The “R” Word: The Use and Misuse of the Term “Racist”

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.

Anti-racist-rally-Sydney-2005-Dec-18-small
Anti-racist-rally-Sydney-2005  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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? 

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12 thoughts on “The “R” Word: The Use and Misuse of the Term “Racist”

  1. I personally don’t think the word racist is or should be off limits. I think that it is often misused in lieu of “bigoted” or “discrimination” or “racially charged” etc. My worry is in that regard, not so much whether one should or should not use that word.

    The fact of the matter is, like you illustrated in your post, the hurt feelings and perceived stigma of being called a racist or having your words or behavior called racist overshadows the actual conversation. And that needs to be changed. It allows the person in question yet another way to cop out or opt out of the conversation on racism, or even to stop and take a deep look at themselves.

    We live in a country who’s society has racism and its ramifications embedded right into it. To not acknowledge that fact, to shy away from talking about race and racism, to let a word become an agent to derail those things, is to lengthen the process towards equality and understanding.

    1. Awake BW,

      You take an interesting angle on the whole question. I hadn’t thought much about how using the words racist or racism “overshadows the actual conversation.” I agree that such words could give certain people occasion to change the topic from the error of their beliefs to the offense of the word itself. Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I like your article, and there is much truth in it. I am a white woman, and the word racist and all of its forms are caustic and unfortunately misused, but this is because of ignorance from White folks. I am of the belief that the word racism, race, or racist should not be off limits. We live in a world full of racism, and it’s our job to educate ourselves, enlighten, and fight against it. We should not fold into it like we have no choice but to assimilate. Our society pretends to be colorblind, but this is just hiding the truth. I feel being colorblind should be a thing of the past, and we should embrace race, empower the people, and learn to see color again.

  3. Tigerlillyorange,

    I agree that the words racist and racism are misused. I think it’s due to more than just “ignorance from White folks”, though. There are plenty of people on all sides of the color line who speak offensively in their ignorance, wouldn’t you agree?

    I also agree that “colorblind” is a myth. It washes out the beautiful diversity of God’s creation and serves as an easy way to ignore real differences and the issues–positive and negative–they bring up.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. I used the word “racist” in a twitter tweet, today before reading your post. But I said, “unintentional racist,” indicating that I did not think the statement to which I was responding was intentionally racist. I was an unintentional R-word user. So sorry!

    1. Didn’t see the tweet, but I think there are appropriate occasions to use the “r” word. Sounds like you’re being mindful of when you use it, and that’s the most important principle. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

      1. My tweet was a comment on another tweet: “@GeoffSurratt: I don’t hire people I’d avoid on my day off. (@Chris_Hodges) #ministryhangout”. Is this unintended racism?

        My thinking was that our stereotypes determine whom we avoid, and if we don’t practice self-examination, we may fall into patterns of avoidance of the unfamiliar, by default, i.e., unintentionally.

        When we use those same patterns in the hiring practice, we may unconsciously be breaking laws or practicing covert racism.

        I don’t know the people I quoted, and am not trying to cast aspersions on anyone or anyone’s motives. I just thought this might be a practice that needs further examination.

      2. Sounds like the original tweet meant that the person wouldn’t hire someone he didn’t like on a personal level. I can understand this having worked with people whose personalities I clashed with.

        But I think you’re right. We tend to enjoy the people who are most like us in various ways (education, values, income, proximity, etc.) Lots of times these groups become racially homogenous and the philosophy of “I don’t hire people I’d avoid on my day off” can reinforce this homogeneity. Just my two cents…

    2. How can something be unintentionally racist when racism itself implies an intent??? I didn’t see your original post but just from the sequence of the two words it seems like you either 1) sugar coated something that objectively was racist by it being “unintentional”, or 2) tried to paint something as racist even though it wasn’t, perhaps because it was simply offensive albeit accurate.

