A New Language of Racism

We’ve made one important quantum leap in regards to race relations. Society now frowns upon overt racism. To be a racist is to be attached with a stigma. When you’re labelled a racist, people employ an ad hominem fallacy and extrapolate that nothing else you say can be trusted. People don’t want the stigma attached to them. People avoid being called a racist. They refuse to call themselves racist.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon that I don’t see get much focus. This might be because it’s fairly modern. People will say very plainly racist things, and then refuse to believe that they are racist. There’s a strange cognitive dissonance in effect, and I believe it’s because of the stigma attached to overt racism. People don’t like to believe that they are racists because racists are bad.

The interesting thing about modern racism is that people can act racist without realizing that they are being racist. This may sound surprising, but it isn’t if we analogize it with other mental states. For example, you can act a certain way because you are feeling jealous, but at the moment, you’re not thinking about jealousy. It’s only when you retrospect that you may attribute your actions to jealousy. Of course, someone can also falsely attribute your actions as jealously, when you were really acting on other impulses. Or, your motives may be mixed.

Racism isn’t simple anymore. It may no longer be useful to outright call someone a “racist.” After all, a person can be jealous, without being a jealous person — without jealousy clouding all their actions. I’m proposing that it may be more appropriate to make racism more like a mental state. Or, we could use racist to refer to certain actions and thoughts.

I don’t know how useful that actually is, but it’s something to seriously consider. I’ll repeat it once more: Racism isn’t simple anymore. I’ll present an even more bizarre scenario that is more common in our modern times. I believe that if we think hard, we can probably find people who are racist towards some black people but not racist towards others. Can you truly call this person racist? I say that people can be racist towards a minority group in some contexts, but not in other contexts. Are these people “racists”? There’s something seriously flawed in our usage of the word. That’s why I believe it may be more useful to apply the term racist to specific instances and mental states, rather than to a person as a whole.

That’s not to say that there aren’t racists, as we traditionally perceive them, but like I said, our society doesn’t like overt racism. These people, such as the KKK, have been pushed to the margins of society. I don’t think mainstream America is full of racist people, like the KKK is. Still, I believe racism is a problem. The solution is that we need to redefine racism. People can act racist without necessarily being a racist. Maybe we can introduce a new word.

Perhaps I can also make another distinction for the modern racial lexicon: “Racially offensive.” I’m sure there’s a better way to phrase it, but it’s what came to my mind first. My proposed distinction is that things can be racially offensive without someone ever having the intention of being racist, not even a latent racist sentiment. People must understand that context, especially historical context, can make things seem racist even when the author doesn’t intend it. Yet, such authors should still be held culpable for their negligence. If it’s obvious to most black people that a certain ad is racially offensive, there’s obviously something wrong with the ad even if you can’t figure it out at the time. Just because you didn’t intend for it to be racist, doesn’t mean it’s not racially offensive. You should listen to other people.

Finally, I’m ambivalent on the issue of PC culture. On the one hand, I don’t think it helps because it drives racism into the shadows, and we need to put it in the light if we want it fixed. In addition, it produces blowback. On the other hand, I find myself trying to correct people who use “gay” in a derogatory context.

In the meantime, I’ll mull over my thoughts on the lexicon of racism.