Are You Only Racist if You Don’t Keep Your Mouth Shut?

Racism is so hot right now.  First Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy (who everyone could’ve guessed was racist if they’d cared to think about it) got many of his conservative supporters in hot water by musing that African Americans may have been in a better position during slavery than they are now.  And now LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling (who everyone kind of knew was racist but chose not to think about it) is in hot water after he allegedly criticized his girlfriend for being photographed with African Americans.  So hot right now.

Bundy and Sterling have more in common than overt racism and a complete lack of self-awareness.  Both men were in positions of prominence that had nothing to do with race or race relations.  And both men would still be sitting pretty if they’d just kept their mouths shut.

A recent Slate article poses an interesting question: is it racist to prefer to exclusively date members of your own race?  The answer, according to the article’s author, is yes, but not necessarily due to your romantic preferences, which the article tacitly acknowledges are the result of sexual inclinations that have little if anything to do with an actual worldview or conscious judgments about race.  Rather, it’s racist only if you come right out and state your racial dating preference.  It’s true that voicing such a preference requires not only a degree of insensitivity, but also a Bundy-esque lack of self-awareness.

It’s pretty clear that Bundy and Sterling are racist, and it’s easy to criticize them for it at this point.  The real question is, are you only racist if you say racist things?  Conversely, are you always racist if you say racist things?

To stick with the question of romantic preference, it’s fair to say that most people have at least some level of racial preference in terms of who they are physically attracted to and that preference is not a conscious choice.  It’s also fair to acknowledge the widely-accepted but somehow-still-controversial idea that everyone has racial biases, but they are generally benign as long as they’re tempered by self-awareness, and they typically don’t rise to the level of what most people would call racism.

As a result, I think it’s possible to make offensive racial remarks (or choices in the context of dating) without actually being a racist.  Not to mention that if it’s racist to only date people of your own race, the vast majority of the country would have to be labeled as racist, which kind of takes away from the negative impact of that designation.  And that’s kind of the point – a comment about race can be totally ill-advised and insensitive without making the person who says it a racist.

But Bundy and Sterling are not like the insensitive singles looking for like-colored partners.  They’re making generalized statements about a particular race based upon a world view, not personal statements about their own a sexual preference.  Cliven Bundy is definitely racist and Donald Sterling is apparently racist.  (And that’s to say nothing of the blatant irony of how each man has made a name for his self.  Bundy became a conservative poster boy for small government by refusing to stop allowing his cattle to graze on federal government land just before shooting his mouth off about welfare recipients.  And Sterling is the owner of a team in a league that has been dominated by Black players for decades.  But I digress.)

The real issue is that America has a problem having a frank and honest discussion about race.  In modern America, we view everyone as having an agenda, so wanting to discuss race must mean that you’re either (1) racist, or (2) a self-loathing reverse racist who wants to cast others as racist.  By painting every race-based remark as indicative of an unacceptable bias, you prevent the discussion from beginning, and you cheapen the criticisms of real racists like Bundy and Sterling.

Even as I write this I know that I’m exposing myself to unfounded criticism just for trying to have the discussion.  So now I have to wonder, am I racist or reverse racist?

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