The White Struggle With the Word “Racist”

I want to begin with all kinds of disclaimers, mainly in an attempt to absolve myself of any unintended offenses below. But it’s probably best for me to resist that urge and instead (1) invite your correction and (2) caution you that I have no expertise here. So accordingly, feel free to be quick with any correctives where I miss the mark and be cautious in reading the below as anything more than a personal reflection. I’m writing this primarily to other white friends who might relate and find something helpful here for taking a few steps forward.

If you had me list five words I hoped no one would ever call me, “racist” would undoubtedly make the list. Everything that word has meant to me for most of my life is directly opposed to who I want to be, and even more, if I’m honest, to how I want to be perceived.

“Racist” for most of my life has carried the kind of moral revulsion that “swindler” or “sexual predator” would carry. An accusation of racism would be the kind of thing that, if proven true, would be devastating. It would disqualify me from public leadership and, for many people, any kind of respect or friendship.

That’s the main way I heard “racist” used throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. A New York Times editorial that summer was titled, “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” Its opening lines: “Has the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president? We shouldn’t toss around such accusations lightly.” The article concluded that Trump, indeed, was a racist. It suggested what many others claimed outright: because he is a racist, Trump should not become President. A Washington Post article that same summer was headlined, “For Evangelicals, the Question Has Become: Which Is a Worse Sin, Abortion or Racism?” The article suggested that the choice was between a racist (Trump) or a strong supporter of abortion (Clinton).

A new understanding of “racist” (for me)

It’s only in more recent years that I’ve become familiar with a different understanding of racism. This one doesn’t ask whether I’m racist; it assumes it. It starts by asserting that white people are characteristically, almost inevitably, racist.

Here’s what this understanding of “racist” suggests, as I understand it: Racism is no binary––something you have or don’t have. It’s a full pattern of assumptions about the world. It’s baked into the systems we live in. These can go from something as simple as what “flesh-colored” means on something like a Band-Aid, to various scenarios where black people live with a real and legitimate fear for their lives and white people do not.

This is also where “racist” defines something more than “prejudiced.” Racism is the combination of prejudice with power. With this understanding, it applies particularly to structures that have been established and protected––at times intentionally, at times unwittingly––primarily by the white people who benefit from them. People of any race can be racially prejudiced, and that’s an evil we should all beware of. But racism is particular to the race that has been in power.

In this context, it would make sense for someone to say that our society has ingrained racist patterns, ones that I may be unaware of even while I benefit from them. And because I live in this society as a member of the race that has held the most power, I almost certainly have racist assumptions, even if my intentions are good.

Racism as a vice

A friend and brilliant philosopher, Dr. Claire Peterson, recently suggested to me that it might help to re-frame the way we connect racism to morality. We’re more likely to acknowledge that we struggle with other vices. Though it may not be pleasant, we’re probably quicker to admit a tendency toward pride or anger or greed or envy. We might concede that our impatience or lack of self-discipline are problems, even character flaws. These are things that we can talk about “working on,” areas for “personal growth.” We might even go so far as to call them “sinful patterns” in our lives.

Several years ago, I read a brilliant book on the seven deadly sins, Glittering Vices. As I got to each new chapter (each covered a different vice), I thought, “Finally! This is the one I don’t struggle with. This will be a nice read about someone else.” By the end of each chapter, I was deeply implicated. It turned out I wasn’t free of any of these. As disappointing as that was, that new awareness was also freeing. It helped me recognize blind spots and begin praying and working toward growth. The book didn’t tell me I was a miserable excuse for a human being. It told me, though, that I was living in a world that would naturally lead me down paths of lust and gluttony and greed, and I needed to be armed with awareness and grace if I wanted to combat these.

The claim that I might be racist was jarring to me when I first encountered it. It was unlike the claims from Glittering Vices that I might struggle with vanity or sloth or envy. When you’ve always associated “racist” with moral revulsion, some of the worst kinds of evils, and then someone suggests that you’re racist, what do you do? The knee-jerk reaction: “I’m not a racist!” Probably to follow with proof––anything from that time you did a kind thing for a person of color to the fact that you’re married to a person of color.

