The r-word is the word “racist”. It is in effect the n-word for white people: they get upset when you call them that and lose all sense of reason. Even on the Internet it pretty much ends any fruitful talk about race.
And yet whites are often racist and this needs to be pointed out to them. But how?
As Restructure points out in her wonderful post, “Stuff POC do: restrain ourselves”, calling acts instead of people “racist” does not help, nor does avoiding the word altogether:
I realized that even if you use a less offensive word, they still became defensive because they could not accept the idea that racism isn’t over or that they could be racist.
So even saying something like “That is such a stereotype!” can get some of them seriously upset – because they know you are calling them a racist.
They get upset and then they say you are being oversensitive, that you see racism behind everything, that you are the racist one, that you are angry:
When I point out racism, I do not do it freely without self-consciousness and self-censorship. Many white people seem to think that white people restrain themselves, and that people of colour are emotional children with undeveloped self-awareness who cry all the time about hurt feelings or yell all the time with unrestrained anger. However, this is a colonial stereotype that is projected on to what people of colour are really saying.
Far from being oversensitive most people of colour will hold their tongue and let things pass because whites have made “racist” such a costly word to use. As Restructure points out, you have to pick your battles.
What to you is mere description, like calling a box blue, is to a white person questioning their very character. When you are saying “you made a mistake you should know about”, what they hear is “you are a bad person”.
Two things are going on here:
- Many whites seem to think “racist” means joining the Ku Klux Klan, flying the Confederate flag, using the n-word, stuff like that. The old Jim Crow sort of racism that was common in America before 1970. Most white Americans born since then are colour-blind racists. It is this subtler racism that most people of colour have in mind when they use the word “racist”.
- White Americans have a self-image of themselves as fair and just, of not being racist. So when you say they are racist it threatens their self-image. That is why they get so upset.
But that self-image stands in the way of any further progress.
It is like the kind of patriotism where people feel threatened when you say anything bad about their country. It is a false patriotism that stands in the way of making their country better. Most white people are like that when it comes to their race.
Disclaimer: Yes, blacks are racist too. I know that. Nearly everyone in America is racist – it is just a matter of degree.