That’s a really incendiary title, but I can confidently say that it doesn’t mean what you probably think it does.
I felt the need to write this post because I am currently writing a much longer piece for Canadian Atheist about white nationalism and islamophobia in Canada. Along the way I point out a number of very racist/islamophobic statements made by big-name atheists… always a risky prospect given their rabid fan base. To preempt rage comments by their adherents, I have to stop to spell out that I am not implying that the culprits are actually bigots themselves; I am merely pointing out that they did a bigoted thing. To avoid the distraction of explaining this over and over in the CA piece, I want to make the case here, one time and clearly.
I realize that as a white male, I am probably not the most qualified person in the world to be writing about racism. And to add to that, I freely admit that I am not an expert on the topic, not by a long shot. It’s really pretty far off my beat. But I find myself in a bit of a spot. I want to write about racism – specifically white nationalism and islamophobia – in my community: atheists. I feel that it is a very important topic to discuss, especially in light of Charlottesville. But to get to that topic, I have to lay down a foundation that includes talking about racism. I think you can see why that would be necessary. And because this is so far off my beat, I don’t know where I could find a more authoritative explanation of what I need to get across to get to where I need to get to. The safe thing for me to do would probably be to simply avoid the topic. But I really think the issues I intend to write about need to be discussed, and I need this foundation. So here goes; in the worst case that I really muck it up, I would appreciate guidance on where I went wrong.
Let me start by pointing out the obvious: The title is: “I don’t believe in racists”. It is not: “I don’t believe in racism”.
Obviously racism exists, whether you choose to define it as merely racial bigotry, or as systemic racial bigotry. I prefer the latter, but that’s not really relevant here.
Just as obviously, people sometimes do or say very racist things. But here is where I have to start calling for nuance. Some of the people who say racist things are not the least bit embarrassed or apologetic when they do; in fact, they probably wish they could get away with saying more racist things without the consequence of social disapproval. But the vast majority of racist comments and actions come from people who sincerely don’t want to be racist.
You have racist beliefs. Yes, you do. So do I. So does everyone in Canada.
Here’s the hard truth. You have racist beliefs. Yes, you do. So do I. So does everyone in Canada (and you can substitute your own country here if you’re not Canadian, because yes, your country is chock-full of racism, too). Even people of colour are racist – the claim that “black people can’t be racist” is bullshit. (Although, nuance! Sometimes when people say “black people can’t be racist”, what they mean is that when a black Canadian (for example; again, substitute your country, and the specific “races” if necessary – it works for most) who shows some sign of racial bigotry toward white Canadians is demonstrating racial bigotry… but not racism, because racism is racial bigotry plus systemic privilege, which the black Canadian lacks. A white Canadian showing racial bigotry to a black person has that systemic privilege, which makes their racial bigotry “racism”. In that sense, yes, black Canadians cannot be racist. But that’s true only so long as they’re targeting whites (or any other group with systemic privilege over them); not when we’re talking about racial bigotry toward another minority with similar lack of privilege or even less.) Victims of racism always internalize some of that racism, either coming to believe some of the bullshit about their own “race”, or picking up bigotry about other groups. Everyone has racist beliefs. You simply cannot exist in Canadian culture – or Western culture in general, or indeed any culture anywhere – without absorbing some of the racism.
But again, to call out the nuance: I am saying that everyone harbours racist beliefs. I am not saying “everyone is a racist”, because I don’t believe that’s a coherent thing to say.
More importantly, I am not saying that the fact that everyone has racist beliefs makes those beliefs “okay”. This is not an excuse for having racist beliefs, or for racism in general.
Let me spell out my thesis as clearly and concisely as I can:
Racism is not a thing that you are. Racism is a thing that you do.
What I’m saying is that when we talk about “racist” as an identity, we’re not really saying anything coherent. What is a racist, after all? Is it someone who holds racist beliefs? Well, then, everyone is a racist, and the term loses all impact. You might as well say: “You’re a human.”
Is a “racist” someone who just did something racist? If so, were they a “racist” before their racist act? How long do they remain a racist after their racist act? Does the act actually matter – are not a racist if you have a truck load of racist beliefs but never do anything racist? And if all that’s required is having a racist belief, we’re back to the previous problem.
So I don’t think being “a racist” makes much sense in the first place. And it becomes especially problematic if we’re talking about the implications of labelling someone as “a racist”.
I’m reminded of a crude, old joke:
“You see those houses?” John said. “I painted those houses. Over years I went from house to house, patching up the dilapidated walls for the occupants and painting them bright, lovely colours that make the whole village look more beautiful. But they don’t call me ‘John the house-painter’.”
“You see that field?” John continued. “I planted that field. Every year for the past thirty years, I have tended to it, growing vegetables to sell at market at reasonable prices. I even give the overstock to the poor and elderly for free. But they don’t call me ‘John the vegetable-farmer’.”
“You see that bridge?” John pointed. “I built that bridge. On my own, I laid the piles and the caps, and the span. Everyone in the village uses that bridge, every day. It is the lifeline of the whole community, connecting us to the rest of the world. But they don’t call me ‘John the bridge-builder’.”
“But fuck just one goat….”
The point of the joke is that just one bad thing can override an entire life of good, which is why the idea of “being a racist” is so pernicious. It may not be the intention to imply that someone is a goat-fucker when they’re labelled as “a racist” – the intention may be just to wake them up to some particular racist “thing” they are doing. But when it is framed as “you’re a racist”, it becomes an issue of identity. It should come as no surprise that it’s going to get a passionate response. Identity is a serious matter for anyone.
