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The polite way to call someone a racist

In a classic Monty Python skit, an angry man walks into a pet shop carrying the stiffened corpse of a parrot...

Posted: Sep 30, 2018 11:11 AM
Updated: Sep 30, 2018 11:11 AM

In a classic Monty Python skit, an angry man walks into a pet shop carrying the stiffened corpse of a parrot nailed to its perch.

The man complains that the bird he purchased is dead, but the shop owner keeps insisting the parrot may be exhausted or prefers reclining on its back.

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A surreal argument ensues as the shop owner keeps responding with a line that has now become synonymous with refusing to see the obvious:

"No, no, he's not dead, he's resting."

Could a similar refusal to name the obvious be at work in the way people talk about race virtually every day?

A new language of racial tiptoeing has emerged in recent years, and some say it may be edging close to the linguistic absurdity of the dead parrot skit. It's a racial doublespeak that sometimes evades more than explains.

It's a tendency to call out someone or something as racist but to avoid mentioning the actual words "racist" or "racism" while doing so.

This doublespeak seems to have spread everywhere.

People don't say racism put President Donald Trump in office; they use a term like "racial anxiety" or "racial resentment." If a white politician running for governor warns voters that they may "monkey this up" by electing his black opponent, that's not racist; that's "racially charged." White Americans who are uncomfortable with a changing culture or who believe they're left behind while minority groups get ahead aren't exhibiting racism; that's "racialized economics."

There's a buffet of racial euphemisms that awaits anyone shopping for a more polite word for racism. There's "racially freighted" for venomous anti-immigrant remarks. And white voters who resent demographic changes aren't motivated by racism; they're driven by "ethno-nationalism" or "white nativism."

Why are these racial euphemisms spreading?

Do we need them to avoid offending people and to give nuance to a complex topic? Or do they sometimes reinforce racism instead of calling it out?

That's the question I posed to people who fall on different sides of this trend. Some say we don't call out racism by name enough, while others say we do it too much.

This language may be new, but it reflects an old social taboo that discourages many Americans from talking directly about race, especially many white progressives, says Robin DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility."

The result is that many end up "talking in ridiculous circles" to avoid actually using the words "racist" or "racism."

"You get this dynamic where nobody wants to come out and call it what it is," DiAngelo says. "White progressives are the worst. Our identity is very much rooted in being a nonracist. We really dance around it and avoid ever connecting ourselves to it."

The irony is that people who refuse to use plain language while calling out racism are inadvertently reinforcing it, DiAngelo says.

"You actually end up protecting it when you don't name it," she says. "That's one of its means of operation -- to remain unnamed and unmarked."

He's not a 'racist,' he's a 'racialist'

I first became aware of this racial doublespeak when I heard someone describe another person not as a racist but as a "racialist."

I'd never heard the word before. I looked it up and it is an actual word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It's a person who believes that "race determines human traits and capacities." That was my first of many forays into the world of racial doublespeak.

Now, using euphemisms is not inherently wrong; sometimes it's the right thing to do. People might say someone "passed away" instead of "died" to soften the pain when talking to relatives.

But there's something about race that brings out the need to reach for the euphemisms. Consider anti-Semitism as a comparison.

How many different words are there to describe anti-Semitism? Whether someone paints a swastika on a synagogue wall or a nation murders millions of Jews, people normally describe these events as driven by anti-Semitism. People see anti-Semitism in events big and small -- it all springs from the same poisonous well.

Why isn't racism perceived the same way? Why so many different terms for a sentiment that springs from the same place?

Perhaps it's because people are still negotiating what racism means.

Using "racism" is the verbal equivalent of the nuclear option, says George Lakoff, author of "Don't Think of an Elephant!" a book that explains how language frames political debates.

Lakoff says it's appropriate to use phrases like "racial resentment" because "racism has many manifestations." But using a blunt word like "racism" or "racist" can inflame rather than explain.

"They're fighting words," he says. "If you're going to get away from these fighting words and say that there's a particular aspect of race involved here, you don't want to say racist."

She won't play the racist guessing game

But some scholars who study language and race say there's another reason to avoid using those words:

Most people use them in the wrong way.

They think racism is about bad people who are intentionally mean to people of other races. That's all.

But some who study racism say it's more like an iceberg -- 90% of it is submerged.

They say it's not just about white hoods and racial slurs. Racism is a system of advantage that's based on race. It does most of its damage below the waterline: a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color; students of color who are punished at a higher rate than their white peers; mortgage lenders that discriminate against Latino and black borrowers; job-seekers with "white-sounding" names who get more callbacks than those with "black-sounding" names.

