On Misusing and Misunderstanding the Term “Racist.”

I love language.  In part, I love language because of how it helps us overcome basic confusion and try, in a fumbling way, to speak our full thoughts to each other.  I had a lot of fun in my book giving the hero an “auto-translate” ability that allowed him to understand all languages (Incidentally, I’m working on the sequel, The Hospitaller Oath, which could be published as early as the end of August. I’m going to start releasing the text of my first book on my blog here as a way of promoing the second).

But because I love language, and because I’ve devoted my life to studying how to use it, I’m aware of the shortcomings and confusions that often arise from vague or unclear language.

As an example: people often mean totally different things when they use the term “racist.”

  (Just as a general note, I imagine many people will argue I have no right to talk about this issue at all.  I have problems with that attitude generally, but at least on the matter of language—particularly on how it can be confusing—I definitely have relevant experience to contribute. In any case, this, like most blogs, can be interpreted as loose ramblings, and I’m open to revising my views on the subject)

     Growing up, I knew what a racist was, and I knew they were reprehensible.  My very conservative family strongly rejected racism. We whole-heartedly decried the slavery of the Old South, the violence of Jim Crow, and the segregation of busses and schools. (indeed, my experience is that all sane conservatives do so) There were books on the subject on my family’s (well-stocked!) bookcases, and we watched documentaries on the subject, even on South African apartheid.  We felt that Affirmative Action was misguided, perhaps, and that the bulk of racism was in the past, but no one questioned that racism was bad. 

I was in high school before I learned that anti-semitism was still a thing, and it absolutely shocked me.  It seemed incomprehensible that people could hate a group who had so many great deeds recorded of them in the Bible. Then too, when I learned of how Neo-Nazis were still around, I could not countenance how they were even still allowed to meet.  These were the enemies of America who we had fought in WWII, how could any American still be following them?

               What I meant when I said “racist” in this time period, and what I believe most people of a certain age or certain political party mean when they say “racist,” is an absolute and defined class—people who consciously and in full self-awareness admit to themselves that they think some races are better than others by dint of genetics—the sort of people who had lynched helpless innocents, who had pushed and advocated for segregated schools.  Sometimes they’re open about it and other times they keep it quiet, but they know they’re racists and are convinced entirely of their own conscious beliefs that one race is better than another.

               This is what a sizeable section of America hears when they are called “racist,” and they react with understandable outrage. They’re being accused of being part of a defined group of people with horrible habits and mindsets. A response to a HONY interview series on Trump voters had an exasperated patriot talking about how he would open a door for a black man and a black man would open a door for them.  To someone with this conception of “racist,” the word is impossibly ludicrous when used to describe them.  They know what they believe, and they would never say that some races are better than others; would never even think that.  They would flatly decry such a notion. In this view, being accused of a racist is like being accused of being a communist or a Freemason.

               I can recall when I became aware that the term could be used by some to mean (in theory) something much different. I was listening in (not yet speaking) on a conversation about police violence related to the Ferguson riots, and an acquaintance of mine was speaking about racism in the police force.  Breaking into the conversation (I have a bad habit of doing that) I argued that it stretched the bounds of believability that every officer in the police would be a (confirmed, defined) racist, that police forces were hardly some secretive organization with racist meetings and racist signals. After all, there were plenty of minority police officers.

               My acquaintance explained.  “Racist”, in this context, did not mean a defined stance, but a subconscious influence, strengthened by group behaviors and mindsets. It was not stated, it was not defined, none of the men involved would say they were racist, or even that they thought one race was better than another. It was an unconscious practice, like pulling over red cars (actually, it’s white cars) more than blue cars. Adopting the practice was less a conscious choice and more a matter of absorbing the habits of the people you work with—even minority officers would adopt the patterns of their colleagues, not by intellectual assent, but simply by the atmosphere.  The police force, really, was guilty of little more than tragic groupthink that perpetuated itself and swept up plenty of well-intentioned people in a toxic atmosphere. (And in fact, Obama’s DOJ inspection revealed that Michael Brown’s shooting was justified, but also that police enforcement in Ferguson had definitely been… uneven.)

