when you are called racist

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.

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

16 thoughts on “when you are called racist”

  1. Hmm. This seems to assume that the person being called racist “really” was not based on some objective criteria. Racism is boiled down to merely a perception on the part of the person of color, to be dealt with condescendingly by the White person who has been (unfairly) accused. I understand your post (and letter to your students on which it is based) was meant to be helpful. But to me it is further perpetration of one of the most frustrating aspects of being a person of color dealing with regular racial microaggressions in majority White contexts. Id’ be interested to know how your students of color responded to this letter.

  2. pprscribe: Thanks for your feedback. It is not my intention to be dismissive of people of color, as I agree that the complaints are often well founded. So if it came across that way, I did not do a good job of explaining my thoughts. Or perhaps my own attempts to capture the “racism is real” point of view are inadequate. At the same time, I was trying to do justice to the subjectivity of the White students. If you feel generous enough to point to the passages that seem problematic to you, that would be helpful to me.

  3. Hello, olderwoman:

    I think my main issue is, as I said, that the two responses you laid out appears to preclude the possibility that the White person is, in fact, racist/racially biased. Thus the Black person is instructed to be calm instead of angry, and the White person is instructed to respond as the would anyone who is “upset at” them. Further, the onus is on the person of color to explain the racism/bias in the interaction/statement/treatment.

    I got this from the overall tone of your piece, but one specific example is that you begin the majority perspective with “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.” Then you go on to detail several beliefs that are textbook examples of White privilege and racially-based bias. Why are Whites not instructed to systematically and regularly examine this kind of inconsistency *before* their beliefs can help result in a hurtful encounter with a person of color? Instead, the onus appears to be on the POC to, on a case-by-case basis, explain things to the White person.

    Again, I do not know the dynamics of your class and this may have been a perfectly appropriate way for you to handle the situation. Perhaps the POC in your class feel fine with it. Speaking personally, in these situations where I have been one of a few or the only student of color, what I have needed–and needed immediately–is an assurance that the classroom is a safe space for me to be in the minority. A response from the teacher/professor that seeks to make the space safe for “all” (even those who feel perfectly safe on a day to day basis) often does not do the job. It sends the message that it is never OK for the White students to feel uncomfortable and such situations will be dealt with immediately and forcefully, but it is OK to return the space to a kind of low-level discomfort for me and fellow POC.

    I’m curious about the initial situation that brought on the discussion. My initial response would be to question why someone with so much privilege– race, class, homeless status, etc.–would feel “hurt” by being called *anything* by someone with so little comparative advantage. In other words, why do my, your student’s, or anyone’s feelings take precedence over the homeless man’s?

    The response I might (out of sheer weariness) have kept to myself is that the “company policy” was ridiculous at best and very possibly discriminatory at worse. Why *not* accept payment by legal form of money? Probably explicitly to discourage patronage by people like this homeless man. If not–if that was not the company’s reasoning–then surely they would be open to hearing about how such a policy is inadvertantly discriminatory.

  4. wow, if this is the edited version I would hate to be one of your students. I think your shit is weak though. you stepped in something in class and then as an afterthought or cya, sent this tome out. I don’t see it as redeeming or explaining you after the fact. It is to long to make any sense, and not long enough to make your point other than dazzle them with bs.


  5. ppscribe: This is helpful and I appreciate your taking the time to write it. I believe it is obvious to my students from the class taken as a whole that I think racism and racial discrimination are real. It is [some of] the White students who are the main ones complaining. Nevertheless, it is important to be reminded that attempts to engage the subjectivity of White students can frustrate and alienate people of color, especially seeming to let people off the hook about reflecting on their own actions or their inadvertent enactment of structures of domination. Reflecting, I know that when I get called racist, I do stop and reflect on the racial structure of what is going on, my position in the situation, and whether there is anything I can do to help improve the situation. So I should have made a point of saying that. To be honest, I was more worried that the White students would react negatively to the implicit sarcasm and stereotyping of the “White” point of view. But that just proves your point, that I was thinking more about the White reactions than the POC reactions.
    Greg: what can I say? You may be right.

  6. @olderwoman:
    I think this post was helpful and I appreciate you sharing it. Greg’s comment offers nothing absolutely nothing of value and if I were you I’d at least consider removing it.

    I did not interpret the post to “assume that the person being called racist “really” was not based on some objective criteria.” Nor did I think that the post encouraged whites to respond to an accusation with condescension.

    I also think that a store policy which states, for example: “Our cashiers will not accept more than 50 coins per customer” is reasonable. The amount of time it takes the cashier to count that may be a burden in a busy store.

    ppscribe is, of course, right that whites should be encouraged to question their biases before an incident occurs. But given that an incident has occurred, what do you do? I would give similar advice to people who are having a disagreement about non-racial issues. Be and demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in the other person’s point of view. Ask questions before making declarations. Of course, if the person is unwilling to engage with you then you may need to respond more forcefully.

