Are We Too Hard on Racists?

Once upon a time, a college TK sat in a class called African-Americans in the Media. This classroom was one of few where at least half the class was made up of people whose ethnicity was different from mine. It was a far different environment than the high school I came from, where I could count the non-white children in my whole school on one hand. Always an opinionated person, I had a comment about the subject at hand. When called on, I voiced that thought using the term “colored people.”

I have learned since then that offense to that term is varied. Some take great offense and some think it’s no big deal. Regardless, I said it and people in my classroom took offense. Given the state of racial tensions in America, someone could have started yelling at me. I could have gotten nasty looks and been called nasty names. In the right neighborhood, something more violent may have happened. This isn’t something that is special about racism against African-Americans. Use a racial slur towards any minority group and someone is likely to get mad.

What happened to college TK? None of the above.

One of my classmates raised his hand. Instead of addressing my opinion, he addressed the term I used. “I can tell you don’t understand what you just said and why it’s offensive,” he said. He then went on to explain why the term was viewed as offensive and terms that would be more appropriate to use.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated his kindness.  I was embarrassed I had used a term that anyone viewed as racist. I was ashamed to have not known. After he, and a few others in the class, kindly explained the issue to me, class went on normally. No one treated me differently afterward. No one labeled me as a racist. To this day, I wonder, would we have a better word if we calmly explained why something was racist in the public sphere instead of jumping on anyone who dares to use racist terminology?

Thinking of this reminds me of Katy Perry’s Japanese-inspired performance. Many pointed fingers at the singer claiming she was racist and that her performance was a sad example of cultural appropriation. The signer predictably became defensive, saying she enjoyed Japanese culture and was only trying to honor it. She denied being racist.

If she had been approached in another fashion, would her reaction had been different. If someone would have said, “I can tell you don’t mean to offend, but here’s what you did that was wrong, here’s why and here’s how you can honor Japanese culture without offending anyone” would she have had as defensive of a reaction?

This photo, “Multitud // Crowd” is copyright (c) 2014 Guzmán Lozano and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image was cropped to create the featured image.
This photo, “Multitud // Crowd” is copyright (c) 2014 Guzmán Lozano and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image was cropped to create the featured image.

Perhaps the biggest question is, can the public and the media ever reach out with this kind of kindness. All a news anchor says is “Katy Perry has been accused of racism.” They can’t have a discussion with her. I think we need a way to make this happen, though. We need a way to have a real discussion about these topics in the public sphere where we don’t jump on the first person who says something wrong. People don’t always understand that the terms they use or the ideas they have about an ethnic group are racist. They don’t deserve to be attacked for a mishap.

The same can be said for gender issues. I recently heard about someone in pro gold (not a player… I forget who) who said something like “don’t be a girl” or “don’t hit like a girl.” He may not have tried to say anything about women. Those phrases are unfortunately normal in our culture. Still, this man got fired after many people struck out in anger. I guarantee you that man hasn’t changed any opinions and is mad about what happened to him. Wouldn’t it have been better if someone calmly explained why that was sexist, why he shouldn’t say it and what he could say instead?

I know what you’re thinking. Not everyone will be receptive to that line of discussion. Some people are honest to God racist. This is true, but I still don’t think it’s healthy to lash out. If someone can be proved to have broken the law due to their racist beliefs, that’s one thing. If someone is just voicing an opinion, I feel like this tactic is best. Maybe, with repetition, some opinions can be changed. For those who will never be moved from their racist opinions, what difference does it make? We can choose to be angry or we can choose to be disappointed and move on.

I am by no means saying that racism is ever okay. What I am saying is that we, as a society, tend to have a violent way of speaking out against racism or those who call us racist. I would not be surprised if this atmosphere contributes to some of the actual violence that emerges in America. As a group, we need to step back and really consider what the best way to address racism is. If you ask me, it’s not about proving that Person A is racist. It’s about benefiting the whole conversation and moving the whole country forward to a better day.

Did you ever say something you didn’t know was offensive? What happened? Do you think the current discussion on racism in America is healthy? How can we change the public voice and the media’s voice to be more positive and less accusatory? Is it even possible?


27 thoughts on “Are We Too Hard on Racists?”

  1. I start every discussion in the knowledge that I’m both sexist and racist. I grew up in a racist and sexist culture, and to deny the effect on myself would be ridiculous. From the position of misinformation and ignorance is the only place I can grow. As soon as I say I’m not racist, I deny myself the chance to be better and I continue in upholding oppressive ideas.