(On a more positive note, Ferguson did much better during the more recent riots)              

I was not wholly convinced, and continued to argue, but the statement was key for me to realize a whole new dimension meant (to some degree) by progressives who used the term “racist.”  To them, this was not an ideology one chose or consented to, but a mental bent, a bias in thinking, that often the person was not even aware of. Indeed, some argued it was an inherent part of the brain, triggered by an evolutionary instinctive reaction to be cautious of things that looked different from yourself, just as people feel naturally more inclined to like people who look like them, or people who wear brand-name shirts. ”Racist” was an adjective, not a noun.

               Theoretically, in this view, calling someone “racist” is not necessarily a moral judgement.  It is simply a fact of life that one should be aware of in order to push against. A logically consistent progressive, theoretically, would willingly admit that they too were racist, in the sense of having biases they could not completely control or overcome. So would any minority figure.  The statement “I don’t see color” is laughable in this view because one cannot help seeing color, and one’s brain is wired to take note of and react to that trait, along with height, weight, gender, and even shirt brand.  It need not be conscious to be true—or dangerous, for that matter. 

  It’s hard to deny that we have a gut reaction about which of these is more dangerous than the other.

             Theoretically is important here, because while this is the technical definition ascribed to (and what most progressives will fall back to if the terminology is challenged), it is often implied to be the former, or carry the moral weight of the former.  A person who has a slightly different reaction to a slightly different color on a spectrum is accused of being just the same, as morally bankrupt as, a person who hung another because of their skin color.  A former friend of mine posted the HONY interview above, stating “Take a good look; this is the face of evil.”  At another point, when I argued with him about the confusion of the two terms, he was dismissive. “I’m not going to change terms just to coddle the feelings of the other side,” he said. “They should understand that the one stems from the other—that the two are related.”

               (This former friend and I also argued at other points about cops being inherently psychopathic, and about whether asking minority friends to define discrimination counted as discrimination. There is a reason why I call him a former friend.)

               Regardless, the point might be valid, if clear analogies did not already exist—and if the confusion were not massively impeding actual progress on the problem..  Most people understand that irritation can lead to hate, and that hate can lead to murder.  Yet we do not use the same term to describe irritation and murder.  If we did, many people might understandably object to being called “irritated.”  To some extent, we even have such terms to describe adjectival racism.  “Biased” or “prejudiced” would be equally fine terms to describe the subconscious influence that a person’s race can have on another person.

EDIT: A friend of mine shared with me this article, which gets into the many distinctions of racism. It is valuable reading on its own, but further demonstrates the confusing nature of the debate.

               The lack of understanding is a significantly problematic factor, too. The entire point of adjectival racism is that it’s subconscious.  One has to actually REALIZE what one is being accused of—and be aware that it’s not even an accusation, simply a psychological tic (again, in theory, this is often not true in practice)—in order to become aware of it, and in turn address it.  I could call a person a “murderer,” and if I mean that they have a tendency to become irritated, I should not be surprised if they fail to become less irritated, no matter how many examples of “murdering” I point out in their lives. They are likely to think that I am hysterical, oversensitive, or simply trying to insult them through deranged ranting.

               It is, admittedly, difficult to change an entire language.  But as I said, there are perfectly good words already to describe what “racism” means in this context. Why, then, are these terms so rarely employed?

               Because, quite frankly, understanding and communication is not the point.  What IS the point is the ability to point fingers and call names, in order to gain the approval of their own side, not to gain understanding with the other. Calling your opponents “subconsciously biased” just isn’t as juicy, and makes you look dangerously close to sympathizing with them. It’s a bit like the stereotypical pietistic race to appear more righteous than your neighbors, except with microaggressions instead of curtained table legs (actually, turns out this wasn’t a thing).

               This conduct is self-defeating and polarizing. It is confusing; it is actively designed to be misleading.  It is anti-language.  And it should stop.

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