You might call it dropping the “R” bomb. But no matter what you label it, few words in our culture cause as much controversy as the “R” word: Racist.
I talk and write about race-related matters a lot–mostly in regard to the Gospel and the church in America (for example, here, here, and here). I’ve found that not many topics in our day are as caustic as race, and within the broader topic of race the words “racist” and “racism” are particularly explosive. Most words are arrows that pierce their target. The “R” word is a scud missile that completely obliterates its object.
A Potentially Hazardous Word
Too many people fail to realize the power of the word “racist.” They toss it around like a kid playing with a loaded gun. A lack of respect for this word and its effects can prove fatal to a relationship. Many a friendship has been the casualty of lackadaisical linguistics.
To be a racist in America today is to commit one of the cardinal cultural sins. The word dredges up images of trees with dead, Black bodies swinging from them, memories of phrases like “For Whites Only” and “Colored Entrance in Back”, and sounds of snapping whips and clanking chains. To be a racist is to be on the wrong side of justice, equality, righteousness, and time.
The “R” word is also hazardous because calling someone a racist assaults their identity, their very being. We often say, “You’re a racist” or “You’re being racist.” And both uses bring a person’s character and essence into question. They cast a negative light on a person’s entire disposition and portray a complex person in broad, simplistic terms. But even attempts to soften its use by calling someone’s beliefs or ideas racist hardly helps. The word is radioactive.
A Potentially Helpful (or at Least Accurate) Word OR How to Appropriately Handle the “R” Word
Even with the potentially harmful effects of the “R” word, I don’t think saying it should be abandoned entirely. It seems as if we’ve become so averse to the word “racist” that there’s never a time to use it. But are we really so enlightened that we don’t struggle with racism anymore? I don’t think so.
Sometimes a person holds racist beliefs. They believe certain characteristics are inherent to a whole group of people based on their skin color. It may be unwise to call a person an unqualified racist, but it might be accurate to single out specific beliefs or attitudes as racist.
Racist beliefs are a reality. And where they are present using the “R” word should be an option. Racist has specific implications and connotations that don’t always apply, but they can apply sometimes. Not every thought, negative or positive, about a certain group of people is racist. On the other hand, those thoughts may not be completely unrelated to race either. Racist, racism, or race should be accessible words when the context calls for them. Avoiding the word altogether does not eradicate the reality of racism.
Words Are a Heart Issue
Even though the “R” word proves especially volatile in our culture all words have the potential for abuse. One’s speech is a heart issue. The Bible says all words come from the heart. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
But at times racist can be the most truthful description. The Bible puts a high premium on truth-telling when it says, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16). And in Ephesians it says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (4:25).
So, because this topic is so sensitive, let me be clear:
1) Dont’ use the word “racist” if you can use any other word to truthfully convey your point. Try with all your might to find another word that may be more precise.
2) Don’t eject the word “racist” from your vocabulary just because it is powerful. Sometimes the “R” word is the best one to communicate a certain idea. Although we need to use it with caution, we should still be able to use it. Even then, try to apply it to a person’s attitudes or beliefs, rather than their entire being.
Whether we’re talking about the “R” word or any other word speech must always be oriented toward upbuilding. Any of our words, all of our words should be used to build up instead of tear down. But we need to allow for the fact that building up may look like graciously avoiding a term that can be misused and misunderstood. Or building up could mean using a potent and painful term to carry a message of rebuke and repentance.
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
Discussion Question: What are your thoughts on using the word “racist”? Is it always off limits? Is it ever appropriate?