How to Respond When You've Been Called a Racist

Hi. Let’s talk about racism.

First, I want to talk about my race. I was raised by my mother to think of myself as White. After all, I am the descendant of well-to-do Colombian plantation owners. Back in the good old days, we owned a lot of land, and we had many serfs. Per the tenets of Latin American pigmentocracy, the Burgos were a White Colombian family. Of course this ignores the fact that if you put us under the sun long enough, our skin darkens quite a bit—to a light russet brown. In fact, my branch of the Burgos family descends from an adopted ancestor, my great-great-grandfather Gabriel Burgos, whose provenance is unknown, but who undoubtedly carried in him plenty of Native American blood.

Am I White? I don’t know. When I talk to a Black person in America, I am often told I am White, and they’re not wrong. I was born after the Drug War had already begun, causing my family to lose many of their holdings in Colombia. By the time I came around in 1983, we were no longer as well-to-do as we’d once been, but we still carried ourselves as if we were. And we still had enough money to appear rich to other Colombians. As far as other Colombians were concerned, we were White because of the way that we behaved. That afforded us a great deal of respect even within the Hispanic community where I grew up. If nothing else, growing up, I felt White.

I don’t always benefit from White privilege. Every so often, I have met a White American who has ripped it from me. That experience has always been jarring, and I have never been able to do anything but react with shock, as if I’ve been suddenly slapped awake. When I was told that I wasn’t a citizen of the United States because I was Hispanic, regardless of my having been born in this country, I was shocked. When I was compared to a monkey by someone who demanded to know how I’d crossed the border, I was shocked. That kind of thing so rarely happens to me, and when it does, all I can do is walk away, confused at my treatment. Because I was raised to be White in a predominantly Hispanic community in southern Florida, I never had to deal with facing such lack of respect growing up. Only in my adulthood, when I traveled to other parts of the United States, did I encounter racism that targeted me.

Even now, as Latin Americans are persecuted and rounded up in the United States, their papers checked and their lives unraveled, I’ve never had to deal with racism on a day-to-day basis. I’ve never had to deal with this hour-to-hour. I can’t imagine having to. Rather, I can’t imagine that I’d be a rational person after having to face such poor treatment so often. A behavior that is grating when it is experienced once can become noxious if it is repeated again and again. It becomes like nails raking down a chalkboard. The United States is an unofficial pigmentocracy, and the frequency of racist behavior that one is forced to contend with increases proportionally to the amount of melanin in one’s skin. That is to say, the darker one’s skin tone, the worse the frequency and the caliber of the racist behavior that one has to deal with on a daily—and, yes, sometimes hourly—basis.

Now imagine someone this harrowed sees me, an ostensibly kind, compassionate person who was raised to think of himself as White, say something like the following:

I think it’s OK if someone working in a position of authority belongs to a white supremacist hate group in their private time, so long as their private beliefs as a member of said group do not interfere with their duty to the public in their position of authority.
— A well-meaning White person

A person who experiences racism daily is not going to accept the premise that a person who espouses racist beliefs on their off-hours can keep their racist beliefs at home. It doesn’t seem likely to someone who interacts with White individuals daily who cannot seem to keep their racism in check. “If the White people I know can’t do it,” they justly think, “how can I trust a White person I don’t know to do it? And an avowed racist at that?” As much as I may respect the civil right to free speech, even I wonder whether it extends to hate speech. So does the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

It would be easy for someone who is assailed by racism on a daily basis to see a statement like the above as being in support of racism and, thus, racist itself. It would be easy for its author, who may or may not be a racist, to be identified as a racist for making a statement like this. For a person of color, it is intimately clear that racism is an insidious thing—and that a person whose job it is to provide services to the public cannot do so effectively if they are also a racist. So how do you, a well-meaning individual, respond when you’ve been called a racist?

So You’ve Been Called a Racist

It’s become such a bad word in our culture. Racist. You can’t call someone that without getting their heckles up. We all know that racism is a Bad Thing™. Ask any racist whether they think that racism is bad, and they’ll tell you that it is. The problem is that they don’t define themselves as such. No one does. Like the word “evil,” it’s a descriptor that has become so anathema to what we like to think of ourselves that we shirk from the word itself, whether or not it rightfully applies to us. No one thinks they’re the bad guy. And no one thinks they’re racist.

But racism exists. So how do we explain the difference between the number of people willing to identify as racists and the number of people who engage in racist behavior? Obviously, either racism doesn’t exist to the extent that Black people say it does—which is the argument unironically made by white supremacists—or a great number of people are unaware that they are racists. The latter seems more likely to be true, given the data.

