We Asked, You Answered: When Should We Call Something 'Racist'?
Some people hear that word and picture a hood-wearing, cross-burning bigot. Others think more abstractly — they hear racist and think of policies, institutions, laws and language.
As journalists, we're constantly trying to balance the different uses of the term in a way that will make sense to all of our listeners and readers. But in the era of proposed border walls and Muslim bans and "shithole countries" and "hell in the inner cities," it's getting harder and harder, as one of our listeners put it, not to "call a racist spade a racist spade."
On this week's Code Switch podcast episode, we spoke with NPR's standards and practices editor Mark Memmott about when it's appropriate to call something racist. We also interviewed Phillip Atiba Goff, who helps police departments across the country confront racism. You can listen to their takes here.
And then we started to get your takes. In less than 24 hours, we got dozens of emails. Here are excerpts from some of the ones that got us thinking:
Kelli Stowe, in Winston-Salem, N.C., says she was "dumbfounded" by the idea that many journalists are hesitant to use the word racist:
"In today's society, we always hear about how people (liberals, to be more specific) are too sensitive. We hear about how people can't say anything without someone taking offense to it, and how this world is now too 'PC'. ...
I say all of that to say how ironic it is that calling someone (or their words/actions) racist is somehow unacceptable. As a black woman, I am often faced with words and coded language that is stereotypical, racist and just plain insensitive."
Isaiah Johnson in Cambridge, Mass., says he uses the word racism to refer to the "history and social structures surrounding race," not to defame someone's character. But many of his peers don't agree:
"Even with an explanatory comma, I almost always get responses like, 'Well I just don't define racism that way.' Even when I push for why that's a more useful definition, I'm still met with, 'But I don't feel that that's how it's generally defined.' How do I get around that?"
Sandy Nichols Thiam, who lives in Barcelona, Spain, said that, instead of scrambling to call individuals racist, journalists need to go further to put news and information into context:
"A huge part of [President Trump's] power is his ability to make us all jump. He uses outrageous inflammatory words and we all spend two weeks repeating them, only slightly secretly delighted to be swearing in public. What else is going on? Why does Haiti face the challenges that it does? Gosh ... does U.S. policy have anything to do with that?"
Some listeners were worried about overusing the word. Pete Connolly of Washington, D.C., says he supports calling things racist, but wonders where to draw the line:
"It strikes me that most of our world, and certainly the United States, is racist in one way or another. Should we go through the days just proclaiming 'that's racist' to everything? I'd probably be okay with that, but I think there is a lot of power in that word, and that power has value. Using it too much may make some people feel too comfortable in their racism."
Others leaned more toward the importance of normalizing the term. Amy Wagoner, in Philadelphia, shared her strategy:
"We know that racism is all around us and we are all swimming in it. I am a teacher and in my school when we are trying to approach these tough conversations, we sometimes say things like 'your racism is showing' which is just a friendlier way of acknowledging that we all have it, because our culture has it so deeply embedded. None of us is free of the task of examining our assumptions, many of which turn out to have racist roots."
Dan Miller in Catonsville, Md., says we need to be clear about saying what we mean:
"I am annoyed when I hear the term 'racially charged.' It's putting an unnecessary burden on listeners to make us substitute the word 'racist' into the place of 'racially charged,' because what else could that phrase mean? Obviously it just means racist. So just say that."
Nehemiah Legiste in Brooklyn says we also need to be clear about who journalists are serving when they avoid the word:
"We are terrified to use the word racist because we think we'll lose white people in that conversation. That in and of itself should let us know how we cower to white supremacy.
I am a 28 year old black man, and the only people I know who shudder at the word racist are white folks. It's important to say that as we move forward because if we don't, we play this 'both sideism' in that it portrays reluctance to use the word 'racist' as something across all spectrums when, it's really to genuflect to white people."
Got more thoughts about when to call something racist? We want to hear your thoughts. Email CodeSwitch@npr.org with the subject line "The R-Word."
General questions about race, identity and culture? Fill out this form.
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