If we were to think of racism in terms similar to the other vices, it may not require such strong knee-jerk reactions when we’re implicated. It might allow us instead to become aware of our blind spots and to talk in terms of growth and awareness and grace. It might also allow us to speak honestly about how racism is sinful, but how that sinfulness should be a prompt for growth, not shame. This understanding of “racist” wouldn’t disqualify someone from respect or friendship or public leadership. But it also wouldn’t let it go unexamined or uncorrected.

If we speak and think of racism in similar ways as we do the other vices, we also might be able to better address systemic problems. Just as you can identify the policies, patterns, and messaging in our society that promote greed or lust, you can begin to identify the ones that promote and sustain racial inequalities.

The strategic problem with “racist”

We run into a strategic problem when we use the word “racist” in this new (to many of us) way. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s an inaccurate word to use or an unfair word to use. I’m only suggesting one of the reasons I think it may have been at times ineffective, even though accurate and fair.

Here’s why …

Good people / Bad people

A word becomes defined by its usage. And the primary way many (most?) white people have heard “racist” used is to suggest that someone who is racist is immoral and uncultured––ignorant, bigoted, prejudiced, and mean-spirited. “Within this paradigm,” writes Robin DiAngelo, “to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow––a kind of character assassination.”

When people were asking “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” in the lead-up to the 2016 election, they weren’t asking whether he struggled with a vice like lust or greed or anger. They were suggesting that he was morally compromised in such a profound way that he should not be elected, in a way that Hillary Clinton was, by comparison, not. Examples like this have trained us to see any suggestion of racism as the “deep moral blow” DiAngelo talks about.

“Racist” has so frequently been used to separate “good” people from “bad” ones that it has blinded us to racism’s more subtle realities. To borrow from Solzhenitsyn: If only there were racist people somewhere insidiously committing racist deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing racist and not cuts through the heart of every white person. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This is why DiAngelo (who identifies as a white progressive) says, “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it.’1 White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice.”

Because the word “racist” has been so morally weighted in our usage, DiAngelo suggests that those who see it as abhorrent will spend more time virtue signaling to absolve themselves, more time trying to implicate others “worse” than themselves, and not nearly enough time continuing to listen and do the things that are most helpful.

Noun or adjective

Another problem we run into with “racist” is that it’s an adjective that also functions as a noun. You can have racist tendencies, but you can also simply be a racist. We do this with other adjectives––rich, famous, poor, homeless. (Think “Lifestyles of the rich and famous.”) When they become nouns, they become not one descriptor but the defining characteristic of those we speak about.

Most of the other vices I’ve mentioned don’t do this. We don’t speak of someone as a lust or an anger or a pride. These are things we struggle with, not things we are.2 And notice how it changes when we move these from struggles to defining characteristics. Someone might admit to struggling with lust but will probably not take kindly to being called a pervert or sexual deviant. They might admit to prideful tendencies but take offense if you call them a narcissist. We can (sometimes) handle acknowledging our vices. But nearly all of us react negatively when they’re used as our defining characteristics. Because “racist” can occupy the same space in our speech as “pervert” or “narcissist,” it’s liable to the same offense and knee-jerk rejections as those words.

Robin DiAngelo, whom I’ve quoted a few times above, writes about white fragility––this knee-jerk reaction of white people against any suggestions that they could have racist tendencies. I wonder if the move from adjective to noun contributes to that fragility. We can talk about struggling with a vice. But when the vice becomes our defining characteristic, we fight back.

Getting people to listen

I’m convinced of this––we need to deal with our racism more directly. Our nation does. Individuals do. I do.

I’m also convinced that our different understandings of the word “racist” and its implications are preventing a lot of people from dealing with these things seriously. I know it was the case for me. I needed to come to a different understanding of the word before I could come to a better understanding of the problem.

