How to Tell If You've Been Unintentionally Racist

Sociology Sheds Light on How Racism Manifests in Everyday Actions

Children dressed as Indians unintentionally perpetuate racism.
Cultura RM Exclusive/Hybrid Images

In the aftermath of the presidential election of 2016, many people have experienced relationship blowouts with friends, family, romantic partners, and colleagues over accusations of racism. Many of those who voted for Donald Trump have found themselves accused of being racist, as well as sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic. Those making the accusations feel this way because they associate these forms of discrimination with the candidate himself, on account of statements he made and behaviors he displayed throughout the campaign, and the likely outcomes of policies and practices that he supports. But many of those accused find themselves confused and angry at the accusation, and feel that exercising their right to vote for the political candidate of their choice does not make them a racist, nor any other form of oppressor.

So, who is in the right? Does voting for a certain political candidate make someone a racist? Can our actions be racist even though we don't mean them to be?

Let's consider these questions from a sociological standpoint and draw on social science theory and research to answer them.

Dealing With the R Word

When people are accused of being a racist in today's United States they often experience this accusation as an attack on their character. Growing up, we are taught that being racist is bad. It is considered among the worst crimes ever committed on U.S. soil, in the forms of genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans and their descendants, violence and segregation during the Jim Crow era, Japanese internment, and the fierce and violent resistance shown by many to integration and the 1960s movement for Civil Rights, to name just a handful of notable cases.

The way that we learn this history suggests that formal, institutional racism—that enforced by law—is a thing of the past. It follows, then, that the attitudes and behaviors among the wider population that worked to enforce racism through informal means is also (mostly) a thing of the past too. We are taught that racists were bad people who lived in our history, and because of that, the problem is largely behind us.

So, it's understandable that when a person is accused of racism today, it seems a ghastly thing to say, and a nearly unspeakable thing to say directly to a person. This is why, since the election, as this accusation has been hurled between family members, friends, and loved ones, relationships have blown up over social media, text, and in person. In a society that prides itself in being diverse, inclusive, tolerant, and color blind, calling someone a racist is one of the worst insults that can be made. But lost in these accusations and blowups is what racism actually means in today's world, and the diversity of forms that racist actions take.

What Racism Is Today

Sociologists believe that racism exists when ideas and assumptions about racial categories are used to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy that unjustly limits access to power, resources, rights, and privileges to some on the basis of race, while at the same time giving unjust amounts of those things to others. Racism also occurs when this kind of unjust social structure is produced by the failure to account for race and the force it exerts in all aspects of society, both historically and today.

By this definition of racism, a belief, worldview, or an action is racist when it supports the continuance of this kind of racially imbalanced system of power and privilege. So if you want to know whether an action is racist, then the question to ask about it is: Does it help to reproduce a racial hierarchy that gives some more power, privileges, rights, and resources than others, on the basis of race?

Framing the question this way means that a variety of different kinds of thoughts and actions can be defined as racist. These are hardly limited to overt forms of racism that are highlighted in our historical narrative on the problem, like physical violence, using racial slurs, and plainly discriminating against people on the basis of race. By this definition, racism today often takes much more subtle, nuanced, and even hidden forms.

To test this theoretical understanding of racism, let's examine some cases in which behavior or actions might have racist consequences, even though a person doesn't identify as a racist or intend for their actions to be racist.

Dressing As an Indian for Halloween

People who grew up in the 1970s or 80s are very likely to have seen kids dressed as "Indians" (Native Americans) for Halloween, or have gone as one at some point during their childhood. The costume, which draws on stereotypical portrayals of Native American culture and dress, including feathered headdresses, leather, and fringe clothing, remains fairly popular today and is widely available for men, women, children, and babies from a wide range of costume suppliers. No longer limited to Halloween, elements of the costume have become popular and common elements of outfits worn by attendees of music festivals across the U.S.

