King in the 1960s you are not a racist, no matter what some upset Black person is saying today. And being racist is a moral failing or a point of vulnerability that may lose you a job. So when you call someone a racist, you are saying they are a terrible human being. There are two things about this. The first one is the obvious sociological point. In this view, racism is a conscious and intentional choice, a moral or ethical failing. There is no unconscious bias, no unconscious assumption of privilege and entitlement. There are no institutional structures that perpetuate racial hierarchies. There is no inheritance of past disadvantage, no power differential, and no impact of media images on the perceptions and self-perceptions of stigmatized minorities. And there are no genuine cultural differences that might cause problems: to notice cultural difference or to say that you don’t like having to conform to other people’s cultural standards is, itself, a bias. If I treat everyone the same then race isn’t a factor end of story why you are making me feel uncomfortable by continuing to talk about this?
The second thing about the White view of the r-word is what upset me about Permanent Collection*. The play asserts a common belief among Whites, that Whites are in danger of being hurt by accusations of racism. I know that lots of public officials are afraid that evidence of racial disparities will cost them their jobs. And this just seems an unrealistic fear to me, given power realities. In the play, a White man is unable to get a job because his former boss was quoted in the newspaper as calling him “racist,” the story line being that no academic department will hire him because their students of color would object to their hiring a faculty member who had been called racist once in a newspaper. Within the framework of the play, this is accepted as the reason he is unemployable. Not because he leaked a story to a news reporter to undercut his boss. Not because he organized street demonstrations in front of his former employer’s office. But because his reputation was tarnished by having his name associated in print with the r-word. I had a big argument with my spouse about this. I said it made no sense, that no one’s career had ever been hurt just because somebody called him a racist. People call people racist all the time, and this is usually viewed by the mainstream White society as meaningless name-calling on the part of the person using the r-word. He countered with examples of sportscasters and political workers who lost jobs, and I countered that they lost jobs for what they had actually said or done (or at least for details of what they had purportedly said or done), not because somebody just called them racist out of the blue. He countered with examples of well-publicized cases of academics accused of being racist who felt pilloried, and I said that, again, it was what the person had done that was the issue, and that the news coverage was always highly favorable to the academic and tended to make the complaining students look bad, and he agreed but said that being associated with “controversy” could hurt a person anyway. Tonight when he read this post over, he said he was sticking to his position, he could see the play’s events happening to an untenured person. My point would be that it would not be just a single instance of someone calling him “racist” in a newspaper article that would generate that kind of controversy. A speech in the play asserted that the word “racist” itself could do harm. I do not dispute that a more elaborated account of someone’s alleged racist statements or actions could turn into a “controversy” that could hurt a person. My spouse thinks I’m splitting hairs.
On the matter of balance and probabilities, I stick by my claim (which my spouse does not dispute) that in the real world people of color are much more likely to suffer harm from calling other people racists than Whites are likely to suffer harm from being called racists.
And, yes, I have been called a racist on a fair number of occasions, sometimes under circumstances in which the word was probably appropriate, i.e. as a reference to some action I was involved with that disproportionately hurt vulnerable people of color, and other times because somebody was venting or just being hostile. I don’t think anyone has called me racist in a newspaper that I know of, although I’ve certainly been called ignorant, biased, wrongheaded and such in newspapers and on talk radio. Being called racist has not hurt me any more than being called wrongheaded has. What hurts is when I realize I have been racist or wrongheaded.