Perhaps “Racist” Should be an Adjective, Not a Noun

August 10, 2016  |  Craig St. John

By Veronica Carrillo

As a fair-skinned, white-looking Latina, I have the unfortunate privilege of being an audience for openly racist comments about other people that would likely have been stifled in the presence of a more obvious minority. I have heard people—people I consider friends—make hateful and ignorant comments about my ethnic group and the ethnic groups of friends and family. These are the kind of comments we think about when we hear the word “racist.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of new stories of black men and women dying at the hands of police, and renewed conversations about race, I hear many of the same refrains from well-meaning white friends:

“I don’t see color.”

“Race doesn’t matter.”

“I can’t imagine treating another person differently because of the color of their skin.”

This feeling is widespread and unfortunately a major contributor to the problem. We can’t imagine that we might actually be racist. This allows us to ignore our own thoughts, feelings, and actions that largely contribute to a world in which people of color are marginalized by structures and systems beyond what many of us can see.

Too often, I think we use the word “racist” as a noun rather than an adjective. We see people as either “A Racist” and therefore a bad person, or “Not a Racist” and a good person. We see blatant acts of racism as simply the work of a few bad apples in a generally colorblind society. But, Scripture tells us that, “None is righteous, no not one.” This use of the word, racist, as a noun, allows us to feel comfortable that we are not one of the bad guys and refuse to see the presence of bias that exists in many of us, regardless of our own race.

In one famous and often-replicated study, young children are presented with two dolls, identical but for their race—one is white, the other is black. Researchers asked each child to indicate which of the two dolls is “pretty,” “ugly,” “smart,” “bad,” “nice,” and so on. Black, white, and Hispanic children were all more likely to associate the light-skinned doll with positive traits and the dark-skinned doll with negative ones, indicating that a negative bias against minorities begins at a very early age. [You can watch a compilation of these studies here]. Furthermore, these biases were found to stay the same or worsen as children age. Although children now tend to grow up learning that racism is wrong and everyone should be treated as equals, our implicit biases manage to follow us into adulthood.

In another experiment, researchers submitted 5,000 fake resumes in response to 1,300 job postings across several cities, industries, and job titles. The resumes were identical except for the name of the supposed applicant—half of the applicants were given a black-sounding name, and half were given a white-sounding name. The resumes with white names received 50% more callbacks than the black names—the equivalent of an additional 8 years of work experience. [Read the full study here]

My guess is that not one of those hiring managers self-identifies as racist. Most are likely unaware that they have any bias against minority applicants. Furthermore, and most frustratingly, not one of the rejected applicants could prove in court that they were denied a job because of racism. But when you take a step back from the individual to look at the big picture, the presence of bias is impossible to deny.

We need to understand that these biases are present in every aspect of our lives. They exist in our schools, our jobs, and in every level of the criminal justice system— from police to prosecutors to judges to juries. People of color are still more likely than white people to be charged, convicted, and more harshly punished for the same crimes. These biases exist in spite of civil rights laws, in spite of equal-opportunity employment practices, and in spite of our claims that we “don’t see race.”

Racism is not hate. It is the system of structures and institutions that are made up of individuals with biases, most of whom probably believe that racism is wrong. This system doles out advantages and disadvantages to us based on the color of our skin. Certainly the blatant hate and intentional discrimination that we come to associate with the word “racist” still exists—we witness it in family members, teachers, employers, politicians. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is the naïve belief that racism is someone else’s problem. I pray that as the church takes time to lament, pray, and listen to these issues—that we don’t forget to look for solutions within ourselves.