Naming racists and racism

Two things that are not helpful:

  1. If you sense racist elements in my speech or actions and react by calling me a racist, that doesn’t help.
  2. If you sense some racist elements in my speech or behavior, and try to clue me in to what I’m missing, and I respond with, “You’re calling me a racist!”—that also doesn’t help.

These are both dead ends. The do not open a conversation. They foreclose the possibility of conversation. They foreclose the possibility of conversion.

I noticed in reading Robin DiAngelo’s book that she never uses the noun “racist.” I.e., she never calls anyone a racist.

I think this is related to the fact that we no longer call anyone a cripple; we acknowledge that many people have disabilities, we recognize them as human beings none the less, and we honor the ways in which they strive to overcome them.

To call them cripples would be to give up on them and encourage them to give up on themselves. It would be to reduce them to nothing but their disability.

On the other hand, to deny that they have disabilities would be to prefer a comfortable falsehood over an inconvenient truth, and also to excuse ourselves from remedying the ways in which we make life more difficult than necessary for people with disabilities, and also to fail to encourage and recognize the ways in which disabled people strive to overcome their disabilities.

We all know this about disability now, don’t we?

In my way of seeing things, for any of us to call another of us a racist would be to say that person is by nature bad, and we cannot imagine their redemption. We might say this when our perception that a person has settled into a pattern, has formed a habit, and appears unable to hear criticism or exhortation. It would never make any sense to call a person a racist if you see disturbing things in them but care about them and hope to help them reach a deeper level of insight.

But it’s a very different thing to say that this or that impulse or action, in myself or in another person, is racist, or is tinged with racism, or reflects the racism of the matrix in which that person was formed. That’s not the same as saying the person in question is a racist. It does not reduce the whole person to nothing but racism. It does not treat racism as their indelible character.

To say that my own or someone else’s assumptions, attitudes, reflexes are tainted with racism is to acknowledge that we live and move and have our being in a country where for three full centuries black people were enslaved, treated as subhuman or as only fractionally human, and where in our fourth century we have not yet entirely freed ourselves of the traces and consequences of the three prior centuries of gross, systematic abuse. (This is not an opinion. It is historical fact.)

In this setting, when white people who hear themselves implicated in racist histories, structures, and systems get their backs up and swear indignantly that “You’re calling me a racist!” and “I’m not a racist!” they are (it seems to me) signaling that they do not yet grasp the true situation and are not interested in doing anything but upholding their own perfect innocence and righteousness.

The irony is that if you substituted “sin” for “racism,” conservative white Christians would understand instantly the ways in which we are all born in sin, cannot claim any perfect righteousness of our own, and even after repentance and conversion need the constant help of a power beyond ourselves for constantly renewed insight into the multifarious re-invasions of sin, if not in blatant action (I didn’t kill anyone yesterday) then nevertheless in attitude (but oops, I did become impatient and allow a little surge of something verging on hatred to take me over for a few minutes).

But racism? Certainly not! How dare we even mention that word in their vicinity? This is the one sin, the only sin, of which they are confident that they are completely innocent. Not only they but their whole family, whole neighborhood, whole social or political group, etc. They will condemn in the angriest and proudest terms anyone who suggests otherwise. (This, by the way, is what DiAngelo and others mean by the term “white fragility.”)

It is curious.

When it is impossible to recognize the appropriateness of affirming, after centuries of systematic abuse of black people, that black lives matter, and when signs affirming that black lives matter are stolen under cover of darkness (as has happened recently in my neighborhood), I hope we can all refrain from calling each other racists; but I hope we can also honestly and non-defensively acknowledge that there is racism, and that this is not some disembodied force that flits around in the air unattached to particular people and groups of people who think things and say things and do things.

We are not yet free. We can’t become free of racism by pretending that we already are free of racism any more than anyone can ever gain freedom from sin by pretending to be sinless from the start.

When Jesus says, “Someone here is a traitor,” the true disciple is the one who anxiously asks, “Lord, is it I?” The betrayer is the one who gets up and walks out.

2 thoughts on “Naming racists and racism

  1. Yes, but — and I hasten to add that I would not propose this corrective were it not for Ibraim X. Kendi’s, “How to be an Anti-Racist.” Ibraim is a black scholar who is a leading expert on racism in America. Leaving aside the accuracy of the definition itself, Ibraim defines racism as “any kind of bigotry” that has the capacity to “manipulate us into seeing people [groups with various skin colors] as the problem, instead of policies that ensnare them.” He goes on to say that “Denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races, and nations. It is beating within us.” And then freely admits he has been guilty of anti-black racism (self-hate, intellectualist prejudice), as well as anti-white racism, and, thus, owns, sadly, the term “racist.” But here is his point: “‘Racism’ is not . . . a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur [though it has been and continues to be so used. Thu, I think what he means is that it is not per se a slur.] It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it–and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.” So, yes, I am a racist, and you and you and you. We are all racist, but then so were Sts. Peter, Paul, John, James, and other NT luminaries. It was St. Peter after all who received the stinging rebuke of our Lord for mistaking “You are the Son of God” with “you are here to Make Israel Great Again, because Jews, after all, have the God-given right to Supremacy”. He and the others had the good grace, eventually, to concede their racism. Along these lines, it is instructive to note how the Jewish Supremacists in Nazareth, in Luke 4, home to what we would now recognize as the Michigan Militia, reacted to Jesus’s insinuation that they had no right to claim Jewish Privilege, and that racism is not part of the Gospel He came to proclaim. It is sobering. Apparently, the depth of one’s racism can be gauged by the level of anger one exhibits when called out as a racist. Much better to admit to being racist straight away and allow the Hoiy Spirit space and time to root it out of us as expeditiously and as thoroughly as possible and replace it with the fruit of “kindness, goodness, gentleness. . .”


    1. Thanks, Tim. This, from Kendi, seems right on: “The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is of course, designed to . . . freeze us into inaction.” (Where would I find this in Kendi?)
      And your pushback against my saying we shouldn’t call each other racists: there’s an interesting parallel with “sinner.” Conservative Christians are in my experience adamant that anyone who is going to be saved first needs to be willing to say, “I am a sinner.” The noun, sinner, applied to a person, to oneself, is essential. AA is quite clear that before you can even begin to start on the pathway to recovery, you have to be willing to say: “Hi, I’m ____, and I’m an alcoholic.” So why should we not require each other to say, “I’m a racist”?
      (Of course there’s one prominent exception to the conservative-Christian rule: Donald Trump does not have to confess, repent, or say one truthful word at all before being accepted not only as a Christian but as the leader and earthly savior of Christians.)
      But for myself: I don’t expect to achieve anything good by looking someone in the eye and saying either “You are a sinner” or “You are a racist.” I just don’t see that sort of opening leading to any good result.


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