There’s a problem with calling someone racist. The problem is that it assumes a person either is or isn’t, like a 1 or a 0, which doesn’t map to reality.
What’s more likely is that someone who holds deeply anti-racist views, is also somewhat racist. Both are true at the same time. It’s two different people, basically, and most in this situation aren’t even aware of it.
Let’s say you have someone who is highly educated in a liberal-ish university, has genuine close friends of many enthicities growing up, and now works somewhere in the corporate world.
This person is also smart and observant and prone to crack jokes or make uncomfortable observations.
Well, this person (let’s call her Christina), regularly cracks jokes about various races. She imitates their accents, echoes the stereotypes, etc. And maybe she would even make a hiring decision or a renting decision based on race.
The dissonance…it burns
So her friend, John, prompts her one day. He says, “Hey, that stuff is pretty foul…are you seriously that racist?”
Me? Racist? Are you kidding me? I’m the least racist person you’ll ever meet. I spend my weekends helping poor black families, and I adopted a Hispanic girl when she was 3, who is now part of my family. We also spend 3 weeks of the year in Dubai trying to improve the lives of Arab women.
So now you feel pretty silly. It seems rather clear that she does great good in the world, and that helping other races is a big piece of that.
Yet, on weekends, when you hang out with her, the humorous stereotypes continue.
Rather than quibble about whether this person is or isn’t racist, perhaps we should instead consider that the answer might not help us.
Perhaps we should instead be talking about everyone being shades of grey when it comes to racism, sexism, and other things we’re trying to avoid. And instead of classifying someone as this or that, we instead try to isolate positive and negative behaviors and either promote or discourage them on their own.