  5. Hello,

    I just ended up in a Facebook discussion that ended horribly. I have never engaged in a Facebook “fight” before but my conscience wouldn’t allow my silence in this case.

    I’m writing here because I believe that the word racist should never be labeled on someone that you are actively hoping will have a productive conversation and an introspective shift in ideology. I wanted to see if anyone had a fully formed opinion that follows that belief and I believe that yours does.

    With all of that said, I was shocked to see that when I attempted to respectfully challenge the idea of “white genocide” through multiculturalism and explained how the implementation of actions that could prevent it could only result in actions that would align them with those that they claimed do not share their views, they took my words simply as an indictment of “white supremacist” or “racist” even though I asked quite clearly that they clarify if that was in fact their meaning. One was a person that I’m not close to but hang out with occasionally and the other was a friend of hers. I had asked repeatedly that she clarify what that meant to her and received no reply before forming any opinion then I looked it up and saw that all the places that shared that opinion were focused on protecting the white lineage from other races (interracial marriages, and simply more races being in an area than “white” people).

    With all of that said, I went out of my way to be respectful and tried asking more questions than making conclusions and still…. her responses were a judgement against how I plan to raise my child and reducing my words to unintelligible yells of “racist”. At some point I asked if she had somehow mixed up the conversations but no… that is how she received my words.

    In a world like this, where people don’t even hear what the other is saying, should we even attempt to correct, dialog with, or reach out to those that you believe are wrong anymore? Or should we just try to raise awareness on more of a general level than personal?

    Many people close to me think that rather than try to reach her and convince her to re-evaluate her views, I should have raised valid points on her post for others to see and that would have been more effective…

    What is your opinion?

    1. Tiffany, thanks for your comment and your commitment to racial justice through dialogue. In short, “yes”, I believe we should attempt to correct and converse with those who we believe is wrong (and they should feel free to do the same with us!). But we have to recognize the limitations of social media. Very few people’s opinions have been swayed by a Facebook debate. As a general rule, I do not engage in a contentious debate online. I rarely respond at all to polemical arguments on anything I post. If I do respond, it is someone I know and in whom I have a vested interest. If it’s a simple matter of clarification or even agreeing to disagree it can usually be handled on social media. Anything beyond that I try to handle in a phone call or e-mail. Nevertheless, these things happen occasionally. Keep speaking the truth in love.

  6. Interesting article and discussion. I’m a 70 year old white guy raised by parents who demanded that I develop as an egalitarian….they taught me the word at nine.
    But… I have been called a racist just for my political and economic thoughts and positions. I get real tired of being called “–ist” this and “–phobe” that. What I am is a conservative “constitutional-ist”, a “rule-of-law-ist”, a “minimum-essential-government-ist”, and a libertarian “I-don’t-give-a-$hit–ist” on most social issues. I guess I’m a “racist” because I think the entire human race is superior….yep I am not a “vegan-ist”. I don’t have an irrational fear or “phobia” of anything but heights and clowns—including hypocritical, corrupt, divisive ones. I do have a very healthy and rational fear of: “elitist progressive-statist-ists” who want to control us; radical Islamist terrorists (see I said it) who want to kill us; the “BIG-ists” of government, crony capitalists, trial lawyer-ists, journalists, unionists, lobbyists, etc.; and, idiots who are apologists for damn near anything we hold dear.
    As for “racist”, I think the overuse tends to diminish and devalue the meaning. I use the word sparingly and reserve it for people such as Duke, Wallace, Hitler, etc, I prefer “racially insensitive”, “ignorant of meaning and impact”, perhaps even prejudiced and/or biased. I try to assess actions rather than words or appearances. I catch myself prejudging people in thuggish dress or manner, weird tattoos, etc. I am often incorrect and embarassed; but often correct and justified. But I have been called racist for the simple human trait, and perhaps fault, of prejudging.

    An interesting article here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/07/time-to-retire-the-word-racist

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