Argument Clinic: Calling People “Racist”

This is an emergency public service announcement from Argument Clinic!

Is this the right room for an argument?

Is this the right room for an argument?

I see a lot of discussion on various news sources as to whether or not so-and-so is a racist, or such and such. It is poor strategy to engage in such a discussion unless you plan to win it. To explain further…

Jay Smooth:


I hardly need to add to what Jay has already explained so well. However, in the context of argument clinic, there are some take-away points worth emphasizing:

It is bad strategy to call your opponent a “racist” when you can use the same amount of breath and time to succinctly say how what they did or said was racist. During the pathetic 2016 election cycle we saw so many examples of this strategic failure: “Donald Trump is a sexist” or “Breitbart Guy is a racist.” No! Say “Trump sees women that he has any power over as fair targets for sexual assault” is 13 words, whereas “Trump is a sexist” is 4. Talk a little faster, say a little more.

In terms of argument clinic this is a form of labelling and all of the strategic analysis applied to labelling maps 100%. If you are attacked by being labelled as a racist, you would break that hold using verbal nihilism: “What exactly do you mean by ‘racist'” and lead your opponent into a swamp of definitions. If you are on the attack, simply don’t use labelling and – as Jay Smooth says – take them down for what they said or did and ignore analyzing what they are.


  1. Siobhan says


    It’s like, the complaint of Trump supporters tired of being called racist is only half-valid. It’s like, sure, annoying and unproductive to have brief labels chucked about like that. But, you know, you were still indifferent enough to Trump’s suspicion and denigration of Mexicans that it didn’t bother you.

  2. invivoMark says

    I’m reminded of a post by Ian Cromwell back when he was on this blog that discussed calling someone a racist vs. saying that their actions or beliefs were racist. I can’t find the blog post itself (if it even still exists anywhere on the Internet), but his opinions can be read in this blog-interview:

    Essentially, Ian says that it is meaningless to call someone “a racist,” because racism is an action. I’m not sure I totally agree (and I think explaining my disagreement would inevitably get stuck in the Swamp of Definitions), but his post made me think. Everyone is racist and sexist, insofar as we harbor (often subconscious) racist and sexist prejudices, expectations, and act differently toward people of different races and sexes. And that’s probably not something that can ever be fixed, and we have to be okay with that. But there are bad consequences to that prejudice, and the sooner everyone recognizes that, the sooner we can start fixing things.

    The most frustrating thing I hear in an argument is the sarcastic line, “Well, if ______ is sexist/racist, then everything must be sexist/racist.” Fucking yes! Everything is sexist/racist! Now let’s sit down and sort out what’s problematic and how we can fix it.

  3. John Morales says

    Like any label, it only works if (a) one accepts the validity of the labelling, and (2*) one accepts the significance of the label.

    (And, perversity being what it is, there exists option (c) of revelling in being labelled thus)


    The most frustrating thing I hear in an argument is the sarcastic line, “Well, if ______ is sexist/racist, then everything must be sexist/racist.” Fucking yes! Everything is sexist/racist! Now let’s sit down and sort out what’s problematic and how we can fix it.

    Such futility!

    (You can’t fix reality, you can only accept it)

    For me, labelling and epithets are an irrelevance to an argument; their significance is meta, expressing an opinion and no more.

    2(a) — it’s seen as a bad thing by oneself; or
    2(b) — it’s seen as a bad thing for one’s reputation.

  4. says

    I don’t think you can address anyone’s inherent racism any more than you can read their minds. Racism (and many other types of prejudice, such as misogyny and homophobia) is a thought crime, and as such, impossible to fight.

    What can be fought, within certain limits, are racist actions. Physical violence, threats, different levels of verbal abuse. I don’t really care if you hate me internally, as long as that hate doesn’t present itself by harming me or the people I care about.

    Even within those margins, there are levels. You can’t react to all acts of discrimination in the same way. Sometimes a friendly “dude, don’t say that!” is more than enough, sometimes you really need to flip your shit to get the point across. Figuring out which is which is necessary for the topic to be taken as seriously as possible. Flipping your shit about a halloween costume makes you a ridiculous person, being lukewarm to a person getting beat up makes you heartless and kinda useless. Having the right response to the right situation is important.

    Within this framework, is being called “racist” supposed to be a big deal? Or is it just another meaningless adjective to throw around willy-nilly, like “fat” or “socialist”? Because if it’s the former, “diluting” the word, as many people say, may not be a great idea in the long run. If it’s the later, then you’ll need extra context to make a meaningful point, other than “you’re racist, and therefore wrong”.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    Thanks, Dunc! (And invivoMark.) That’s the one I remember; it has stuck with me since I read it. And I bring the concept up ever time a thread devolves into the minutiae of whether X person is a racist. “But, but I have black friends” is not a get-out-of-racism-free card. So I try not to label people as racist, only actions (including speech). Although there are some people for whom it is perverse to withhold provisional labeling.

  6. says

    The point is not really whether labelling someone racist or not is fair, or whether the other guys do the same thing, or whether maybe you should just grow a set and realize that it’s a generalization.

    The point is this: Keep it up, and you’re gonna get a 2-term Trump presidency. Tone *does* matter, being right does not.

    Here’s a related example. Homeless people often don’t say “thank you” when they’re given something, especially at a soup kitchen or similar. Sometimes it’s because they are drug-addled sociopaths. Often, though, it is because they’re simply exhausted. Socially, they should say thank you 100 times a day, because they have nothing and everything they eat and use throoughout the day is a gift, for which the giver, really, ought to be thanked. Try saying “thank you” for every single thing, every single day, for years.

    Imagine being a cop, or a coal miner, or a white person, and every day being innundated with the message that you’re a racist, or a sexist, or just plain dumb. No, not YOU, but your group. “Maybe if we put some pumpkin spice in it, white women will care” on a sign at a protest on TV. Sure, today the white woman gets it, and she shrugs it off. But every god damned day, for a decade, she might just poke the Trump button in the voting booth, because, god damn it she tries hard to be a decent person and she still gets crapped on, and shouldn’t she get *some* credit, so in a fit of pique, fuck you guys.

    The left won the culture war, and now we’re being dicks about it. All those people who are kind of on our side, but haven’t fully drunk the koolaid are pretty sick of being shouted at for not being ideologically pure enough.

    If you haven’t, read Orwell’s Farewell to Catalonia. The left ate itself in a frenzy of purification, and the fascists walked in to pick up the pieces and wound up running Spain for decades. Way to go, purists.

  7. says

    Thanks for the reference to Crommunist’s post. He’s still a tough act to follow.

    A Lurker from mexico@#4:
    What can be fought, within certain limits, are racist actions.

    Yes! If you can’t refer to a specific action then all you’re doing is hypothesizing, and your opponent can always simply deny and obfuscate. That’s why Smooth and Crommunist (and I) recommend not trying to engage in the “You’re a racist” discussion.

    I think there may be one axis where that attack could be effective, but it’s still weak. What if you pause in your discussion and ask your opponent, “are you a racist?” Of course it’s weak because they can just say “no!”

  8. polishsalami says

    Racism is a structural phenomenon. “Racialist” and “bigot” are more accurate descriptors of what most people call “racism” these days.

    So far I’ve seen a lot of demonization of Trump voters from “Social Justice” folks, but very little reflection on how Clinton and the DNC managed to fuck this up, or whether ‘Hey white people, we don’t need you anymore!’ is a good strategy to win elections when 63% of voters identify as white.

    CONFESSION: The commie in me tells me that all this identity stuff — promoted mainly by wealthy liberals — is just a distraction from massive inequality and exploitation.