Where Have All the Racists Gone?

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?


  1. Isabel Adonis

    Dear Adia,

    There is no line to be drawn. This is because all human problems belong to all of us. That doesn’t mean to say that we are all guilty but it does mean that there is very little to separate those who use the n -word and those who don’t.

    Probably the biggest obstacle to ending racism is the human need to remain innocent. I want to be seen as innocent and fighting racism and therefore racists are over there. They (the klansmen) on the other hand want to maintain some kind of purity and see the problem with black people. And so it goes on.

    There are no real racists.

    best Isabel.

  2. I agree with your overall point, Adia. I might disagree on whether Richards and Gibson are similar cases.. But mostly, I’m not sure what we gain by focusing on whether individuals are or are not racist. In my experience, though I imagine your much more experienced dealing with this sort of thing, that takes attention away from getting people to understand just what racism is. I think that’s more important, so I’m content to leave judgement of the overall person alone in most cases.

  3. Here’s one guy who claims that he “grew up a racist,” but he distances himself from that in the present by asserting that’s all in the past now. The point that Isabel makes about the desire for racial innocence is one that Shelby Steele has made. I think there’s something to that, white people do want to stake out the territory of “innocence” when it comes to race and racism. The larger point that Adia and Joe and I and lots of others have tried to make here is that the broader historical context of the country really stands in stark contrast to that.

  4. Apologies for not answering sooner. I thought this site would notify me of any responses. (?) I assumed there weren’t any. Can you clarify this, please?

    What I’m saying is that we live in a racist world where race, colour, physical characteristics matter, where nationalities matter. You can’t get away from that. you may do your best to take a position against that but you are part of it. We are all in it to greater or lesser degree.

    Now some people take a stand – the anti racists, and they identify the race problems out there, as nothing to do with them because they are the ones who are working for good.

    It is easy of cause to identify the Klan because they wear big hats, it is easy to see the racial slippages of celebrities. In England small children are being taken to court for racist slurs. There is a general feeling that is racist language stops then we will have rid the country of racism. Actually all that happens is that IT emerges somewhere else.

    The origin of racism is in the very make up of our own minds. The mechanism of the brain, the function of language is to separate one entity from another, but this is a limited function. We always separate, we can’t help it and we always want to see this limitation out there, so to speak.

    Do you see what I mean, I wonder?


  5. For Jessie,

    The larger point that Adia and Joe and I and lots of others have tried to make here is that the broader historical context of the country really stands in stark contrast to that.

    What do you mean by this?


  6. Isabel ~ I sent you a direct reply concerning the question about notification on updates to the site.

    In your original comment, you wrote: “Probably the biggest obstacle to ending racism is the human need to remain innocent,” and I agree. What I meant by that statement in the comment above about ‘historical context’ and ‘racial innocence,’ is simply that whites cannot simply ignore their/our own participation in the racial history of this country, and more broadly, in colonial racism globally. But, I do think this gets to the heart of whiteness (to play on words) here, in the sense that whites do want to assert their innocence in racial politics and yet, that racial innocence is not supported by the facts, and so it goes, again and again.

    I hope that makes sense. That’s the best I can do before coffee. 😉

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