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It’s rarely helpful to label someone ‘Racist,’ but not for the reasons you might think.

July 14, 2022
Diversity & Inclusion

As organizations tackle topics related to race and equity in an unprecedented way, there’s a tacit tension constraining and constricting many of these very necessary, overdue conversations. Indeed, many White colleagues (in particular) are deathly afraid of being labeled “racist,” so instead of engaging, questioning, learning and contributing, they largely sit on the sidelines nervously itching for a topic change. Much of that discomfort is the result of an anachronistic, fundamentally skewed concept of what racism actually looks like and what the term “racist” really means in 2022.

As Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson reflects on the “emancipation” of African Americans post-Civil War, he insists, “Slavery doesn’t end. It just evolves.” Similarly, racism didn’t end. It too evolved. With the acknowledgement of this tragic “evolution,” it’s important to recognize that what is considered and meant by the term “racist” today is very different from what was considered “racist” in decades or centuries past—and the conflation of the two oftentimes becomes a stumbling block for productive exchange and real progress. Indeed, if we’re to effectively navigate “racism 3.0” (the post-Civil Rights Movement era), we must use more evolved, nuanced language about race, and immediately labeling someone a “racist” because they said or did something racially offensive can oftentimes create more problems than it solves as a result of this fundamental misunderstanding.

Given the country’s brutal history of white supremacy and racial violence, the term “racist” typically conjures up the worst mental images—Bull Conner ordering children to be hosed, KKK members torching homes and churches, white supremacists lynching men, women and children and leaving their bodies hanging to terrorize the Black community, etc. As a result, for many (particularly within the White community), they consider those people the racists. Indeed, that stunted mental paradigm creates a “good/bad binary” as Robin DiAngelo explains in her New York Times bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard To Talk to White People About Racism. Given this horrific context and the fact that most people have dreadfully low levels of racial literacy, humility and stamina, when someone is labeled “racist,” for many it’s virtually impossible to not personalize that, and the urge to fight that characterization kicks in. Indeed, the view is that racists are “bad” so we must prove that we’re “good.” Since our mental imagery around racism and racists is typically centered around the worst behavior (lynchings, slavery, overt subjugation), that extreme reference point creates an inability to see the much more common ways racism and racist behavior show up today. To make matters worse, if one is mentally repelling a characterization that they feel is “unfair,” it leaves little room for active listening, learning and curious engagement—what’s needed to engender real understanding and improvement.

Arguably, the term “racist” is more appropriately used as an adjective, describing specific behavior at a particular time instead of a noun branding a person for life. In this Yale News article “Racism is about power and policy, not people,” Dr. Ibram Kendi, author of the New York Times best seller How to Be an Antiracist explains, “The term ‘racist’ should instead be understood as a descriptor. It literally describes what a person is being in any given moment, based on what they are saying or not saying, doing or not doing.”

This different interpretation of the term “racist” reminds me of an incident a few years ago with a good friend (who happens to be a physician). As I watched an old episode of The Andy Griffith Show, he entered the room, glanced at the screen and asked, “Is this the episode with the lady doctor?” to which I quickly responded, “Excuse me? Do you refer to yourself as a man doctor?” Having known him well for 15 years, I’d never before sensed even a scintilla of misogyny in his world view, but in that particular moment, I felt his comment was not just offensive but sexist. While I didn’t label him “a sexist,” I told him that I thought it was a sexist comment. There’s a difference.

