Is “racist” a slur? Only if you make it one

At the risk of turning this blog into an opportunistic, parasitical infection on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, he’s been having some trouble with the white folk to which I strongly felt that I had to respond. However, when you are comment number 107, sometimes you might get more people to pay attention on your own space, which is in part why I have “double-posted” this response.

Unfortunately, he has been having some ongoing difficulty with what is, to me, an absurd argument:

There are a lot of posts below, not so much agreeing with Chris’ point that racist is “close” to nigger as an insult, but seeking to reformulate the argument to make it work.

Chris Bodenner made the original argument here, and Coates first addressed it here.

He goes on:

I am, in many ways, a bad fit for this job–there should be a black person here with a gentle-hand, willing to walk people through their differences step by step. There should be someone here who believes in conflict resolution. I have, after many conversations and arguments, concluded that some aspects of understanding are about information. But others are about will–people understand what they want to understand, what they believe is in their interest to understand.

My response, then, is below:

Ta-Nehisi, I have to agree with those who disagreed with your statement that you should “be a black person here with a gentle-hand, willing to walk people through their differences step by step,” as I think you have been in fact astonishingly patient. For you to respond any more patiently, or to expend even more time and energy by taking the “step by step” process, would I think be detrimental not just to you as an individual (black) man, but also detrimental to your white readers, who will become even less likely to learn where the line is.

I also want to say that I think the worst part of this discussion is the insistence on the noun “a racist” to the total exclusion of the adjective “racist,” particularly referring to someone’s thought or action rather than their personality. Hip hop blogger Jay Smooth had a great video where he recommended that if someone says something that is racist, you should tell them that they’ve said something that’s racist, not that they are racist (much less “a racist”) so that they can’t get all prickly about you insulting their essence or what not.

The sad part is, it doesn’t work, because white people choose not to listen. If I were to respond to some of my hyperdefensive fellow white people by saying, even more gently than Jay recommended, “the things you are saying, to me, carry connotations of a racially-motivated defense of white privilege,” they would, in all likelihood, immediately respond in a kneejerk fashion, “how dare you call me a racist?” If they won’t hear what I’m saying, they aren’t gonna hear what a black person says either.

I know that in some cases (how many is unknowable) individual people who are black do directly say “you’re racist,” in some cases with little-to-no justification and with a degree of cynicism and calculation. In fact, it happened to a white friend of mine, a teacher; she was cleared quite easily, and the student apologized.’

I would really love to hear an actual example of a completely blameless white individual losing his or her job due to an accusation of racism, because what I’m much more familiar with is hearing these claims dismissed summarily, even when there may be some kernel of truth to it that should at least be addressed in some way. Maybe by listening to each other? God forbid.

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2 thoughts on “Is “racist” a slur? Only if you make it one

  1. Here’s a perfect analogy:

    Taking a neutral, generic noun like “racist” and comparing it to an ultra-charged, specific derogatory word like the N word is like saying science is a religion. That’s just wrong in any semantic or logical sense. You could claim that the most mild mannered person of race A is racist for not even wanting to consider dating any member of race B, and you’d be technically correct. If a term applies to everyone, its “offensiveness” is ubiquitous, and that would be the opposite effect of racial slurs which were invented by groups to demean specific other groups.

    Everyone is racist to some degree. The only thing that’s a problem is the degree to which certain people are racist. I’ll throw out one generalization here: the people who care least about being called a racist when confronted—the ones who calmly explain their position on what they just said—are not a real problem because they have thought things through and have self-awareness, even if you don’t like their opinions. The public figures that go all apeshit and say “I don’t know why I said that” or “I’M NOT RACIST!” in a knee-jerk fashion were usually very obviously racist.

    1. I strongly agree in particular with your second paragraph. If you’re accused of some kind of insensitivity, why don’t you defend the thing you actually said rather than freak out and throw loaded words around? Even if I still don’t agree with your explanation, I’ll respect you a lot more for it. Once again, god forbid.

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