“Calling a white person a racist…”

Over at Urban Faith Edward Gilbreath has a great overview and reflection of the saga with Shirley Sherrod.  As Ed points out, this story is significant not just for the grief suffered by Sherrod but also for what it exposes about race in America.  In this case, the Tea Party, the NAACP and the Obama administration were all affected by the “paranoia and irrational behavior” so often provoked by issues of race.  A lot of ground is covered and I encourage you to read the entire article.

John Darkow, The Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri

Towards the end Ed draws three lessons from the “Sherrod incident” and the first really jumps out.

Calling a white person a “racist” has in many ways become the equivalent of calling a black person a nigger.

I had to look at this sentence a few times to be sure I’d read it correctly.  But unless I’m missing something, Ed is making the observation that these two words have somehow achieved cultural equivalence.  He goes on,

White people are tired of being repeatedly cast as the villains in our nation’s racial drama, especially when it seems political correctness forbids them from broaching racial topics while blacks and other ethnic groups are free to bash whites for their racial prejudice.

What do you make of Ed’s observations? Do these two words carry the same weight?

An Asian-American mentor recently told me that he imagined that, for a white man, the possibility of being called a racist must be absolutely terrifying.  And, to be honest, it is.  As a white pastor in a multi-ethnic church, this is certainly one of my greatest fears.  But is it the same as “calling a black person a nigger”?  Not a chance.

For one, we white folks continue to live within the dominant culture in America.  Being called a racist will always hurt,  but any such charge will be muted by a white person’s privileged position.  Also, these two words have vastly different histories.  One was meant to dehumanize while the other describes oppressive attitudes and actions.  The meaning of words change based on intention and context, but it’s impossible to gloss over where those words come from.

One last reason I don’t think these two words are equivalent- though I’d be interested in your additions: Our country continues to suffer from systemic racism that benefits the dominant culture.  Those of us who are white have been formed in ways that lead to racist perspectives, though most of us are mostly unaware of this.  As such, there are times when I need to be challenged about attitudes or actions that may be racist.  As a white man there is never a time when I can use the other word in similar ways.  Never.

In his article I believe Ed is making the point that some white people receive the charge of racism as if it is equivalent with the n-word.  That may be correct, but it certainly isn’t right.

As always, your charitable comments are welcome.

19 thoughts on ““Calling a white person a racist…”

  1. I am hesitant to be one of the first to comment on this post, which is sure to generate a lot of comments – if not controversy.

    First I will say, as a white guy, I can never really understand the full weight and significance of the N-word in the African-American psyche. I can’t honestly say if someone calling me the racist is the equivalent to someon else calling a black person the N-word. I can know how it feels to be called racist but can never fully understand the other way around.

    But I can say I don’t like to be called the R-word. Who would? So here’s my question: Is there a difference between being actively racist and passively racist? I see myself as a white guy who tries to be culturally aware and sensitive and has worked at trying to understand, respect, and learn from people of different ethic and socio-economic status. All the time? No. Perrfectly? Far from it. But I would like to think my default position is openness and respect. As much as it depends on me I try not to be actively racist.

    But then there is this passive racism that exists within me because of the histrocial weight of being white in America. It seems I can’t distance myself from the baggage of my race. I get that. I get that there are certain privileges I automatically get b/c I am part of the dominant culture. I get that there are racist attitudes I carry around that I am not even aware of because I am immersed in the culture of being white and these attitudes don’t even come to light until I begin to rub shoulders with people different than me.

    I get that.

    But at the end of the day I don’t mind if someone calls me on being actively racist. If I have been, then I should be called out, and I should apologize and make ammends. (which could be a lengthy and involved process – I’m not trying to trivialize it) But being labeled racist for passive racism is a bitter pill to swallow. It’s as if “racist” is a label that all white folks must carry by default because they are part of the dominant culture. Maybe that’s true and the truth hurts and we just have to deal with it as part of our white baggage. However two things come to mind.

    #1 – as an American it seems that one of my predominant cultural values is to look at the individual for who he or she is as an individual and not apply the stereotypes and predetermined ideas I may have about their race or socio-economic status to them as an individual. Stereotypes abound between the races. Majority folk hold them about minorities, and vice-versa. Minorities hold them about other minorities. I feel like I have been raised that I should try to recognize my tendencies to steroetype for what they are (bad) and look past those and treat an individual for who they are. I shouldn’t apply labels to people because they are Black or Asian or Hispanic, but take them for who they are. But it does seem like the label of “racist” is one that minorities can always hold of majority folks. It would be wrong for me to say “Blacks are . . . (fill in the blank – whather it be a bad quality or good one).” But it seems acceptable for minorities to say “Whites are racists”. If we protest this label we are told, “well you just can’t understand because you’re white.” But I’m a white guy who wants to understand. I would like to not carry around the label of racist actively or passively. But is that even possible in the eyes of minorities in America? Which leads me to my other point . . .

