Should the term 'racist' be redefined?

By Chelsea Bailey
BBC News, Washington

Media caption,
One thing Americans find hard to talk about

February was Black History Month in the US, a time typically set aside to recognise African Americans and their contributions to the country.

This year's commemoration ended with insults and accusations of racism on the floor of Congress, at a televised hearing broadcast into millions of homes. But that exchange, between a Democrat and Republican, was hardly an isolated incident.

The month began with calls for Virginia's governor to resign after a photo emerged of him in blackface. And it ended with President Donald Trump - who himself has been accused of racism - saying Academy Award winner Spike Lee was being racist after the film director urged Americans to "do the right thing" and choose love over hate by helping to thwart Mr Trump's re-election hopes.

The flood of racially-charged headlines underlined a feeling shared by many - that 400 years after the first slaves were brought to the US, Americans still struggle to have meaningful conversations about race.

"We can't even have a productive conversation if people aren't open to looking in the mirror," said Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

"Denial is essentially the heartbeat of racism in this country and every time you are not open to what you could be doing in the moment, you are living and breathing racism itself."

Media caption,
African Americans in New Orleans on the state of race relations

He says the first step to dismantling racism in the US is recognising that we can all shift between being racist and anti-racist.

"When someone is charged with doing something that's racist, instead of getting upset and lashing out, they should consider the evidence."

Conversations about race typically devolve into arguments because Americans have come to view the word "racist" a permanent label and not a description of an action, says Mr Kendi.

He now advocates for redefining the word "racist" as a reflection of both our beliefs and behaviours and not merely as an insult.

"A racist supports, by their action or inaction, policies that reproduce racial inequality. An anti-racist supports, with their actions, policies that reduce or eliminate racial inequality," says Mr Kendi.

"What you're doing and what you're saying is an expression of who you are in that moment."

Much of this discussion was sparked by the argument on the floor of the House of Representatives, which began when after Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic freshman, accused the Republican veteran congressman Mark Meadows of racism and using a black woman as a "prop".

Mr Meadows had asked Lynne Patton, a long-time employee of the Trump Organization, to attend the Michael Cohen hearing to refute accusations that President Trump was racist.

Speaking for Ms Patton, Mr Meadows said "as the daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, there is no way she would work for a man who is racist".

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When Ms Tlaib said that simply having a friend or employee who's a minority does not prohibit someone from being racist, the hearing quickly dissolved into a very heated row.

Social psychologist Daniel Effron, who studies morality and race, said there's a reason people often resort to the "black friend" defence when charged with racism.

Mr Effron said his research shows that whenever a person is accused of racism or their moral identity is challenged, they instinctively search for any example to bolster their "non-racist credentials", which can be a low bar.

"When people are motivated to find evidence that they're not prejudiced, they're more likely to think having a black friend is really strong evidence," he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Spike Lee never mentioned President Trump by name in his speech but it was interpreted as a message to vote him out

"We make a mountain of morality out of a molehill of virtue."

But even people with good intentions can face criticism when it comes to discussing race in America, as the director of the Oscar-winning movie Green Book discovered.

Set against the backdrop of the segregated South in the 1960s, the film follows the unlikely friendship between a black classical and jazz musician and his white chauffeur.

Critics accused the film of whitewashing history and furthering the "white saviour" trope in Hollywood.

More on race in the US

Media caption,
Racism in the US: Is there a single step that can bring equality?

Author and anti-racism activist Tim Wise said he thinks we need to reframe the way we teach race in America, shifting the emphasis away from an individual's actions and looking at the system as a whole.

"When we think about the way Americans teach racism historically, it is a story about individuals who did or did not own slaves, individuals who did or did not own segregated businesses. It's a lot harder to see systems of inequality," he said, adding that this can absolve people from reflecting on their own actions.

Mr Wise explores his own struggles with reconciling white privilege and racism in his autobiography White Like Me and has made a career out of navigating difficult conversations about racism.

He said he thinks Americans have been conditioned to believe certain racial stereotypes and unlearning those prejudices begins with recognising they exist in the first place. Until then, he said, we will continue to have circular arguments about race without making progress toward dismantling racism.

"It would be ridiculous to say, 'I don't have a racist bone in my body'... you grew up in America," he says.

"It's about saying, 'Look, I'm going to be humble enough to admit my weaknesses. Not because I want you to beat me up and not because I want to beat myself up, but because I know that I'm capable of better.'"