    I am sexist and racist. I don’t want to be either of those things. So I will keep reminding myself that I AM, so that I can keep learning.

    1. Sounds like a good way to go. The first step to improving ourselves is admitting we’re not perfect. One of the most frustrating things to see is a person trying to justify why a racist comment they made it not racist. At the same time, if you say something in a public sphere, the media and public is not always so understanding or forgiving.

  2. I think it depends on the situation. If it’s obvious that the person is a hateful person and doesn’t care, then no there isn’t a need to be so pleasant. I mean seriously, in this day and age how many people are just plain ignorant? It happens, yes, but it isn’t most racists in my experience. As far as people not understanding why a word/action can be racist, I completely agree. For some reason it can be totally different. I’ve never personally understood the term “colored”. Aren’t we all “colored”? 😉

    1. I think a lot of people are ignorant. You grow up around the same people referring to people who are different in certain ways. No one tells you you’re wrong. That’s easily ignorance. Even when people are hateful, I’m not one that believes striking back with hate is helpful. At the very least, anger should be step 2. Step one is trying to teach a person why what they said is wrong.

      That said, few things make me as angry as people who deny a comment they said is racist even though everyone is telling them it is.

  3. While I do believe that racism is definitely a thing, accusations of racism are all to frequently used as a cudgel to shame, silence and marginalize people with whom the accuser disagrees. In the process, it undermines efforts to deal with real racism. It is awesome that someone was willing to engage and educate, but more often than not people saying ‘you are racist’ just want you to shut up and have found the perfect avenue to accomplish it.

    1. Exactly. Have you heard about that video of the woman being catcalled? Regardless of your opinion on that video, many nay-sayers are complaining the video is racist. Even if it is, it dosen’t change the fact that cat calls can be insulting, sexist and wrong. In that case, racism is being used to overshadow the main discussion, which is on sexism and cat calls.

      This is another reason why I wish people got a little less livid about racism. We would be able to have a more open, productive conversation about racism if we weren’t so afraid of people’s anger when we voice our opinion.

      1. Yeah, I have. Really, though, most of the criticisms I’ve heard of it are that it may exaggerate the problem because a) some of the ‘catcalls’ are rather ambiguous and b)the fact that it took her over 10 hours to get her 100-ish catcalls. Not that catcalling isn’t gross or a problem, but it makes it easy to point to the numbers and say that the problem is inflated.

        Walk around a city for 10 hours, you could probably get whatever message you wanted across with all the footage you ended up with. Homeless menace, latino menace, black menace, asian menace, even female menace.

        1. I don’t know. 100 in 10 hours? That’s 10 every hour. That seems crazy wrong to me.

          I think the video did a good job at bringing an issue to light, but things need to be explained. Why is “hey beautiful” taken as a cat call? It depends on how it’s said, how the person is looking at you. Sometimes, “you’re beautiful” is a comment that makes one smile, but it can be said in a way that makes you worried if you’re going to be followed home.

          I feel for men. I’ve written on feminist topics before and had men say they’re tired of being treated as sexist animals one step away from raping the next person they see. The problem is, we are told all the time that men are animals (every man in my life has said this to me at least once, including my own father). We then see that confirmed. We know one in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. It’s scary and it’s makes us suspect every man we don’t know.

          Imagine if most male commentors said “I am against disrespecting and objectifying women, but I don’t think that’s what this video shows.” That’s not what happened, though. To me, the real sexism in that video is the comments who threaten the poor woman’s life. They threaten to rape her. How does that convince her than men are not animals? How does that convince anyone?

          (p.s. I do not believe men are animals. I have a problem with that statement, but it is something that is said and something that women and men believe.)

  4. I am one who has gone through life feeling we all need to be more positive towards each other, no matter who the other person is. I have also learned to give people second chances. I am over 50, so it means patience and caring words towards others. When someone is acting racist, we must say, “Do you really believe what you just said?” Sometimes, we need to be brave! When we ask, sometimes we can also open other’s minds… Hugs for this challenging post, I can understand some of what was said, but never will I give up on doing my part of being a ‘human’ and caring being. We do need to question, but not judge others.

