The R-word can set nerves on fire. How do we talk about racism without engaging others' emotions and shutting down their ability to think clearly?
Earlier this year I had one of those conversations that has stuck with me. I casually mentioned to a White colleague that I seldom use the terms “racist” or “racism.” He was appalled. “If you don’t call it for what it is,” he declared, “then people will never understand that what they’re doing is racist when they are doing it.”
“For many White people,” I responded, “the R-word sets their nerves on fire. Their emotions get engaged and their ability to think clearly shuts down. And if I’m talking with people about something they are doing that doesn’t work, I want them to hear me. As a social worker, I learned way back in graduate school: ‘speak to people’s listening.’”
“So you’re willing to let them off the hook?”
“No, I’m still in the conversation about whatever it is that I’m concerned about. But if their nerves are all jangled up, I’m not getting through. And I’m more interested in being effective than I am being in the right.” [blog #13, Do you want to be right or effective?]
“If we don’t call it what it is – when we use a euphemism like ‘racially implicated’ or whatever – that’s letting them off the hook.”
I was at a loss to say more because I *did* think he was expressing the viewpoint of many. “It’s up to White people to change” is what I frequently hear. Was I letting them off the hook? I wasn’t completely sure. So I decided to use this blog post to think it through.
Ibram X. Kendi, a well-known author, fervently believes in calling racism by name. In his renowned book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, he notes that the term “racism” has become “radioactive to some” and firmly advocates its use anyway:
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the term “microaggression” emerged in popularity during the so-called post-racial era that some people assumed we’d entered with the election of the first Black president. The word “racism” went out of fashion in the liberal haze of racial progress – Obama’s political brand – and conservatives started to treat racism as the equivalent to the N-word, a vicious pejorative rather than a descriptive term. With the word itself becoming radioactive to some, passé to others, some well-meaning Americans started consciously and perhaps unconsciously looking for other terms to identify racism. “Microaggression” became part of a whole vocabulary of old and new words – like “cultural wars” and “stereotype” and “implicit bias” and “economic anxiety” and “tribalism” – that made it easier to talk about or around the R-word.
I do not use “microaggression” anymore. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts – “micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.
What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist. Only racists shy away from the R-word – racism is steeped in denial.1
In other words, he firmly supported my colleague’s stance.
The American Heart Association has taken a similar view. In their informative Structural Racism and Health Equity Language Guide, they define racism and declare they will “not shy away” from its usage “as appropriate.” They also recommend avoiding the use of the term “racially charged,” my term of choice when working in settings where racial tensions lie under the surface:
Definition: Prejudice or discrimination against individuals or groups based on beliefs of racial superiority or the belief that race reflects inherent differences in attributes and capabilities. Racism is the basis for social stratification and differential treatment that provides advantage to the dominant group. Racism appears in different forms (defined later in this document).
Usage: The AHA should not shy away from these words as appropriate, but we must carefully consider facts and context. Our communications should start with fact-based, sensitive language rooted in this important point: Racism persists throughout society and is detrimental to people’s health and well-being. When discussing structural racism, strive to include references to historic practices and systems, and how they continue to harm health and well-being.
Some use the term racist to refer to anyone who benefits from structural racism and doesn’t actively work to dismantle it. Avoid this use unless essential in a direct quotation; if used, explain it.
Avoid racially charged, racially motivated or racially tinged, euphemisms that convey little meaning. Use racist when truly applicable. Example: Mississippi has a history of racist lynchings, not a history of racially motivated lynchings.
Deciding whether a statement, action, policy, etc., should be described as racism or racist often is not clear-cut. Such decisions should include discussion with colleagues and/or others from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. In general, avoid using racist or any other label for a person. Avoid repeating derogatory terms except when it is crucial to the understanding of an event.2
The paragraph admonishing us not to use the term “racially charged” was a blow to my chest. I frequently use that term in my organizational work. In fact, you can find the term on our website. Even having read what the AHA is saying and looking at the example, I feel justified in referring to “racially charged events” that happen in organizations. I use the term where everyone can agree that some difference based on race is an undertone, but not all agree that “racism” is what it is.
Another article cites antiracist activist Tim Wise’s explanation of how to use the term.
Wise said he thinks we need to reframe the way we teach race in America, shifting the emphasis away from an individual's actions and looking at the system as a whole.
