You Are Racist and You Always Will Be

Matt Damon recently decided to explain diversity on Project Greenlight to the only black person in the room.
Matt Damon recently decided to explain diversity on Project Greenlight to the only black person in the room.

I used to say there were no true ethnic slurs for white people. Sure, there are “cracker” and “honky” and my personal favorite, “Wonder bread,” but I’m willing to bet the number of white people who have been called those names and ended up with a dark night of the soul contemplating how society dehumanizes them is very small. I was wrong, though, because it turns out there is a slur for white people.

It’s “racist.” As Key and Peele pointed out, “racist is the n-word for white people.”

People are literally driven mad by the implication that anything they enjoy might have racist aspects, and that they might be racist for enjoying them. Nothing will cause a white person to storm out in a rage more than calling him or her a racist. It is a word that has developed the same emotional baggage as a slur.

I understand why. We have finally as a society agreed that judging people based on their skin color is wrong. The acme of modern evil was a racist dictator who exterminated people because of their ethnicity. Racism is bad.

This idea is very, very recent. In terms of our species, it just happened a second ago. It’s progress, but you can’t magically undo centuries of unabashed and openly enthusiastic white supremacy overnight or even over decades.

That supremacy is how the word “racist” developed a power similar to that of the n-word. Call a white person a racist and we immediately sense the specter of a whip-holding slave-owner looming over our shoulder and we get a gut-sick feeling about it. It’s not even as fractionally bad, I’m sure, as being reminded of a time when your ancestors were on the other end of this whip scenario, but it’s a whole new pain that a demographic is not used to feeling nonetheless.

The usual response to this is denial. Sometimes literally, like trying to downplay or erase the effect race has had on American history in our schoolbooks. More often, people claim that we live in a post-racist world with racial inequality left behind. I mean, America can’t be racist. We have a black president, right? There’s your proof.

But you are. So am I. Everyone is, and likely always will be.

I’m going to borrow an idea from Ian Danskin’s Why Are You So Angry? for a moment. Racist isn’t a person. It’s a condition, like being drunk. In gaming terms, it’s a status effect, not a character class. It’s something you do, not something you are. When we hear the word “racist,” we picture something like the Ku Klux Klan, but that just defines the extreme end of the spectrum of racism, sort of like how getting blackout drunk and crashing your car defines the extreme end of the spectrum of alcohol abuse.

Holding onto that cartoonishly evil definition of racism is what makes white people so defensive about the word because if that’s your definition of racism, then being accused of racism is like being accused of being a lynch-happy hatemonger. The problem is that hooded figures aren’t the face of modern racism.

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Our dragon is largely invisible to us. I doubt that many officers sit around and express a desire to kill black people, but that doesn’t change the fact that blacks make up 29 percent of police fatalities despite being only 13 percent of the population.

Racism is everywhere, but it’s not open most of the time. Since we hold onto that KKK image as racist and we aren’t that, we wave off systemic inequality as something else. I’m always told there must be another explanation, but I’m never told the actual explanation.

There was a study awhile back that looked at how we perceive the physical pain others feel. Subjects were given a photo of a person and rated what they thought the pain level was that person would feel from various scenarios on a one-to-four scale. Most subjects rated the pain level of blacks as less than that of whites even if the subjects were black themselves. The idea that blacks feel less pain goes all the way back to slavery, where it was used to justify harsh beatings. That’s how institutional racial attitudes are. Ideas like this persist in the minds of us all, black and white, without us even knowing it, decades, even centuries after they were introduced.

There is no sticker you can wear that will absolve you of racism. You can have black children and still be a racist. Thousands of slave owners did and were. You can vote for Ben Carson and still be one. You can say “Black Lives Matter” and still be one. You can be black and still say racist things toward blacks like Herman Cain did.

Because, again, being racist is a condition like being drunk. Ads tell us to drink responsibly, but we also have to think responsibly. Listen to the bartender when he or she says you have had enough and listen when you’re told, “That was racist.” The first doesn’t mean you’re a lush and the second doesn’t exile you to the land of the unrepentant bigots with a Scarlet R forever. It just means, “Consider how what you’re doing might affect those around you.”

The only way we’ve come this far is by slowly addressing racism one bit at a time, and that largely means addressing the little things we say and do that fill the cultural air with pollution. It’s not our fault that we participate unconsciously in a racist world we inherited, but it is our problem to deal with if we’re not going to leave that same world to future generations.


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