This is one of the key points of contention and misunderstanding that I see from both sides online. The majority of people believe that being called a racist is an extremely negative thing (though there are a small minority who clearly relish it), but these is no clear agreement on what it actually means to be racist.
That lies at the heart of a lot of the communication problems when it comes to politics and social issues. On the right there is a feeling that the left just labels everyone as racists and are using it as a blanket insult. On the left there's a feeling that those on the right are dismissive of fundamental human rights.
Part of this stems from a fundamental difference in understanding of what the word even means. Like so much of English there is more than one definition:
Definition of racism
2a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination
When a lot of people hear the word racist or racism they think of the first definition. They think about lynchings and beatings and extreme language. Not surprisingly if someone suggests that they are racist, they are deeply offended by the notion they'd ever do something like that. Because they wouldn't. They're fundamentally decent human beings and they treat those around them respectfully. When accused of what they consider to be a horrible act, they of course react defensively and are hostile to it. Who wouldn't?
But there are other types of racism. Milder (for lack of a better word) but potentially harmful nevertheless. What people online are often trying to expose is those subconscious thoughts and instinctive actions that may have a racial element to them
Is Donald Trump A Racist?
Over the course of the primary Donald Trump made multiple comments that meet at least one of the definitions of racism and given his political station that leads some to worry about definition 2a. And yet, many of his supporters deny that he is a racist, probably because it's just words, he didn't actually do anything.
Words, of course, matter quite a lot. But, sadly, our use of language too often lacks nuance. Society has decreed that racism is evil in this high contrast world and sure some poorly chosen words don't make a man evil?
What Trump is primarily guilty of is a combination of thoughtlessness in his word choice and at times implicitly encouraging or refusing to discourage racist language from people who claimed to support him. His reluctance to disavow the KKK is a perfect example of that. He can't stop them supporting him, but he could have been much more definitive in his disapproval.
Does that make him a racist?
It's an important question given his new role. His words have already have impact and will carry even greater weight in the next four years. He should be thinking about what that means and if he continues to make statements that rile up certain portions of the population he must be called out on it.
But is he a racist? Does saying racist things make you a racist?
And What About His Followers?
Some of the people who supported him used language very similar to Trump himself. Others used much stronger language. But a significant number of supporters, actively criticised him for his language. Yet they voted for him anyway. Consciously or subconsciously they made the calculation that other factors were more important to them than any potential racism (I'll get on to those other factors in future posts).
So by supporting him, by voting for him are they then racists too? Not by the first definition, but potentially by the 2nd and third ones right? So they're evil then! No, they're not evil. As we've already addressed they are in the vast majority basically good people.
Because here's the detail that those on the left are conveniently ignoring, I suspect in a need to hold the moral high ground.
We're All Racist
Yes Trump supporters are racist and Bernie supporters are racist and I am racist and you are racist. Even "the blacks" and "the mexicans", as our President Elect would say it, are racist.
It is often said that we are not born racist but rather taught it, and I believe that to be true. But our brain is wired in a way that almost encourages racism. We are instinctively tribal. What we are taught as we grow up is who our tribe is. Racism is a simple extension of that tribalism.
When we talk about racism we are generally talking about the harm it can cause and as a result in a country like the United States we are talking about white people, because it's hard to do a lot of damage if you are a minority with no real power. But doing that is conflating the cause with the effect.
You can be racist and never have taken a single deliberate action or even said a racist slur. Being racist doesn't make you a horrible person, it mostly just makes you human. Because we could all be better.
Change the Conversation
Perhaps if we were to engage people in a less confrontational manner and with less moral superiority we could make more progress. Or at least, create less backlash. Perhaps if we could discuss situations and how they make us feel without implying blame on the person we are talking to, they would be more receptive to what we are saying. Ask yourself, what is more important. Feeling superior or getting through to someone?
Now you might be thinking, that I'm just asking those who are suffering the effects of racism to tolerate it. I'm not. I'm talking to all the other people, those who have implicit power simply by virtue of not being a minority.
I'm also not suggesting that people should have to patiently understand the position of someone who is screaming racial abuse at them and threatening them with deportation. Those sorts of people don't deserve tolerance, because they don't show any.
But the majority of people who voted for Trump in this election did not and do not behave that way. They are people who can be talked to and reasoned with, if you want to try.