    1. “We need to question, but not judge others”

      Exactly. When I first met my boyfriend, he frequently used what I call the three-letter-F-Word. He is a huge supporter of LGBT rights. It’s not like he meant anything using that term. Still, I made sure to let him know why that word was wrong and why I never wanted to hear it from his mouth. Saying it was a habit, so it took a bit. Today, he never says the word. I never got angry at him. I simply made him understand his offense. That might not be a method that works for everyone, but certainly is more effective than judgement and anger.

  5. I spent five semesters in college as a Residence Adviser (RA) in one of the buildings. One year we had sensitivity training, and they had a group of about a hundred of us sit in a lecture hall and actively start listing- out loud and in front of the rest of the group- all of the offensive and non-inclusive terms we could think of. The terms were recorded for all to see on the whiteboard at the front of the hall. Since the group was highly diverse along the lines of race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, and ethnicity…we were able to compile one hell of a list- the obvious ones being put up right away. Then, as we became more comfortable with the exercise, there started to be terms and words added to the list that many of us had never considered offensive because we had no knowledge of their origin or intended uses.
    -The whole idea was education. To see that there were so many ways to be offensive WITHOUT KNOWING IT, and to teach us to tread lightly on such a diverse campus. Unintentional disrespect is NOT the same as being a racist, and I think education on the sensitive issues of inclusion is not to be underestimated. I think that if people knew what to avoid in casual conversation or even in the public eye, I think the cries and racist accusations would be lessened to a degree.
    One COULD argue that the ignorance or unintentional insensitivity is a lackadaisical and flippant attitude towards inclusion and sensitivity, but just as there are honest-to-god racists out there, so will there be those that find racism and offense behind every rock and tree.

    1. Maybe everyone would benefit from sensitivity training like that. I mean, that sounds like a fantastic exercise. I feel like that’s be great for kids, middle schoolers and high schoolers to do. Maybe none of these offensive terms would become habit if we get rid of it from the start.

  6. Is there even a term for “non-white people” that is politcal correct and still will be tomorrow? The effects of the euphemism treadmill are really confusing, especially when not living in an English speaking country but being part of an international online culture >.<

    1. I’m not sure. When I first told people in Chicagoland I attended a class called African Americans in the Media, they were surprised because apparently the term African American is no longer correct. It’s now Black. I don’t know what to think anymore. I just use the terms I think are the least offensive.

  7. I used to think like this. “It would be more productive if people were nice about calling out racism.” It took a lot of listening and reading outside my own perspective to get it, and I don’t think I can even explain this as eloquently as others who live the day-to-day life of dealing with racism.

    I have had to deal with sexism, though, and something that was of a lightbulb moment for me was when I saw conversation on Twitter where women were discussing amongst themselves how frustrating it is that sexism is so prevalent in the science community. A man decided to butt in on the conversation with, “Maybe if you’d be nicer about it, men would be more open to listen to what you have to say.”

    My immediate response was along the lines of, “It takes a lot of privilege to not see how many times women played nice and it fell on deaf ears.”

    There are many books, blog posts, and public speakers who have spoken for years about cultural appropriation. It’s been an on-going discussion, but a discussion that only those who relate to it ever listen. It’s all public, but those who hold the power have the privilege to ignore a conversation that makes them uncomfortable. And so they claim “ignorance” when someone says, “Hey, seriously, what the heck?”

    As someone who has been on the receiving end of being called out on my racist way of thinking, yes, my first instinct was to get defensive. But that, “hey, I really do want more dialog and I really do want to learn” part of me decided to listen instead.

    I don’t need people to be nice to me in order for me to want to treat them like equals.

    1. When I say we shouldn’t be mean, I mean we need to do more than just call someone racist. It’s nice to try and explain why. It’s mean to just call someone racist and walk away.

      When it comes to sexism, it’s hard on both sides. Both sides get defensive real fast. Just look at #GamerGate. Women are being threatened with rape and murder for daring to instigate a serious discussion about female tropes in video games. There is a right and wrong way to say “I disagree with you.” threatening a person is always the wrong way, whether the person is being sexist, racist or otherwise.

      1. See, here I disagree. If someone is being racist, I don’t think it’s mean to call them out on it–even if they don’t want a debate at that moment. The person calling out a racist doesn’t owe the racist an education. The person being called out needs to take responsibility for their actions. If someone does take the time to sit you (general you here, not you personally) down and explain why it’s wrong, I think that’s an extra step they are taking out of their way to try and help you understand your privelege (which is a difficult thing to do). I do not think, however, that minorities and oppressed people OWE us that education. It seems priveleged to me to say, “You’re not allowed to call me out on my racism without a debate or prepared lecture . If you’re not ready for that, then keep your mouth shut because it’s not nice!” I don’t think it’s too much to ask people of a priveleged group to have a little self-reflection and do a little research when someone says, “Hey–that’s problematic!”