I believe that when we think about racism as an act rather than an identity, it makes for more effective criticism. When someone saying or doing something racist is told, “you’re a racist”, they will almost inevitably respond with a defensive rebuttal, usually coupled with evidence that proves they’re “not a racist”.
What is actually wrong with the “I have black friends” defence? My argument is: nothing. It’s a perfectly reasonable defence to the accusation of being a racist. Not a great defence, mind you, because it’s very easy to be a massively racist person but to set that bigotry aside for one or two people (or to have black people who are friends with you despite the fact that you’re a massive racist asshole, either because they’re better people than you or – in the worst case – they have to at least pretend to be friendly with you for social, employment, or political reasons, and you’re either too clueless to realize or too callous to care). But what other defence can they muster? Proving you’re not a racist is as impossible as proving you’re not a murderer; it literally can’t be done – the best you can muster is a character defence, i.e., “I have black friends”. And the claim that that’s fine because one shouldn’t try to argue it when someone calls you a racist is also bullshit. One should always have the right and the option to defend oneself. Granted, it’s true that in the vast majority of cases, you shouldn’t try to argue against a charge of racism… because everyone has racist beliefs, and chances are damn good that you actually did say something racist. But you should at least have the option available for those rare cases when the charge is unjust.
I say the mistake isn’t the terrible defences (like “I have black friends”). It’s the charge that was wrong to begin with.
If, instead of, “you are a racist”, they had been told, “what you just did was racist”… now we have a very different scenario.
First, their identity is no longer being challenged. Being defined as “wrong” (as an identity of “racist” undoubtedly would be) is a lot harder to swallow than being told that you just did something wrong. The criticism is much easier to accept.
In fact, I’d argue that entire problem of people indignantly refusing to accept any suggestion that they might have racist beliefs stems entirely from leaping from the idea of merely “doing something racist” to “being a terrible human being”. If we could break that link – if we could convince people that they can have racist beliefs without being a complete failure as a human being – that would probably go a long way toward making actual progress toward actual ending racism. People would be more willing to accept stopping their racist behaviour as an issue of personal growth, rather having to deal with the idea that they’re just terrible human beings.
Second, it’s no longer creating a red herring in the discussion. When you hear “you’re a racist”, the suggestion is that the source of the problem is “you”. When you hear “what you just did was racist”, the action is the point at issue. A reasonable person could then start studying the action, its motivation, context, and consequences, and begin understanding why the action was racist… and, hopefully, learn from it.
By contrast, accepting that one is “a racist” leads only to helplessness. How do you “fix” “being a racist”? Just stop having racist beliefs? You know it’s not that easy.
Racism is not a thing that you are. Racism is a thing that you do.
We don’t want people – including ourselves – to just accept that we have racist beliefs. That’s not the end goal, it’s only the first step in the process. Arguably the zeroth step, because that awareness should be part of everyone’s understanding of themselves before the discussion even begins. We want people to analyze their behaviours, and try to filter out racial biases before they escape from our ape brains. The idea is that with practice, it will become second nature… we’ll stop doing and saying racist things, and we will pass on less of our racism to the next generation. All that starts with the recognition that racism is about action, not identity.
Now, let me wrap up with a couple of notes about how I want all of the above to be read.
For starters, I don’t want to imply that any of the ideas above are novel. In fact, quite the opposite. I don’t think I am saying anything that dedicated anti-racist activists don’t already know, and I hope that I am actually expressing something they would consider relatively “basic knowledge”. This post is not about me riding in on a shining steed and telling the world how anti-racism should be done. It is about me explaining how I understand that it is done. The purpose of this post is to have something I can point people to so they can come to the same understanding I have (which I hope is sound, and if not I’ll find that out pretty damn quick), so we can get past this basic stuff, and onto the specific issues I want to focus on.
I am also not suggesting it is necessarily wrong to call someone a racist. If you understand that “you’re a racist” is just a shorthand for “you did/are doing something racist”, rather than “you are Hitler”, it just makes for more productive reflection and discussion. The problem is that most people don’t make that connection. Even “you are racist” is interpreted as “you are a racist” rather than “you are being racist”. My hope with this post is to get people to start parsing accusations of racism as criticism of deeds, not identities, because it’s the deeds that need to be discussed.
And I am fully aware that even if you say “what you just did was racist”, you are still likely to get defensive blubbering (“I’m not racist; I have black friends!”). Just because it’s hard to get the message through to some people, that doesn’t justify giving them the wrong message. Point out that you didn’t call them “racist” – you just called what they did racist – and if they still don’t get it, shrug and walk away. You did your best. They might not have gotten the message, but someone observing the exchange might have.
There are people who make racism their entire life’s mission. For them, perhaps, it is fair to make “racist” their identity. But I consider them a special case. My thesis here is about how to talk about racism with people who might actually want not to be racist. People who are totally all about being racist? Fuck them. Seriously, go right on ahead and call them racist. It probably won’t help much, but if it pisses them off, have at it.
So in summary, this is my understanding of racism: “Racism is not a thing that you are. Racism is a thing that you do.”
With that understanding, when I criticize someone for doing something racist, I am not trying to imply that they’re (necessarily) Nazis. Frequently, that’s actually far from what I intend, because I usually don’t bother to criticize people I think are complete assholes. If I’m calling out something racist you said or did, it’s usually because I respect you, and want better from you.
How you respond to that criticism is a measure of your own open-mindedness, sagacity, and integrity.