5 Reasons It's Difficult To Explain Racism To Casual Racists
People have a lot of interesting excuses when they're caught being racist. "I'm not racist," they say ...
"... I have lots of black friends!"
"... you're the racist for making it about race!"
"... I'm just being honest about the facts!"
"... I was just making a joke!"
Why do they tell these obvious, transparent lies? Do they think you're that dumb? Maybe. But maybe they aren't lies at all. Maybe they really believe this stuff, as crazy as that seems. Here's how that might happen.
They're Not Sure What Your Endgame Is
So the goal of calling out someone on their racism, theoretically, is to get the "I'm Not A Racist!" person (let's call her Natasha Not-A-Racist) to acknowledge her own racist attitude or action and change it. Let's say the confronter (Yvonne Yes-You're-Racist) wants to get Natasha to stop saying "wetback." She's not trying to punish Natasha; she just wants her to stop calling all the Latinos in the office by a word that implies the only reason they could possibly be in the U.S. is they illegally swam across the Rio Grande, and all will proceed as before.
So she's confused when Natasha goes ballistic, shouting, "This is what's wrong with society today!" and going on about "PC police" calling everything "hate speech" and "crucifying" anyone who "isn't tolerant enough for them." She makes a mental note that her Fuck SJWs forum friends are going to love this one.
"Get this: She had the gall to suggest that social norms had changed in the last 30 years!"
This strikes Yvonne as a bit of a disproportionate response. She was just hoping Natasha would say sorry, quit doing it, and they could forget about it and go to lunch.
But Natasha thinks this is a power play where Yvonne "wins" if she can convince people Natasha is racist. Natasha envisions getting a scarlet R slapped on her and forever being known around the office as "the one that said 'wetback'" while everyone turns up their noses at her and feels superior. Yvonne must be doing this to gain status and look more "enlightened" than Natasha, who will lose status and have a black mark on her record; that is if she's EVEN ALLOWED TO SAY "BLACK MARK" anymore.
"How dare you call that offensive in the confrontation I envisioned?!"
Most of the time Natasha's paranoia comes out of nowhere, but sometimes Yvonne contributes to it by not showing there is a series of steps Natasha can take to fix things and get to a place where nobody is mad at her anymore. She doesn't have to wear that R forever -- or even at all. It's not really Yvonne's responsibility to spell it out, but sometimes she can accidentally leave the impression that public shaming is the only goal.
This puts Natasha in a scenario we'll call the Racist's Dilemma. It's like the Prisoner's Dilemma but for potential racists, where the choices look like this: (1) admit you did something racist and be forced to do a walk of shame and get looked down on by all the "PC people," or (2) stonewall as hard as you can and maybe they'll go away. In Racist Prison, everyone was framed. You can see why people often go for (2). If you can change choice (1) in their mind to "stop doing it, say sorry, and everything goes back to normal more or less," then (2) will look a lot less attractive.
They Think Only A Racist Does Racist Things
"Am I a racist?" and "Is what I just did racist?" are not exactly the same question, depending on what you think a "racist" is. Not everybody has the same idea, which is why you get conversations like this:
Natasha: I have nothing against Mexicans; I just don't want them in my neighborhood bringing down property values.
Yvonne: That seems racist.
Natasha: I'm not a racist! I have a lot of black friends! I voted for Obama!
"I even bought a souvenir!"
Yvonne's interpretation of a "racist" is a person who does or says racist things. Natasha just said a racist thing, ergo she is a racist. Yvonne is convinced that Natasha is intentionally bullshitting her.
Natasha's idea of a "racist" is less a person and more a golem formed from pure racism, a complete and unvarying package of across-the-board racism toward every race outside of her own, in every way. This Racism Golem is committed to their racism and will never break character by enjoying an NBA game, eating Mexican food, or making pleasant small talk with their Asian co-worker. They are hardcore dedicated to bringing down other races. Racisming so hard, it burns calories.
"I guess I can have one more slice; I put in a long day of ranting about immigrants online."