        Our defensive from being called “racist” stems from our own uncomfortableness with the word. It’s us who need to come to terms with that. It’s not the job of the oppressed to make us comfortable about something we’re doing to make an entire culture uncomfortable (at best).

        1. I understand what you are saying. I agree that minorities and oppressed people don’t owe us an education. In that sense, they don’t have to say anything more than “that’s racist.”

          That said, I don’t think the average person reacts well to that statement and, without knowing some reason behind the comment, are unlikely to change from that statement. So, what no one owes a racist, sexist, etc. an education, I do think it would be more productive if that sentence had more meat. Even “I can’t believe you used that racist term.” At least the person knows what was wrong so there is potential to change the behavior.

          In the most perfect world, though, I think we should all be educated about offensive terms at an early age and then repeatedly as we grow. Someone here commented on how they received some training as an RA where everyone was asked to list offensive terms. They were all written on the board and they had a discussion about why one term or another was problematic. It became a discussion for people to learn from. I think that is education we all deserve – in a classroom meant for learning with a teacher whose job it is to teach.

  8. TK, you approach this topic in a commendable way. Have you ever heard of schadenfreude? Some racist think what they say to insult another ethnicity or culture is incredibly funny. If the person gets upset, it heightens their enjoyment. That being said, there are also racist who don’t know what they saying is wrong or hurtful, and then there are those who don’t care if what they’re saying is wrong or hurtful. You can’t approach all of them in the same manner.

    As J and I have discussed, we believe it is the fact that most racist have no strong cultural background of their own to hold dear and that makes it easier for them to judge others. J’s number 1 argument on this is that there are no racial slurs for a white male, they can’t be insulted in that manner. Cracker? Oh yeah, so hurtful. White boy? Obviously he’s white.

    I think the only solution to fix racism is to better educate the masses starting in schools. American schools are some of the worst in the world. That lack of a good education fuels misinformation and segregation. Knowledge is power. For with knowledge comes the power to change.

    1. I suppose they can’t all be approached in the same way, but you are right in the end. Education and education early on is key. We can’t undo all that family life might promote, but I think that would make a difference.

  9. Good discussion here. Like you I grew up in an area where there was very little diversity. I also did a lot of reading in really outdated books that had belonged to my dad when he was a kid. This made me a holy innocent when I went away to university .

    Now I live in Spain and deal with cultural difference and misunderstanding regularly. Sometimes it is hard to know whether you are being offensive or not. I wrote about this on my other blog- in relation to some poetry I have translated by women poets.

    Patience is what will help things move along. I agree that knee-jerk violent reactions don’t help. All the same, if you look at the video link I put on that post of a woman walking down the street in New York and all the comments she gets… well, I could cheer her for having a violent reaction!

    1. That video gets me so mad. I do not agree that all the comments she received were necessarily cat calls (out of context, sometimes you can’t know). The sexism that video points out is in the comments it receives. It’s like #GamerGate all over again. You can disagree with a woman without threatening to rape or kill her.

      I think the key is that we don’t want to silence a discussion. Anything that is taken as a threat silences a discussion. Someone who is told “you’re a racist” with no other context, has just been attacked. They may feel like their voice and opinion was just attacked and not realize what actually happened that was racist. Someone here said minorities and people who are oppressed don’t owe racist an education. That’s true, but I do think people are owed the chance to be educated by someone, whether in a community class or in basic education. We need to start educating people at a young age what it really means to be racist and how to express opinions without being racist.

  10. A racist gets what he gets. I really don’t care about him or her. I won’t participate in yelling or cursing at someone who is a racist. I usually just ignore them and move on to better things I won’t even tell you how stupid you are. I have way too many stuff to worry about than a racist. I just don’t care care about about this person enough to even answer him/her. So may whatever happen to you happen to and just keep in mind that it’s you own fault 🙂

    1. That’s one way to look at it a certainly dosen’t result in further offense. Maybe a person ignored like that would feel bad enough to find a way to change their ways – especially if most people react that way.

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