There exists in America the notion that you cannot call anyone but a hood-wearing Klan member a “racist.” Hatred resides in one’s heart, goes the thought. Since we don’t know what’s really in someone’s heart, we shouldn’t judge them. Personally, though, I’m of the “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck” school of racism. I can’t know what’s in someone’s heart, so all I have to go by are their words and actions.
That said, it’s usually not productive to call someone a racist. Here’s an article citing, like, actual research, that calling someone a “racist” isn’t a good way to convince them their words or actions are racist. (Shocker.) Rather, you should describe why their words or actions do not point toward treating everyone equally. So, I’m comfortable saying that Donald Trump is a racist (also: sexist, anti-Semite, Islamophobe, etc.), but if you’d prefer you can say that it’s just his words, lack of rejection of the KKK’s endorsement, lack of rejection of the American Nazi party’s endorsement, hiring of white supremacists, and so on that are racist, go ahead.
But the bigger issue I want to briefly address is the entire notion that racism is a binary thing. Either you are spray painting the N-word on the side of black churches, or you’re not. The reality, like most everything, is much more complicated. Thomas Jefferson owned people and operated a forced labor camp in his mansion’s back yard but wrote that “all men are created equal.” Overt racism is pretty easy to identify. But you should not go through life saying that because you’re not yelling at strangers wearing hijabs, you’re golden. Racism is baked into America and we all experience it and exhibit it in subtle ways. What percentage of your office is white? (Or male?) How many black neighbors do you have? How many brown friends have you had over for dinner? How many belong to your Church? What percentage of the waiters, groundskeepers, sales clerks, and so on your see regularly are white? Racism isn’t the definitive component of any of these questions, but it plays a part in all of them. Most of my neighbors are white. Does that make living here racist? Of course not. But the fact that it’s true is because blacks were once property. When they were freed, they had no wealth and had to live in a South that actively restricted their attempts to vote, get good educations, and thus get good jobs that would allow them to afford a house here, and even if they had been able to afford it, it’s likely the community may not have made them feel welcome. Would there have been a black church near here? Wait, why are there black churches and white churches? So all of that is true, but now Annandale, VA is actually very diverse, yet I’m still benefiting from racism as a white male. Segregation very effectively created a nice, safe neighborhood with excellent schools. I don’t have to worry that I might get shot if get pulled over (and I’m less likely to get pulled over).
So here’s thing: not everyone is having the same American experience as I am. Many, because of their skin, get funny looks when they go certain places. Some get called names or beat up. Some get shot with little provocation. None of this is my fault directly. But I’m trying, every day, to figure out the way in which I can help – or am hindering – their American experience. It’s not enough to just not be lighting crosses on fire.