Some things should never have to be said, but here we are.
Imagine I’m seated behind you on a cross-country red-eye flight. The cabin is dark and silent as most passengers, including you, are trying to get something approximating normal rest before what’s sure to be a rough morning. Then, out of nowhere: a sharp, sudden kick in your back. Then another kick. And another. Indignant, you turn around and see me, seat reclined well past the personal boundaries of the passenger behind me, tossing cheddar popcorn all over my face and mumbling the chorus to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” as I repeatedly and for no reason whatsoever kick you in your back.
“Excuse me sir,” you say politely. “Could you please stop doing…all of that? I’m trying to sleep and you’re being annoying.”
“No I’m not,” I breezily tell you with a mouth full of popcorn, semisolid pockets of orange cheese powder caulking the interior crevices of my mouth, obviously having given the matter zero thought.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” you apologize, mortified at your humiliating faux pas. “It seems I’ve made a terrible error in my rush to judgement!”
“Whaevah,” I slur back, rolling my eyes and making a jerkoff motion as I resume kicking your seat. You return to your thoughts, ashamed at how your awful mob mentality lead to you falsely branding an innocent man as annoying. Think of the damage you could’ve done to his career!
This conversation has happened zero times in human history, and we all know why. There are many, many words and phrases in the English language — most of which involve some type of value judgement — where you have little to no say in whether or not they apply to you, especially if you’re the type that struggles with honest self-criticism.
So if we can reasonably agree on this simple, intuitive premise for trivial, day-to-day disputes, why in God’s name do so many white people think they get to decide if they’re being racist or not?
If everyone says you made an ass of yourself at the party, you made an ass of yourself at the party. If everyone says you’re drunk, you should hand over your keys. And if you’re being “wrongfully” called racist so often that you’re complaining about it like it’s some normal problem every white guy can relate to, it’s because you’re a fucking racist.
Yet somehow, millions and millions of Not Racist Americans who ridicule the very idea of white privilege and racism decided to prove how Not Racist they are by utilizing the whitest, most privileged logic imaginable and informally declaring that they, not people of color, get to decide what qualifies as “racist”. And hey, wouldn’t you know! Turns out the bar for what constitutes racism is astronomically high and specific!
What an astounding coincidence!
Except that wasn’t enough. Not Racists, it turns out, were still constantly finding themselves violating their own ridiculously stringent criteria for bigotry, despite not not having a racist bone in their body, and were growing faintly aware that they were starting to come across as total assholes. Despite the Not Racists’ repeated insistence they were being “misinterpreted” and, if given an opportunity to explain themselves, could clear up this whole 400 year-old misunderstanding in a jif, they decided the whole “having a respectful, mature conversation with black people” thing was more of a temporary stopgap. Talking wouldn’t be enough. America deserved better. The African-American community deserved better. We needed a long-term, forward-thinking plan if our nation’s darkest moral stain ever were to truly fade.
So they decided that as long as you start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” everything you say afterwards is okay.
In 2020, “I’m not racist, but…” has become something of a punchline, but it’s impossible to overstate the influence its underlying principles have on conservative culture. Even though the specific phrase may have slightly fallen out of style, the sentiment behind it, that a white person can say whatever racist thing he wants without consequence as long as, at some point, he half-assedly waves his magic wand and declares it Not Racist, is the underlying principle shaping the vast majority of how the Right perceives race: a de facto assumption of white authority, even in a subject where the white person is objectively not the authority.
Recall that our present national calamity began with an “I’m not racist, but…” when Trump said 1) he was running for President, and 2) Mexicans are all a bunch of rapist drug dealers. (Not all of them of course — some of them are too young to have commit their first rape yet, obviously — just like 97% of them.) Since then, in spite of the endless string of dog whistles and Nazi sympathizing, the Right still sees nothing wrong with having an old white guy with no credentials whatsoever simply pop up on Fox News and helpfully inform us that the Left are “The Real Racists” and black people are fine with the President gives shout-outs to the Klan.
