by Chris Bodenner
Ta-Nehisi took issue with a paragraph I wrote:
In my mind there is no equivalency [between the "daily indignities" of whites and blacks], but the reader does raise a good point: there is, and never will be, a white equivalent to the N-word, but "racist" - when unsubstantiated - comes close.
TNC calls this "quite wrong" and writes:
I think we'd all agree that if my spouse gets mad and calls me a sexist, and I fire back by calling her a bitch, I've gone somewhere else. I think we'd agree that if a gay person, without proof, calls me a homophobe, and I fire back by calling him a fag, I've ventured into another league. We are not "close" in terms of the level of our offense.
I couldn't agree more that "bitch," "fag," and especially "nigger" are worse than their counterparts, which is why I stated - twice - that there is simply no equivalent for white people. (They are fundamentally different, of course, because of the power dynamic they imply.) So TNC's objection lies mostly in semantics, specifically "close." The reason I chose that controversial word was to emphasize the following point: throwing around the word "racist" causes white people more anguish and self-doubt than a lot of liberals will acknowledge. That was underscored by the subsequent flood of emails diminishing the reader for complaining - despite several caveats - that whites like him are often unfairly branded as racists.
But in hindsight, I probably should have used the word "closest" instead (as in, "the term 'racist' is the closest white equivalent to 'nigger'"). An alternative like "honky" seems laughable and near meaningless. "Redneck" gets closer because it tries to match "nigger" for its socioeconomic roots. But poor Southern whites never had the same obstacles as blacks, so the term remains toothless. "Racist," on the other hand, hits a unique nerve because it carries a strong moral stigma, which no amount of white privilege can shake (and which it often reinforces). This is the core issue where I think TNC and I disagree, as evidenced when he writes:
The question then becomes, why is it different for "racist"? My only answer is that it's because we, again, equate racist with "immoral." ... Again, I think this makes sense, if you believe racism to be the province of societal pariahs, not people who hawk their wares on MSNBC. But if you believe that we live with it every day, that the worst part of racism is how it hides in the hearts of otherwise decent people, than this is rather puzzling.
I suppose I fit more it the former category and TNC the latter. I do believe "racist" should connote an "immorality" for people who say or do things that are unambiguously hateful and denigrating; the bar should be high. Not because I have sympathy for people who say merely careless, ignorant, or insensitive things, but to ensure that "racist" is not diminished in its power to stigmatize truly racist people. Perhaps replacing it more often with the word "prejudiced" would maintain that rhetorical power yet still shame non-racists for saying stupid things. I dunno; all this semantic parsing is making my head hurt. So, in sum: overusing "racist" can be counterproductive.