Stop Saying ‘Racism’
Honest dialogue about race and racial issues should move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding. Unfortunately, we’ve been doing the opposite. That’s why our columnist is proposing this radical idea: a moratorium on the use of the “R-word.”
I just can’t take it anymore. Something has to stop.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently made comments about illegal immigrants having children, calling into question the validity of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Almost immediately, many people called his comments, and the people who support them, racist. (Do I even need to mention this happened on Fox News?)
Technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently posted a thoughtful, broadly generalized analysis of the ways in which many young black people use Twitter. Various bloggers have either called it, or more generally insinuated it to be, racist.
A chorus of African American conservatives gathered at the National Press Club, in the wake of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco and the expulsion of former Tea Party spokesman Mark Williams, largely for the purpose of advancing their belief that liberal race-baiting is just as much, if not more racist than any of the so-called racist elements in the Tea Party.
Rap mogul Diddy was asked in an interview about the rather ostentatious luxury car he had given his teenage son. Diddy was offended. According to Diddy, White luminaries in their respective fields would not be assailed with such trivialities. He said the question was racist.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger apologized for her now-infamous saying “n-word” rant during her radio show in response to an African American caller expressing consternation over racist remarks by her husband’s friends. She was chiding the caller for being hypersensitive, and ended with the following comment:
“If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”
For many bloggers, pundits, and readers, that quote is all the evidence one needs to convict Dr. Laura of a textbook case of racist behavior.
A Year Without the R-Word
In today’s overly politicized media climate, storms of controversy continually erupt over allegations of racism, polarizing wide swaths of people in the process. It happens with big stories and small stories, with celebrities as well as regular folks. And even in stories that ostensibly seem to have nothing to do with race, it breaks out in comment threads after the fact. Somebody says that something or someone is racist, and people on both sides lose their minds and start jabbering away. The names may change, but the problem persists.
Actually, forgive my typo.
What I meant to say is that people close their minds and start jabbering.
Not that I believe that open-mindedness is the ultimate virtue to strive toward. I subscribe to the maxim of G. K. Chesterton, who once stated that an open mind is like an open mouth; useful only in its capacity to close down on something solid. His point, generally speaking, is that open minds should be constantly searching for truth.
My belief is that substantive dialogue about race and racial issues should, when done honestly and with virtue, move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding.
What I’ve seen too often is the exact opposite. It’s a mindless bludgeoning, day after day, perpetrated by people who wield terms like “racist” as weapons to be used only for discrediting, embarrassing or repudiating their enemies, regardless of how much truth is in the allegation. When this happens, no real dialogue or learning takes place, other than a steely resolve from both sides to dig in a little deeper and get a little nastier next time.
And like I said, I just can’t take it anymore.
Like The Winans once said, it’s time make a change. So I’m gonna summon my inner MJ, and start with the man in the mirror.
I’m gonna take a break from talking about racism.
For one whole year, I will conspicuously avoid using the word “racist” or “racism” in any written form of public discourse, except to finish this article.
Too Many Dropped Calls
This might seem like a really radical idea, but in fact a lot of intelligent black people already do this. Some of us might do it to avoid being labeled as a troublemaker. Some of us might do it because we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall. Some of us might do it because we want to prove that black people can and should talk about more than just “black issues.”
I’m doing it for a simpler reason, though.
The word “racist” is broken.
Words are supposed to represent ideas, and when the use of certain words actually impede the communication of ideas, then those words no longer function like they’re supposed to. When people argue about whether or not such-and-such was racist, there is no agreed-upon standard for what racism is or is not. The arguments just go in circles.
Some people believe that racism is strictly a matter of the heart, like jealousy or avarice. Others look at racism more in terms of structural or institutionalized inequities in society. Some people think it’s both. Some people hear or read the word “racist” and they automatically translate that to mean “not politically correct.” Others do the same and end up with “conservative.”
Is it any wonder, then, why our conversation suffers so badly?
Like a bad cell phone connection, constantly assailing racists and calling out racism leaves us with an illusion of communication. We think we’re getting our point across effectively, unaware that critical feedback is missing. Assumptions and biases block us from making relational progress across the long cultural and ideological divides where progress is needed most. It litters our discourse with misunderstandings that frustrate like so many dropped calls.
