It's time to put a moratorium on the word 'racist' [The Guardian]
In the late nineties, conservative John Bunzel, a former member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, wrote that President Clinton's Advisory Board on Race should call for an end of the "corrupted usage" of the word "racist" especially when used as an "accusation" or "smear word" because:
[It] breeds bitterness and polarization, not a spirit of pragmatic reasonableness in confronting our difficult problems.
While I agree with little else that he said in that article, 15 years later, the sentiment is hitting home. It's time to put a moratorium on the word "racist".
It's not that the word racist – meaning a belief that one's race is superior to another – doesn't adequately define the feelings of certain people in the world. Racial prejudice and racism, is certainly alive and often thought to be rising in America and Europe. But I refuse to believe the word "racist" is an adequate characterization of everyone and everything that it has been attributed to as of late.
In the past week alone the word "racist" has been used in reference to Halloween costumes, gun owners, Russian soccer fans, the upscale store Barney's, alleged text messages sent by an NFL player to his colleague, sunglasses, and reportedly angry fans after YouTube's first music awards. Looking back over the past few years, the word has described teens that called President Obama the "N word" online, the President himself, people mad at the new Miss America, Lena Dunham's show Girls, Lena Dunham herself, Jamie Foxx on Saturday Night Live, dogs, and folks that like white turkey meat over dark.
Were many of these stories reprehensible? Yes. Others were borderline ridiculous – dogs, seriously? But there's some kind of racial line that we are starting to blur and I'm less convinced that every racial misstep is the action of a "racist."
Sure, the Hollywood actress absolutely deserved to be called on her ill-advised blackface Halloween costume, the NFL player should have faced repercussions for his alleged use of racial slurs and the lack of diversity on Girls is a valid concern. But it doesn't mean that all of these folk should be cast off as "bad guys" and lumped in with the camp of people that thinks their sole race is superior.
Let me make it clear, I am not, and will not, defend any of these people and their actions. Many reveal very deep rooted bigotry, prejudice and problematic ideas about racial and ethnic groups; but the constant use of such incendiary and dramatic language often takes us away from the root of the problem, and takes us away from the fight for racial justice. I'm not advocating we take the racist moniker from those that truly deserve it, like Adolf Hitler and white supremacist David Duke. But the word racist has gone from being used to describe the harsh discrimination of the Jews, to a sort of catch all phrase for anything that is racially negative, stereotypical or just deviates from what we have deemed to be the "politically correct " racial transcript.
Joe Feagin a sociologist at the University of Florida says that today when we talk about race, we aren't really talking about "racism", that our conversations are "racist light" because we're ultimately alluding to a deficient character trait. He says:
Whites don't want to be called racist because it threatens our virtue. Since the 1950s whites learned that it's not a good thing. They know now that being called a racist is now connected with not being virtuous…it's just saying you're a nasty person.
"A lot of times when we talk about racism, we're talking about racial prejudice", says Lecia Brooks, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She adds, "folks don't have the language to talk about racism. Language is important". Jennifer Roth-Gordon, a linguist at Arizona State agrees that the idea that one is a "racist" today is associated with an ignorance. But she says the word means a little more than just a simple prejudice. "Prejudice is a bias. Racism is a bias with prejudice and is institutional. Prejudice is a far more general term since there are people of color who are biased."
Roth-Gordon says a particular problem with the word is that it's often attributed to individual actions rather than a systematic deficiency. "Talking about individual racists or racism, lets us whites off the hook. We can go around and say 'tsk tsk', I would never do that." She says we have to stop focusing on the accusation and instead focus on the action. She points to video by hip-hop commentator, Jay Smooth (watch it here), on how to tell someone they sound racist. In it, he says you have to separate between "what they did" and "what they are", while keeping the conversation on what they said. It's an interesting strategy and one that many in the media and blogosphere (including myself) should take note of.
Still, I think we would all benefit from a moratorium on the word. Maybe if we stop the superfluous use of the "R" word we can all pause for a minute and admit to certain biases and prejudices without feeling like we're the lowest of the low and begin to work towards achieving real racial justice.
Paula Deen's very public shaming this summer is a prime example of jumping on the liberal feel-good bandwagon, without saying much about race. I will admit, it was refreshing to have a multiracial coalition angered by Deen's behavior; and it sparked an interesting debate. But have those same people, outraged at Deen's use of the N word, started calling more people with "black-sounding" names as much as whites when their company has a job open? Have they begun to pay Hispanic workers as much as everyone else? Have they clutched their purses any less when a black man walks down the street towards them?
Walmart, one of the companies that said they were dropping Deen's products, is the largest employer of blacks and Hispanics in America. Yet according to the union-sponsored Making Change at Walmart, a full time Walmart associate earns less than 70% of the federal poverty line for a family of four. People of color disproportionately make up their low wage jobs, with the average hourly associate making about $8.81 an hour, well below the amount experts say the average american family needs to live.
But no one is calling any of these folk racist.
Today the word racist, and the shaming that goes along with it, has turned too political. It is also too much about individual prejudice, when in reality, racial justice is something that we all should be fighting for together.
It's fine to reproach individuals like Paula Deen or point out racially charged tweets, but I wish people would act as equally as outraged over New York's Stop and Frisk policies, or the dismantling of the Voter Rights Act, or opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. Being a "racist" certainly can start with bias and ignorance, but it's more than just using the "N word", "twerking" or dressing up in a distasteful costume. It's time we all begin to understand that.