I was hesitant to write about America’s everlasting racial problem. I knew that people would be immediately turned off by such a sensitive topic.
But maybe that’s why it’s still so prevalent today – because we don’t know how to talk about it without offending someone or feeling offended ourselves. Calling it a “touchy” topic is a tremendous understatement.
Racism is like one of those cystic pimples, deeply rooted just beneath the surface of your skin. You’re not technically supposed to pop it. Like, people don’t technically always like to open up about racial inequalities, because not many people like hearing about it. But, the more you ignore it, the bigger it grows and festers. Eventually, you have this unsightly bump that you just can’t avoid any longer, because the more you do, the worst it gets. However, the biggest problem here is figuring out the best way to approach it without leaving an awful scar.
So, I did the painstaking research to figure out why America’s race relations are still so troublesome in such a modern time. I really wanted to find out if there is even the slightest possibility of completely ending the hate at this point.
First thing’s first, why does it STILL exist?
It’s 2021! We have activist groups like Black Lives Matter, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), etc., that raise awareness and fight for equality. So, why is racial bigotry still so common in the US today?
The word “racism” is actually a little more complicated than you’d think. This is mainly because it has been defined and redefined so much so over the past few decades, that people don’t even know what it means anymore.
Greg Howard, a reporter on the Metro desk at the New York Times, breaks down the word’s history in his article, “The Easiest Way to Get Rid of Racism? Just Redefine It.”
In the early 1900s, racism was a matter of policy, not malice. However, during the Civil Rights Era, Howard highlights that “Racism ceased to be a matter of systems and policy and became a referendum on the rot of the individual soul.” Basically, they believed that “racism was the evil work of people with hate in their hearts — bigots, which they couldn’t identify with.”
Take the Governor of Alabama in the 60s, George Wallace, for example. “He explained the difference (in his head) between a racist and a segregationist.
“A racist is one who despises someone because of his color, and an Alabama segregationist is one who [morally] believes that it is in the best interest of the Negro and white to have a separate educational and social order.”(Howard).
This worked out conveniently to protect the overall consciousness of White America, while still upholding bigoted practices (e.g., Trump banning an entire religious group from the US).
Today, the word has evolved so much, that if you call someone a “racist,” it’s a personal attack.
Now, anyone can be a racist. “Nonviolent movements like Black Lives Matter, which emerged … to combat these exact issues, have, instead. been identified as bad actors, thugs and outside agitators”. [In 2016] former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York said, “When you say ‘black lives matter,’ that is inherently racist”” (Howard).
In essence, this redefining of the word throughout history has led way to gaslighting the entire issue of racism, which is fundamental in maintaining its overall institution. It’s like an emotionally abusive relationship. “Through the willful perversion of shared history, whites have been able to appropriate the victimhood of minorities and, in an audacious reversal, insist that an obvious thing isn’t real to avoid the guilt of the past” (Howard).
So, ignoring the problem doesn’t work. Then, what does?
Why not throw the whole word (racism) away?
Well, actually, that’s exactly what David Livingstone Smith, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England, suggests in his article, “Getting Rid of “Racism.”
He explains that “racism” means too many different things to too many different people. It becomes misleading and borderline chaotic (e.g., in press conferences with our lovely former POTUS). “So, in order to get on one accord, we should explicitly describe the behavior. This will avoid obscuring the moral significance of what’s being talked about.”
He gives a perfect example of why this is necessary:
“Using “Jim Crow” to explain US History to those who don’t know the details (e.g., children in school) obscures its true moral gravity, and we are thereby unwittingly engaged in a morally questionable act. A better alternative would be to use explicit descriptions, for instance by referring to that period during which White people routinely terrorized, abused, tortured, oppressed, and murdered Black people with impunity. It cuts to the heart of the matter, and forces a person who might say that Jim Crow wasn’t so bad, to confront the fact that they are implying that terrorism, abuse, torture, and murder aren’t so bad.”
Seems like a good idea, right? Just call it like it is… well, not exactly…
This got tricky in “Trump’s America”
In somewhat of a contrast, German Lopez, a Senior Correspondent for Vox, describes just how delicately the issue of racial discrimination needs to be treated in order to progress. In his article, “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them,” he says that White Americans now feel like affirmative action laws/policies are discriminating against THEM! Regardless of the fact “that African and Latino Americans are still behind whites in regards to wealth, income, and educational attainment.” Lopez explains that whites feel like they’re in line on the road to success, but affirmative action policies allow minorities to cut in front of them.
They believe that by addressing a historic wound that’s been left to fester for years, we ignore the “real problems” that they face. “So when they hear accusations of racism, they question the motives behind the accusation. They feel like the “real issues” that effect them are being ignored. This is despite how much we’ve ignored African American discrimination and abuse over the decades” (Lopez).
Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, calls this White Fragility. “If you even mention racism around white people, they get overly defensive, angry, argumentative, and even hostile.”
DiAngelo gives an interesting personal account of this White Fragility in an anti-racism training session she facilitated:
“One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged.
They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.
This illustrates just how defensive people can get in the face of accusations of racism: Not only did the woman who faced the criticisms genuinely feel like she was having a heart attack, but the white people around her believed it was totally possible she was. This is the reality of trying to have a conversation about race in America.”
Lopez urges us to talk about racial injustices in a way that won’t make people feel condemned. When people get defensive, they don’t listen.
So, is there hope?
The biggest trick here is learning the appropriate way to address the baggage that our country’s history has left us with. We don’t want to offend anyone and leave the country with even more scars than we originated with. But the festering wounds can’t go unattended for much longer.
We can’t sugar-coat our history, but we also can’t play the blame game either. Like Professor Smith said, we need clear communication about the issues. Descriptive language that “cuts to the heart of the matter” in a healthy manner, rather than in a destructive way. Rather than using hate and negatively charged language, why not fight bees with honey? Add more empathy, love, and understanding to the opposing side? This won’t be easy, but if done genuinely, then maybe our egalitarian future will be more in reach than we ever thought before!
Adreanne is a writer, mentor, and activist, specializing in personal development. With a BA in Communication, she focuses on ways that communication can improve mental/physical health, relationships, and spirituality. She’s also passionate about tackling societal issues like oppression, misogyny, and overall hate. Adreanne is the founder of Flaws & All, a website dedicated to helping society become more loving and accepting of each other with their flaws and all.