Stop Calling Stuff Racist

Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof maintains that “black people are the real racists.” Meanwhile, in Kansas, a legislator is reprimanded for calling a certain bill, and her colleagues who support that bill, “racist.” Taken together, what do these events say about the contemporary usage of this term?

In short, it appears that “racist” has lost all descriptive power. No one, not even Root, the most extreme, textbook example of a “race hater” can see a reflection of himself or his beliefs in this word. That’s because “racist” is now solely an insult. We all agree that it’s bad to be racist. And calling something “racist” carries emotional weight. Paradoxically though, because of this weight the term is basically useless. Labeling something as “racist” works not to point out what may be overlooked. Instead, it’s just an quick way to announce the speaker’s disapproval. It drives a wedge between people with different views, shuts down conversation. Therefore, we should stop calling stuff “racist.”

I recognize this is a big claim. In flushing it out, I first need to note that I’m not claiming that “race doesn’t exist” or that “we live in a colorblind society.” Instead, I’m saying that we need to find new ways to describe the (very real) social inequities which shape said society.

Like all evaluative terms, “racist” and “racism” are abstractions. Like all abstractions, they contain multitudes, and therefore often work to hide as much as they reveal. Consider the broad spectrum of positions which these terms could legitimately characterize. Of course, we have murderous race hate like that of Dylann Roof. That is racism. We also have fear of or lack of sympathy for other races. This is racism too. Next, we have the promotion of ideas or policies which benefit one race at the expense of another (the “racist” Kansas legislators likely fall into this category). Finally, we have the systematic denial of another group’s subjective truth (Fox News, with its inability to acknowledge the existence of racial inequality is “racist” in this regard).

So “racist” clearly casts a very broad net. What I’m saying is that we need to be more nuanced in parsing out these different positions. The Kansas legislature clearly favors the interests of white Kansans over minority groups. They don’t hate minorities the way Dylan Roof does though. To imply that they do just isn’t constructive. Therefore, instead of calling them “racist,” with the overtones of racial hate that implies, we need to think of new, more descriptive ways to point out the unfair and socially destructive nature of their beliefs. Yes, this is difficult. It’s the only way forward though.

Microaggression / Macro-aggravation

Of late, the concept of “microaggression” has emerged as the hot, new PC boogeyman. In today’s Washington Post law professor Eugene Volokh chimes in, discussing recent efforts by UC-Berkeley to dissuade faculty from saying things like “America is a melting pot” for fear that such statements may alienate students of color. Is this censorship? Suppression of ideas? Let’s discuss.

At the heart of Volokh’s article is a worksheet distributed by UC-Berkeley to inform faculty about unintended discrimination. This is fascinating document. It defines microaggressions as actions, intentional or otherwise, which “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” This includes (obviously problematic) stuff like clutching one’s purse when a black person walks by. It also includes statements which act to deny the existence of racial/gender discrimination. For example, one should be wary of telling a person of color that “in this society, everyone can succeed.”

Prof. Volokh’s main concern is that efforts to prevent professors from talking like Republican presidential candidates represent a suppression of certain viewpoints. I agree that taken out of context a prohibition on statements such as “there’s only one race, the human race” sounds ridiculous. Prof. Volokh perhaps feels that this is a true statement. Great. Of course he should be able to think and talk and theorize about our fundamental oneness.

At the same time though, perhaps Volokh, as a sophisticated reader and thinker, is being slightly disingenuous. The document he cites clearly states the importance of context. Of course, not every humanistic platitude is an act of racialized violence. No one is claiming this. Instead, the cited worksheet simply tries to explain (presumably to a white reader) how certain statements, in certain contexts, might be construed. When her professor asserts “color-blindness,” for example, a certain brand of prickly activist (I know the type, trust me) might hear “this white man thinks he doesn’t have to acknowledge my truth.” Such a response, even if silly, is real. It can impact the educational relationship and therefore must be respected.

To get a little more general, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between “truth” and consequences. In the university environment, all parties (ideally) are entitled to their own truth. Prof. Volokh can believe that “America is a melting pot” and the student activist can believe that “America is a cesspool of oppression” and AMAZINGLY they can both be right. This is pluralism. This is a good thing.

At the same time though, in exchange for the right to be right, both actors must be aware of the consequences of their statements. Volokh and the student activist must recognize that their truth is not necessarily shared. Therefore, that truth must be presented with a certain amount of rhetorical nuance. If anything, the statements on the worksheet lack this nuance. It is that, not their validity or lack therefore which makes them offensive.ยน

So to summarize, as long as we keep it at the level of rhetorical etiquette, I see no problem with the policing of “microaggressions.” On the other hand, if such policies work to restrict what truths can be held and promulgated, they must be resisted.

1. Admittedly the text of the worksheet does not make this distinction. I’m reading it generously.