"When we think about the way Americans teach racism historically, it is a story about individuals who did or did not own slaves, individuals who did or did not own segregated businesses. It's a lot harder to see systems of inequality," he said, adding that this can absolve people from reflecting on their own actions….
He said he thinks Americans have been conditioned to believe certain racial stereotypes and unlearning those prejudices begins with recognising they exist in the first place. Until then, he said, we will continue to have circular arguments about race without making progress toward dismantling racism.
"It would be ridiculous to say, 'I don't have a racist bone in my body'... you grew up in America," he says.
"It's about saying, 'Look, I'm going to be humble enough to admit my weaknesses. Not because I want you to beat me up and not because I want to beat myself up, but because I know that I'm capable of better.’”3
I so agree. Instead of hurling the R-word as an attribute of people to be shamed, let’s admit we all have biases and can ourselves inadvertently engage in reprehensible behavior toward people who are different from ourselves. [blog #35: Intervention and allyship: How to be effective]
Let’s also examine the systems that reinforce our habitual biases, and seek to dismantle the systems of oppression that keeps repugnant, divisive behaviors intact.
John Blake cited several “polite words for racism,” including “racially freighted,” “white nationalism, “racial resentment,” and “racial anxiety.” Specifically, “If a white politician running for governor warns voters that they may ‘monkey this up’ by electing his black opponent, that’s not racist; that’s ‘racially charged.’” 4
I’m about to make a subtle distinction that is vital for my work.
If a White person in an organization in which I am working uses the term “monkey this up” to refer to something that a Black person in the organization has done, I would take that person aside and ask them if they knew the history of that word in association with Black people. And then I would say with as much empathy as I could muster something like, “there is no Black person I know who could hear you say what you just said and not think it sounded racist, regardless of your intentions.” If they said it in front of a group, I would help them think through how to apologize or make a retraction.
I grew up in the segregated south and have a visceral reaction to the term “monkey this up” applied to a Black person. There is no ambiguity to the impact of the term on me. The only ambiguity is the intent of the person making the statement. I would give the benefit of the doubt to a person in a work setting who is taking the long journey toward greater inclusion.
So yes, in this case, I would use the R-word, while carefully distinguishing the person’s intent from the impact of their words. I would want them to clearly understand the seriousness of how their word choice was received, yet I would also give them grace and not assume their intentions. All my care and consideration would be in the context of an organization that has invited me in as consultant or coach to help foster inclusion.
On the other hand, If I read in the paper about the governor making that statement and was talking with a friend or colleague, I would probably comment to them, “Looks like the governor is trying to stir up fear and racism in his home base.” Again, I would use the R-word, but this time I probably would not distinguish between intent and impact. Rightly or wrongly, I would assume the governor knew what he was doing and did so intentionally. In using the R-word, I would not just be talking about a single individual making a statement. By using the term racism, I would be taking into account the systems of injustices supporting that person which they seek to represent and intentionally augment once elected. An individual made the statement. A system supporting his candidacy for governor is what I would label as racist.
In more ambiguous situations when the intent of the perpetrator is unclear, the choice of terms is so critical. Do I want to have an intellectual discussion with people in the organization about what constitutes racism and whether or not their actions fit that definition? Or do I want them to change their behavior and find more equitable and empathetic ways of interacting with one another to meet their professional goals and create a work climate in which all can thrive? My work entails the latter.
In a discussion with a White person about their behavior, what matters to me is that they understand the impact of that behavior on the person of color who feels insulted. The label for that behavior does not matter to me at all. The goal is for the behavior to stop without their blaming the person of color for feeling insulted or accusing the person of playing the race card. Tall order, I know from personal experience. Yet I also know that if I speak to their listening – and not insist on using words that set their hair on fire – we can get there.
Code Switch described different listeners’ take on the word. Two they cited struck me as most significant. First, on the side of being cautious about using the word, one listener commented:
"It strikes me that most of our world, and certainly the United States, is racist in one way or another. Should we go through the days just proclaiming 'that's racist' to everything? I'd probably be okay with that, but I think there is a lot of power in that word, and that power has value. Using it too much may make some people feel too comfortable in their racism."5
Exactly my sentiments. Overuse of the term or applying the term racism to any and everything offensive diminishes its power. Personally, I reserve the term “racist” for more straightforward instances where we don’t have to get embroiled in debates over whether it does or does not apply. Overuse and over-application of any word renders the term less meaningful. People who might join together to champion racial justice are instead losing steam in debating whether what someone said was racist or not. Whether the R-word technically fits the situation is much less important to me than someone realizing the impact of his words and is willing to apologize and change his behavior.
