I was struck by a recent vlog by Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson. In it, Watson grappled with data on people’s attitudes toward race and racism. Her analysis brought up some problems I’ve been chewing on for a while now.
Why aren’t more people Nazis? That’s a question I never thought to ask myself until very recently, when I read about a survey conducted by the University of Virginia, Reuters, and Ipsos. They asked more than 5,000 American adults various questions on race, shortly after the deadly neo-nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The good news is that only 4% of respondents said they supported neo-nazis, although that’s not actually “good” because holy shit that’s like 200 people in a random sample of Americans, but I digress. And “only” 8% supported white nationalists.
The bad news is that 31% of respondents agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage.” Umm…that’s kind of the central tenet that white nationalist neo-nazis abide by. 16% agreed that marriage should only be allowed between members of the same race. They’re not saying they don’t like interracial marriage…they’re saying it should be illegal. Again, that’s some neo-nazi shit.
Also, 39% thought that white people are under attack in the US, and to make matters even worse, 14% of all respondents said that white people are the ONLY race under attack in the US. Like, they literally don’t think people of color have anything to worry about, at all.
So here we have a bunch of people espousing every belief the neo-nazis stand for, and yet they don’t say they support neo-nazis. Thinking this over, I realized that more people aren’t Nazis not because they’re good people who believe in equality, but because Nazis have a public relations problem.
In the last few years I have become convinced that people are often more afraid of labels than they are of the ideas they stand for. Consider how many times you’ve been in a discussion with someone who is making a racist argument, only to have them get angry if you tell them that what they said is racist. It’s the label they object to.
As a society, we have decided that it is not good to be racist. Except that we actually haven’t. We have actually decided that it’s not good to be called racist. It’s a-okay to go right on saying racist things and holding racist ideas and making racist arguments.
What would it be like if holding racist ideas carried as much stigma as the term “racist”? No really, think about it—what would our country look like if people were as invested in not saying or believing racist things as they are about not being called racist?
I have sometimes wondered whether there is a link between this fear of labels but not the ideas behind them, on the one hand, and the rise of “alt-right” and Nazi activism, on the other. Young white men who are being radicalized today grew up in a milieu where labels mattered more than ideas. Could they feel the hypocrisy of that? When “alt-right” and Nazi activists describe this bifurcation as “politically correct nonsense”—in a context where condemning “political correctness” has come into vogue—many young white men may already have been primed and willing to listen.
How did the label become stigmatized while the beliefs behind the label did not? Part of the problem, of course, may be disagreement over what the term actually means. Most people agree that stating that black people are inferior to white people is racist—but is using “black on black crime” to derail a discussion of police brutality racist? What about arguing that black people should stop complaining and start pulling themselves up by their bootstraps like everyone else?
When people who believe they harbor no ill will toward African Americans are told that something they said is racist—because it is—are they more likely to listen or to conclude that the term “racist” no longer has any meaning? Are they more likely to listen or to perceive of your comment as a personal attack and become upset?
Perhaps the label has outlived its usefulness, at least in certain situations. In some cases explaining why something someone said is harmful and wrong, without using the term, may be more effective than labeling that thing “racist” and watching while the person who said it stops listening. People shouldn’t stop listening when the word racist is invoked, but if they do—and if we might be able to get better results without the label—might that not be an avenue to explore?
Some would probably argue that this approach is simply pandering to the hurt feelings of racists, and I can see their point. I look at the inequalities still present in our society and I want to pull my hair out. It’s maddening that so many white people don’t understand the discrimination that still exists, even when they personally participate in it—or the nature of structural racism, even when they benefit from it.
I’m not ready to write off as a lost cause anyone who bristles at being told something they’ve said is racist, but I’m also not sure how to turn this ship around. It’s frustrating, and it’s likely something I’ll go on thinking about for a good long time.
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