Perhaps one of our more enduring fantasies is that we can make this call. There is, we believe—and certain social sciences use—a checklist. If one scores in the 90 percentile, or perhaps 95, then one is not a racist.
We can trace the belief to a certain sense of self: the coherent, fully agential individual so prized in American culture; the individual who can “do anything,” “be anything,” “take control,” “be fully in charge.”
It sounds good.
While we might be able to follow certain rules of civility, ultimately, we cannot judge ourselves as racist or non-racist.
It is difficult, for instance, to account for or even recognize unconscious structures of racism. Here, I mean to suggest the Freudian unconscious recovered by Lacan, that which is inaccessible to us. This narrative is suggested in The Psychoanalysis of Race. Even if one does not buy this psychoanalytic approach, one must concede that racism is less an identity, as the declaration “I’m not a racist” would seem to imply, and more a series of social interactions that are open to interpretation: quite often interactions over which we have no control.
I am mostly unconvinced that “we are all racists” a claim that seems both inflated and flaccid. I do believe we are often the least qualified to judge the effects of our words and actions on others. We are ill-equipped to judge affective injury, especially when it concerns strangers.
For the racist act is often that strange thing: an interaction between strangers. It is often an experience of injury that both parties cannot control. Often, this lack of control is skewed as a matter of perception, a refusal to acknowledge injury, which is, paradoxically and ironically, the result of belief in a coherent, fully agential individual.
Here the claim: You (the coherent, fully agential individual) perceived the act as racist; You (the coherent, fully agential individual) imputed meaning where it did not lie; You (the coherent, fully agential individual) are responsible for the injury you claim to experience. At this moment, I (the coherent, fully agential individual) am compelled to experience the shame and embarrassment (often translated as anger) that comes from not being a coherent, fully agential individual (“I don’t know why I let it get to me”).
Better minds than mine have far better explanations and arguments. For me, simply the observation: we may be the least qualified to judge whether or not our acts are racist. That decision lies with the stranger.