So where are all the hidden racists? We don’t have the time to answer that question, but Project Implicit is trying real hard. Google search results have given us some clues as to how racist Americans are, and we’re very racist. At the very least, Americans engage in a great deal of behavior that could rightly be called racist. It’s easy to learn racist behavior from others without even meaning to when, for example, it is modeled to us as children. My mother used to tell me after a rough day of work that she had “worked like a Negro.” It took me until the seventh grade to learn that this was a reference to Colombia’s history of slavery. When I told my mother that, she explained that it was a compliment. After all, she was saying that Negroes were “hard workers.”

If someone had made a generalization about what excellent cocaine farmers the Colombians were, my mother would have been upset about that. But it’s hard to look in the mirror for most people. Although I never believed it, my mother could have very well meant to compliment Black Colombians for their work ethic. If this were so, my mother may not be a racist, but she would still be engaging in racist behavior.

So what do you do, then? That’s why you came, after all. You want to know how to respond when, inevitably, you say or do something that insults a person of color and gets them to call you a racist. How do you avoid becoming the next White racist viral meme or video?

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Step 1: Stop Everything!

Your first instinct will be to say, “I’m not a racist!” Resist that urge. It’s the same impulse your child has when you catch them doing something wrong. It’s the same impulse my racist mother had when she “complimented” the work ethic of Black Colombians.

“I didn’t do anything!” they might say, standing among the debris of a shattered ceramic vase.

“Well, someone broke the vase,” you, the parent, might say.

And, in fact, someone has broken the vase. Someone’s feelings are hurt, or no one would be calling you a racist. Moreover, if you are the one being called out for racism or racist behavior, then you are the reason that feelings are hurt.

But what if you really, really didn’t do anything? It doesn’t matter. Another human being has told you that you are causing them pain. Isn’t it worth at least trying to figure out what caused that pain if not you? As a potential ally for social justice, isn’t it true that you ought to minimize pain and suffering wheresoever you find it? Wouldn’t this situation, where the pain being experienced is directly in your control, be a perfect opportunity to do so?

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Step 2: Consider What Has Happened

Someone has called you a racist. But what does that mean?

Quite simply, a racist is “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another” (Oxford). The belief that one’s race is superior to another can be so subtle as to be imperceptible to the one who holds that belief about their own race. This is evident to people of color, many of whom have remarked at the incredible confidence with which many White Americans carry themselves in any space, no matter to whom it belongs.

If someone has called you a racist, and you believe very strongly that you are not a racist, then rest assured that you are part of a very large population of people which includes a great many racists and a great many non-racists. That is to say that your claims of being “not a racist” are likely to fall on deaf ears as they have been heard many times before from people who have used them in bad faith.

Instead, consider that you have been accused instead of racist behavior. That is, don’t focus on the untestable claim that “you are a racist.” Instead, consider that you may have engaged in behavior that is commonly engaged in by others who one might appropriately call “racist.” Although you might disagree—and there is a non-zero possibility that you are right—we’re not going to attend to that right now.

Right now, you’ve been called out because you did something that hurt someone else, and that’s the true message that you need to take from having been called a racist. While you may or may not have done something wrong, you still did something that hurt. Unfortunately for you, racist behavior is all too common in the United States. When your behavior reminds a person of color of racist behavior, then you are likely to be identified as a racist, whether correctly or incorrectly.

You should note, however, that people of color very rarely start confrontations with people they do not care about. After all, we’d be having confrontations all day long if we responded to every instance of racist behavior with righteous fury. If someone has called you a racist, then they care what you think. They are giving you the opportunity to correct your behavior and to salvage the respect that they have for you.

If you choose to use your time to argue with the content of the claim made against you—a claim that was made in direct response to behavior that you engaged in—rather than dealing with the hurt that you have caused, well, you’ve just indicated what kind of person you are. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of person that sees another human being in pain and thinks, How will this affect me? It’s not a good look on you.

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Step 3: Consider Your Behavior (Instead of the Other Person’s)

That other person seems mad at you. After all, they called you a racist, and one has to be mad to do that, right?

You’ve already resisted the urge to defend yourself externally, but even harder is resisting the urge to defend your behavior internally. Your brain is very quick to defend your status as a non-racist, and it will attempt to do so in the most energy-efficient ways possible. Changing your behavior is hard, but changing your opinion about an individual is easy, and that’s the path we often take.

“I would take that person at their word,” you might say, “if only they calmed down first.” Or perhaps, “if only they were willing to speak like rational adults about this.” Or often, “if only they would be civil about it.” Unfortunately, White people have historically used the veneer of civility in order to vilify civil rights leaders and other minority leaders whose voices they found threatening. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the “civility” that was used as a cudgel against his people:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’
— Martin Luther King Jr.

