I constantly find myself threading the needle between two worlds: one thoroughly liberal and protected by the thick film of the Yale bubble, and the other in my hometown within the Deep South, where Donald Trump and his shamelessly divisive rhetoric reign supreme.
In both, racists abound.
This is not a column setting out to prove the insidious racism of New England is just as problematic as the more apparent racism of the South — though trust me that such arguments can be and have been written. Rather, I’d like to posit that the knee-jerk instinct to use the word “racist” at all is more an act of self-defense than a genuine act of concern. In other words, this is a column for white people who call other white people racist to feel good about being white.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am, of course, a racist.
This is extremely hard for people to admit. But if we accept the term “racist” to mean simply someone with racial prejudice, then we all — to some degree — meet this standard. No one can seriously deny ever having a single prejudiced thought cross their mind or having supported an inherently racist institution, no matter how many times one has read Lorde or Baldwin.
And if we further acknowledge that everyone born with the ability to see race is in fact a racist, then the term as a tool of categorization renders itself meaningless. So instead of forcing a false dichotomy between racists and non-racists, it may be more helpful to think of racism not as a divider between good and evil but as a spectrum somewhere along which we have all landed.
Why does this distinction matter?
First, calling another person a racist implies that some finish line exists, that eventually we will somehow be able to convert all the racists to non-racists. That you yourself have finished this journey and the other person needs to hurry up and rid themselves of racist thoughts so they can be pure — just like you.
What baloney. It is justifiable and even encouraged to call out another person for engaging in racism, but putting a holier-than-thou barrier between yourself and the other person helps no one. This is a shared struggle.
I’ll even go so far as to say that we’ll never get to a place in which every facet of racism has been stripped away from this world. Our legacy of hatred is simply too strong. That said, our world today is unrecognizable from that of my grandparents’ generation, and hopefully our grandchildren will continue to chip away at racism in ways that we never could have imagined. But this journey never ends. It is a constant struggle, and no one is over the finish line.
Second, relying on the word “racist” to separate yourself from others implies that racism is an identity, not a idea. If racism is an idea that plagues us all, then even the most prejudiced among us have the agency to cast it aside. But allowing someone to claim the absence of prejudice as an identity grants self-proclaimed non-racists free range to say and do entirely racist things.
Ultimately, we’re talking about getting rid of ideas, not people. Activists last semester pushed for more ethnic studies courses at Yale not because they thought doing so would eliminate racists from campus. Rather, students argued that engaging with a more complex version of our history and culture would move a person further away from racism and toward some better alternative. In short, everyone had the ability to improve.
Once you make the switch to viewing prejudice as a spectrum, you’ll realize how powerful using “racism” or even “racist actions” instead of the term “racist” can be. It requires demands that lesser-racists engage in self-reflection and endows the far-more-racists with the ability to make modest improvements without getting defensive. It allows those in my grandparents’ generation, who still think racism means burning crosses or segregating water fountains, to understand how much further we still have to go and that they can admit these shortcomings without admitting they are fundamentally bad people.
“Racist” is an identity. “Racism” is something we have agency in casting off. Calling someone else a racist may be good for your ego, but it does little to make progress on racial justice. Everyone is a racist. Everyone struggles. Some just struggle with racism more than others.
Here’s the bitter truth: I’m a racist. So are you. Now what are we going to do about it?
Tyler Blackmon is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .