What does it mean to be called a racist?

Recently, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates asked the readers of his blog what it means “among white people” to be a racist. He clarifies:

 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 fascinating. 

Coates’ readers responded, and the conversation was both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I’d like to draw attention to a few comments, which I thought were right on the money.

Comment 1:

It’s funny. This paranoia about “seeming” and being acknowledged as a good person was present even when slavery/racism were legally institutionalized. Slaveowners, businesspeople, all of them recognized the same thing we’re still astounded by, that they were privileged and empowered, and they tried to do “generous” things that would make them feel better. I’m paraphrasing Anthony Keyes a historian here, but the nature of their largesse was such that the institution would never have to change.

The upshot of all this anxiety is still in the end to not alter the locus of power and privilege. Not getting past this guilt, laying the charge on future generations to grow up in a world without guilt, is just one more step inserted in the process to slow down the present journey of getting somewhere useful. It’s keeping the dialogue on glass, on sensitivities.

 Comment 2:

My current theory is that we have the pictures and videos of the white hatred during the civil rights struggles, including against school children. We say to ourselves that is what racism looks like, and I would never do that so therefore I’m not a racist. I don’t think you’ll find any white persons (very few, anyway) who would defend those contorted angry white faces, but I think we are ready to pat ourselves on the back for not being like that. We let a black driver pull out in front of us and say to ourselves, “I’m not a racist. No sir, not me.” We nod at a mixed race couple at a restaurant and say to ourselves, “My grandfather would have punched that black so-and-so in the nose, but not me. See how civilized I am.” We have a black family living in our suburban neighborhood and congratulate ourselves that it doesn’t even bother us. To my chagrin, I find myself making the same arguments, and then I realize what I’m doing and I’m ashamed.

We have defined racism down to the most virulent level and everything else is OK, proof that we’re not racists. This is probably similar to what the owners of those contorted angry faces were thinking in the fifties, “I think slavery is bad, so therefore I can’t be a racist.”

Comment 3:

Of all people, I think Jane Smiley actually nailed this in her now famous essay where she blasts Mark Twain and “Huck Finn,” arguing that we should be reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in schools instead. Smiley said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the problem with white people was that they tended to believe that racism was a feeling, or an emotion, rather than a deep institutional reality that existed outside of one person’s capacity for rationalization–that way, the white person could always simply gauge their own feelings at the moment and determine they weren’t racist: “Gee, I don’t hate black people, so of course I’m not racist.”

Comment 4:

To be considered a racist, as a white person, is one of several things:

a) You are saying or do something that, on the face of it is racist. And yet you don’t feel like you hate them black people. So you can’t be racist. ‘Cause racism is hate, and you don’t feel hate.

b) You are a bad person, and “racist” is a convenient word to throw at you. There is no defense, and trying to defend yourself simply makes you look worse and worse.

c) You are completely blind to the idea that other people who don’t look like you might actually have their own, valid viewpoints and values; said people do not need your approval for them to go on living and being satisfied with their lives. You think, however, that if you feel a warm sense of approval you are being non-racist.

d) You think that the people who don’t look like you would be normal if they would just think like you do and do things like you do; however, you will never really accept them because they are not white – they will simply still be second-class, but they will be an acceptable second class.

e) You realize that to be safe and to fit in, you have led an unexamined life where casual racism is disguised as discernment and value-judging. The idea that you might really be racist is deeply unpleasant to you, because you know racism is wrong. And yet, you realize that you are deeply unhappy with the way things are, so you decide to risk everything and think, “Maybe I am racist. Just a bit. Where it’s not so bad.”

f) You are a racist, and realize it, and you are saddened and ashamed and yet you realize that the first step to stepping out of racism is to realize how thoroughly tainted you are with it.

Readers, what do you think? What rings true, or doesn’t, about these comments? How would you answer Coates’ question?

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