Ever since Trump called Haiti and many African nations “shithole” countries, many in mass media and social media have taken to flatly calling Trump a “racist.” The moment offered them their line in the sand. They used it to speak plainly about Trump’s constant and ongoing barrage of vulgarities and condemn him.
They should stop.
Over the last several years, white culture has begun to see a shift in our understanding of racism. During the civil rights movements of the 60s and the decades following, we white folks taught ourselves, falsely, that we could extricate ourselves from racism by simply not saying the n-word, by being friendly with people of color, by being “colorblind.” We taught ourselves to remove the explicit, surface-level manifestations of racism in our behavior and proceed without examining our underlying assumptions and beliefs.
In many ways, this has been catastrophic. It has taught us white folks that to not be a racist is to simply not say certain words and to pretend as if we can’t see race. Rather than truly dismantle racism, it has offered us plausible deniability. It has allowed us to move on from racism in our minds without actually having to change much of anything.
But lately, this narrative has begun to shift. Because even though very few of us still use the n-word or consciously believe that white people are better than people of color, our society still operates in such a way.
The emerging narrative asserts that racism is a system of oppression that exists beyond individuals’ words and overt behaviors. It manifests itself in our drug policies, our immigration laws, our hiring practices, our policing practices, and on and on and on, covertly. It’s the sea we swim in. It can’t be undone by removing a few words from our lexicon or by electing a black man to President. It is in the fabric of our society.
This new conception of racism (or at least new for many) is essential to our understanding of its causes, how it functions, and how we can go about dismantling it. Instead of extending us deniability, this new conception implicates us all – even those who mean well, even those who dated a black guy in college, even those who voted for Obama, even those who attend Black Lives Matter rallies – in a system of oppression which we can contribute to and perpetuate without conscious intent. It asks us white folks to locate the need for action within ourselves, rather than find some skinhead who says the n-word and blame them for racism.
So when we use Trump’s latest vulgarities to claim once and for all that he is a “racist,” we do the movement a great disservice. We harken back to our old conception of racism for a cheap win and a flashy clip on YouTube. We allow ourselves us to take joy and comfort in the idea that Trump is the racist one, not the rest of us. Trump is the complicit one, not the rest of us. Trump is to blame, not the rest of us.
The truth is Trump is and always has been a racist. This was obvious well before his latest obscenities.
But it is also true that the media that has denounced him as racist is also itself racist, insofar as it upholds narratives that contribute to racism. And it’s true that the vast majority of lawmakers on either side of the aisle are racists. And it’s true that I myself am a racist.
The racism that is most critical to see and dismantle is not Trump’s cartoonish villainy, but the subtle, covert racism in ourselves.
So, white people, stop calling Trump a racist, not because it’s untrue or because Trump doesn’t deserve harsh condemnation. Stop because using “racist” in this way is counter-productive and inconsistent. Stop because anything that allows you to fault others for racism inherently takes the focus off of the need for a reckoning within yourself.