    #2 – I live as a minority in a predominantly Arab country. The country is overwhelmingly Arab. I don’t know the official numbers but I want to say 90%. Racism obviously exists in this milieu. I won’t name the numerous ways I see it manifested everyday. That said – I never assume that every Arab I meet is a racist simply by virtue of he or she belonging to that race.

    In summary – I would say the N-word is much worse than the R-word. That said – I don’t really want to be called a racist by someone that doesn’t know me. If you know me (or even if you don’t) and want to call me out on something specific you’ve seen me say or do – fine, call me a racist. But if you don’t know me or haven’st seen or heard me do something racist and are specifically calling me a racist just because I’m white – it does seem like a pejorative that is not constructive for helping me understand or address the passive racism that I unwittingly participate in.

  2. @David,

    Your response to Ed’s ridiculous comment is spot-on.

    ‘Racist’ sure has become a buzzword though, with controversy all its own.

  3. Regarding comparison of the N-word (which I can’t even bring myself to say to myself anymore) and the R-word – David nails it. There is no comparison in the power of the two words to hurt others, and the N-word was specifically designed to hurt others as much as possible.

  4. Thanks all for the insightful post and comments as usual. I think you collectively brought clarity to this. Dave, I love your Asian friend’s insight. We ARE terrified.

    The hypothesis was interesting enough to give me (a very white male) pause. I think it initially seemed interesting because the words have become functionally similar. The r-word has become a power play to give someone (often another privileged white person – I live in the university context where it is often wielded most injuriously by those who are among the most societal privileged) power over the person it is used on. In the sense that it has become an example of a Foucault-ian power play, as the n-word has always been, there is a functional similarity. But a recent functional similarity does not a moral equivalency make. Words that do the same kind of work exist on a spectrum of social force. Just because they act in the same direction does not mean they have the same power.

    In vector mathematics, the author could claim that the r- word has adopted a similar trajectory as the n-word but not the same magnitude. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand (or at least an oversight) to make functional similarity=moral equivalency.

    Of course, my analysis is likely clouded by my own passive racism (a category I appreciate, Brian).

  5. I agree with many sentences that Ed Gilbreath makes. I don’t agree with the point about the similiarity between the two labels. Maybe this is your same point, David Swanson.

    The historical and contemporary label applied to Black people by some white people has carried weight, impact and significance in ways that the opposite has yet to carry. It hardly matters what I as a Black man call a white man. But it matters and has mattered and probably will matter what he has called me. It’s mattered from the barber shop to the bank, from the movie theater to the grocery store, and at every meaningful place in the United States of America to date. The label given to me and to people like me is one that is so heavy that, reflecting the power structures of our country, it has stalled or destroyed opportunities for Blacks. I can’t find the same truth if I call a white man a racist, even if I do so on good authority.

    I don’t imagine it’s helpful to paint all white folks with a brush in the color of racism–even if it’s true when you consider what racism is. I’m thinking about how people like James Cone would define it, connecting it with the benefits of misusing power in the political, municipal, theological, and interpersonal spheres. But I think it’s just as unhelpful to bring one word with such historical power alongside another one, particularly when our motive is tied to a powerful person’s perception of things.

    I think one of the questions that come up for me is, what does it mean to be labeled. Another would be, how close or distant am I from the label I’ve been given, if you will? If I’m a racist, it doesn’t matter what my perception is; what matters is the truth of that personal confrontation between the mirror of language of my life. What matters is whether my life is close to the n-word or any other word. If I’m not what you call me, it really doesn’t matter. And when you add the lack of social impact coming upon white folks from most communities, in my mind it becomes a conversation within the white community what it calls itself, since it retains most of the visible power.

  6. B”H

    Hey Pastor David,

    First and foremost I want to thank you for adding your insightful comments and helping to move our continuing conversation on race relations forward. This is a crucial issue in our Nation’s history and a core element of our practical theology as Believers.

