I read an Instagram comment the other day (on the infamous picture of Ellen DeGeneres riding Usain Bolt)  that said “I’m so sick of hearing the word ‘racist'”.  Naturally, my first thought was: must be nice to just be sick of hearing about it as opposed to being sick of experiencing it **side eye**.  But, it made me think of something else.  When people hear/read the word “racist” what do they think?  What comes to mind?  I have reason to believe that during dialogues about racism, we might be using the same word, but mean something different..sort of like a homonym we never knew existed.

While this whole using-the-same-word-to-mean-different-things doesn’t explains all of the push-back to hearing the word “racist”, I do think there are two important differences in word-usage and definition that captures some of the what is happening in these dialogues.

The Usage

Firstly, there’s how the word is used.  By this, I mean the part of speech in which the word is used.  When I was growing up, I never heard anyone in my family, or anyone who was around my family for that matter (including Whites), say someone was a racist.  Someone or something was instead described as being racist; the word was invariably used as an adjective and not a noun.  I generally think many people of color use “racist” as an adjective in this way.  However, I mostly hear Whites use it as a noun; that is, they are most likely to describe someone as a racist.  This is an important distinction.  When you use it as a noun, it’s implied as something a lot more fixed in nature, whereas using it as adjective implies it can change.  It’s like the difference between saying someone is mean vs saying they are being mean.  Both ways arguably suggest that there is a mean quality in them; however, saying they 1 are mean implies a fixed personality trait, whereas saying they are being mean suggests that it’s just a  fleeting phase.  As you can see in the choice of wording on these magazines, using that one letter–a-can make all the difference and was, in all likelihood, done on purpose. Newsweek likely wanted to soften the blow (you can fix your biased baby), whereas In Touch wanted to make it even more controversial.

Therefore, it’s probable that when Whites hear “that’s racists” or “you’re being racist”, they often consider that they themselves are being called a racist, as opposed to perhaps a particular action or way of thinking.  It would be sort of the like the difference between calling someone stupid or saying that they made a stupid error; the former would probably evoke more of a defensive response. In this case, the defensive response is usually to say they are not a racist because they’re a good person who doesn’t hate anyone because of the color of their skin. While this is still the absolute wrong way to respond to being called out for supporting something racist (here’s how to respond), it sort of makes sense.  The thing is, someone can do, say, or support something racist and not themselves be racist.  It’s a tough concept to wrap out heads around, but it’s reality.  I think that plenty of people are not even fully aware of the racist roots of so many things in our everyday lives.

That being said, I think the majority of the time, people of color are not making the argument that someone was born with a fixed racist mentality; in fact, I think most people of color would argue that individual racism is something that can be changed.  That if we tell you, maybe you’ll understand and stop doing, saying, believing whatever it is we’re point out to you; otherwise, why even bother saying anything.  We’re essentially saying “that hurts because it supports a system in which I am seen and treated as inferior or in a stereotypical manner”.  We’re not necessarily saying that the accused created the system.

The Definition

Secondly, I think there are differences in the how “racist” is defined.  I often get the impression that when Whites hear the word racist, their immediate understanding of it is: a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another.  Straight up Webster’s dictionary.  So, of course it would be an easy, and quite simple, defense that something they have said, done, or supported is not racist since they do not believe that one race is superior.  I mean come on…who really believes that today ??? (hint: them or him). Interestingly, this particular definition of racism hinges on the person; in other words, according to Webster, it doesn’t seem possible to call an action racist if you’re not also calling the person racist.  This might explain why so many people who are called out for doing, saying, or believing something racist often immediately respond that they are “not a racist”, which essentially means, “I don’t believe in the superiority of a particular race, so it stands to reason that what I’m doing, saying, or believing cannot be racist!” However, like I’ve already said, people who do not believe in racial superiority can, and have, done, said, or supported something racist.

The thing is, I’m not so sure if that’s the working definition of most people of color. I think we have come to understand, through personal experiences among other things, that racism isn’t as simple as that definition implies.  We know that it may not necessarily have the traditional look that Webster defines it as but instead, can take on a more covert form in which it is concealed within the fabric of society.  This  definition is a lot closer to the working definition of many people of color:

a product of a complex interaction in a given society of a race-based worldview with prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.  Racism can be present in social actions, practices, or political systems (e.g. apartheid, racial segregation in the US) that support the expression of prejudice or aversion in discriminatory practices 2.

This definition allows for the removal of the person and suggests that something (actions, practices, or political systems) can be racist. In this sense, saying someone is racist might mean they believe in the superiority of one race over another, but it could also mean that they are have said or done something that supports a racist view.  The latter being most likely to be what people of color are saying, primarily because why would someone of color even feel like it would be worth their time to tell someone who believed in racial superiority something so obvious as to point out that they are racist (i.e. nobody tells the KKK they’re racist; they know they are).

Take Home

Our dialogues about race might be getting lost in translation.  As people of color, most of the time that we are saying “that’s racist” we mean “that particular word/phrase, behavior, or belief supports a political or social environment in which I am seen and/or treated as inferior or in a stereotypical way and I’m telling you this because I think once you realize it, it might change what you are saying, doing, or believing”.  But it’s likely that Whites are hearing “that’s racist” and think we mean “you are a racist person who believes that Whites are superior to all other races and because of this you are one of the worse kinds of people”.  In short:

A racist who believes in racial superiority==fixed; racist (adjective) something that supports the expression of prejudice and aversion ==changeable.

Now What?


So how do we fix this potential “translation” issue?  Well, I primarily operate under the premise that it should never be up to the person who is being wronged to fix a broken system.  So, with that in mind, I think it’s important that if you are called out by someone for having said, done, or believed something that is racially oppressive, that your immediate reaction isn’t to assume that this person is saying the first of two examples.  Instead, pause for a second and consider a few things, the first of which is that you don’t get to say what is racist or not.  The definition that I said is what most people of color are working with is personal; that is, they feel as though it is racially oppressive.  Furthermore, there no way that you know everything that has a racist history or purpose, and that’s okay.  You’re not necessarily to blame if you’re not aware something is racist (I assume if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably not a registered member of the Klan or an avid listener to Rush Limbaugh). The vary nature of racism in modern society is that it is covert, or hidden, in nature.  This means that it’s generally hidden and passive so much so that, often times, even people of color are left to question whether something is actually racism at work.  Did the bus driver drive right pass me at this bus stop because I’m Black or because they were not paying attention?  Did the guy working at the deli counter skip over me because he’s kind of a mess or because I’m Mexican?  Was I not able to play the part of the male lead because I’m Asian or because it wasn’t a good fit for me in some other way?

Long story short, it shouldn’t make you defensive if you are “accidentally” racist.  Instead, just like when you accidentally did something as a kid, you should just simply apologize.  You’d be amazed how long an apology, without any sort of defense (i.e. any time you use “but” in your apology), can go in trying to preserve a relationship.  In short, if you’re actually not racist, then apologizing should be the first thing you’d want to, and should, do.  If you’re interested in not repeating the same accidental racism, I’m sure there’s a nice way to ask…or we do have this crazy hip thing called the Internet that might help you out.

In conclusion, “racist” could be one big homonym that we’ve been largely unaware of until now (because you just read this awesome post).  In that we could be saying the same word with two slight, but important, different meanings which could be causing inappropriate reactions.  In hopes of creating better dialogue, I hope that we can stop and reflect on the intent of our speakers and how we can be supportive of their plight as opposed to denying its existence.


1. I am well aware that it is a grammatical faux pas to use “they” in the singular; however, I use it here to convey gender inclusivity.
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism