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You’re not “a racist”; you’re just racist

This past weekend I was chatting with a friend of mine about a variety of topics, including the tragic shootings in Norway. He was trying to establish that the event was an isolated incident by one crazy person, while I was suggesting that those kinds of things don’t happen in a vacuum. I pointed to a parallel argument I had when it comes to hate groups like Blood and Honour – the extremists are often the outliers of a group that holds similar views but would stop short of violence.

His response was fairly typical: “well there are always going to be some racists out there, but that doesn’t mean everyone is responsible.”

He was wrong, for reasons that I discuss in the linked post above, but it was the language he used that particularly irked me. “Some racists” is not a phrase I could ever see myself using, except in an unthinking moment. Not only is it an unwieldy phrase that could be convicted for abuse of the English language, it tips its hand as to how deeply the speaker misunderstands the origins and mechanisms of racism. I’ve touched on this discussion before, but I would like to talk explicitly about why this phrase is either a) meaningless, or b) profoundly ignorant.

First, we must revisit our operational definition of racism. Please note that I am using the term ‘operational definition’ intentionally – I use this definition for my own purposes, but it means many different things to different people. I think that my definition is the most accurate I’ve come across (obviously), but others would disagree. The chief component of my definition is that racism happens when attitudes or beliefs about a racial group are ascribed to an individual. Essentially, it makes the assumption that a person’s racial background provides sufficient information to predict their behaviours, which is not supported by evidence. This is to say nothing of the fact that the attitudes or beliefs about a group could be (and often are) fundamentally flawed.

It becomes fairly clear, when we consider this definition, that all people are potentially susceptible to this kind of heuristic thinking. I am sure that I have gone on rants about what “conservatives” do and do not believe, when conservativism does not necessitate given beliefs on any topic – rather conservative thinking tends to lead to a cluster of beliefs, many of which are often shared by those that describe themselves as “conservative”. It is a cognitive shortcut, but one that oversimplifies a process that is important to understand – what the mental scaffolding supporting conservative beliefs (or liberal beliefs) is. Simply labeling people as “conservatives” masks that thought process, putting effect in the place of cause.

Similarly, I rankle whenever someone uses the phrase “a racist”, because it commits the same error. Racism is a cognitive process, and as such exists as the engine behind actions and attitudes, rather than their essential component. Calling someone “a racist” suggests that there is some kind of binary state of ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’ in which people can exist. It supposes further that when someone performs an action or voices an attitude that is itself racist, that it is their existence in the first of these binary conditions that is primarily responsible – as though there is something organically racist within them that doesn’t exist in the general population. You know, the general population of ‘not racists’.

Of course it’s trivially easy to recognize the fallacious thinking at work here. All we have to do is look back over the last few decades and note the monumental rate of spontaneous remission that happened in ‘racists’. A sudden seroconversion that has removed all the malignant racist cells and replaced them with healthy non-racistocytes. Or, perhaps racism isn’t quite so simple as that. When we see racism as simply a product of human cognitive shortcuts, the idea of being “a racist” starts to fall apart. After all, if we’re all susceptible to racist thoughts and behaviours (that are, for most of us, subconscious), then can anyone be described as “not racist”? Does it exist on some kind of continuum like the DSM where people that exhibit a certain pattern of behaviour can be diagnosed with “racist personality disorder”?

No. Racism is best understood as the product of ideas, both conscious and unconscious, about other people, and our tendency to try and reduce people to convenient labels (like… oh, I dunno… ‘a racist’). I can certainly understand why people like to use this term, because it allows them to preserve their self-concept of being a good person and scapegoat racist activities as the product of “racists”. Once blame has been assigned in this way, then the speaker can dust her/his hands off and say “it’s not my problem – I’m not a racist.” However, that simply means the problems never get solved, because the only people whose self-concept allows them to brand themselves as being “a racist” are proud of that appellation.

This is why I am in favour of using my own definition of racism, because it renders the idea of being ‘a racist’ completely ridiculous. While it may be convenient to describe people as being ‘a racist’, it distracts from what is actually happening behind the scenes in such a way as to increase societal inertia when it comes to dealing with race issues. It is far more accurate and useful to think of racism as a set of cognitive conditions that encourage a certain kind of behaviour – conditions that are present in us all. What this allows us to do is confront our own biases – no matter how uncomfortable they might make us – and in so doing, make positive changes to minimize the harms they may cause.

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