Natasha will keep basically shouting, "I'm not a Racism Golem!" and Yvonne will keep insisting, "The thing you just said is clearly racist!" but the translation that happens in her brain is, "I'm not racist!" and "Yes you are!" They sound like they're arguing about the same point, but they're not.
Both of them could help by being clearer about what they mean, and Yvonne could even throw Natasha a bone and humor her a bit by saying, "You're a great person and I love your attitudes on civil rights, but I think you just have this one blind spot toward Latinos we need to talk about." Not because she's obligated to avoid hurting Natasha's feelings or anything, but it might snap Natasha out of freaking out about the Racism Golem and get her to pay attention. It's the difference between "You have a little something in your teeth" and "Oh, wow, I didn't realize you hated toothbrushes."
The correct term is Bristled Americans.
It's worth pointing out as well that there are Yvonnes out there who think all racists are a separate species of Racism Golems who can't be changed, only attacked. These Yvonnes won't admit that they've ever had a racist thought or acknowledge that tribalism is a curse all humans share -- even the best of us have to fight it every day. Anyway, these people don't help.
They Think They're Just Being Honest
Natasha likes to cite "studies" showing black people are just genetically less intelligent than whites. Yvonne knows these "studies" have less credibility than the People's Choice Awards, but she's not sure if Natasha is screwing with her or really believes this. After all, some people apparently watch the People's Choice Awards.
Many Natashas really do believe these fake "race facts." They're probably drawn to believe them because of their existing prejudices, but they think they came to these conclusions because of totally unbiased observations and objective logical reasoning. Hell, all of us think we're more objective and logical about everything than we really are; half of Cracked articles are about that, right?
Anyway, so Yvonne confronts Natasha about the genetic intelligence thing. Maybe she tells Natasha to "stop spreading that crap around Facebook." What Yvonne means to say is, "That's not true; stop spreading those awful lies." What Natasha hears is, "Yeah, I admit that's true, but it's not nice and it makes black people feel bad, so don't say it in front of people."
This is why Natasha likes the phrase "political correctness," because she thinks Yvonne is interested not in actual correctness (the "scientific proof" in the "studies") but in masking the truth to make everyone happy ("politics.") This is why Natasha can not only think it is right but actually brave to loudly proclaim these "facts" on social media or at a party or on the bus or wherever. She thinks Yvonne just won't say them because she is scared of being punished by the PC Police, not because Yvonne thinks they are wrong.
The PC Police always grant you the right to remain silent. Whether you have the capacity to is another matter.
If Yvonne can see this happening, her best chance at bringing Natasha around is to really target the absolute bull crap in Natasha's statement and dial back the bit about how negative and hurtful it is. No guarantee of results either way, but emphasizing the ugliness and negativity of the "fact" just confirms Natasha's idea that she's bravely facing ugly truths that Yvonne won't dare.
They Didn't Mean To Be Racist
Here's what it feels like to be called out on unintentional racism: You're trying to make a complex argument for how to deal with Iran and someone keeps interrupting you to tell you you're pronouncing "nuclear" wrong. What a pedantic prick.
Here's what it feels like to receive unintentional racism: A guy is driving to get groceries and on the way he runs over you with his car. When you complain, he calls you a pedantic prick.
"The sidewalk's not for bikes, jerk; it's for people who are trying to text!"
Natasha thinks whatever racial slur or stereotype she might have incidentally brought up is far less serious than the point she was making or the joke she was telling, and those Yvonnes out there are tunnel-visioned nitpickers. In most cases, most of us will have the opposite priorities.
This is why "Oh come on, I didn't mean to be racist; I was just trying to tell a joke" gets the same looks as "Oh come on, I didn't mean to run down a pedestrian; I was just trying to get groceries."
"... And the ice cream melted while we were having this conversation. Isn't that punishment enough?!"
It's not so much "I meant well" or "I had good intentions" (although you get that too) as "I was talking about something completely different and you're changing the subject!" This is why they go on about "All I was trying to do ..." and how you "missed the point."
