I’ve come to the conclusion that people overuse the word racist. Please let me explain what I mean. Racism is a complicated thing, and most people mistakenly believe that racism is simply overt hatred for a person of another race or ethnicity. That would be prejudice, and while that can certainly be seen as a symptom of racism, it goes much deeper than that. Racism is usually cultivated over time. It becomes woven in the very fabric of cultural norms. It begins with negative attitude about another group, and maybe mistreatment and discrimination. In our own history, for example, African Americans began as slaves; property. Once freed and extended citizenship, the attitudes people had about African Americans didn’t change. They still saw them as lesser Americans, and passed laws that limited their rights and ability to participate equally in our society. Over the course of centuries, that systemic treatment of African Americans became the norm. No one questioned it. If you were born white (even poor), at least you didn’t have to deal with the crap African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, or Latinos had to go through. There was a level of racial and social privilege that came with it. People of different races were kept in separate communities and separate in all social facilities. In no way was it ever equal. It was deliberate, and largely that segregation still exists today.
Here’s what changed. The Civil Rights Movement made this division and inequality a national conversation. Suddenly, people were standing up and fighting for their rights. Aside from the abolition of separate but equal conditions, this movement made outward, blatant prejudice socially unacceptable. Beforehand, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use racial slurs as part of their normal vernacular. But after the movement had finally settled down, not only could businesses no longer turn people away over skin color, it became wrong to call people by these racial slurs. But while we taught America that being racist was bad, we didn’t really define it, and we really only addressed certain aspects of it.
Racism is more commonly defined today by social scientists as a condition where one dominant racial group uses social and governmental institutions to limit the rights of people of a non-dominant racial group. For most of US history, this has been true. When people say that we’ve moved past that time, we have so in one sense, but the infrastructure is still there. We no longer call each other by those words used in the past. We may not even harbor any ill will or negative attitudes for people in the minority, but we have to realize that those systemic aspect of racism still lie beneath the surface in the form of stereotypes, segregation, and even the discounting of the lives and conditions often experienced by those who come from those minority groups.
It’s hard to see that from the perspective of a white person. We have largely experienced a different America, and it’s almost impossible to see the world through the eyes of others. That should be acknowledged. Here’s where I say the racist label is overused, and perhaps a little unfair.
One of the things white Americans are most sensitive about is being deemed a racist. That’s a powerful word; a powerful label. People get really upset when you call them a racist, or even imply that they are. I would even go as far as to say that saying, “that’s racist” may cause a person to think you’re calling them a racist. Truly, in their hearts, they believe they are not. They don’t hate people of other races or ethnicities. Perhaps they have friends in those groups. Maybe they occasionally step into that trap where they are either ignorant to something they didn’t realize about the other group, or they might mistakenly say something that plays into a stereotype or something that is insensitive. Hell, I do it from time to time. But I don’t think that makes a person racist.
People break the law all the time. I’m sure I drive faster than the speed limit at least 95% of the time. I have run red lights and driven with my seat belt unbuckled. Does that make me a criminal? I have committed crimes, but am I deserving of the label? The label changes everything. It comes with a stigma. If you were to tell someone who didn’t know me that I’m a criminal, they might assume that I rob people on a regular basis or something worse. They wouldn’t be thinking about traffic violations. I don’t even think we really view people with DWI convictions as criminals, and that’s something we take very seriously as a society. Furthermore, placing a suffix like –ist at the end of a word implies that a person is actively operating something. A motorist actively drives a car. You’re not a motorist if you’re a passenger. A racist, to me, might do more to describe someone who actively uses a prejudiced attitude and sees people of a non-dominant race as inferior. David Duke? Racist. Neo-Nazis? Racist. You’re Uncle Joe that uses the n-word every five minutes? Probably racist. I believe that most people, when they say they’re not racist, are probably being truthful. They don’t dislike another on the basis of skin color or ethnic background. They may say things, often without realizing, that are part of the remnant infrastructure of racism. They may even say or do things that are racist. But I don’t think that necessarily makes them deserving of the label of racist. Why not reserve that word for true, blatant racists? Don’t cheapen the power of that word by using it to describe anyone who says something insensitive. It corrupts the conversation about what racism is, and how to change its presence in society.