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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  1. Lotharloo says

    I’m not sure if I buy the definition completely.

    I agree that assigning attributes to an individual or individuals based on his/her/their membership in a group is a cognitive shortcut and many times it is unpleasant and offensive to that individual. And I agree it is also a big part of many actions that is commonly called racist but I am not convinced why it should be the definition of racism.

    And also, I am not sure if you understand your definition correctly.

    You mention “random” security checks at the airports which target brown people more and thus by your definition this is a racist policy. I also assume you believe that because of it, that is wrong. However, even if there is no official statement on brown looking people being checked more often, the policy makes complete sense in a mathematical way: If you look at threats of terrorism as random possibilities, the probabilities are not the same when you factor in appearance, which includes ethnic background. Since you can easily survey a large group of people based on appearance, and if you have limited resources to detect such threats and save lives, why should you divide them equally among groups that represent unequal amount of threats?

    Here’s another example: You are a woman walking alone at night and a stranger approaches you and tries to talk to you. Based on his gender (male) and his ethnic background (brown/black/etc) you decide to run and call for help. By your definition we should call the behavior racist (and maybe even sexist).

    Now, if you think about the two examples, do the people in the airport security assume that the random brown person they pulled out of the queue is a terrorist? No. They do not assign a trait (terrorist) based on ethnicity (middle-eastern looking). The same with the second example. Did the woman think that the individual was a rapist based on gender and race? No. She did not do that. In all these examples, the reason behind the action is safety and the fact that when you factor in information that you gain by looking at people (race, gender, approximate age, etc.) and when you categorize people based on such information, different groups of people represent different levels of threat. It does not mean that you automatically assign the stereotype to the individual. It just means that your reactions reflect that change in probability. So, I wouldn’t call random security checks that target more middle-easterns “racist” by your definition, even if I don’t completely buy your definition.

  2. aje says

    This is wonderful. I’ve had similar views for some time now regarding many undesirable social/cognitive behaviors (or whatever they should be called) or tendencies. This sort of absolute, hyperbolic all-or-nothing good or evil relegating is dangerous, in my opinion. If we decide all pedophiles are jittery, weird-looking Law & Order monsters whose entire existence, record collection, apartment decor, daily routine, and sneaker choice is based upon the desire to molest kids, we stop noticing troubling behavior by friends or relatives that “just couldn’t do something like that, it’s Uncle Bob!” So, we define and categorize bad elements of society and people into monstrous caricatures that rarely exist (or rather, are much rarer than their human beings with serious faults/problems counterparts) and end up doing less and less to improve anything. Being racist isn’t the same as being Byron De La Beckwith, but if we believe only one exists, we’re making everything worse. Intentional ignorance/delusion can’t be an excuse. You don’t get absolution if you look away when you the gun you fired off to the side hits somebody.

  3. Santiago says

    I was a bit stunned when I read your definition of racism since that is the *exact* definition I came up with about a year or so ago. I’m actually a bit surprised that it isn’t considered the actual definition (generally when I get an ‘original’ idea I assume, from experience, that it’s an old one that everyone was aware of except me).

    As for #1 up there, you are correct. Singling out brown people for extra screening at airports and getting freaked out by a black man at night are *absolutely* racist. I don’t have the time to write up all that is wrong about the “screen for brown people at airports” idea but I suggest you look up the Sam Harris debate on the issue, which should be sufficient to show that it’s a terrible idea.

    As for the “woman being approached by a black man at night” thing, yep, it’s both racist and sexist. It goes back to the crux of the matter, which is that you should not judge individuals by the beliefs you hold about the group they belong to . Instead you should judge individuals by their own actions and histories. There are plenty of ways you might suspect a person means harm to you and none of them have to involve physical appearance.

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