  7. Michael: Thanks for the kudos. Partly I was consciously trying to use my responses to the comments to model how to respond to criticism. Ppscribe gave me sincere feedback about how my writing “felt” to him/her. There was a fair amount in what I wrote that I thought made it pretty clear that I didn’t think the “White” view was “right,” but by asking for information instead of defending myself, I learned useful information about how the text could strike someone else. At the next class session, I told the class about the criticism and elaborated a bit. At least one student of color, an activist student who has been giving me very positive feedback all term, told me that she had a similar reaction when she read my email, although she didn’t tell me. So ppscribe’s criticism allowed me to have another chance not only to improve what I said to the White students, but to make the POC students feel better about me. I think I gained from the exchange.

    For a clearly hostile and pointless comment like Greg’s, I’m trying to model how a non-defensive wry response can make you look better than any attempt to defend yourself can. I’d eliminate spam or vulgarity or repeated posts of that sort by the same person (or a claque) but I don’t see any need to eliminate just one such reaction.

  8. Thanks for the reply. Despite my disagreements with ppscribe, I do think I learned a thing or two from his/her comment. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to learn from students when I start teaching about such issues.

  9. Olderwoman, I’m glad you revisited this with your students. That extra effort afforded an additional response from someone who might otherwise have kept silent, which is a good thing, IMO.

    BTW, I’m a “her.” 🙂

  10. pprscribe: Thanks again. As you say, you helped me to improve a situation I did not even know was problematic.

    To anyone else who is hanging in with this exchange who might, like Michael, disagree with some of pprscribe’s interpretations, my own view is that a lot of these situations are ambiguous and entail a lot of different levels and factors and look really different from different vantage points. To me it is less a matter of who is right and more a matter of understanding the different viewpoints and figuring out whether there is anything we can do to make the whole situation better.

    And to those who agree with Greg, I’m a little sheepish because this was not a polished document. My blog usually gets 3-6 hits, and I did not expect to be linked to by Inside Higher Ed or get lots of viewers. I thought maybe one of the half dozen regulars might have something to say. I feel very fortunate to have gotten a response of this quality from pprscribe and michael bishop.

  11. It occurred to me thinking about this that I might not have made it clear that I think pprscribe made a lot of good points about how to view the situations and my post. This is not the first time I’ve been “called” on these kinds of issues, so I was not particularly surprised at a lot of what she said. Thus I will simply commend to you to read what she wrote without my needing to echo it.

  12. 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: http://www.illdoctrine.com/2008/07/how_to_tell_people_they_sound.html

    Coming late into this.

    I had a much longer response to this typed up, but I changed my mind. I just have one question, though:

    Do you know how White and racist you sound when you say things like this?

  13. RVCBard: I was quoting Jay Smooth and using him as my source, which is why it seemed ok at the time. But I get the point that when I say it, it isn’t the same. I was trying to avoid the presumption that the only people in the class were White by making some nod in the other direction. But I accept the critique about how this works in context to sound like a “tone” argument. And also the problem with a White person presuming to say how a person of color should respond.

    There’s a paragraph I had in my draft and took out that told of an experience I had when I said I thought there was a gender bias in a work interaction and the whole conversation became about my hurting the feelings of the man who said it and made it impossible to discuss the original problem. That example probably would better convey the point that I think the aggrieved person’s concerns are probably valid, or at least worth discussing. Frankly, I took it out because even with some of the details of the example modified, there would be people who might read the blog who would have recognized the incident, and I felt vulnerable giving that level of detail.

    There’s another layer which I have to deal with. My thinking was/is heavily influenced by conversations I had with a couple of Black education activists and Black teachers about the problem of White teachers overreacting when Black children (I’m speaking of 6 and 7 year olds here, actual children) call them racist. The Black activist specifically named White teacher overreaction as a problem. I’ve spent some time talking to different Black people and reading a bit by Black educators about that specific topic and then trying to talk to White people about what Black people said about it. But it is clear that I need to separate discussions of dealing with little children from adult interactions, because otherwise it is offensive, as it makes it sound like issues of dealing with children and issues of dealing with adult people of color are the same. So I’m giving myself a wake up call on that one. I believe that failing to make this distinction clear in anything I say is contributing to the problem ppscribe and now you pointed to.

    It is unsettling but helpful to be told how this strikes other people. I appreciate you taking the time to write.

  14. RVCB: One last note: I don’t apologize for sounding White. I live from inside my own standpoint. Furthermore, I believe I am a more constructive participant in combating racism from owning who I am and where I come from. I know I have a perspective that is limited by who I am and I believe in embracing that rather than denying it. But I do apologize for sounding racist and for writing something that can hurt the feelings of others or contribute to White’s readers beliefs that dealing with racial interactions is just a matter of impression management, rather than really engaging matters of racial domination and our place in a hierarchy.

  15. I do not think that word means what you think it means, do yourself a favor and read the definition of racist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s