Strategically, if we had a different word for the problem, I wonder if we could deal with the problem more quickly. Some words are worth abandoning when they’ve lost the meaning we need them to have. Some are worth redeeming –– at nearly any cost. I’m not in any position to say which is true here. I just wish that we could deal with the serious vice of racism in ourselves and in our culture, and I worry that the word itself has prevented many people from giving the problem proper consideration.

Regardless of all this, “racist” is the word we have, and I don’t intend to propose a new one. For anyone (like me) who has had a knee-jerk reaction to this word and its implications in the past, I’m proposing that you give it a new hearing––not as something that calls you a moral monster or that is only about other people, but as something that needs careful attention from all of us.

Some next steps

If we take racism to be similar to other vices, we can understand the recent claims that being “not racist” isn’t enough. That’s because this kind of racism has been ingrained in our society for centuries. And being “not racist” is at once both unrealistic and insufficient. This is why you might be seeing calls for people instead to be anti-racist.

“Not racist” seeks easy absolution. Anti-racist names it as a constant problem to fight back, both personally and societally. “Not racist” overlooks important areas of needed growth––the same way I had overlooked some of the ways I struggled with other vices until I read that book. Anti-racist seeks to identify these things and work toward rooting them out. “Not racist” is passive and concerned about maintaining personal reputation. Anti-racist is active and concerned about changing personal and public realities.

As I’ve understood it, you can actually be both racist and anti-racist. Racist because those ingrained assumptions and behaviors still exist. Anti-racist because you’re actively working toward identifying and removing them.

My goal here isn’t to provide you with specific next steps. See my opening disclaimer: I’m far from any expertise in this. My goal instead is to help a few other people identify why they’ve had such a knee-jerk response to the word “racist,” if their experience is like mine, and then to move from that to something more positive and productive. If we get that far, there are plenty of expert resources available to do what DiAngelo suggested is necessary: “engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice.”

[A later addition: I’m thankful for a lot of good conversation from this post. There are many things I should probably add––especially a stronger emphasis on the corporate nature of racism, some more about vice, and another word on white fragility. I won’t add these to the body of the post but add them here so you can see some of the progress from these conversations.]

On the corporate nature of racism. I’ve noted in several places above that racism is not just a personal vice but a systemic evil, ingrained in our society for centuries. But most of my discussion above focused on the personal. This would be a better and more balanced piece if it gave equal weight to the societal/systemic evil of racism. This is not only about people’s individual sinfulness but long-established sinful structures. This is one of the reasons why it seems “anti-racist” is far better than “not a racist,” which I noted is at once both unrealistic and insufficient.

On vice. I think some perceptions of vice, along with the primary way I’ve treated it here, could suggest that I’m advocating an understanding of racism that is (1) more personal than societal, and (2) softer and less evil. This is my fault for not giving enough weight to the societal and deeply evil nature of the vices. To consider racism alongside other vices shouldn’t diminish its severity or its systemic/structural implications. I could and should have done more to address those here. One difference that does remain is that racism is a particular sin of the race that has long held power while the other vices are more universal in scope. I don’t know that this is reason enough to remove it from the category of vice, but it is a significant difference from all the others.

On white fragility. Some have pointed out that the kind of softening of our understanding of “racist” that I discuss above is a reflection of white fragility. I think they’re right. I think most humans have a fragility regarding how we speak about sin, in general. That’s not to let white people off the hook. It is to suggest that sin is, for all humanity, a touchy subject. And racism, as a particular category of sin for white people, has become particularly touchy for us. And at least strategically, I think I have a better chance of gaining a hearing with sinners if I talk to them about sin as a vice––one that is doing deep damage to them and the society around them––rather than labeling them with that sin as their defining characteristic. The former approach tends to focus on people’s guilt and complicity and looks toward change, the latter approach has a tendency to focus people on shame and is more likely to shut down the conversation before it begins.