If you want to understand why it’s so hard for so many of these people to accept the basic reality that black people have to deal with a lot of problems that they don’t, this is one of the core problems: Not only do they set absurdly high bars as to what constitutes racism — you have to literally shout out “I AM BEING RACIST AT YOU!” and get a notarized form from the President Of Racism to even begin the application process — but more importantly, their sense of entitlement runs so deep that they believe blacks should have no say in how other people’s actions and beliefs affect them.
Which is why when the Right “talks about race,” you’ll notice it’s nothing but white people telling other white people what black people are thinking, and surprise surprise, it involves yet another convoluted 27-step conspiracy. They’ll tell each other that racism is secretly a Ponzi scheme to line the pockets of BLM, or that it’s just an excuse for ‘Those People’ to riot, or that white men are the REAL victims here. At no point will they entertain consulting a black person for their input on this issue that, one might argue, sort of involves them.
Again, some things are so basic we should never have to say them outloud, but in Trump’s America, nothing can be taken for granted. So let’s come right out and state the obvious:
You don’t get to decide if you’re racist. Others do.
Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to patronize you. I know you’re a smart, empathetic person on the right side of history and I don’t want to waste your time, but if we’re going to live in The Age Of Bullshit , the least we can do is take a moment to remind ourselves why everything about this is moronic so that we may more effectively combat it in the future.
If you have anything resembling a conscience, the first and most obvious problem is that it continues the long and shameful tradition of white Americans silencing black voices the moment they assert themselves. This is not a recent or isolated phenomena. Throughout our history, we’ve seen this ridiculous farce play out time and time again: Whenever black people try to speak truthfully and earnestly about their experiences, a swarm of defensive white people materialize out of nowhere to tell them they’re wrong. (And I think we can all agree this is putting is very mildly.)
There are too many examples of this to even begin recounting here, but does it even matter? Even if we didn’t have a long and shameful history of silencing black people every time they say something that makes touchy whites even remotely uncomfortable, would it suddenly be okay? Would it be any less stupid, disrespectful, and nonsensical if we started now? Historical context may supplement our reasoning and help us reach our conclusion, but it doesn’t change it.
Which brings us to the second major problem: Racial politics aside, it’s utterly illogical. Ignorance is a core component of prejudice. Whereas stupidity refers to how one’s brain interprets information, ignorance is its absence. Large chunks of racial bias stems from not knowing things, often voluntarily. These are not intellectually curious critical thinkers eager to fill their heads with wisdom. These are people who get exhausted with thinking very quickly and are forever hunting for the easiest, least taxing narrative, which in this case is “You are great for no reason and Nature color-coded humans to spare you the effort of talking to them.”
A person who is ignorant of a subject is therefore not qualified to judge himself, especially when those with extensive knowledge in that same subject are all arriving at the same conclusion. This is remedial epistemology.
Then there’s the very obvious problem of bias. Even in 2020, being called racist is an insult, not a neutral designation. Nobody likes to be called racist. Racists don’t like to be called racist. It just sounds stupid and arbitrary and petty and cruel and self-serving and entitled and whiny. That’s why they make up politically correct euphemisms like “economic nationalists” instead. Regardless of their actual beliefs, telling a racist he’s racist will, without fail, trigger the exact same response: forced laughter in the form of “lmao” (Seriously, it will always be lmao. Every. Single. Time.) followed by a sarcastic denial. And each and every time this happens, they will act as though they totally obliterated your argument by essentially saying “How can I be racist….when I’m not?”
Think about the mentality required to instinctively assume that not only do you get to choose how other people interpret your words and actions, but that others will have no problem with or reason to question this assumption. Consider that level of entitlement.
This is the person that kicks the back of your seat and tells you they’re not being annoying. The core problem isn’t just the fact that he’s doing it, nor is it even his belief that he has right to behave that way. It’s the fact that he reflexively assumes you’d never complain in the first place. It’s the absolute black hole of empathy. Taken as an individual and not as a representative of any group, would anyone ever defend his logic? Would a single person empathize with him or say that more people should behave this way?
We all know the answer. If only the legions of Not Racists did too.