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?
Here is an example of racism:
A white person who doesn’t suffer from racial discrimination asserting that people who name the racism they experience only use the term “as a means to shame others…it’s certainly not ever used to foster understanding or encourage dialogue.”
Imagine a non-Jew arguing that Jews shouldn’t call out antisemitic behavior because, in their view, we are only using it to shame people, and never to foster understanding or encourage dialogue. It says much more about that person than the generic conversational value of the term. I believe most people are capable of more.
We are in the midst of a national, once-in-a-generation reckoning with vast structures of racial discrimination past and present. In the best of worlds, that includes a degree of personal growth and even transformation in terms of our understanding of white supremacy and rethinking our relationship to each of its manifestations. It means being humble and okay with our imperfections.
I, for one, have been called out on racist actions and statements I have made in the past. It sucks, okay! It definitely doesn’t feel good. And it wasn’t always Black people calling me out. While I felt shame in those moments, being called out did not cause me to take my ball and go home, or double down on racism. It led me to listen, with an open heart and an open mind, and commit to doing better.
When it comes to learning about racism, those of us who have not experienced it personally should be openminded and willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations—not run away from the discomfort.
When your actions or language are called racist, that’s an opportunity for growth. It is not the Black person’s fault if you choose to spoil that opportunity—it’s your own.
Honestly, in my mind, racism is feeling as though you’re better than or elevated above people with different skin colors. It seems that white represents purity in our society (think something as simple as a wedding dress) and black represents bad or evil (keeping with clothing, the villain wears black). Ideas like this are woven into the psyche. The underlying belief is that white skin elevates you above all others who weren’t deemed worthy of having that white skin. It’s bullshit, of course, but it’s been part of white culture for centuries. One need only look at the English and there need to invade other countries that were full of “savages” and try to convert them to follow their white Jesus.
Many people are passively participating in racism, not realizing that this undercurrent even exists.
Being called a racist, in my opinion, is scary to people because they think it might be true, even if they are not actively committing racist acts.
Thanks for the reply Evan. I’m not suggesting a person shouldn’t call out offensive behavior – quite the opposite. What I’m opposed to is labeling a person as a whole based on a limited exposure to that person’s beliefs and life experiences.
Using your example, assuming someone has made a remark you consider anti-Semitic, which reaction do you suppose has more potential to have more of a positive impact on the person making the comment?
B) Dude, I’m offended by that comment, here’s why…
Do you think Desean Jackson should be banned for life from the NFL for retweeting Hitler quotes (even though they weren’t factual) or do you approve of Julian Edelman’s approach of reaching out to him and offering to go to DC with him to have a learning experience at the Holocaust Museum (and African-American History museum)?
I agree with Evan Stern’s comment. It is important that we avoid painting with broad brushes and speaking in absolutes about people, their motives, or their thoughts or reactions. As Evan pointed out, there are people who have learned and attempted to change their views/actions when someone has called out behavior they didn’t realize crossed a line.
Similarly, I can say that not all people who use the noun (or adjective) “racist” do so because “the word [makes them] feel better because they got to feel morally superior.” It shows a lack of true understanding to think that an historically oppressed or marginalized person is making a point only in an attempt to try to shame someone to make themselves feel superior.
However, to what might get to Michael Farber’s point with his opinion piece, is calling out an action (with an adjective) vs a noun could result in something more productive than name-calling. Still, there have been occasions where I, for one, have referred to a person’s actions and statements and beliefs as being racist — careful not to say that the person themselves are one. Often, what they and others still hear is that you called them a racist.
I can’t control how others will react or respond, but that doesn’t mean I should shy away from trying to educate and inform, nor should I be silenced from using the most appropriate term because it will make someone feel uncomfortable.
Regardless of their knee-jerk reaction upon being called out on racist behavior or thinking, it is my hope that they will think twice about their actions and words the next time, if they truly believe an act of racism was not their intent.
As Evan said: “When your actions or language are called racist, that’s an opportunity for growth.”
Thanks for the comments Jesse and Sheree. I really appreciate it. You can’t have a dialogue if no one is talking…
My apologies for such a late reply. I’m used to the immediate notification you get from some social media sites.
Just to be clear, I’m all for calling out inappropriate behavior, but it seems all I see is name-calling and, as you put it Sheree, “painting with broad brushes and speaking in absolutes about people”.
We all need to be careful to address a person’s actions rather than a person’s self. That, to me, is shaming – the defining of a person’s character, self, entire being, by their actions. By reducing them to a racist, you’ve taken away any possibility that they may be receptive to the message you’re trying to convey