Am I racist? Some thoughts on what we call ourselves and the “other”

Sindiso with our darling nephew John

When it comes to inter-racial IQ, I’d like to think I’ve got my boxes ticked: my skin may be white as can be, but I’m married to a black South African, learning to speak isiZulu (clicks and all), spending time with the in-laws in black townships, and cultivating a taste for the likes of Gill Scott Herron, Steve Biko, and W.E.B. Du Bois, to name a few…

Nevertheless, as I was drafting a recent article on black and white, my wife noticed something peculiar and gently called me out. In a single paragraph, I had twice written “blacks”–a term Sindiso readily maintains, and I less readily concede, has pejorative connotations–and then followed it up with “white people” in the comparison. That “whites” appeared here and there in my article was a minor consolation: I was twice as likely to use the term “blacks”.

Having grown up around this kind of talk, Sindiso has a particular sensitivity to the term. She can still hear the white Afrikaner calling a black man “boy” and asserting “blacks do this… blacks are like that…” To many, the term “blacks” lets loose a wave of negative stereotypes that only a mind unburdened by inter-racial experience would consciously adopt. Its significance is sometimes compared to the overtly offensive k-word in SA or n-word in the US (for a challenging biography of the latter, I recommend The N-Word by Jabari Asim).

Given these associations, it is hardly surprising that no word exists for “blacks” in the vernacular. As Sindiso (my principal Zulu instructor) explained, “Umuntu omnyama” or “black person” comes closest, although “Umuntu” or “person” would normally suffice. (When a white person endears herself to her black neighbors by demonstrating her humanity, she might also be called “Umuntu”, as if to say that she is “one of us”.)

The Oxford American Dictionary defines racism as (1) “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races;” and (2) “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.” To this I would add a power dimension that I have come to believe has merit: racism requires that such unsavory practices are propagated by a member of a racially advantaged group (typically white) against members of a racially disadvantaged group (people of color). In other words, disparage or discriminate against “my people” though he might, a black man could not claim the racist flag unless and until the tables of power are turned.

To be sure, racism is a subtle art today. The books have mercifully been wiped clean of most forms of de jure discrimination and white people in the US and South Africa stand ready to condemn such practices in public. Yet being racist does not require a willful outer act, and so it is with me.

When I find myself defaulting subconsciously to “blacks” over “black people” yet “white people” over “whites”, I believe I am participating in a basically racist narrative that says black people are defined by their blackness while white people are defined by their personhood instead of the color of their skin. It doesn’t help that “black” has long been synonymous with dark, sinister, and evil while “white” is the traditional color of purity, innocence, and light. Could one not say that I am thereby subtly affirming the dehumanization of black people, to whom I am now related?

Indeed, the unfortunate truth is that I am more likely to fear a young black man on the street at night than a white man of similar description. I am less likely to anticipate an intelligent comment when a black woman rises to speak at a public meeting than when a white woman does the same. And while I am primed to expect black faces in the NBA and NFL (quarterbacks excepted), I am admittedly surprised when a black person takes the stage at symphony hall, enters the operating theater, or accepts a Nobel Prize. The list goes on.

Having grown up in a world of white, white people are individuals to me, free to rise (high) or fall (not too low) in my mind based on the combination of endowments and effort they show. But black people too easily present as an undifferentiated mass, subject to being defined by the lesser material endowments they command by history’s curse. And although I am well-versed in facts about socio-economic inequality between black and white people today–for example, that black children are three times as likely or more to be born into poverty and end up in jail than their white counterparts–that knowledge does not stop me from inadvertently extending the lines of material distinction into the moral sphere. I think the world of my wife, of course; she is more dynamic and complex a person to me than anyone else I know. Yet I fear I am prone to projecting negative stereotypes about others who share her dark skin, and thus unwittingly treating her like the “exception that proves the rule” (a role she is unhappily accustomed to).

Yes, it can get tiresome to be politically correct. Removing words like “blacks” from our vocabulary might seem needlessly pedantic, a bridge too far in our modern, progressive age. But social norms and constraints influence social behavior, which in turn contributes to shaping human character for good or ill. That little white girls and boys were for centuries taught that black people were less human than they enabled the continuation of dehumanizing policies that mar the histories of South Africa and the United States, and reverberate still today.

Fortunately, we get to write a different story in our time. As I try to become more mindful of my faults in this regard, my hope is to contribute to the project of racial justice by challenging persistent patterns of unequal opportunity based on race and class, and by changing human hearts through human experience, beginning with my own. Doing so will require more than a little help from my better, darker half.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jamie Gianoutsos says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection, Dan. I appreciate your comments about the many meanings and history of meanings behind our expectations and behind our vocabulary when it comes to race and color, all of which shape the lens through which we mediate and understand our world. As you say, some may feel that changing our vocabulary can feel (or is) pedantic, but our vocabulary necessarily shapes and habituates our thought patterns — so why not begin reshaping ourselves through our very words? Hope you are well. xx

  2. Bearer of discomfort says:

    Thanks, a thought provoking read. I must say I loathe the term ‘politically correct’ – it carries a presumption that words themselves are not violent but somehow benign and therefore the effort to correct the words (and therefore not continue to perpetuate the loaded messages they often contain) is rather pointless, or at best mere politeness (‘correct’). I find words very violent – violent to the soul – they carry history and meaning, provoke strong emotions, trivialise, dismiss, and so on and so forth.

    A final word, I have just written a post that discusses the issues you raise about white individualism and the undifferentiated mass of the ‘other’, these are important conversations and reflections to have. Cheers – Erika

  3. I love reading your blog! Keep up the thought provoking content!

  4. Karin Wells says:

    I love the clear speaking and your unique perspective on interracial love and marriage. After all, racism is not an opinion…it is an offense.

    Thanks for pointing out the obvious – that the terms “black” and “white” are adjectives and NOT nouns. I am tickled pink to get this part of my language straightened out once and for all.

    Thank you – I look forward to reading more.

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