Being racist


As I was catching up on blog discussions from the past week, including the excellent assignment on about transracial adoption and Third Mom’s response on her blog, I was struck by how often in our discussions about the personal choices that go into the decision to adopt transracially or internationally I come across the sensitive subject of whether or not a person who adopts transracially without much education, knowledge or willingness to examine the racial complexities of transracial adoption can be considered racist – even if these adoptive parents don’t make “racist” statements.

There it is, the dreaded “r” word: racism. Can one be racist if one is ignorant? seems to be one of the questions that is posed. “Let’s not use the “racist” word,” some suggest. After all, I am guessing that to outright call someone a racist is to conjure up images of the KKK or Nazi Germany. But one doesn’t have to wear a swastika on their upper arm or a pillowcase on their head to be racist. For me, one of the most frightening aspects of racism is the subtle, quiet kind. At least with outright, blatant racism I know how to protect myself.

Here is what wikipedia has to say about racism:

The term racism is sometimes used to refer to preference for one’s own ethnic group (ethnocentrism), fear of difference (xenophobia), views or preferences against interbreeding of the races (miscegenation) and nationalism, regardless of any explicit belief in superiority or inferiority imbedded within such views or preferences. Racism has been used to justify social discrimination, racial segregation and violence, including genocide.

The term racist, when used to describe someone who supports racism, has been a pejorative term since at least the 1940s, and the identification of a group or person as racist is nearly always controversial.

Why are we so afraid to be called a racist?

I have a couple of thoughts regarding this. First of all, I understand
that nobody likes to be called a racist. I know I don’t. Does that mean
I don’t ever have racist thoughts, just because I don’t like to think I
do? If I say something offensive but have no idea what I said was
offensive, does it make it all right that I said it? Or should someone
inform me of my offense?

Our first response to an accusation of being a “racist” is
defensiveness. “How dare you call me a racist!” we yell. What we do and
say after the accusation is what separates us. Some of us strike back
in anger and defensiveness. Maybe we’ll claim the accuser is actually
the racist (or call it reverse racism).

Or maybe some of us will try and prove how un-racist we are (my best friend is Black, Asian, Latino, etc).

Still others of us will offer a half-assed apology that is aimed
towards criticizing someone’s “oversensitivity” rather than truly
attempting to make amends. This is most often done through the guise of
“I’m sorry you were offended by my comment.”

Did you see how that works? You’re sorry that the other person was
offended – not, that you were sorry you said something offensive. A
not-very-subtle difference.

When someone says we are racist or calls us on our unintended racism,
when we react only out of anger and defensiveness we close ourselves
off for expanding our understanding of racism.

I am reminded of the documentary film, The Color of Fear, which I
recently showed to my social work students. During the introductions
one of the participants named Gordon claims that he’s a racist who has
been trying to unlearn racism. Immediately, viewers think, oh wow, he
admitted he’s a racist. Many people think he’s going to be the problem
in the movie. However, as we learn fairly quickly, it is actually
another man, David, who says the most racist things. It turns out
Gordon is actually quite an ally to people of color and many of my
students later said, “He [Gordon] was not racist at all! Why does he
say he’s racist?”

Gordon understands that as much as we all work towards unlearning
racism, like everything else in life, becoming un-racist is a process
and a journey – it’s not something you master some day. Most of us will
spend our entire lives unlearning racism. The dangerous ones are those
who claim they’re not racist and therefore, have no need to continue to
examine their own behaviors.

In other words, racism is a label that is slapped on to “some” people
but maybe is one that all of us should wear. The people who proudly
claim they’re not racist raise my suspicions. We have all internalized
beliefs about people who are different than we are; we sometimes act on
those beliefs both in external and hidden ways. It is only when we are
willing to recognize our racism that we can do something about it.

Many of us transracially adopted adults have lived with a lifetime of
subtle, ignorance-based racism. Perhaps we’ve internalized it and
perpetuated it ourselves. Many of today’s adoptive parents claim that
it was only parents of “the older generation” that were racist. But let
me tell you that working in the adoption field today in the late fall
of 2006 – I come across prospective adoptive parents whose beliefs
about children of color are EXACTLY the same as “my parents’
generation” over 35 years ago.

