Go ahead, admit you’re a racist

01:28 - Source: CNN
Kelly Osbourne's Trump slam backfires

Story highlights

No one is ever a racist, judging by a parade of apologies from celebs, politicians

But what if someone called out for such behavior said, "What I did was racist"

Part of the problem, some observers say, is that the word "racist" hasn't evolved

CNN —  

A group of women were chatting and laughing together like old friends when the subject turned to race.

One of them said she was amazed that Donald Trump, while running for president, could get away with describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers.”

“If you kick every Latino out of this country,” another chimed in, “then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?”

Someone gasped and there was an awkward pause. One of the group was of Puerto Rican descent and two others were African-American. They were all panelists on the ABC show, “The View,” and their conversation before a studio audience was being broadcast live.

The woman whose comment derailed the perky talk-show banter was reality TV star Kelly Osbourne, who is white. She later took to Twitter to “take responsibility for my poor choice of words,” but added, “I will not apologize for being a racist as I am NOT.”

No one is ever a racist, judging by the parade of apologies from celebrities, politicians and even police officers caught acting in apparently racially offensive ways. But here’s a thought: What if a white person called out for such behavior instead said, “What I did was racist, and there’s no other excuse. I was wrong.”

Is the American public ready for that? Has any public figure ever successfully made such an admission?

“I’d be relieved if anyone would admit that, but I’m not holding my breath,” says Brit Bennett, an African-American journalist and author who writes about race. “People get more upset at being called a racist than the injustice of racism.”

A year after racial protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, Americans are talking about racism in more sophisticated ways. More people now use terms like “racial bias” and “systemic racism.” Yet the way many people use the word “racist” has not evolved. It is still stuck in a bygone era when the only racists were people burning crosses, say some civil rights activists, commentators and historians.

American history doesn't offer many examples of public figures admitting to racism, but George Wallace came close in 1982 when he admitted he was "wrong" about race.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American history doesn't offer many examples of public figures admitting to racism, but George Wallace came close in 1982 when he admitted he was "wrong" about race.

“When you use the word ‘racist’ today, it’s always all or nothing – either you is or you ain’t,” says Jerald Podair, an American studies professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “It’s like that line about being a little pregnant: You are or you are not.”

Perhaps it’s time to rewrite script, some say. If you get accused of being a racist, skip the instant denials and do a little “self-interrogation,” says Mark Naison, a civil rights activist and author of “White Boy: A Memoir.” If it’s true, publicly own your racism.

Naison is a white man who says he’s done that – and the process has been liberating. He has stricken the phrase, “I am not a racist,” from his vocabulary.

“If you say, ‘I’m not a racist,’ that’s the best way of saying to me I can’t trust you,” says Naison, a history professor at Fordham University in New York City. “Because everybody internalizes all these racial stereotypes that are a part of our culture and our history, and that includes people of color.”

The evolution of the R-word

Part of the challenge of admitting that one is a racist is a lack of role models. Few, if any, public figures have made such an admission in contemporary American culture, some observers say.

A politician can confess to an extramarital affair; a CEO can admit to a disastrous product launch; and individuals can stand up in 12-step meetings and admit they’re addicts or alcoholics. But there’s no “Racists Anonymous” or “racism rehab,” they say.

For most people, being called a racist is like being called a communist during the height of the Cold War, says Podair, the American studies professor.

“When the word was used, it stuck to you,” Podair says. “You couldn’t get it off of your shoe.”

The R-word is such a weaponized term that it’s easy to forget it acquired its power only relatively recently. Racist rhetoric was the norm in America until the civil rights movement made it taboo in the 1960s, Podair says.

Now the word “racist” can be deployed as the rhetorical version of the nuclear option. It can end friendships, careers and earning potential.