    I want to say a few words in my Brother Ed’s defence. I think that his article was excellent in both its tone and its contents. I feel that it’s unfortunate that the issue of comparing the N-word with the R-word has eclipsed the larger subject of finding ways to undemonize our white allies and also to empower Blacks as equal partners in the struggle.

    I appreciate the deep thoughts being expressed here and the willingness to interact around such a hot topic. At the end of the day however, what will matter the most is how we treat one another and not whether we understand and agree on theology and doctrine. For what it’s worth, I agree intellectually that the N-word and the R-word are not moral equivalents. Even so, I still think that Brother Ed’s point is one that transcends these linguistic detours. There are deep wounds felt by both Whites and Blacks over the issue of race, and the reality of this situation needs to be faced and addressed. Brother Ed’s article starts with a sober warning, encased in cynical language, and I fear that he may be speaking prophetically when he says,

    “The Shirley Sherrod incident … should be the one that finally breaks us out of our rut of racial dysfunction … But it won’t be. We’ll continue to play our respective race cards, working ourselves into stalemates of anger and cynicism … And the end result: We’ll continue to be just as clueless and divided as we were before.”

    Unless we learn to forgive the other, then we will be ever doomed to relive this same tired drama. Played over and over with different actors on different stages, but still telling the same story of ‘blame and shame.’

    Thank you again Pastor David, for taking us one step further along the way. I pray that more of your readers will share their thoughts and perspectives, but also bear in mind that those of us who claim the name of Jesus as Lord, are bound one to another as in one Body. Therefore we are members of one another. When one is honored we are all honored and when one is wounded we all suffer. We are on the same team so we need to actualize our unity and act as though the Word of GOD was true to us.


    BTW: The sentiment behind my comment was a felt need to respond and possibly correct the statement of

    Tomi Says:
    July 28, 2010 at 7:58 am | Reply


    Your response to Ed’s ridiculous comment is spot-on.

    1. As always Shlomo, you bring a great word. Thank you.

      In no way did I mean to eclipse Ed’s larger subject and I hope that any visitor to my blog did take the time to read his entire article. Ed’s ability to talk about the incredibly complex issue of race in a way that invites conversation from a variety of folks is incredibly necessary for the church today.

      As you point out, race must carry different meaning within the body of Christ as those “bound one to another.” I hope that, within this diverse Body, we are more and more able to have these types of conversations in ways that lead to greater understanding for the sake of the beloved community.

  7. What a great conversation! I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

    But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

    As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

    So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

    Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

    “Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

    I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

    1. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment Edward. And thanks too for the many different ways you keep pushing us (American Christians) to address issues of race in redemptive ways.

      I agree with your assessment that some (many?) white folks hear “racism” as a dehumanizing attack. As you point out, current demographic and racial changes have elevated the fears of many who are used to life within the dominant culture. In such times perhaps it’s inevitable that these folks will look for ways to interpret what they are experiencing. What is most troubling to me about this is that many dominant culture Christians seem to have fallen prey to such fears and appear to view themselves as the newly marginalized

      But it’s not just those Christians who are nervous about cultural change who are motivated by fear. How many of us afraid-to-say-the-wrong-thing white folks (thanks for sharing this relatable perspective laren4div) have actually been accused of being racists? Undoubtedly many of us have learned of our racist perspectives though experiences and conversations. But I can’t imagine that too many of us have been called the r-word more than a few times. In this case, even the possibility of possessing racist tendencies (an ugly but natural result of living within a systemically prejudiced society) is fear enough.

      The way forward? It’s complex for sure, but I love the quote from Anna Deavere Smith you included. For Christians, the gospel’s reconciling impact brings us into the types of diverse relationships that expose the powerlessness of fear.

    2. I see your point, Ed and I must confess my own prejudice. I did not read your article, I only saw the sentence: ‘Calling a white person a “racist” has in many ways become the equivalent of calling a black person a nigger.’ in David’s post and automatically assumed that you were one of those white conservatives that you listed in your response.

      Now that I understand where you’re coming from, I completely agree with you. A good bulk of those white conservatives probably do think ‘racist’ and the n-word are equivalent and THAT is ridiculous.

      I’m sorry if my previous comment caused offense. Read more closely. Lesson learned :).

      1. “A good bulk of those white conservatives probably do think ‘racist’ and the n-word are equivalent …” I am not sure the lesson was learned.

  8. Just wanted to drop in a note or two…I’ve been observing this conversation, and I think Ed’s comment is really helpful in clarifying his statement.

