Stop using the term ‘racist’ unless you’re sure it is

Empty accusations on race can make you lose all credibility

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Photo credit: Nicole De Khors/Burst

I sat quietly in the condo association meeting, listening to the goals of our new management company, budget estimates and building repairs. I kept my promise to defend a neighbor whose rental car had been towed twice. Right after I asked about temporary car stickers, that’s when another owner said something that caught my attention: “Someone left a racist sign on our doors.”

My ears perked up immediately. Who would have the audacity to leave racist signs in a condo building like mine — a building with every single race on the Census questionnaire? The audacity! Tell me who right now. I said none of this, but she had my full attention.

She followed up by explaining that someone left signs asking tenants and owners to not let visitors park in their reserved parking spots. I waited for the racism. She pointed out that these were “kids” who parked in the spots. (They were in their early 20s; I disagree with the term “kids.”) I was still waiting on the racism. And then she stopped talking. Finally, I spoke up, “Where is the racism in this?” Her response: “The sign described what they looked like. It said they were Black and Hispanic.” Still, I’m waiting on the racism.

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Photo credit: Thought Catalog/Burst

And then it hit me all at once. I was the one who created that sign months ago. These same two people had been parking in all the condo owners’ parking spots. They’d get kicked out of one and park in the next. Two separate times I’d come home to find someone in my parking spot and had to park a block away, run into my unit and go running back out the door to make it to my next destination — even though I’m paying a mortgage that includes my parking spot. After the second time with me having to find a parking spot in a crowded metropolitan neighborhood, I created the sign. I was trying to narrow down who in the building was allowing this duo to keep parking in our spots. Simple description was on the sign: race, age, license plate, make and model of car, and a reminder about people owning their spot. In turn, this lady decided it was “racism.”

I sighed and told her, “I’m a 38-year-old black woman. And the make and model of my car is __________________. Our President is a Hispanic woman. Our Secretary is Asian. I wrote that sign! Me describing the people in this room right now does not make me racist. Don’t accuse me of racism unless you can prove there was actual racism.”

The condo board association grew quiet, looking from me to her. Soon after that debate, and another one she and I had on dog ownership (long story), she stormed out of the meeting. But I was still offended by the accusation that I was accused of racism.

When people use the term “racism,” that’s an extremely heavy accusation that needs to be carefully used. And unless you’re sure you can stand firmly in this accusation, don’t do it. I see it all the time, and it’s usually from people who aren’t quite clear on what they’re trying to say. They just know race was involved somehow.

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Photo credit: stevepb/Pixabay

According to Merriam Webster dictionary, racism is defined as: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

To be accused of “racism” because I was trying to narrow down two people who could’ve been of any race but just kept parking in my parking spot, does not mean I think one race has inherent superiority of another. When the accusation was made, she had no idea that it was me. So to tell a black woman she was being racist against a black driver was not quite the argument she was ready for. But my response would’ve been the same had it been a white driver bogarting my spot. Again, mentioning race does not automatically beget racism.

I ran into this same odd generalization today on my least favorite social media platform: Facebook. After writing “When self-checkout feels more like racial profiling,” I was told that I was “profiling” a customer by describing her as an “older white lady.” Once again, these are physical traits. The customer who needed assistance while a “white, female” cashier was bugging me was indeed an “older” woman. She was also “white” and a “lady.” Just as describing the black guy who kept parking in people’s parking spots is not racist, neither is describing the cashier.

When referring to racial profiling specifically, the dictionary definition is: “The act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior.” In this particular case, there was a pattern of this “older white lady” only investigating the purchases of black consumers in the store. How does one profile someone who is already profiling you? I was neither “targeting” nor initially “suspecting” her of a damn thing; I was just trying to get groceries and mind my business.

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Photo credit: OpenClipArt-Vectors/Pixabay

There is a strange pattern going on when it comes to discussions on race, racism, culture and prejudice. Instead of people actually focusing on the actual meaning and background of the words they’re using, they’re just throwing out accusations like dice. Whichever words pop up on top, they go with that combination, whether it makes sense or not.

Your heart may be in the right place and maybe you’re trying to make a larger point. But unless you’re sure of the words you’re using, you’ll lose all credibility before you can even get the conversation off of its feet. Here are a few other terms and phrases you may want to avoid.

Reverse racism: It doesn’t work this way. Racism is what it is. There is no “reverse” to it. I often find that people who use this term rarely if ever actually call people out for actual racism unless it relates to their demographics.

Playing the race card: Some people are dealt a heavy hand upon birth. It’s not a fun “card” that’s used to gain sympathy. If you want to hold a conversation about a race-specific topic and be taken seriously, do not use this term at all. It’s not an Ace. There is no Bingo prize. It’s not a Wild Card to outsmart someone at UNO. And this term is usually used to make a game of real-life pain.

Playing the victim: No one enjoys being a target of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism or any other -ism or -phobia. If your immediate reaction is to assume people are “playing the victim” or being a “snowflake” because of an actual situation that happened to him or her, try taking a minute to silently hear them out. If you take the time to hear their full story, you may find that you’d also not enjoy being treated in this manner.

Dr. King said …: Please stop randomly quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech if you cannot also acknowledge that the Federal Bureau of Investigation participated in covert operations against him. Congratulations. You read the paragraph in your history book, but do you really know what he went through or have you just memorized a few lines from a speech? And if you cannot acknowledge the opposition he faced during the Civil Rights Movement, stop asking people to blindly turn the other cheek.

I don’t see color: This basically translates to you saying there’s something wrong with this person’s color so you’d rather ignore it. Additionally, you’re lying your ass off because if the cops drive up to you right now, you’re not going to say, “I can’t tell you, Officer. I didn’t see this person’s height, age, race, weight or anything else. I just can’t see it. My optometrist can co-sign for me. Here’s my doctor’s note.” Telling someone you don’t see something that they’re (usually) quite proud of and have no problem self-identifying as basically makes you sound sheltered and oblivious to anyone unlike yourself.

Hopefully this rundown will be a reasonable start to you having more productive discussions on race. And if you just can’t “see color” or have convinced yourself that the dictionary is all wrong, try another tactic. Envision yourself in a library — and just shut up.

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I Do See Color

“Seeing” color is no more a problem than “seeing” height.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

Check out her five Medium publications: Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk. Visit Shamontiel.com to read about her.

I Do See Color

We are not ashamed of our melanin, and we know you “see” it. Just don’t discriminate and disrespect us because of it.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

Check out her five Medium publications: Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk. Visit Shamontiel.com to read about her.

I Do See Color

We are not ashamed of our melanin, and we know you “see” it. Just don’t discriminate and disrespect us because of it.

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