Being Called Racist
Every so often, I hear stories from indignant people about how someone called them racist. These indignant souls are looking for me to affirm for them that the accusation is not true. Unless the accuser thinks that the active dismantling of historic racism is in fact racist, I, rather than absolving anyone, offer the following 5 tips when confronting such a situation:
5 Dos When Someone Calls You A Racist
- Find out the other person’s definition of racist. The reason people are offended when they are called racist is because they equate the term “racist” with “bad person.” Yet Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes, “‘Racist’ is not a pejorative. It is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive.” Therefore, find out what someone means by “racist.”
In my experience, the most common definition of “racist” among people who are well-versed in equity work is “bias + power.” Since just existence in society exposes us to implicit bias, and there is varying racial power for those who are White, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American in accordance with the racial hierarchy established over four hundred years ago, this definition renders just about everyone who fits into these racial schemas racist against those lower on the hierarchy. It doesn’t make us “bad people.” Instead, it makes us human, and it requires us to do the necessary, internal work to fight against the societal structures that have taken root in our minds and heart.
On the other hand, Dr. Ibram Kendi, in his book, How to Be An AntiRacist, places everyone, regardless of race, on an ever-changing continuum that extends from racist to antiracist. A person who is racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inactions or expressing a racist idea” whereas an antiracist is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” In other words, someone who is antiracist is one who is actively working towards dismantling racism whereas someone who is racist is not actively working to dismantle racism. There is no such thing as “not racist.” Hence, any person, regardless of one’s position on the racial hierarchy, can go from racist to antiracist and vice versa within a day or a week. The terms, more than describing people, describe their actions. Hence, by this definition, again, being described as racist does not describe someone as “bad,” but instead requires each of us to check if we slipped off of the tireless pursuit of social justice and if so, to get back on it.
- Ask the other person why they consider you a racist. If someone calls you racist, most likely the description is of your actions, not you as a person. So ask the person if they would be willing to share what you did that makes them feel that you are racist, and then listen with an open mind no matter how difficult. We live in a society where talking about race is taboo, so thank the person for having the courage to be honest with you in the most uncomfortable of situations.
If the person is not willing to share, remember that it is never the responsibility of someone else, especially a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Personal of Color) individual, to explain racism to you. Hence, if they are not willing to share, respect their decision, let them know that you are open to listening if they change their minds, and move onto Number 3.
- Reflect. If the other person was willing to share their definition of racism and why they consider you racist, reflect on what they had to say. Are there any societal biases that have influenced you of which you were unaware? Were there any privileges that you have of which you did not even know? Are there any racist behaviors that you have allowed to happen even when you could have contributed to dismantling them? If so, how can your newfound knowledge help you in the future? Is there any learning that you feel you need to do?
If the person was not willing to have a conversation with you, reflect on your own. What have you said or done that might have made the other person feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or angry? Is there a time that you witnessed racism but did not try to dismantle it? Consider asking someone you trust to help you with this reflection, especially if there is someone you trust who might have witnessed your interaction with this person.
- Apologize. If you have recognized your mistake, apologize for it. If you haven’t recognized your mistake or are convinced that you haven’t made one, however, don’t apologize. Nobody wants a fake apology.
- Act upon your reflection. Based on your reflection, what do you need to do to better your role as a social justice warrior? Is there a bias you need to conquer? Is there some reading that you should do? Do you need to speak up more in the face of injustice? Now that you have figured it out, do it.
Bonus: 5 Don’ts When Someone Calls You Racist
- Don’t dwell on the term “racist.” We are usually upset about someone calling us racist because we have taken it as a personal affront. Try not to. Instead, try to focus on constant improvement, a goal we should all strive to achieve.
- Don’t be upset with the person who called you a “racist.” I have known people who have even celebrated when something bad happened to the person who called them a racist. Especially if the person is a person of color, this means that something you did/said or did not do/did not say likely hurt that person even if it was unintentional. Being upset with that person only makes you look petty and doesn’t solve anything.
- Don’t cry. Crying, especially when the tears are shed in front of the BIPOC individual who has just revealed their discomfort with your actions or lack thereof, only places the person who was hurt in a position where they need to make you feel better. If you need to cry, do so privately.
- Don’t defend yourself. You don’t need to tell the other person how you protest, vote liberal, are a minority yourself, or have friends who are people of color. If you are reading this blog or are connected to Dual Language Education, more than likely, you do work to support social justice, and the other person probably already knows it. However, when you are busy defending yourself, it’s hard for the victim to tell you how they are feeling. And it’s hard for you to improve your actions. Isn’t improvement in your role as an antiracist what you really want?
- Don’t ask another BIPOC individual to take sides. BIPOC individuals do not as a whole make up a monolithic block. One person does not speak for another. So if one person tells you that they felt racism, then that person felt racism. Period. End of story. By asking someone else if you are racist, you are placing that new individual in a place where they may not want to be. They may genuinely have not experienced the same racism, but this does not negate the other person’s experience. They may not want to hurt your feelings and therefore, feel obliged to lie, they may not be ready to talk about their experiences, or may want to talk about their experiences on their own terms.
Have you ever been called racist? How did you handle it? Do you agree with these tips? Do you have others to add? Please comment below.