Being racist v. being a racist

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Racist is a powerful word. Right now, Paula Deen is feeling the full weight and power of that word applied to her public image. It’s a word that makes people uncomfortable. It’s a word that makes people defensive. 

It’s a word I use a lot.

When we first moved back to Kentucky, I expected to encounter some racism. It’s not as if there was no racism in Washington, D.C. but still I’m no dummy. I knew I would encounter more outright prejudice once we moved home. Still, the “they’s” caught me a little off guard. “They don’t know how to act.” Or “You know how they are.” 

I either silently excused myself from the conversation or attempted to argue against whatever racial stereotype was being perpetuated. Then, one night we were at a party. This was a party of people my age - no one from Paula Deen’s generation within a mile. Everyone was drinking and having a good time when one man I had never met loudly requested some “coon tunes.” 

I just stood there mouth agape. I felt my heart pounding. I felt my face turn red. 

And... I did nothing. I am still deeply ashamed of my silence.

So, after that night, I vowed to take another approach. No more silence. No more weak attempts at arguments. I now have one universal response when I hear something racist, from outright epithets to hidden stereotypes.

I say very calmly, “That’s racist.” 

It’s the only word that gets people’s attention. It sucks up all the oxygen and usually stops the conversation dead in its tracks. People aren’t comfortable cracking jokes or making light of anything once you say the word racist. 

Sometimes people think I’m calling them a racist. I am not. For good or for bad, calling someone a racist has come to imply that they actively plot against black people. It implies that “racist” is the entirety of their identity.

I think that’s why so many have come to Paula Deen’s defense. They are reacting to the idea that suddenly Paula Deen has been labeled a capital “R” Racist and that seems unfair and inaccurate. 

(On a side note, I would argue that we are talking about “Paula Deen” the media image - not Paula Deen the person. They are two totally different things. Make no mistake: Paula Deen’s current problems stem as much from the mishandling of her public relations as they do from any racial stereotypes to which she ascribes.)

In a way, I get it. Many people in my life - and my family - are racist. And yet it is not the entirety of who they are.  It is a complex reality that someone can be a loving, caring grandfather or a funny, compassionate friend and still be racist.  (Click to tweet.) As much as I hate it, I am not the Food Network or Smithfield Farms. I can’t just cancel a contract.

And yet I cannot and will not remain silent. 

No matter how much I love the person I still say, “That’s racist. I still love you. I don’t think you’re a bad person but what you said was racist.”

I have found that dialogue works better than labels every time. After all in the immortal harmony of Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit racist, even Paula Deen.