I think there’s almost nothing more important in this world than not being racist, not being sexist and not being a total asshole. So when someone suggests that you are racist, that person is doing you a favor and pointing out the specific things that are stopping you from reaching those goals. It feels bad at the moment, and will probably be followed by a lot of defensiveness, but what you do next is what matters.
Are you going to defend yourself to the death and insist that there is no way that anything you said was even slightly racist, or are you going to stop and think for a minute that maybe this person, who has experienced institutionalized racism for their entire life, might have a point?
The funny thing about it is that a common complaint among white people who have been called racist is that calling someone racist isn’t helpful in advancing the discourse. Instead they suggest that it’s more helpful for people of color to try to politely educate white people on why what they did was racist. The issue with that is that it’s hard enough living in a racist society for all of your life, and it becomes even harder if you have to deal with racist things as politely as possible. They are doing you a favor when they call you racist because they are telling you “You have done something offensive”. However the burden of learning what you did wrong falls on you, not them.
If you care enough about not being racist, you’ll think very hard about whether they have a point or not, and if you think that you are the exceptional case in which the racism claim was actually insane then that’s great for you, but most of the time you are probably wrong.
I was specifically called sexist when I was about 22 years old, for a comment I made about women’s tennis, and the reasons why it was more popular than other women’s based sports (I think I said it had to do with the attire and attractiveness of the women who played). The woman who called me sexist was so upset that she stormed out of the room. I honestly don’t remember my exact statement, and my reaction when being called sexist was “you’re a crazy idiot”, which all of my male friends who were in the room immediately agreed with. Now over fifteen years later, I feel pretty confident that whatever I said was indeed sexist. Unfortunately I didn’t learn from it at the time, and because my non female friends (obviously world class experts on sexism) backed me up, I didn’t even try to think deeper about it.
This is a common pitfall when you are called racist, because it’s normal that many of your white friends will tell you that you are totally not racist and the accusations are insane and without any merit.
A few years ago I wrote a blog in which I made a comparison between women’s based prizes in chess tournaments to affirmative action. My blog was called racist by at least one person, maybe two. At the least what I wrote was very insensitive, and it’s made me realize that just because I usually have the typical beliefs that a non racist person is supposed to have, it doesn’t mean that I’m immune from doing and saying some pretty offensive things.
I’ve had too many overly strong opinions on whether girls should play in all-girl chess tournaments or not. The entire time I wrote pieces about this subject, I never stopped to realize that I have no experience in what it’s like to be a girl playing in a tournament where 90% of the players are boys. I hope I wouldn’t make this same mistake today.
I think I’ve learned a lot by following a few particular people on Twitter. One good follow is @absurdistwords. His Twitter bio reads “I try to foster rational discourse on those sensitive subjects that divide us”. There are people out there who are making an a serious effort to educate the public on what racism or sexism looks like, and I think I’ve become less racist by following and paying attention to them.
So it’s really not a bad thing to be called racist. Just like me, you probably aren’t some special angel white person who doesn’t have a racist bone in their body. Be grateful for your free lessons on how to be more sensitive to people of color.