While an individual’s racist comments, actions and behaviors are certainly wrong and should absolutely be called out, it’s also important to remember criminal defense attorney Stevenson’s reminder that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” While most of us have told a lie or cheated at something at some point in our life, we’d likely reject being characterized as a “liar” or a “cheater” for good reason—because a single act or deed doesn’t define the totality of who we are as a person. Indeed, bell hooks surfaces this point with her poignant question, “How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

Having grown up in a society defined by a racial caste system, virtually all of us will likely hold some racial biases, and those biases will impact our thinking, words and actions from time to time. It doesn’t make us a “bad person;” it’s just a natural outcome of our collective conditioning. For any naysayers who might doubt the prevalence of racial bias, consider taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test which has shown for decades that most Americans have an automatic preference for White over Black. It’s important to note that that racial preference or bias isn’t exclusive to White people. I took the test twice and both times it found a preference for European American over African American. My preference isn’t borne out of some character flaw in myself; it’s a natural outcome of being born into a society that for nearly 350 years legally codified and socially reinforced a belief in White superiority.

In a sense, it’s quite liberating to realize that the biased or racist actions we may take or verbiage we may use isn’t typically a result of our individual personal failings but more realistically a natural outgrowth of our environment and conditioning. That in no way suggests we should just accept it and move on with business as usual, but instead it should encourage us to stop focusing our attention on our own individual intentions and character and instead focus on addressing the continued narrative of racial difference and ameliorating the persistent dire racial disparities and outcomes. The Yale News article quotes Kendi as saying, “For too long, society’s understanding of racism has focused on the perpetrators rather than the victims. We should be outcome-centered and victim-centered. If a policy is leading to racial injustice, it doesn’t really matter if the policymaker intended for that policy to lead to racial injustice. If an idea is suggesting that white people are superior, it doesn’t really matter if the expressor of that idea intended for that idea to connote white superiority. If we train our focus on outcomes and victims, intention will become irrelevant.”

Part of the danger of using the term “racist” as a noun to label people instead of using it as an adjective to describe specific actions, behaviors or policies is that it tends to individualize racism and fails to acknowledge the broad, systemic reach and impact of racism. The truth is that racism is much like a cancer or pollution within society, impacting virtually everyone, not an evil only possessed by a few sinister individuals. Society is best poised to address racial disparities by seeking out and correcting racist policies, processes, institutions and certainly the actions of certain individuals as well, but there’s a real understatement of the impact of racism when we focus too narrowly on specific individuals. An apt analogy is the struggle to lose weight. Many nutritionists recommend writing down everything that you eat to create awareness that will positively influence future choices. The focus on writing everything down isn’t primarily to highlight/remind you of the obviously unhealthy foods as much as it is to acknowledge and highlight the cumulative deleterious impact of the minor, less obvious poor nutritional choices made throughout the day—fatty salad dressings, high-sugar condiments and sauces, bread before the meal, calorie-laden drinks—that are much more likely to go unnoticed and unaccounted for. Obviously, vile, overt individual racism still exists and likely always will so it’s completely understandable that the term “racist” is used to label self-proclaimed White supremacists or similar actors, but most racism today manifests in a much more subtle and systemic way.

It’s important to note that this shift away from labeling people as “racist” isn’t suggested out of any attempt to minimize discomfort or hurt feelings. While engendering individual discomfort or hurt feelings isn’t the goal of calling out racism, it’s important to acknowledge that that discomfort is often a natural part of the process of enlightenment and ultimate progress just as soreness is part of adopting a healthy exercise regimen. To move forward there must be relentless focus on prioritizing progress over comfort or as Dr. King referenced it in his famous “Letter from Brimingham Jail, maintaining more devotion to justice than to order. Unfortunately, the outsized focus on feelings and comfort is a primary reason why there’s been so little racial equity progress over the past several decades. So no, this isn’t a call to avoid labeling people as racist to simply spare White (or other) people’s feelings as it remains critically important to de-center White feelings and instead prioritize anti-racism progress.

Indeed, it’s not just appropriate but important to c out racist behavior when we see it (or even when we do it ourselves), but let’s also maintain relentless focus on outcomes and results. Racism has indeed evolved. It does manifest and show up differently in 2022 than it did in 1922, and if we’re to have substantive productive conversations about today’s racism, we must be willing to adopt more precise and nuanced language that doesn’t pick winners and losers but instead recognizes racism as a common enemy.

By Dana Brownlee


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