Hedging Our Bets on Racism

If you point your finger at someone and call them a racist, all discussion will cease, even if that person is as blatantly racist as the men and women running the country right now.

There’s a reason for this, though. One that is both upsetting and understandable.

Racism became associated with Nazism during WW2, and Americans, ever concerned with looking like the better society, made sure to try and distance themselves from that. So all of the racist things in our own society were less awful than a literal Holocaust and therefore we, the “good” people, were never to be seen as racist.

This grows and mutates and changes. Progress is made, but each sliver of progress is met by both an intense backlash and also a desire to prove we’re good enough (ie “not racist”) and can’t we just stop talking about it yet?

Ultimately, there is never going to be a moment when we press a button and the country fully reckons with its racist history. Germany has done a remarkable job of this, but they had to lose a world war to be forced into penitence (maybe we could stand to have that happen, but a lot of us would have to die for us to admit defeat).

On the other hand, we can’t give up and use mealy-mouthed terms like “racially-charged” when we’re talking about a racist act. We should never be afraid of calling an act racist, and it’s distressing we have to flay ourselves open to be heard on this. When it comes to individuals, though, although I believe a lot more people are racist than would admit it, it’s most effective, in my view, to frame discussions around racist systems and socialization. That’s not to say we can’t call the president racist, because of course. But interpersonally, if we are choosing to educate (and we don’t have to choose this!), especially as a teacher myself, I feel I have the most success painting the institutions as racist and giving individuals the choice to perpetuate or resist their influence. When you help them feel they have a choice, they have a better chance to make better decisions.

That doesn’t mean they’re not racist, because, on a deeper level, most folks fear the other and are uncomfortable with groups demonized by society. But I don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to change those feelings you can’t really see. We can, however, hope to change people’s choices. So that’s just my opinion on effective ways to do so.

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