Racism: Not Just by Racists

We need to question the belief that only “racists” perform racist acts. It is a belief that continues to be used to excuse racist acts. Indeed, the cry that x person is not a racist, is simply “ignorant” or just “misspoke” attempts to mitigate the injury of the racist act.

How do we begin to parse this?

In part, the idea of “the racist” seems to defy history—and this is where we must begin. If race is socially constructed, then racism must also be socially constructed. Now, to be sure, the idea of social construction needs more elaboration than I can give. In its glib, irresponsible version, social construction seems to suggest that “things” don’t exist: there’s no “truth” to race or sex or gender or even class. In this irresponsible version, deprivation and oppression can often be attributed to perception (it takes a special type of student to argue that poverty is socially constructed, as one of my special students once did).

In the version I prefer, and use, social construction directs us to history and historical change. It tells us that racism under slavery is not quite the same as racism after slavery or racism after civil rights. It suggests that the causes of racial animus and antagonism change along with history. But to accept this version also requires that we attend more carefully to how racist acts manifest, and to that slippery place between act and identity.

We might twist this argument around to this: if a racist act can only be performed by a racist (which is taken as a substantial identity), then act is predicated on identity and thus non-racist individuals (those whose identity is not defined by racism) cannot perform racist acts. This line of reasoning has been used over the past few years to excuse racist acts: “x individual is not a racist (by character) and thus the statement made was not racist.”

We can state two objections. First, we can return agency to the site of injury by stating that the person against whom the racist act is performed has the authority to term the act racist. We have ceded this position too often, too quickly, been shamed into silence. And it is a position we must reclaim.

Second objection, and this is where I depart from King: we cannot trust that a person’s character guarantees one’s actions. As an aside, one might note that King’s seeming opposition between color and character, while rhetorically powerful, is theoretically sloppy and historically irresponsible, especially given the complex intertwining between color and character in racial histories.

“Racist” is not an identity that precedes an act but a temporally unstable designation, one whose temporality is uneven, contingent, sometimes lasting, sometimes fleeting. Some people display racist acts longer than others, for entire lifetimes, others for minutes or seconds. There is a complex algebra (perhaps alchemy) to racism that deserves even more attention than we have dared.

Understanding the designation “racist” as historically and temporally contingent offers a more flexible, more usable concept than does using it as a kind of ahistorical identity. Simultaneously, returning agency to the bearer of injury, and taking seriously the injured party, offers a more historically responsible mode of identifying racist acts and their effects.