    The college fellowship I work with has been having more and more conversations about race and reconciliation over the past year, and I’ve learned a lot while trying to mediate the conversation (I write as a white, shortly post-college woman). Ed is pulling to the forefront one of my observations, that ties into my personal experience of growing in an understanding of my ethnic identity.

    To speak from my experience, I grew up in a household in which any comment that could be construed as racist was strictly forbidden – which meant that most conversations about race where off the table. This, not in a bad way, I just don’t think that my white, suburban parents really knew how to discuss race without the fear of sounding racist. The value that we then held up was “color-blindness”. I hated racism (and still do). But when I got to college and people started having conversations about race, I wasn’t sure what to do. I hadn’t discussed the topic, although I’d had a lot of observations and ideas that I kept to myself. I felt like if I started sharing them, I might be wrong – I might mess up. And if I messed up, then I would be racist. Which was something I despised.

    This has been a journey for me, that was full of a lot of false starts and a lot of trust building before I felt comfortable speaking aloud what I was thinking and feeling. I wonder if the journey, especially for many younger, white, suburbanites, isn’t something like mine.

    We can’t talk to (pastor?) these kids who truly come from “color-blind” upbringings as if they were raised in another context. I think that most well-intentioned white people really do hate racism (even if they have an impoverished understanding of what, exactly, it is, and where we find it). So the idea of being called a racist isn’t just terrifying, it’s the summation of what you have worked so hard NOT to be. And there’s no good way to combat the charge, once it’s leveled. It feels like a slur that strips you of all right to speak. I think Ed said it well: the “r-word may feel to them [conservative white people] like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.”

    So to stop this from happening, we steer clear of the conversation. It’s like the old rabbinical laws. In order to keep from breaking the commandment itself, Jewish leaders would erect all sorts of other laws around the commandment, like a fence. If you didn’t break one of the lesser laws, then you couldn’t even get close to the real issue.

    So, it’s no wonder white people don’t know how to talk about race. We keep so far away that the real conversation doesn’t even begin to happen.

    If there’s any place this conversation can happen, it’s in the church. And I’m starting to see this as our college fellowship starts talking about serious, deep issues that the campus and administration is waay to skittish to engage. But I think that the conversation requires a lot of grace, prayer, patience, and gentle teaching, on all sides.

  9. A very wise African-American woman (Dr. Joy DeGruw) once defined racism as an attitude that applies to a whole group of people, coupled with the power and the ability to affect the lives of many because of that attitude. What this meant to me is that it is only possible for the majority culture to be racist. Others can certainly be prejudiced, however, and prejudice is something that it is worthwhile for all of us to try to combat and change within ourselves.

    What is most troubling to me about the so-called “national discussion on race,” is that there appears to be so little common understanding of what the word racism means. Thus it makes it very difficult to untangle what Glenn Beck and Fox News say about it. In fact, it’s quite possible that conservatives throw the word around so easily because they believe that their use of the word then numbs people such that when the word is actually used appropriately, its impact is deadened.

    I believe that my internal struggle to identify and overcome my passive racism (as defined above) will continue throughout my lifetime. It is my belief that I always must be willing to examine and re-examine my actions and behaviors for unwitting racism. In that speech to the NAACP, Shirley Sherrod did what I wish more of us could do — she honestly described her struggle with her preconceived ideas of how society functioned. It is so important that we hear from each other about our struggles with matters of race. It’s the only way we can truly move forward.

  10. I realize the conversation has probably wound down, but I finally had time to read through all these and still wanted to comment.

    Teaching at Wheaton College, I have many White students who are in exactly the place lauren4iv describes. I’ve tried the “power + prejudice” definition of racism. I’ve tried “we’re racists because of the wider culture, not because of your personal intention.” I’ve used various carefully wrought definitions of racism to get White kids to see how their perspectives on race are indelibly shaped by the racism of the past and power in the present. But regardless, to say “racist” for almost every White person is to say “bigoted.” It is to say “personally hateful” and, basically, mean.

    Reluctantly, because I do see it as a kind of compromise, I’ve moved away from using “racism” in an institutional or systematic way, and moved toward “racialization” (a la Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) to help White kids see how their views of their own racial identity and others has been shaped by a society in ways beyond their personal feelings, commitment to equality, and so forth.

