What’s In A Word? Plenty

Let me ask you this: Have you ever witnessed a case where someone calling someone else a racist did any good? Oh, I know it helped the person using the word feel better because they got to feel morally superior, but that is a sensation that lasts only as long as it takes for the user to realize that the racist on the receiving end of the word has moved on from them – not only as racist as ever but frustratingly unwilling to even admit any racist tendencies whatsoever.

Sounds like what we may have here is a good old-fashioned failure to communicate.

How do you define the word “racist”? I don’t mean as an adjective (e.g. that’s racist) I mean as a noun (e.g. you’re a racist). We see it used repeatedly on social media, oftentimes in conjunction with the phrase “you’re part of the problem”; yet, as far as I can tell, the word is only used as a means to shame others; it’s certainly not ever used to foster understanding or encourage dialogue. I don’t recall ever seeing an instance where the recipient was so moved at being called a racist that they suddenly put a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard or made a large donation to the United Negro College Fund.

In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone, after being called a racist, acknowledging anything other than their utter disdain at being called a racist.

Why would they be so defensive? Are they trying to conceal deep, dark truths? Maybe. Or maybe they just don’t see themselves as being racist and really resent the accusation.

My guess is they define racism the same way former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography. They know it when they see it – and they feel they’ve seen it enough to know they’re not racist.

They’ve never refused service to a black customer, they’ve never restricted use of their water fountains based on color, they’ve never burned a cross on someone’s lawn, they’ve never used the n-word and they’ve certainly never deliberately denied a qualified candidate of color a job or a place to live. Not only that, but they were also just as horrified at the way George Floyd died as you were.

Does all of that make them not racist? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re using a word that is so potent that its very appearance automatically changes the topic of the discussion in which it’s being used – racism – into another, less important, topic – whether or not someone is a racist.

Don’t you think a word that uses the megaton as its unit of measure for societal impact should require unanimity as to its meaning before it gets put into heavy rotation? Just wondering.

Isn’t the first step in fighting a problem to clearly define what the problem is? Without doing that, we get distracted and lose sight of what it is that we most want to accomplish.

I was not being rhetorical. Please explain in the comments section what you think the word “racist” means. If I wanted a dictionary definition or a meme, I could have just done a Google search myself. Yes, I get that there are databases full of quotes that express our thoughts more eloquently than we ever could and that it’s scary to be vulnerable in public, but in this exercise, I would really appreciate if you would describe your own thoughts in your own words.

If you prefer, feel free to offer an example instead. It’s racist when so-and-so does or says such-and-such.

And please: keep the focus of your reply on what’s racist, not who’s racist. There will be plenty of time to discuss that later.

Michael David Farber occasionally refers to himself in the third person. This is one of those times. Michael could go on and on about himself but finds literary bios self-aggrandizing. Michael admits he had to look up self-aggrandizing to make sure it meant what he thought it meant. It did. Michael has a lot to say but even more to learn. What are you ready to admit about yourself?