When Labeling Racism Doesn't Work

Many bigots themselves don't really know what racism is

Stop sign with -racism+ added
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It may not always be a good idea to call someone a racist, since many people, including bigots themselves, don't have a clear grasp of what racism is. Instead, they think racism is something in which only extremists take part. This means that even if a person does something that screams textbook “racist” to you, the individual in question will very likely disagree, making your decision to identify him as such backfire.

Fortunately, other strategies to deal with racism exist than dropping the R-word. Labeling another person racist sometimes simply doesn’t work.

Labeling Others Begets Defensiveness

If you’ve ever called someone racist -- be it a friend, family member or coworker -- recall the person’s reaction. Did your acquaintance accept the label without question or challenge this description? More than likely, the person tried to defend his or herself and explain away any suggestion that she’s racist. When people become defensive, it’s difficult to get them to understand why their behavior offended others.

So, rather than calling someone a name that will probably produce a knee-jerk reaction in him, focus on his behavior and how it upset you. Explain that your feelings were hurt when the person made a sweeping generalization about Latinos and how similar statements have led others to mistreat the racial group.

Some Who Are Called Racist Issue Meaningless Apologies

When public figures say or do something that society deems racist, they often apologize shortly after the gaffe lands them in the headlines, but this has proven problematic. One never knows if these figures apologize because they understand why their behavior hurt others or due to pressure from civil rights groups and the embarrassment of misstepping racially in public.

The same thing can happen between two ordinary people. Say an employee accuses a co-worker of being racist. The co-worker apologizes out of fear of being reported to supervisors, a lawsuit being filed or being judged by fellow staffers, not because she truly feels remorse for causing hurt. Others who apologize for racist behavior may do so with no real agenda.

These individuals may apologize because they dislike confrontation and are truly mortified about having said or done something considered racist. They say “sorry” to silence the other party and quickly get the awkward episode behind them. In each case, those labeled “racist” give empty apologies, ultimately learning little about racism and the hurt it causes.

Racism Has Different Meanings for Different People

Your definition of racism may not be the same as another’s so calling someone else racist may not yield the results you’re after. If the person you believe is racist only considers people in white supremacist groups worthy of the label, it’s unlikely that the two of you will see eye-to-eye. Given this, rather than concentrate on the term “racist,” instead concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person who clutched her purse when a Black youth passed by or who talked down to a Latino serviceman.

It’s definitely not your job to get others to “see the light” about racism, but if you’ve taken the risk of calling someone “racist,” it’s likely important to you that the individual in question understands why you object to her behavior. Therefore, explain to her that you don’t like when people make assumptions about others based on race. That’s why you spoke out when she clutched her purse upon crossing paths with a Black youth. To you, that signals racial prejudice and you hope that she can refrain from such hurtful behavior in the future.

Racism Is a General Word

Sometimes “racism” isn’t the best word to describe someone’s behavior because it isn’t specific enough. Rather than using a word such as “racist,” perhaps you want to point out to a friend that his behavior stereotyped Asian women or that the comment he made about undocumented immigrants was xenophobic. The more specific you are when criticizing people for being racially insensitive, the better chance you have of getting them to see what made their behavior offensive.

The Term Is Overused in Certain Circles

In some settings, such as colleges and universities, words such as “racism” are thrown around all the time. The result is that racism and other “isms” begin to lose their currency. It may not be particularly disturbing for someone who hears references to various “isms” daily to suddenly find himself on the receiving end of such a term. The individual may easily shrug the label off, noting that at his college classmates call people racist all the time. It’s then easy for him to reason that you are overreacting by using the term in reference to him.

In such situations, you’re far better off focusing on the guy’s behavior than on labeling it. Ask him questions, such as how he knows it’s true that all people of a certain group engage in a particular activity. Challenge him when he professes to know that one racial group is better than another in certain fields.

Wrapping Up

By focusing on words and actions instead of on labels, you may be able to get individuals who show racial insensitivity to rethink their behavior. By calling them racist, however, you’re much more likely to get an empty apology and defensive rationalizations, all while the person who offended you remains as clueless about racism as ever.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "When Labeling Racism Doesn't Work." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/reasons-not-to-call-someone-racist-2834957. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 16). When Labeling Racism Doesn't Work. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reasons-not-to-call-someone-racist-2834957 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "When Labeling Racism Doesn't Work." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reasons-not-to-call-someone-racist-2834957 (accessed May 16, 2021).