On the other hand, another listener wrote this:
"We are terrified to use the word racist because we think we'll lose white people in that conversation. That in and of itself should let us know how we cower to white supremacy.
“I am a 28 year old black man, and the only people I know who shudder at the word racist are white folks. It's important to say that as we move forward because if we don't, we play this 'both sidesism' in that it portrays reluctance to use the word 'racist' as something across all spectrums, when it's really to genuflect to white people."6
And he’s mostly right – or should I say I mostly agree. Again, it depends on the context. In political and policy discourse, there is definitely an argument to be made that avoiding the R-word in clearly egregious situations is genuflecting to White people.
On the other hand, in the diversity, equity, and inclusion field, when the goal is to level the playing field, if any side drops out of the conversation, everyone loses the game. It’s a tricky balance to create an environment in which people of color feel heard, and White people are willing to stay engaged because they are viewed as contributing toward building a solution rather than attacked as part of the problem.
To be clear – I am not talking about the David Dukes and Adolf Hitlers of the world. I’m talking about your coworkers and family members and friends who say things or express attitudes that make our flesh crawl, yet we know that they are decent human beings who have no conscious intention of hurting anyone. These are the purveyors of unconscious bias who think we are the ones who are missing the boat and being overly sensitive. [blog #46: Their unconscious bias is leaking out and they don’t get it. What now?]
I personally don’t regard thinking through how to respond to them as “cowering” to White people. I call that “beginning where the client is.” I would not insist on using a term any other group regards as derogatory. If the R-word stops or slows the journey of some Whites toward inclusion, why insert it? This requires having multiple perspectives, not just a one-sided point of view.
On the one hand, as social justice champions, we automatically have empathy and concern to right the wrong experienced by the target of the oppression that’s occurring right in front of our eyes. On the other hand, as social justice strategists, we have empathy for the human being who has just unknowingly engaged in appalling behavior. Our intention with the latter is to consider what it takes for them as perpetrator to change their behavior not only in the immediate situation but possibly in future situations as well. [blog #34: This is what happens when you show empathy]
My colleague and others I’ve cited here who advocate using the R-word every time it could apply have a different goal from mine. Their goal is to highlight the inequities, the abhorrent behavior, and the devastating effect that the drip-drip-drip of racism has on people who have to live with it on a daily basis.
Where we part company is in what is supposed to happen once the R-word is used. Then what? Do they expect that resistant White people in denial will say, “Oh, now I see! Okay! Thanks to you, I’ll change my mind.” If so, that’s a faulty model of how people change.
Research into what are called “fear appeals” (e.g., scary pictures on cigarette packets) show that they work only under special, rare circumstances. According to the research:
if people will experience a threat, they want to counter that threat. However, how they do so is determined by their coping efficacy level: if efficacy is high, they may change their behaviour in the suggested direction; if efficacy is low, they react defensively.7
Calling people racist is a fear appeal. The assumption that people will realize that their behavior is bad and wrong and they will be motivated to change is a faulty model of change. Only people with high self-efficacy (secure in their capacity to change) are likely to respond to a fear appeal. Those with low self-efficacy (insecure) need our encouragement, not our denunciation and shaming. They will only consider changing under low-threat situations when they are assured that they have the capacity to cope and successfully engage in the desired change. [blog #45: Are you blaming people? Gain more traction by revealing the system]
The challenge for those of us wanting to see immediate change is enormous. How do we positively encourage and support someone whose behavior we regard as reprehensible? [blog #19: How to go high when you really want to go low]
Could you do it? What would it take for you to decide to support rather than condemn someone making racist comments to get him to rethink his words?
Questions to ask yourself:
#BreakingthePrejudiceHabit #CallIn/CallOut #ChangeStartsWithMe #R-Word #You’reARacistMom
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 Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: One World, p 46-47.
 American Heart Association, Structural Racism and Health Equity Language Guide, p 6.
 Bailey, C. (2019). "Should the term 'racist' be redefined?" BBC News.
 Blake, J. (2018). “The polite way to call someone a racist.” CNN US.
 Donella, L. “When should we call something racist?” Code Switch. NPR.
 Kok, G., G.-J. Y. Peters, et al. (2018). "Ignoring theory and misinterpreting evidence: the false belief in fear appeals." Health Psychology Review, 12(2): 111-125.