More from wikipedia:

Some scholars use the term "aversive racism" to refer to the
“subtle, unintentional form of bias that is presumed to characterize a
substantial proportion of White liberals” (Son Hing et al, 275)*

Because they have internalized liberal egalitarian values, aversive
racists are motivated to experience themselves as being nonprejudiced,
but at the same time have unconscious, unavoidable racist feelings or
judgements of which they’re typically unaware (ibid). Aversive racists
will express these racist feelings or judgements in situations where a
non-racialized justification to do so exists. "Thus, aversive racists
are able to discriminate without acknowledging their prejudice because
they excuse or justify their behaviour on‘reasonable’ grounds” (ibid,
290). It’s likely that most people living in a liberal democratic,
racially-structured society are aversive racists.

Claiming ourselves not racist means that we are allowing our ignorance
to continue to disguise our racist beliefs and attitudes. Ignorance may
be bliss, but it does not excuse one from working towards un-learning

*Leanne S. Son Hing, Greg A. Chung-Yan, Robert Grunfeld, Lori K.
Robichaud, and Mark P. Zanna.“Exploring the Discrepancy Between
Implicit and Explicit Prejudice: A Test of Aversive Racism Theory” in Social Motivation: Conscious and Unconscious Processes. Joseph P. Forgas, Kipling D. Williams, Simon M. Laham,eds. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. Great post.
    I agree that we are all racist to some degree. I also believe that admitting it is the first step.
    Beyond that, I think it’s important to distinguish between different types of racism including conscious and unconscious biases, institutional and personal racism.

  2. Quick question, if I may. Feel free to ignore.
    I remember, oh maybe back in the late 80s/early 90s when I took some MSW classes, we were told there were distinctions between terms like “racism”, “discrimination”, “prejudice” and so on. I remember being told that “racism” was defined as something that occurred on an institutional level. Individuals could not be racist. Anyone non-white could not be racist. Anyone could, however, have prejudiced thoughts.
    I notice the article you quote is recent. Any idea why the shift to using the term “racist” for other thoughts and behaviors that are prejudiced or discriminatory, but not specifically institutional racism?
    BTW, not using the term “racist” to refer to individual beliefs in no way means that most, if not all, people don’t have prejudicial thoughts. It is also, in no way, shape or form, an excuse for not monitoring such thoughts and eradicating them. It is also no excuse for committing acts of discrimination. Lastly, it is no excuse for making an offensive comment in ignorance and then refusing to acknowledge and take responsibility for why the comment was offensive.

  3. I would have to disagree with the proposition based on the following argument.
    If sheer ignorance of another group constitutes racism, it dilutes the power of the word and also is unfair to people who lack education and were not raised in a highly cosmopolitan environment. There are many cultures I am personally very ignorant of, but realistically speaking I cannot learn enough about all of them to be considered not a racist. If removing all ignorance is the only way to remove racism, that is a pretty tall order.
    “For me, one of the most frightening aspects of racism is the subtle, quiet kind. At least with outright, blatant racism I know how to protect myself.” I totally understand this point. On the other hand, I feel like aggressive racism of the Neo-Nazi type is so malevolent I would rather not dilute the power of the word “racist” by using it for people who are ignorant but essentially well-meaning and somewhat willing to educate themselves… I would rather use “racist” for people who would actively do me physical or mental harm if they could.

  4. When I first learned to drive, I’d lock my doors when I entered the “bad part” of town. When I grew up, I tried to ignore this response, even though I knew that I was driving through an area where people were routinely car-jacked. This was my logical brain teaching my instinctual brain that racism and offending someone was more important than my own safety.
    I think nearly all of us have had that, “do I lock the door” moment.
    Now, I don’t really register it. I just sort of ignore it as my experience with different areas have created new constructs.
    Is racism a dirty word? I don’t really think so. In terms of calling someone out as racist for usually blatantly cruel and hurtful words, it’s clear. But telling someone they’re racist because they’re afraid of people they’ve never had contact with, may just be learning to cope.

  5. I wonder if by stratifying racism we dilute the more egregious acts of racism or whether we merely provide another way of pointing fingers and arguing over what constitutes some racist acts over others.
    I understand that we all want to separate the “prejudices” and “biases” from overt, racist acts such as murder based on race or genocide –
    but again, I think all acts of racism are on a continuum and where then do we draw the lines between what is “racist” versus what is just “prejudice”?
    Is the bank manager who knows his or her mortgage lenders are discriminating widely against people of color and has been educated and/or trained in diversity, but does nothing about it (thereby affecting many people through inaction because of “prejudice”), less or more “racist” than the uneducated, ignorant person who was raised to be racist and who commits a violent act against a person of color, but does so based on ignorance?

