Whispering About Racism

As I have come to see the depth and breadth of racism in our society, I have often found myself reaching for analogies which help me to understand how to break the tenacious grip by which racism holds us in bondage. So I begin to wonder what is a first step for breaking out of bonds? I search for other analogies.

In my personal life the analogy which is most helpful for understanding a first step toward the elimination of racism is in the ways I have seen people respond to the illness of cancer. That racism is a cancer in our society has been clear to me for years. That being so, I then began to look for similarities in the way I have heard persons think and talk about the two diseases, seeking clues which may lead to health. One early lesson to be learned is that a necessary step is to “name” the problem; that includes a willingness to say the word, “racism,” and to talk openly about it. The pattern I most frequently observe is one in which people do not want to recognize the problem of racism, or to even speak the word “racism.” Such avoidance is symptomatic of the problem; it is a failure to take the first step toward health. An antidote for the condition is found in the way many people have learned to think and talk about cancer.

Reflection about the way in which people today speak of cancer in contrast to a few years ago reveals a developing psychic health in the way we name, talk about, and subsequently treat the disease.

When I was a youngster there was a general reluctance to talk about cancer openly. I recall hearing my parents and other adults talking very cautiously about how a neighbor was “very sick.” The tone of voice, the facial expressions conveyed an ultimate seriousness that I understood, though nothing had been communicated about the illness itself. The whispering told me that the subject was something we ought not to talk abut. Fear and impotence was a clear message; there was nothing anyone could do. Gradually those subdued conversations were emboldened ever so slightly by the occasional still-whispered question, “is it terminal?” That was an attempt to discover exactly how “very sick” someone might be, without saying the dreaded word, “cancer.” Often the answer to the question came only by a sadly affirmative nod. Everyone knew what the nod meant, but the careful avoidance of saying a person had cancer put the whole matter in a context of something so powerful that any victim was doomed.

I can remember how astonished I was when I first heard those pioneers who dared to say right out loud in public that “so-and-so” had cancer! A sacred taboo had been violated, but it seemed sensible to me. Then I heard for the first time a person say of his own condition, “I have cancer,” and it was clear that a new attitude toward the illness was born. I soon acknowledged the positive nature of that openness. At least now we could talk about what was happening, how we felt, and what to do. Tithe situation still meant an acceptance of fatality, to that also we could respond in a more healthy way. Today it is common to engage in discussion of cancer and its effects on the patient and loved ones. The “naming” of the disease, the facing of its presence, the direct address of its effects, reflect a maturity of response which is an instance of greater social “health” in dealing with what is still a terrible condition.

As a society our response to cancer puts us way ahead of our position in response to racism. That is true at both the level of diagnosis and of naming the problem. If we move toward using the word “racism” openly instead of whispering it we will be better off. Naming the disease is an important step in coping with it. Facing it as racism, acknowledging its effects in ourselves, our institutions, our social norms, will be movement toward health.

Here are some suggestions of ways which may be helpful in gaining an increased ability to use the word, “racism,” to name the problems as “racism” in a realistic way so that it no longer has to be whispered, but can be spoken about openly, and solutions then be sought.

First, recognize that the word “racist,” when applied to individuals does not refer only to the most blatant, openly active bigot. Unfortunately, the word “racist” conjures for many people the image of someone who expresses prejudice in a series of overt actions, including name-calling, physical assault, and open announcements of their assumed superiority. Such a person is a bigot, one who holds extreme notions of superiority, and of course no one, except possibly the bigot, wants to be called by that name. Most of us are not extreme bigots, and some scholars have indicated that probably no more than 10% of the adult population is. So if one thinks of the word “racist” as meaning only that extreme form of bigoted person, few will want to hear the word, and its sound will raise automatic defenses. Use the word differently, as indicating persons who are imbued at any level with assumptions of racial superiority or who act in ways that have racist effects, and many more of us can use the word without defensiveness.

Second, try to unload the word “racism” of as much of its emotional content as possible; try using it descriptively, as a word which points to and describes a particular situation. It will not be easy to say “racism” without an emotional overload, but it can be done. When one begins to think and talk in this way, seeking solutions proceeds with less emotional heat and hopefully with more light.

Third, try using the word “racist” applied to yourself or others without necessarily implying that you or the other is a “bad” person. Certainly, racist behavior is not “good,” but it is possible to think of oneself as “racist” in some degree without assuming that one is a “bad” person. Many years of exposure to racist norms and ideas have had an effect on me, and I can., therefore, readily acknowledge racism in myself but I will stoutly maintain that I am not a bad person. The word, if used descriptively, tells something about me but does not condemn me as a kind of human trash.

Fourth, try using the word in the same way when you describe our society. To say that the United States is a racist society does not necessarily imply that the whole nation is rotten. It simply describes a history and a present fact which mars the nation’s fabric fundamentally. Not to acknowledge that history and the presence of racism today is to participate in a lie. It would be an equal lie to imply that because of racism there is nothing good about our society.

Those are very simple suggestions to make, harder to integrate into a way of thinking about racism. The next time you hear people talking openly about cancer, remember there was a time when we only “whispered” the dreaded name. Now we can approach it openly and honestly and with a greater hope. The same may be true of how we think and talk about racism. Let’s not “whisper” the notion; let’s say it right out loud where everyone can hear and see it and respond to it openly. That will lead us to a more healthy milieu for solutions.