This is where, pastorally, I think we may do better and get further if we acknowledge people’s fragility about sin and work strategically to root it out. If we instead tell them to get over their fragility, we more often lose them from the conversation at the start. White people have a unique fragility about racism. I’m not concerned about easing white suffering about this, but about engaging white people in the conversation in the first place.

Two problems with my approach here: (1) Some have argued that it could do nothing more than diminish the severity of racism and keep people from confronting its evils and their complicity. I think that’s a legitimate argument. I hope it wouldn’t be the case, but I can see where it could be. (2) Even this suggestion comes from a position of privilege. I’m able to begin with this admittedly softer approach in part because I haven’t suffered the negative effects of racism. I should be careful not to suggest this as the approach others take in how they speak about racism. I intend to suggest it more as a re-framing for people who have been unable or unwilling to think about it in a way that implicates them and could lead to change and growth. I understand why some people think even that strategic approach is too much of a power play at changing word meanings.

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1 A white progressive who read an early draft of this article told me she totally disagrees with this definition of “white progressive.” Perhaps white progressives are hearing and listening to enough voices like this that they’re changing and no longer properly fit this definition. I don’t know whether DiAngelo would agree with that or call the refusal to accept this definition as an indicator of the “white fragility” she writes about. Whatever the case, I’ll leave it here as DiAngelo’s definition and let others choose whether they agree with it or not.

2 Gluttony here is the near-exception, since we can call someone a glutton. I wonder if this could have any relation to why gluttony may be the vice we’re least likely to address head-on today.

5 thoughts on “The White Struggle With the Word “Racist”

  1. This is an excellent article. It is well thought out and very interesting. I have always gotten something from Teddy Rays blogs. However, this article is an excellent example of “racists tendencies” or “racism.” Let me explain. From a perspective and an African-American this article tries hard to change the words and meanings of “racism” in order to be palatable to the “white” ears and minds. When those in power are challenged, and sins exposed, the first thing is to change the meaning so it does not quit fit. This is part of the “white fragility” spoken in the article. The attempt to separate it from other “moral” sins, in order to better understand it again reduces the impact and seriousness. Racism is a sin again God’s people. Systemic racism is sustained racism, as we have today, for the benefits of white America. So, those with extreme “prejudices with power” can continue to control, both the words and meanings. As we know words are powerful! As Christians we know that the word of God is the weapons we use to change men’s heart. But, Christ ask that we bring all our burden to Him in the Spirit of Truth. Therefore we must not change or redefine his truth but deal with is straight on. Yes Lord, I am a sinner. Sanctify me for your purpose.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for this response. I was working on a lengthy addition to the bottom of this post when you sent. I wonder if you might offer any thoughts or feedback on whether it addresses what you raise here.

      1. Rev. Ray, Thanks for your response to my comments. First I am glad that I reread the article with the additions. I understand more fully that your proposed “next steps” may yield more positive and productive moves. However, it may have more impact if the “anti-racist” was coupled with current examples of “racist” acts in contemporary American culture. Systemic racism is in our everyday lives with “microaggressions” in everyplace, including the church. Everyday places where “white” America harbors “Prejudice, privilege, power, and control.” Laws, ordinances, traditions, and behaviors where African – Americans are maginalized. Perhaps sensitivity awareness, without pointed declarations of names, may help define what racist behavior looks like.. The main point , as you have addressed in your comments, is not to soften sin, but expose it to the light. It needs the full weight to be eradicated. The 12-step programs follow the same practice. One has to first accept that there is a problem, then seek a “higher power” to take the defect in character away. Only then will it be complete. As you noted “white’ America owns this problem. It is ingrained and systemic, so maybe this generation of believers needs to be shown, so they can see! I would like to send you a one-page essay I wrote that may help clarify my comment about examples. It is called The “white” man is not free!” I would be interested in your feedback as well. All the best!!

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