Is it worse to call someone a racist or to be one?

Crossposted from What Tami Said

It’s not so clear in today’s allegedly post-racial landscape. Lately, too many real attempts to discuss racial injustice are met with gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and exasperated cries of “political correctness” and “race card.” This is the modern way to shut down discussion about race in America. And with the country inaugurating its first black president next week? Ya’ll it’s only going to get worse.

It is galling—this playing the “playing the race card” card. And reading Kevin Young’s poem, “No Offense,” has helped me understand why this particular bit of mainstream insensitivity hurts me so. Don’t they know? Don’t they know how often we swallow our offense? How many times we remain silent on the playground in the face of some “what do you get when you cross a black person with…” joke or a sing-song “ching-chong” chant? How many times we shut up when a trusted friend of another race reveals a hurtful bias? How many times we cringe after finding out a lover wasn’t chasing us, but an exotic adventure? How often we keep going in a job we love even as the glass ceiling presses on our heads? How often we remain calm while being hassled by police for being black or Hispanic in the “wrong” neighborhood? There is so much injustice people of color abide quietly that to treat real spoken concerns with eye-rolling mockery, to paint us as petty and thin-skinned, is like a dagger to the heart. I’m just saying, it’s real hard to be thin-skinned and a person of color in America.

Are all charges of racism justified? Of course not. But those who pretend that a handful of race-baiters are more a detriment to society than actual racism are like those who focus on rare cases of false rape accusations rather than the fact that 17.7 million American women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. They are looking to salve their egos and avoid a difficult conversation that may reveal something ugly inside.

During the 2008 presidential election, I was surprised to hear some unexpected people talking about political correctness and the race card—progressives…feminists…But there are reasons that even good liberals are quick to dismiss racism and play the “playing the race card” card:

Americans don’t understand racism anymore (if they ever did). We’re not talking dogs and hoses and separate water fountains anymore. Today’s injustice is usually more about unexamined biases (executions on BART platforms aside). It is covert and institutional. There always was a “silent” aspect of racism, separate from the lurid images broadcast nationwide during the civil rights movement. A lot of that racism still exists even though black folks can sit in the front of the bus now, but it is a racism that is hard to explain to someone who does not experience it.

How to explain the whole history of black women and their hair to the uninitiated so that they understand why picturing an afro’d and militant Michelle Obama on the cover of the New Yorker is offensive? Most white folks don’t even know that the straight styles most African American women wear are an attempt at assimilation—the result of much manipulation. They’ve never tried to get a job in the banking industry while wearing locs or twists or a curly fro. They don’t know how damaging it is to reinforce the natural-haired black woman = angry, militant, troublesome black woman.

Our image of a person who holds prejudiced beliefs is cartoonish. If racism to most Americans is synonymous with bombings in Birmingham, then the image of a typical “racist” is a cross between Bull Connor, David Duke and Snidely Whiplash. In reality, prejudice in general is boringly human and racial prejudice is a byproduct of being an American. Sadly, even people of color in this society are biased against people of color. But our society wants to believe that prejudice is rare and that persons that harbor racial prejudice are one-dimensional villains. It is no wonder that merely suggesting someone’s views might be racist results in unproductive defensiveness. Tell a liberal who may have black friends and neighbors, that he holds a belief that is racist and to his ear you are comparing him to society’s villains–the skinhead, the neo-Nazi.

It’s hard to examine personal prejudices. It’s much easier to brand African Americans whiny and entitled than to admit that, after all this time, the idea of whiteness and white culture as normal and right and supreme persists in our “egalitarian” society.

And even if mainstream America “gets it,” maybe they just don’t care. A recent article in The Globe and Mail reveals people may not be as concerned about racism as they claim.

You are sitting in a waiting room when someone makes a racist comment about a black man who has just left. How would you respond?

Most people say they would feel upset and take action, but researchers at York University who put student volunteers in a similar situation found many reacted with indifference, even when the slur was as offensive as “clumsy nigger.”

Many of the students reported feeling little emotional distress after hearing a white man say something denigrating about a black man who had bumped him on his way out of the room. Minutes later, they were asked to choose a partner for a word comprehension test. The majority – 63 per cent – chose the racist white guy.

The results help explain why racism persists in our politically correct age, says York University psychologist Kerry Kawakami, the lead author of a paper published in today’s edition of the journal Science.

People imagine they would be angry and punish a racist, she says, but in reality their response is far more muted. “When you actually put them in a situation in which they see an overtly racist act, they are not upset, generally, and they don’t censure the racist. They don’t respond negatively to them at all.” Read more…

So, what’s the answer? How do we take the movement for racial equality forward as it gets harder to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans? How do we point out racial injustice in the face of the finger-pointing and cries of “race card?” Two thoughts come immediately to mind (I want to hear some solutions from you readers.):

Maybe our language needs to change. Does the word “racism” (and its derivatives) help or hurt the modern anti-racism movement? At first, the question seems crazy. But I’m beginning to wonder if those of us who wish to see increased racial equality don’t need to find a more effective way to talk about inequality. If “racism” and “racist” are so loaded that their mention ends reasoned conversation resulting in action, then maybe their continued use hurts us. Perhaps we need to be more nuanced, making distinctions between “racial biases,” “prejudice” and “racism.”

Allies rush in where angels fear to tread. White anti-racist allies sometimes express a hesitancy to talk about some racial issues because they are afraid to “get it wrong.” There is a fear, I think, that something well meaning could be misconstrued, or worse, reveal a hidden prejudice. I implore you to talk about it anyway. Talk about race and be open about your feelings. Being challenged about your prejudices—if you are challenged–is not the worst thing that can happen. And yeah, I know, easier said than done. It’s especially easy for me to say. I’m a black woman who is not likely to ever know what it feels like to be called a racist. But the reality is that unless we can have discussions about race that are equally frank on both sides, we’ll get nowhere.

What else? How do we talk about racism effectively in allegedly post-racial America?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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