  6. I would think that the bank manager is just being an unethical dick. You can teach diversity all you want, but if someone is already unethical, diversity class is not going to make them realize the errors of their ways. People like that will screw over anyone, black, white or purple, unless they know someone is watching them and holding them to account.
    I think being ignorant doesn’t preclude someone from being a racist. You can easily be both ignorant and racist. I just think ignorance doesn’t necessarily entail racism. For example, I’ve been to several countries where people (rural) will stare at me, walk up to me, ooh and aah, and ask to touch my skin and/or hair. This would be horribly offensive in the United States, but they just don’t know any better, and they don’t really mean to insult or offend.

  7. I think it is hard to admit to being a racist because racism
    is a like a mental disease. People don’t like to admit to
    being an alcoholic or mentally ill either. And all the
    claims of ignorance and lack of sensitivity, well, isn’t that
    sort of like being in denial.
    I believe racism is a conditioned response that is taught
    by family, the schools, and the media. As children, we are
    raised in an environment that promotes ethnocentrism, combined
    with a media that promotes racial division by promoting
    stereotypes and bias. How could any one of us not harbor
    racist thoughts or attitudes?
    I was really surprised to read some of the liberal white
    blogger’s responses in September to the Clinton lunch in
    Harlem where all the bloggers were white. One response
    to a blogger at Culture Kitchen was to “learn how to
    write in a linear fashion.” Instead of validating the
    feelings of people of color bloggers, the issue became
    spelling and grammar. As a white person,the best advice I have
    heard has been to shut up and listen. And I realize that I am
    going to make mistakes along the way. It is really hard to
    leave my defensiveness behind.
    Racism is hard to face because when you really look at our
    history in the US, our ideals don’t match the reality.
    That’s why comparisons to other countries or people don’t
    make sense. We are supposed to be the land of the free,
    we are supposed to believe that all men are created equal.
    I believe that we have the opportunity to move towards a
    better society and that ideal is what keeps me going.

  8. I would have to disagree very strongly that comparisons with other countries don’t make sense. Latin America has many countries with multicultural societies, and thinking about similarities and differences in race and racism between there and the United States has been fascinating for me and I think very useful.
    I don’t think using the word “racist” to describe well-meaning friends and your own self is particularly useful. Saying that you’re affected by racism, harboring certain biases and prejudices that you want to uproot, yes. But it just makes me a bit uncomfortable to be so “indiscriminate” with the word racist… “you’re a racist, I’m a racist, we’re all racists” isn’t a saying that does much to motivate people NOT to be racists. If it’s impossible not to be a racist, and so many decent people are racists, why bother trying?

  9. This has been such an interesting comments, thanks everyone for responding.
    For myself, I dislike creating “levels” of racism. I know that people don’t like being called racist or thinking of themselves as such.
    For me, Atlasien, that last statement struck me in a profound way. I was thinking of that in the opposite way; if people are only “ignorant” or “uneducated” I wonder the same thing – what’s the motivation then to NOT be racist?
    My own thought is that it’s the process of unlearning racism and working towards a goal – that might never be “achieved” but it’s still a goal worth working towards, that motivates me.
    I guess its similar to how I feel about spirituality. It’s the process and the journey towards something profound – whether one calls it heaven, enlightnement, or something else – that matters most.

  10. Hi, I just wanted to clarify.
    I think comparisons to other
    countries/people are made to
    avoid discussing racism in the
    US. My observation has been that
    whenever US racism is discussed,
    there are defensive comments that
    raise the issue of racism in
    other countries. I think this
    avoidance and defensiveness
    can be an obstacle to discussion.

  11. In some ways it’s pointless to talk about racists because most people think they are not racists (and of course, anybody they like is not racist too). I like to start by talking about racism and racist behaviors rather than racist people. My goal is to try to get the students (since I teach, it is usally college students) to fit themselves into the racist structure on their own. I do say that I think racism affects everyone, which means that everyone is racist, but I often save that until a month or so into the semester.
    One reason, many people claim not to be racist is because a) they don’t know what racism is and b) they are incabable of putting themselves in other folks shoes.

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