There are racist people out there who commit racist acts. We know this. But is it possible that the two can be separate? That a typically decent, humane person spouting equality can behave in a racist manner and not actually be a racist? It’s clear that there is a lot of sensitivity using the word “racist”. Even the media typically cops out and uses “racially charged” when using “racist” is oftentimes more concise and correct.
Adjective or Noun and Does it Really Matter?
Racist can be used as an adjective or a noun. It can be an action or a person. A racist action is the act of trotting out a “token Black”. This is oftentimes done to prove that one is not a racist — which is the noun form.
Is it possible to behave in a racist manner and not be a racist? Yes.
Just like a person can sing a song or write without being labeled a singer or writer, a person could (in theory) commit a racist action without being racist. However, it’s rarely the case.
It’s usually a case of where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The reason it’s rare is because —
White People Are Raised In White Supremacy
If you are raised in a place like the U.S. you are a benefactor of white supremacy (i.e. racism) in some form and, though you may feel you are “outside of it” or “woke”, if you are existing within a colonized society, you are a creation and abettor of the system in some aspect. You will never fully avoid benefitting, as a white person, from this system. The only thing you can do, is actively pursue “diminishing returns” on the white supremacy investment by uplifting minorities in all aspects as often as possible and at great cost to yourself.
You will also, thanks to the pervasiveness of white supremacy, do something “racist” at some point.
Maybe deep down you know all this and that guilt increases your sensitivity to the word “racist”, regardless of how it is used.
When someone states that a comment or action you made was racist, you fall apart and you:
— list your Black (or other minority) friends and family
Listing all the people you are close to who are a minority doesn’t prove anything. That’s like claiming a married man can’t be a rapist or a girl who dresses a certain way can’t be a victim of rape. One has nothing to do with the other and it’s long past time we stopped using these as a metric for innocence or guilt.
— recite all your accomplishments working with and for minorities
Parading your accomplishments in the fight for equality doesn’t absolve you of a racist act. There are people who fight against child abuse, domestic violence, etc. who do abuse children and spouses. This is another version of “tokenism” except you’re using acts instead of people.
There are plenty of people who shield themselves from accusations by joining organizations because they know they can use this later as “proof of innocence”. The face we show the outside world is not always synonymous with the actual face we have because we typically present our best face to the world.
— you project onto the person calling out the behavior by telling them they are “overly sensitive”
There is a difference between being sensitive and being aware. If you are serious about the fight for equality, you need to know how to differentiate between the two (especially when talking to a minority) and not use the word “sensitive” as a catch-all to avoid accountability and/or discussions that make you uncomfortable.
— drone on about your “intentions”
Here’s a caveat white people tend to use often when trying to avoid the word racist — intention. For white people, society and government, intention plays an important role. For them, in order for an action or individual to be racist there has to be an conscious intent to target a minority group based on race. Without a proven intent it becomes, to them, “open to interpretation”.
Just like the courts, the focus is the intention of the white person rather than the disadvantaged result experienced by the minority. And when you try to focus the discussion on “your intention” you are intentionally diminishing the the importance of our experience.
— shift the focus from what you did to whether or not you deserve the label of “racist”
As stated in previous pieces and by many other people, white people do not get to define what is or is not racist because they have no experience with racism.
As such, arguing with a Black person or other person of color about whether the action was racist or “just a misunderstanding” from the perspective of someone who does and continues to benefit from racism is laughable in its inanity.
And keep in mind, no one called you racist. They called your behavior racist and it didn’t have to be synonymous with you as a person.
These are additional racist behaviors and, by this point, the person/s you are dealing with have likely decided that not only is your behavior racist but so are you.
We Get It
It’s rare that one can point out a white person’s racist behavior and they’ll surprise us by actively listening and having a dialogue about it without defensiveness or tears.
We expect you to act racist at some point. You can’t grow up white in this society and not make a mistake and since you are a friend we know you are not a bad person. Still, it’s always disappointing when it occurs, but the real pain comes from how you react when we point it out to you.
That’s where you fail.
The relationship we had with you is permanently altered and becomes superficial. We no longer seek out conversations with you, and we keep the ones we do have with you brief and we may smile and laugh but it never reaches our eyes because we no longer see you as a friend and ally.
We see you as the reason we, as a people, are held back. You are the embodiment of everything wrong with white people. How, even when offered a chance to do better, they refuse it. We need you to do better. We need you to be better.
So the next time you do something racist remember, it’s the way you handle what comes next that is going to determine whether you are a racist.