I think we make it worse by using the word "hate" to describe any kind of bigotry. If someone doesn't feel "hate" or anger or any strong feeling toward that group, they think they're off the hook. The grocery shopper probably didn't "hate" the guy he ran over, but the guy is the same amount of dead no matter how the shopper felt.
Yeah, he died of his injuries sometime during the last four paragraphs.
Another step beyond "I didn't mean to be racist" is "I wasn't thinking about race at all," and its buddy "You're the one making this about race."
When a manager hires 10 white people in a row despite having qualified minority candidates, quite often they "weren't thinking about race at all." For every blatantly racist asshole that won't hire some race because "They have no work ethic," there's a well-meaning manager with the same subconscious biases we all have, unintentionally feeling a better "vibe" from candidates similar to them.
"Hey, I've got that same tie at home! When can you start?!"
When Manager Natasha gets called out, this is the first time in the process that race has been directly brought up, so it seems totally true to her when she says, "You're the one bringing race into it." Race has, of course, been heavily involved the whole time, but it's been doing its dirty work out of her subconscious.
Sometimes being less racist requires thinking more about race.
They Totally Wouldn't Mind If It Was Them
People are always egregiously misusing some of the greatest wisdom in the world. In this case, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Why do black people get so upset when I use the N-word?" asks Natasha. "I don't mind if anyone calls me a 'honky.' In fact, I laugh along. I guess the difference is that I have a sense of humor and they don't!"
"... and what could be more offensive than being casually linked to the golden age of country music?"
The problem with testing any phrase or action that might offend, say, black people, by thinking of the equivalent phrase or action aimed at white people, is that there often isn't any. If there was some group that held the overwhelming majority of political offices and dominated corporate leadership in the most powerful country in the world and had previously enslaved white people for 400 years, and they had at some point during the slavery period invented a nickname that implied white people were subhuman and were still using it now, then sure, you could use that to guess how a black person would feel about the N-word, maybe.
Natasha might think, "OK, I'll just imagine how I would feel in that situation, then!" But no, that's a terrible idea. People imagine strange things about themselves in fictional fantasy scenarios; they're always suspiciously witty and badass and impeccably moral.
"You're supposed to be contemplating discrimination. Could you please stop literally patting yourself on the back?"
There are areas where we can never be "on the scene" and get firsthand evidence, and we take other people's word for it. We don't run most experiments ourselves; we take scientists' word for what happened. We don't fly to Syria to see what ISIS is really doing; we take our favorite reporter's word for it (for better or worse). But when it comes to how racism feels, people like Natasha seem compelled to go "on the scene" and verify it directly, through the power of imagining themselves into other people's shoes.
Which for most people turns into a racism-themed version of the ending to Rocky IV inside of three minutes.
The issue is a lack of trust, which you can see in common Natasha phrases like "outrage culture" and "victim mentality," which mean "You're lying about how hurtful this word is to you, because you're playing some kind of power game." If Yvonne is white, there's an additional suspicion that maybe she's just pretending to care about the other group as part of this power game, to gain righteousness points.
If Yvonne can convince Natasha this isn't a power game and the goal isn't to shame her, Natasha might stop insisting on making the call about how other people should feel. But I realize this is like saying that if you could modify your car to fly, your commute to work would be easier.
At least then who's looking down on who would be clear to everyone.
I mean, I can't imagine any of this will be a magic bullet to getting people to admit they did anything racist, but I hope it helps people realize that not every racist making excuses is a sneaky liar. Which doesn't make the racism any better, but intentional liars can only be yelled at, while confused people with wrong thoughts can occasionally be brought around.
Check out the incredibly racist tropes in DuckTales that you probably missed in The 5 Most Bafflingly Racist Beloved Fictional Universes, and try to keep count of all the racist tropes in The Justice League when you read 5 Shockingly Racist Scenes In Famous Superhero Comics.
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