Is that person or comment racist, or just tone-deaf?
Let me suggest a different response for when charges erupt.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Star Tribune on September 17, 2019.
Are an unknown number of racists slithering through American life and institutions as we speak? Is very real racism hurting very real people? Without question both times. But I don’t use words such as “racist” and “racism” nearly as often as many do for key reasons, starting with how definitions of each term are more plastic than precise.
I’m also usually reluctant to question anyone’s motives, whatever the circumstance, as I generally don’t know what they fully are.
And topping it all, profligate accusations of racial animus degenerate into weightless clichés and bad background noise.
Does this mean examples of clear-cut racism deserve free rhetorical passes? Clearly no. But let me suggest a different response for when charges erupt.
Instead of assuming maliciousness (which may in fact be the case), it’s generally more effective to focus on the possible tone-deafness of things said or done. No, this is not a dodge, as it’s more societally productive to explain why something is understandably offensive to various individuals and groups than yelling “racism” by rote.
Is President Donald Trump a racist? He says he’s the least racist person in the universe. That might be an overstatement. But whatever doubts one may have about him, better to stress why many of the things he says are tone-deaf, often malignantly so. Better to say, and not just to him as the case may be, “What you’ve said is easily interpreted as painfully offensive by people who have been treated shabbily and worse. Kindly watch your language.”
Smart and good people, free of malice, say offensively tone-deaf things all the time. For instance, a colleague of mine in Minnesota state government a long time ago, in talking to an auditorium of people about a tough problem, used the term “final solution.” Not a good word choice. Was she anti-Semitic? I trust not, as she just didn’t know the term’s connection to the Holocaust. She immediately apologized when diplomatically informed of her mistake, and that was that.
A distinguished University of Chicago scholar a while back wrote an insightful, even brilliant essay on courtship, but he used the word “bastardy” when talking about nonmarital births. Awful word choice. Was he a fundamentally nasty person? No. But serious tone-deafness made it even more unlikely that eclectic readers, especially liberal academics, would seriously and generously consider what he had to say about childbearing and marriage.
Then there are other things said or done, excellent and admirable things, regarding race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, the names of buildings, and whatever else that are not tone-deaf at all, but which dyspeptics trash and burn if their tastes are not satisfied in scorched-earth full. It’s common for what is genuinely benign to be slandered, especially in colleges and universities, as nasty. When this happens, civil conversations are unlikely to follow. Meaning, don’t sweat it if, after explaining yourself, you’re still deemed a lowdown racist, fascist, homophobe, or some other un-woke excuse for a human.
Bonus advice for dairy farmers: Don’t get knocked off your stool if a PETA delegation ever accuses you of being a white supremacist, because that’s what they say milk is a symbol of. I’m not making this up — really.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and senior fellow, Center of the American Experiment. His newest book is “Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.”