The iceberg metaphor is what Jennifer Roth-Gordon invokes when talking about racism. She's a linguistic and cultural anthropologist at the University of Arizona who teaches students about race. She tries to avoid using terms like "racist" or "racism."

She says they shift the conversation back to people obsessing over individual behavior -- whether some person said or did something racist.

"When people are protesting racism with signs about love, they're playing into the game of people who want to define racism as hate," she says. "It sets this incredibly high bar for what it means to be racist: It has to be intentional. That's the top of the iceberg."

Roth-Gordon prefers using more nuanced terms, like "racial anxiety" or "racial bias." It makes people less defensive and broadens the meaning of racism.

It also avoids what she calls the racist "guessing game," says Roth-Gordon, who explores racism and language in her book, "Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro."

That's the game where the public obsesses over some individual getting caught committing some crude racial offense. Focus on that type of racism and you don't have to talk about the racism below the surface that many whites benefit from, she says.

"It's safe for white people to play this racist guessing game," she says. "They like the idea that there is some kind of meter or test and some kind of measure that once they start pulling up some of these other examples, they can safely say, 'I would never do that.'"

They want to use the word 'racist' even more

Yet there are others who say people need to call out racism by name, not with euphemisms.

Reniqua Allen is a freelance journalist based in New York City who wrote an essay for The Guardian in 2013 entitled, "It's time to put a moratorium on the word 'racist.'" In it, she said the word had become overused to describe any racially negative situation. People need better words to talk about race, she said, ones that wouldn't automatically put people on the defensive.

"People were using 'racist' for every single thing that had to do with race,'' she says.

Five years later, her beliefs have changed.

"I actually want us to use the word 'racist' more," she says today. "I really do. We're afraid to call a spade a spade."

The news cycle played a part. President Barack Obama experienced a torrent of racism, but people were afraid to call it out. Then came the election of Trump and the images of white men marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, preaching white supremacy.

The issue also became personal. Allen says she has never been called the N-word so much as now. The abuse picked up after Trump became President, she says. Readers often post comments in her articles making fun of her name and calling her ghetto.

"I'm just done," she says. "I don't want to write people off. I want to give people the space to learn and grown about race. But I'm tired of being called a monkey."

I can identify with some of Allen's experiences.

Why I dread calling out racism

A standard critique by the right is that people of color overuse the word "racist." We think of ourselves as victims too much. We want to make everything about race.

I've seen those types of people in action. I had a high school buddy who wore a T-shirt that read, "Is it because I'm black?" We all laughed with him because we knew characters like that who seemed to see a racist conspiracy in everything.

But over the years, I've discovered that many people of color have abandoned talking to white people too directly about racism. It's too much work and too much risk. We could lose friends, jobs and, in my case, relatives.

My mother is white, and I've found that the most difficult conversations I've had about racism involve talks with the white side of my family. I dread it like going to the dentist.

Not ever really saying how you feel, though, exacts a price. I call it the "black tax." That's probably not an original phrase, but it's the idea that suppressed emotion takes a toll. Sometimes, like Allen, I want people to plainly call out racism when they see it.

That's why some people of color get so angry. We sometimes witness people engaging in all sorts of verbal gymnastics to avoid using the word. The implicit message is they know how to spot racism better than we do -- when our lives have literally depended on knowing how it operates. The temptation is to just shut down like Allen and write some people off.

Still, everyone pays a price when people don't feel free to name what they see and hear, says DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility."

She says she understands why it may be tactful at times to avoid calling someone or something racist. But that impulse can cross the line, and tact can become a cop-out.

"I wish we had new words, and yet at the same time, I wonder why. Why do we need new words?" she says. "What do you fear you lose, or what is at risk by naming it 'racism?'

"For whom does that shut down the conversation? What is the pressure? Does that pressure lead us back to where we are today, where we're talking in ridiculous circles to avoid naming what it is?"

The spread of racial doublespeak may get worse. Every week seems to bring yet another racial incident that grabs the headlines. The midterm elections are around the corner. And then the 2020 presidential race will begin.

Some commentators say Trump deliberately stirs up racial wedge issues -- like denouncing the protests of police brutality by black NFL players -- to motivate white voters and distract from his legal problems and anemic poll numbers.

But what will we do when someone says or does something transparently racist?

Will we call out racism by name? Or will we start talking like the Monty Python pet shop owner who kept insisting the dead parrot was just resting?

We can find a new word to disguise an unpleasant reality, but it won't change what everyone else can see.

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