And the conversation goes nowhere.
In Other Words
When I was just out of high school, I was in a Christian discipleship program called The Master’s Commission. One of the aims of the program was to create leaders in the faith who could elucidate on matters of import. As such, the leaders at the time issued a challenge to the students, to see how many of them could carry on a conversation without using the words “dude,” “cool,” or “awesome.”
For some of us, this was a minor inconvenience. For others, it was a full-blown crisis of communication.
Some of these students were tempted to view the leaders as archaic fuddy-duddy types who abhorred casual speech, but that was not the case at all. They had no problem with those words in and of themselves. They just wanted to break the students of their habitually poor choice of words. The challenge forced the students to start using unfamiliar words, which occasionally led to some hilariously awkward exchanges.
“Du — I mean, bro, did you watch the game last night?”
“Oh yeah, when Drexler hit that three it was so … um … interesting.”
Many black folks today use the terms “racist” and “racism” with almost that same habitual reflex as my white Gen-Xer friends had with “dude” and “awesome.”
It’s not that we think everything bad or wrong is racist, but we keep it handy for any situation that fits a certain familiar scenario where our brothers and sisters get the shaft. There’s legitimate reason for this habitual usage — namely, centuries’ worth of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement against people who look like us and share our lineage. But over time, as the issues get murkier and problems have more complicated solutions, habitual cries of racism look like emotional shorthand for “something shady that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Back in the salad days of the Internet, netizens in chat rooms and message boards used to operate on a principle known as Godwin’s Law. It says the longer any particular argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Nazi Germany. Thus, whoever reaches that point first has automatically lost the argument by default, since they obviously had nothing else worthwhile to say.
I think we ought to do the same thing with “racist” and “racism.”
Because regardless of how racist someone may actually be, the moment that word enters the discussion, you’ve lost any hope of actual dialogue with anyone who didn’t already agree with you — even if the facts are on your side.
So that’s why I’m taking this pledge. It’s not in spite of the many instances of racism I see, but precisely because of how much there is that doesn’t get talked about in any meaningful way.
No, I don’t believe that choosing not to talk about racism will make it go away. But choosing to talk about it in other terms that aren’t so emotionally charged … that’s a start.
Some may say that by doing this, even temporarily, it lets purveyors of racist acts and ideas off the hook.
I could not disagree more. Choosing to talk about these things without using the terms “racist” and “racism” can shine an even more effective light on the relative merit (or lack thereof) of these particular ideas and actions, without giving their defenders an easy way to blow off the criticism as being too P.C.
So I don’t need to call Sen. Graham a racist to combat his statements. I can simply call them insensitive, politically-calculating, cowardly, mean-spirited, a threat to the fabric of our Constitution, and lacking even a modicum of logic. (Seriously, “drop and leave”? Isn’t the whole point that they want to stay?)
I can say that Farhad Manjoo was pretty clear that not all black folks use Twitter the same way, and that even though the header image was a little silly, I’d proudly rock a baby blue fitted hat with a pound sign on it, stereotype or not. (Assuming it wasn’t a 59Fifty, those joints are expensive.)
I can say that black Tea Party apologists are fighting a lost cause if they can’t recognize rogue elements in their own movement, because everybody else can see them, even if some of them are manufactured by their opponents. Unfortunately, perception is reality.
I can say that Diddy is a rap star who popularized celebrity culture in hip-hop, and that he, of all people, should know better than to clamor for attention and then pout after getting too much. It doesn’t take a family counselor to see that no 16-year-old needs a Maybach Benz.
I can say that Dr. Laura is, like most talk-radio icons, too abrasive and combative to deal with issues like race effectively, which says less about her as a person than it does about the ineffectual nature of talk radio as a forum for serious discussion. I can say that I don’t really believe her apology, because it sounds too much like many other apologies we’ve heard after these types of racial incidents. And despite her rude and boorish response to her listener’s question, I can say that she has a point about the whole HBO-and-black-comics thing.
That’s what it’s like to talk about racial incidents without using those words. And that wasn’t so hard, was it?
That’s why I’m willing to give it a try.
Now who’s with me?
If you plan to join Jelani in refraining from use of the “R-word,” drop us a comment below and share your reasons. Even if you don’t plan to abandon the word, we’d still like to hear from you.