While it's unlikely that anyone who wears such a costume, or dresses their child in one, intends to be racist, dressing as an Indian for Halloween is not as innocent as it may seem. That's because the costume itself acts as a racial stereotype—it reduces an entire race of people, one composed of a diverse array of culturally distinct groups, to a small collection of physical elements. Racial stereotypes are dangerous because they play a crucial role in the social process of marginalizing groups of people on the basis of race, and in most cases, stripping those people of their humanity and reducing them to objects. The stereotypical image of the Indian in particular tends to fix Native Americans in the past, suggesting that they are not an important part of the present. This works to divert attention away from systems of economic and racial inequality that continue to exploit and oppress Native Americans today. For these reasons, dressing as an Indian for Halloween, or wearing any kind of costume that is composed of racial stereotypes, is in fact an act of racism.

All Lives Matter

The contemporary social movement Black Lives Matter was born in 2013 following the acquittal of the man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The movement grew and came to national prominence in 2014 following the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. The name of the movement and the widely used hashtag that catalyzed it assert the importance of Black lives because the widespread violence against Black people in the U.S. and the oppression they suffer in a society that is systemically racist suggests that their lives do not matter. The history of the enslavement of Black people and racism against them is premised on the belief, whether conscious or not, that their lives are expendable and inconsequential. So, members of the movement and its supporters believe that it is necessary to assert that Black lives do in fact matter, as they draw attention to racism and ways to effectively fight it.

Following media attention to the movement, some began to respond to it be stating or writing on social media that "all lives matter." Of course, no one can argue with this claim. It is inherently true and rings to many with an air of egalitarianism. To many it is both an obvious and harmless statement. However, when we consider it as a response to the assertion that Black lives matter, we can see that it serves to divert attention from an anti-racist social movement. And, in the context of the racial history and contemporary racism of U.S. society, it works as a rhetorical device that ignores and silences Black voices, and draws attention away from the very real problems of racism that Black Lives Matter seeks to highlight and address. Whether one means to or not, doing so works to preserve the racial hierarchy of white privilege and supremacy. So, in the context of a dire need to listen to Black people when they talk about racism and what we need to do to help end it, stating that all lives matter is a racist act.

Voting for Donald Trump

Voting in elections is the lifeblood of American democracy. It is both a right and a duty of every citizen, and it has long been considered taboo to denigrate or chastise those whose political views and choices differ from one's own. This is because a democracy composed of multiple parties can only function when respect and cooperation are present. But during 2016, the public comments and political positions of Donald Trump have prompted many to buck the norm of civility.

Many have characterized Trump and his supporters as racist, and many relationships have been destroyed in the process. So is it racist to support Trump? To answer that question one has to understand what he represents within the racial context of the U.S.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump has a long history of behaving in racist ways. Throughout the campaign and prior to it, Trump made statements that denigrated racial groups and are rooted in dangerous racial stereotypes. His history in business is blighted by examples of discrimination against African Americans. Throughout the campaign Trump routinely condoned violence against Black people and condoned through his silence the white supremacist attitudes and racist actions of people among his supporters. Politically speaking, the policies he supports, like, for example, closing and defunding family planning clinics, those related to immigration and citizenship, overturning the Affordable Healthcare Act, and his proposed income tax brackets which penalize the poor and working classes will specifically harm African Americans, at greater rates than they will harm white people, if they are passed into law. In doing so, these policies will help preserve the racial hierarchy of the U.S., white privilege, and white supremacy.

Those who voted for Trump endorsed these policies, his attitudes, and behavior--all of which fit the sociological definition of racism. So, even if a person doesn't agree that thinking and acting this way is right, even if they themselves don't think and act this way, voting for Donald Trump was an act of racism.

This reality is likely a hard pill to swallow for those of you who supported the Republican candidate. The good news is, it's never too late to change. If you oppose racism and want to help fight it, there are practical things you can do in your everyday life as individuals, as members of communities, and as citizens of the U.S. to help end racism.

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Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How to Tell If You've Been Unintentionally Racist." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). How to Tell If You've Been Unintentionally Racist. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How to Tell If You've Been Unintentionally Racist." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).