Sunday, October 10, 2010

What Type of Slur is "Racist"

Commenting on yet another "I am not a racist" non-sequitur, Ta-Nehisi Coates wants to know
what it means among white people to be considered a racist. I don't mean under the sanction of black people. I mean in places where there are no black people. It almost feels like, among whites, to be accused of being a racist is a class slur. Like racist is short for "inbred uncultured hick."

It's an interesting analogy, but I'm not sure it gets quite at what's going on. My views have evolved since I wrote this post, but it captures a very real dynamic. There's indignation about the possibility of being labeled a racist, but there is also terror. The proportions may vary, but both feelings are definitely there. Racism is America's original sin, and the term "racist" has become emblematic of a supreme evil. To be considered "racist" is to be a Nazi, a slave-owner, or a Klansman. It is to be a person who must be shunned in public society.

All of this is amplified by the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of racist in the public discourse. The sanctions of being successfully labeled "racist" are high, but there really is no way to determine in advance who will be burned by it. Michael Richards' career is ruined, but Ann Coulter survives more or less unscathed. There is a wanton and freakish quality about the whole discourse, and I do think most White people view the accusation of racism as akin to a bolt of lightening: powerful, random, unpredictable, and deadly. They do not know what causes the blow to rain down (except that saying anything -- and I do mean anything -- related to race makes it more likely), so they intone their "I am not a racist" incantation to the heavens in panicked hope that it will serve as a ward. It's main quality is totemic.

And being subjected to such uncertainty, in turn, breeds resentment. It's simultaneously self-sustaining and self-serving. Self-sustaining because the resentment renders true dialogue about what "racist" means impossible, maintaining its mystical quality and preventing any sort of enlightenment. Self-serving, because the entire cycle serves as a warrant for the hostile sentiment in the first place. The anger and rage that those people seem to hold power over me -- that they can end my career, sever my friendships, and expel me from the community with but a "casual" word -- burns with a righteous fury. At that point, railing against the entire idea of racism becomes effectively a subspecies of populist anti-authoritarianism.


joe said...

There's a trap of generalization here. Talking about how "most" of any given group falls under a grand unifying theory of behavior is a bold claim. I'd agree with you if "most White people" were politically-engaged conservative whites. I'd agree with Coates if he were just talking about the country club set (the same ones who not too long ago tailored their blatantly racist electoral appeals to Southern whites all the while rolling their eyes at the rubes, shades of the gay rights debate today).

But the thing of it is: most white people can get by without thinking about their privilege, structural or institutional racism, and all the rest. And since they can, they don't think about it, certainly not to the point where they can analogize it to a lightning strike.

So I think the common denominator for most white people is simply a denialism grounded in self-interest and the limitations of their own experience, which they know as "reality."

But we have all these untidy loose ends. The stuff that's too outrageous, too contrary to "colorblind" principles, or simply too exposed in the media to be ignored, that's what falls into the category of "racism."

PG said...

joe, I agree that most White people can get by without thinking about their racial privilege (just as I don't think about my economic privilege on a daily basis), but most people also get by without thinking much about lightning strikes until one hits them, someone they know, or someone on the news with whom they can identify.

In any case, as David has mentioned many times, it is much better to identify words/actions as racist, rather than to condemn people as such. I hope he will amend his remarks about Pam Geller accordingly.

David Schraub said...

Mmm ... while I have a presumption in favor of labeling words/actions racist over people racist, it isn't a per se rule. And I think Geller leaps even a high bar cleanly.

joe said...

PG, I also divide between racism and racists as a rhetorical matter. It's a tactical decision to not trigger the "how-dare-you-call-James-O'Keefe-that-it's-the-worst-thing-you-can-say" response at every turn. And it fits with my general philosophy of labeling actions as good or bad in lieu of discussing whether so-and-so is "really a bad person."

But since it's all colloquial anyway, I don't see a big deal with calling someone like Pam Geller, whose biases are so virulent, a bigot. At the end of the day I can get away with it without setting off more than a hopeless fringe. And if she doesn't like the label, she is free to clean up her act.

N. Friedman said...

This is not a simple matter. A person says all sorts of things. Those things may involve someone of a different race.

When such occurs, there is the question of whether the speech used shows the person to be racist. Sometimes, things sound racist but are meant differently than they are taken or are not statements that reveal how that person thinks. Sometimes, more is read into comments than is there.

An effort by some to label a person with the word "racist" is sometimes fair and sometimes unfair. Sometimes, there is disagreement about whether a person is a racist - a good example being Don Imus, who says things that certainly do sound racist but who, according to most people who know him, is not and who has African American friends who do not think he is racist. This may be because he worked very hard on behalf of African Americans over the course of several decades, because he denies the charges and because he also says kind things about African Americans. So, he has the support of the great comedian, from my era, and still social critic Dick Gregory.

The point here is that things are not as simple as the approach whereby some elite decides that a person is a racist and that label is always correct. Rather, these are opinions, with an elite which thinks it knows best.

Thought police thinking is usually destructive. Wondering that resentment rises - and not just the resentment of racists - when words like "racism" are thrown around too readily speaks volumes. That suggests that there is substantial disagreement about what is and is not racism among average people and among well educated people. It ought to be a warning to those who use language too loosely, in line with Peter of Peter and the Wolf.