He was a great speaker until he was murdered. Unfortunately, not everyone you know is as great a speaker as he, and that means that, rather than call you out on the specific behavior that you have engaged in, some people might resolve to call you a racist and leave the rest to you to figure out. Consider the last time you were angry about something. How effective a communicator were you then?

Instead of focusing on the behavior of the person of color who is presently in pain and calling you out for causing it, try focusing on your behavior. What did you do immediately before you were called a racist? What did you fail to do? As a White ally to people of color, as I know you hope to be, you might be confused that your behavior could be labeled racist at all. Try to work past the confusion and identify the behavior that the person of color called out as problematic. Can you reason out why it was problematic on your own? If not, resist the urge to ask. Now is not that time.

Think without speaking. It’s a valuable skill that minorities learn quickly.

Step 4: Apologize (Without Excusing Your Behavior)

You’ll notice you haven’t yet said a word. To many people of color, watching a White person not become red and defensive at the first sight of a race issue will be a welcome change. You’re already doing so great.

Now it’s time for you to say your first two words. “I’m sorry.” What are you apologizing for? You’re apologizing for the hurt that you caused. You’re apologizing for the offense that started this whole thing. You’re apologizing for whatever it is that you did or didn’t do that was identified by a person of color as racist. I want to note that you are not necessarily apologizing for “being a racist” or for “engaging in racist behavior.” We’re not there yet. You’re only apologizing for the hurt that you caused. And you can be clear about that by going further than two words:

I’m sorry that I hurt you. My behavior has caused you pain, and worse, it’s the same kind of pain that other people who identify as White have caused you in the past. It was never my intent to be associated with them. I will work harder to make sure that my behavior going forward is demonstrative of my intent to continue being an ally to people of color, generally, and to you, specifically.
— A well-meaning White person kicking ass at apologizing

You don’t need to know exactly what you did or even why it was offensive right now. If these are mysteries to you, then don’t despair. There will always be time to talk later. Right now, your goal is to deescalate the situation that your behavior has created. You caused harm, and now you’re trying to make it better. This is how you start.

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Step 5: Listen, Then Ask

An apology is the very first step of the restitution phase. After you’ve apologized—make it good!—the person of color whom you have offended will probably still be angry with you. They may be ready to accept that you are not a rabid racist, since you have demonstrated as much by not being defensive and by taking ownership of your behavior, but they may not be ready to let you off the hook. That’s OK.

Your first step is to understand what you did wrong. Once you’ve opened up a conversation by apologizing, they’ll probably be ready to talk to you about what you did wrong. Listen first. Ask questions that demonstrate that you have been listening.

Do not attempt to change the subject or make yourself look better—these are traps, and they will backfire on you. People of color have had many conversations with White people, and we have seen many White people go on about how “I’m the least racist person you know.” These people are often the worst racists we know. Do not attempt to convince a person of color that you are not racist by telling them that you have non-White friends. The majority of sexists are heterosexual men, so it is very possible to have intimate relationships with people who, as a group, one sees as subhuman. Many White slave owners had intimate relationships with their slaves, all the while buying and selling them like property. People of color are aware of this, and often those who claim that they have a “Black friend” are the worst offenders.

Instead, allow the person of color to lead the conversation. This will be a refreshing change from how these conversations usually go, and it will go a long way towards demonstrating that you are, indeed, an ally to people of color.

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Step 6: Do Some of Your Own Research!

I promise you that if you did a thing that someone called “racist,” you are not alone. Others have done the exact same thing, and I bet people make fun of them online. Go do some research of your own!

It’s possible that you disagreed with the person of color completely. You probably wanted to tell them how much you disagreed with their opinions, but you knew better than to argue with someone who is angry with you because of hurt you have caused them. You kept quiet, and that was a great thing you did.

Because others have probably engaged in the same, or similar, behavior, people of color have probably written about it. They’ve already explained why it’s wrong and why you shouldn’t do it somewhere on the Internet. Do some searching and see if you can find some articles written by people of color about the things that upset us. For example, there is a term for the fact that White people struggle so hard to talk about matters of race; it’s called “White fragility.”

On the other hand, it is always possible that the person of color was wholly wrong in calling you a racist, and there was nothing wrong with what you did. That happens sometimes, too. If you’ve been empathetic and kind to the person of color, then the person of color may come back to you with an apology of their own. If they don’t, then you can at the very least be pleased that you behaved exceptionally well in a very difficult situation. The people of color around you will have noticed, and we might be less likely to respond to your behavior so strongly in the future.