A New Paradigm for Talking About Racism

Over the weekend, Kevin Drum took exception with what I wrote about Bernie Sanders’ speech in Boston. His critique centered around my use of the words “white male supremacy.”

This isn’t just pedantic. It matters. It’s bad enough that liberals toss around charges of racism with more abandon than we should, but it’s far worse if we start calling every sign of racial animus—big or small, accidental or deliberate—white supremacy. I can hardly imagine a better way of proving to the non-liberal community that we’re all a bunch of out-of-touch nutbars who are going to label everyone and everything we don’t like as racist.

I want to be clear once again that I did not call Sanders a white male supremacist. What I did say was that, by assuming that women and people of color run for office only on their race/gender and that their candidacy wouldn’t be “good enough” unless they embraced his agenda, he was defending white male supremacy.

To be honest, I pondered whether or not to use those words. But in the end, it seemed the clearest way to describe what Sanders was suggesting with his response. But Drum implies that a less explosive word or phrase would have been more appropriate and/or less off-putting. I can tell you that based on my own experience of being on both the receiving and delivering end of this kind of challenge, I am convinced that is not the case. That is because almost any critique of racism these days is met with an explosion of defensiveness.

A couple of years ago, a cartoonist posted a drawing on a liberal web site in which President Obama was depicted to look like a monkey. Given the racist history of that kind of association, he was called out on it. What I found most interesting was the reaction of one of his fans who said, “Being called a racist is really about as bad as it gets. It’s like being called a pedophile.” As long as we embrace anything close to that assumption, it will never be possible to have a discussion about this topic – whether it is called racism, white privilege, implicit bias or white supremacy. It is simply too toxic to expect anything other than massive defensiveness.

That is why, one of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard on this topic came from this quick talk by Jay Smooth. I would like to make this required viewing for everyone living in this country. He outlines some of the things that could help us when we are on the receiving end of a critique about racism.

Smooth points out that, while it is always hard to hear that you made a mistake in any arena, we can oftentimes move on by reminding ourselves that we are only human and everyone makes mistakes. But for some reason, when it comes to racism, we tend to do the opposite and think that if we made a mistake, we are a bad person. The whole conversation gets wrapped in a binary of how we either are or are not racist. As Smooth says, that equates to an assumption that you’re either batting 1000, or striking out every time. If anything less than perfection means that you are a racist, then a mistake means you are a bad person – not simply a human being who is capable of learning from their mistakes.

Eventually Smooth offers a great analogy for a more healthy way to approach a critique about racism. The comedian in him suggests that the binary way of approaching racism can be equated to tonsils. Either you have them or they’ve been removed: “I can’t be racist, I had that removed in 2005.” But given how mass media, social stimuli, and unconscious bias cause us to build up pockets of prejudice most every day, we should approach the topic more like the way we deal with plaque on our teeth. In other words, we need to move to a dental hygiene paradigm for racial discourse where we regularly find a need to brush and floss.

Drum claims that by calling out racism, we prove “to the non-liberal community that we’re all a bunch of out-of-touch nutbars.” I’m not sure that anything we do will prove otherwise. But perhaps when someone says, “You’ve got a bit of racism stuck in your teeth,” we can demonstrate that, as imperfect human beings, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Thanks, let me take a look at that and work it out.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.