There’s been a lot of talk since the election about being nicer to racists. “Don’t call people racists!” think pieces written by white men urge, because then those racists will refuse to listen. (Ironically, the same people saying we should never use the word “racism” are often the same ones who say we can’t fight ISIS unless we use the words “radical Islam.”) But coddling white people’s feelings is not the way to get people to change. In fact, we need to call out racism more often and more vehemently than we have been. It’s not about making ourselves feel better, it’s about changing our country for the better and finally overcoming the racism that poisons us.
1. Racists were not going to vote for Hillary anyway
The argument that calling conservatives racist drove them into the arms of Trump is disingenuous. They weren’t going to vote for Hillary. They were always going to vote for Trump. No non-racist person decides to take racist action (like voting for someone who wants to ban Muslims from America) because someone else called them a racist. No, they don’t like being called racist. That doesn’t mean you stop calling them racist.
2. We don’t call out racism often enough
The strange thing about the argument that people voted for Trump because they were sick of being called racist is that white people actually almost never call out racism. Even many of the most ardent Democrats went to Thanksgiving and ate with their families who just voted for Trump and agreed to never bring up politics. They cringed when their uncle inserted, “Build the wall!” into the pre-Thanksgiving grace but they said nothing. Because most white people choose maintaining comfortable relationships with their racist friends and family members over calling out racism pretty much every time.
“Most people don’t actually want to be not racist, they just want to assuage their personal guilt.”
3. Comfortable people don’t change
Most people don’t actually want to be not racist, they just want to assuage their personal guilt. Most people want to be seen as a good person more than they want to actually do the work of being a good person. As the second pamphlet of the White Rose resistance against the Nazis said in 1942:
The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!
People want to be exonerated of guilt. If you exonerate them of guilt before they’ve earned it, they never have to change. Trump supporters have been very vocal since the election claiming that they aren’t racist. But have they been vocal speaking out against the 1000+ hate crimes documented in the past month? Have they been vocal speaking out against Steve Bannon or Jeff Sessions? No. Racism isn’t a declarative. Even white supremacists like Richard Spencer don’t call themselves racists. Racists want to be assured that they aren’t racists — so you can’t give them what they want until they’ve earned it. Have liberals and progressives seriously never negotiated before? You don’t give up right at the beginning.
4. Anti-racism must be tied into social capital
Some people can be convinced by arguing facts and reason. Those people are in the minority. Most people can only be convinced to change because their life will get worse if they don’t. We can do that by tying in racism to social capital. This is how many communities on the left already function — if you say something racist, people won’t like you anymore. I worked for the show Intervention for five years. If a family wants their heroin addict son to change, they shouldn’t give him money and a place to live or he probably won’t stop doing heroin. They have to help him feel the natural consequences of his actions. When he has no place to live, no money, and he isn’t invited to come home for dinner anymore, he may finally hit rock bottom and be ready to quit heroin. Racism is the same.
It’s an enticing ideology — it tells people that everything they do is right, and all of their problems are someone else’s fault. How did we take away the power of Nazism after Germany’s defeat in WWII? Well we didn’t have long, patient debates with every single remaining German. We made Nazism socially unacceptable. Some people still believed the racist Nazi ideology, but they kept it mostly to themselves because they knew it was socially unacceptable.
5. Unchecked racism turns into violence
Racists are very bold right now. Hate crimes have spiked all over the country because racists feel like they just got affirmation that the country sees things the way they do. If those racists feel emboldened by a culture that agrees with them, they will continue to hurt people. They will kill people. If you don’t start calling out racism every single time you see it, those hate crime victims will be partly on you, too.
“Hate crimes have spiked all over the country because racists feel like they just got affirmation that the country sees things the way they do.”
Some racists cannot be changed, so they must be shamed and made to be afraid and insignificant. But other people — “casual” racists, or those who at least didn’t find Trump’s racism to be a deal breaker — might be changeable.
And especially if you’re white and they’re your one of your family or friends, it’s your responsibility to try and change them. Change is twofold — outrage and conversation. Outrage is important. Calling out racism is important.Then white people need to take up the mantle of actually conducting the painful, uncomfortable conversations about racism that people of color have been leading (whether they want to or not) for centuries. Derek Black, godson of David Duke, wrote an op-ed in the NYT right after the election about why he left white nationalism.
He started questioning his beliefs because people called him out on them and they were pissed. And then they took the time to talk to him. I don’t think racists are all unredeemable. I think a solid 50–75 percent of people are indeed redeemable. I’ve grown a lot in the past decade, particularly since moving from Indiana to Los Angeles, and most of the time that growth came out of a reaction to other people’s anger and outrage. Comfortable people don’t change and racism is uncomfortable. We all have to be uncomfortable now. Don’t stop calling people racist. Call out racism every time you see it — and then be ready for the long, hard work of educating the people who are willing to listen.