the r-word

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.

* Here’s a play summary and another play summary. I thought it was a good play, by the way, that explored a variety of issues. I don’t have to agree with a playwright to find a play worth my time.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

11 thoughts on “the r-word”

  1. I stand in awe of your eloquence and critical analysis skills. I’ve long felt the same way about the use of the “r” word, but have never been able to make those thoughts externally coherent.

    This is the sort of stuff that should be included in those “diversity” seminars. I’ve only gone to one that made a similar case (by using social cognition research), but even they didn’t quite take it to talking about the meaning and use of the word racist.

  2. I found this very interesting. I think there’s a vast misunderstanding of what is and is not racist. Out of this misunderstanding, comes the inability to call someone racist if the situation merits it. For example, after Bill O’Reilly ignorantly made claims about the black-owned restaurant in Harlem he ate at, people called him racist and he was SHOCKED. What he said was, in fact, racist, yet he acted as if being called racist was worse than the comment he had originally made.

    You simply can’t call a person racist these days without hurting their feelings. Kind of makes white people realize what the “n” word must have felt like, just definitely not as harsh.

  3. This happens all the time and I will point people here to read about it! We had this problem in my kids’ school a couple of years back. Many African-American parents claimed the (openly gay) white principal was racist. It took a year, he was personana non grata (sp?) for a long time, and in the end, the NAACP team that he invited to come into the school and observe said, “no, not racist – kind of cultural miscommunication.” Everyone worked on the communication issues (seriously, it was about greeting parents at school picnics and stuff like that) and we got through it as a school, but boy does that word work to make a conversation go from productive to defensive.

  4. Thank you for this.. I feel like “racism” as a concept is way too broad. It can mean a member of the KKK donning a white hood, someone crossing to the other side of the street when they see a black man pass by,unconscious bias and negative evaluations, or it can mean structural inequalities that have no basis in individual racial animus at all. But our conception of the word racism is so loaded with individual-level, animus-motivated meanings that talking about racism is often unhelpful in addressing real problems.

  5. The idea of “racism” as a feature of social structure rather than solely as an individual “i hate people of a different race” kind of thing was one of the hardest things for me to grasp when I first came to sociology in undergrad.

  6. Wow. That was the most amazing thing I’ve read in a long time. So is it less meaningful or pertinent that the white guy is devastated? And if so, why? (I’m referring to real life, not the play.)

  7. Thanks, I think I learned something from this. I agree that whites and men may get overly defensive when terms like racist or sexist are used. Whites, and men, should attempt to respond constructively to such criticisms.

    You seem to be arguing that whites and blacks use the “R word” differently and that this miscommunication is at the root of the problem.

    I get the feeling that you’d basically like white people to change the way they understand/use the word racism but I think there is just as much to be gained from encouraging minorities to understand how white people typically use that term and not use it if they think it will hinder communication.

    I don’t think arguing about definitions is the best way to promote communication, but it is worth noting:
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/racist

  8. A couple of comments on the comments. (1) I do think it would be helpful if Black folk would also attend to how White folk hear the r-word. Communication is a two-way street; I was mostly emphasizing the need of Whites to work on their end of the communication. But I also myself don’t share the common White view that the r-word is somehow similar to the n-word; it does not hurt my feelings in that same deep way, so I find it interesting to observe others’ reaction. (2) I agree with people who stressed the multiple uses of the word and who explicitly or implicitly noted that the dichotomous “moral failing” view is how the media use the word. And I actually agree that Black people, too, vary in how they use the word. (3) Re feelings, that is what drives people totally crazy and where the only path out is a desire to understand others’ point of view as well as your own. If someone says they are insulted by something you said, do you try to find out what the insult was, or do you get all insulted and hurt because someone said they insulted you and you know you did not mean to insult so how dare they hurt your feelings by feeling insulted? If I steal your stuff and you accuse me of theft and I get all upset and insulted because you called me a thief, who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong? What if I did not actually steal your stuff but it looks like I did, should I scream and yell about how insulting it is to be called a thief, or is there some way to have a conversation that clarifies the facts and then tries to work through the bad feelings?

  9. I talked to Joe Feagin for advice on my diss. and he explained how when he first started doing research on Racism that social scientists had changed the definition from the original penned by Magnus Hirschfeld in his (1938) book “Racism”. Hirschfeld defined racism systemically and somewhere along the way sociologists and others changed the definition to characterize individual acts of racial bigotry. David Wellman refers to this as the “Archie Bunker” definition in his (1977/1993) book Portraits of White Racism.

  10. “Kind of makes white people realize what the “n” word must have felt like, just definitely not as harsh.”

    Please be kidding.

    As for the post, yes, I think most folks absolutely think of racism in binary terms (either you are or you are not), but I certainly don’t think this fits smoothly along racial lines of “black” and “white” (another foolishly imagined binary when it comes to race, this one mostly in the minds of whites, in my opinion). If black people think about race in structural terms, it may be because they’ve been made to be aware of the cost of race, where whites are commonly in the practice of denying it. That said, I do think racism exists both on the structural and on the micro-interactional, interpersonal level. The linchpin here is that racist acts don’t necessarily have to have racist intents. They can, but racism is also socially embedded and emotionally ingrained.

    As far as non-whites learning that they can “get a big reaction” out of white people by calling them racist, I have a lot of problems with this.

    1) Focusing on the accusation of crying wolf by non-whites is effectively a tool to silence claims of racism.
    2) This logic is akin to those who harp on about the lazy welfare mothers who won’t find work, ignoring the swaths of people on welfare who do everything they can to provide for their family. This logic is akin to the right to lifers who harp on about the girl who got an abortion because it was convenient, ignoring the horribly difficult choice to get an abortion for almost all women. In essence, with all the structural and micro-interactional occurrences of racism, focusing on the feelings of white people who feel like the claim has been unfairly waged against them once or twice is asinine.
    3)Instead, it might be worth the time to consider WHY non-white people employ the accusation of racism in situations in which the white person does not perceive it to exist (as sociologists who know that racialized logic is internalized despite best intentions, so please show me one of these situations). One easy guess is that it is a way to be heard. When white people won’t listen, calling them racist makes them perk right up. It’s actually pretty useful. I think this is a better approach than the Jim Crow logic that non-whites are lazy/shiftless/trying to get one over on you and trying to get a break.

  11. Just to be clear: the “big reaction” part of my post was specifically about children, not adults. My description about child-teacher dynamics in the classroom came from talking over comments from White teacher friends with a Black education activist who was really angry about these dynamics and said that teachers’ reactions were “giving way too much power to children.”

    However, I agree with the main points in your comment: all races use the r-word in various ways, both macro & micro forms of “racism” are important, people escalate rhetoric if they don’t feel heard, and focusing on your own sense of hurt at being criticized is rightly understood as a way of refusing to hear criticism.

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