    Getting these kids to see history and systems is a huge task. I think Edward is correct that “the r-word” is too emotionally loaded and has ceased to be a useful way to talk to anyone in particular about the real problems of systemic advantage. It’s still helpful to speak of in the abstract, but to use it to describe an individual, in anything but overt expressions of bigotry, has become, largely, an epithet.

    Thanks for the conversation people.

    1. B”H

      Hey Brian,

      I’m glad that you were able to join the conversation even though it may be a bit late.

      I’m glad that you made a reference to Emerson and Christian’s excellent book, Divided By Faith. Although I was initially a bit disappointed by their work because it was rather critical of contemporary Evangelicalism on a theological level. Certainly I would agree that there are numerous problems within Evangelicalism, of both the white and black varieties, but to consider that the deeper issue lies within the psychological construct of the movement seemed rather pessimistic. Having said that, I want to add that Divided By Faith does a good job in exposing several current blockades to racial progress. One of the first and foremost complaints one hears from Whites is, “Why must we continue talking about this subject (race relations)?” Emerson and Christian discuss this objection in the book and I think it would serve many who are laboring in this area to acquaint themselves with their findings.

      I want to applaud you, Prof Brian, for persevering with your young students and not merely giving up. Although I still think that framing the institutional oppression of people of color by Whites as racism is ‘right,’ I understand that you need to help your students connect personally or else this may be reduced to mere academics in their minds.

      Much more needs to said on this topic, but probably enough has been said here.

      Thanks to Pastor David, Brother Ed, and everybody else for your thoughts and input.


  11. I believe “racism” can be broken down into two categories.

    One category is destructive the other is constructive. The constructive category is most often wrongfully integrated into the ideology of racism.

    A “racism” in the destructive category refers to hatred, intolerance or forms of abuse. This is unacceptable in any country or attributed to any race. Furthermore, “racism” in this sense most often is not only attached to a race but in most cases includes religion. All Christians are not white and Muslim is not a race.

    Referring to the erroneously attributed constructive notion of “racism”, how can a tolerant, racially accepting society exist without critically examining race? Tolerance is derived from understanding. Understanding must be derived from critical analysis.

    I believe that no race can be fully “tolerated” or “accepted”. I mean to say, when you introduce multiple races into a single country there will be points of contradiction and conflict between racial ideologies also known as “culture”. Harmony cannot exist between different races so long that contradicting ideologies exist if they are rooted into the law of the country. This implies that races must at times sacrifice opposing cultural views for the greater good of everyone within the country.

    This long winded description can be summarized by “you can’t always get what you want, so place nice”.


    Western Society:
    1. Is comprised of a diverse cultural and racial base.
    2.Terrorism disrupts harmony of the society.
    3. A majority if not all terrorism is initiated by Islamic extremists
    4. Islamic extremists based on the incidents so far originate in particular cultures and nationalities.
    5. Therefore the question is, are these particular cultures and nationalities hostile to harmony and tolerance?

    I believe the answer is yes. Based on the evidence presented, certain cultures and nationalities are hostile to western society.

    Now is the above notion racist? Based on the terrorist activities in all western countries it can be assumed by probability that the result is correct and the notion is not racist.

    Now what is done with this notion is important. The result can be used for hate, intolerance and abuse or it can be used to find ways to integrate, improve relationships between nationalities.

    The notion is correct, the result can either be constructive or destructive.

    Why are white people hated so much and no other race? Isn’t this racism?

    I apologize for any grammatical errors, I have not spend extensive time proofreading.

  12. “A majority, if not all terrorism, is initiated by Islamic extremists”. In the US and Canada at least, terrorist incidents, aside from 9-11 and failed attacks like the shoe bomber and the terrorist attempt that made liquids so hard to fly with, terrorists have been motivated by personal reasons, like school shooters, the attacker at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC; the Unabomer, Timothy McVeigh, and various independence groups, and right wing militias.

    It’s sad that some people are hated, but especially when people don’t understand that Muslims in North America are much more moderate than Muslim immigrants in other western countries because they are accepted more into everyday society, Some people hate and fear them and don’t want to understand their religion. There are millions of Muslims in the world, but only a very,very few are terrorists.

    All over the world, people say they hate the US government for what they have done, but they don’t hate the US people. Believe it or not, some people in America do hate “lazy Mexicans” even if they are American citizens, and some people hate African-Americans and can tell you the real solution for the inner cities. We white people can hear a little accusation of racism now and then–some white people are at the top of the society that is racist in structure and function, and all of us who are white get some benefits from being white.

    “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names (even racist) will never hurt me”

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