Over the last year, several celebrities have gone on media rants where they let slip (or unleashed) racial slurs and tirades that are typically relegated to backstage social spaces. Among the most notable: Michael Richards’ tirade at the Laugh Factory where he used the “n-word” repeatedly, Duane “Dog” Chapman’s use of the same racial slur in a telephone call to his son, and Mel Gibson’s verbal barrage of anti-Jewish stereotypes when pulled over for a DUI.
What I find ironic and interesting about these issues is that no matter how offensive and inflammatory the statements are, somehow the speakers themselves are rarely, if ever, labeled racist. The statements they make may be labeled racist, but the speakers vehemently deny that they are. The idea seems to be that racists are only those who self-identify as such: Klansmen, neo-Nazis, or members of other hate groups who openly claim “racist” as a self-identity that they embrace and accept. Even among everyday Americans, people who openly and regularly engage in racist acts, statements, and behaviors stubbornly insist that despite these actions they really are not racist people.
Is being racist now simply subject to the individual’s choice? Are you only racist if you self-identify as such? At what point do your actions define who you are? If stereotyping racial minorities, passively or actively supporting institutions or policies that uphold inequality, and engaging in behaviors that endorse or perpetuate the basest, most negative images of minorities doesn’t make you a racist, what does? Or to paraphrase comedian Chris Rock, what do you have to do to be a racist? Shoot Medgar Evers? I can’t think of too many other areas where self-definition overrides action in the same ways that it does when we think about who is and isn’t racist. For instance, if I register to vote as a Republican, donate money to John McCain, agree with his policies, and vote for him in the primary and general election, would anyone believe me if I then insisted that I was a Democrat?
I understand why individuals don’t want to self-identify as racist. If only those who identify as racists are “really” racists, then “good people” can perpetuate racism without losing any sense of themselves as decent, stand-up individuals. (Bonilla-Silva makes this point in more detail in Racism without Racists). As part of this process, individuals can maintain racist structures with their conscience intact. So my questions are directed more to those of us who are loath to consider people we know racist. If your coworker/friend/partner/family member stereotypes minorities, are they racist? What if they support policies or politicians that would perpetuate minorities’ continued disadvantage? Where and how do we draw the line? Where do we find the real racists?