Let’s talk about name-calling: Specifically, the label “racist.”
We apply it too freely, and as a result, we harden the hearts of the very people we are trying to reach.
One New Year’s morning, I assigned a young reporter the traditional “first baby of the year” story. As I sent her on her way, I remarked, “you might need a translator. Odds are the mom speaks Spanish. And she’ll probably be single, too.”
I was making a sarcastic nod to the city’s demographics. But a reporter who overheard my comment took me aside and let me know she was offended by the remark.
“But I was only joking,” I said.
Patiently and with pointed directness, she said, “It wasn’t taken as a joke.”
Had she called me a racist or said I had made a racist remark, I would have gotten defensive. I am from a diverse family and have lived and worked in diverse communities. Maybe I have a sick sense of humor, but I’m no racist.
Instead, the reporter had told me that my words offended her. Coming from a coworker who I respected, that cut deep. It caused me to reflect on what I said and to admit my insensitivity. I apologized and the lesson has stuck with me ever since.
What if we stopped calling names and labeling people, and instead tell them how their words or behavior impact us? It’s the facilitator trick of insisting that people use “I” statements rather than generalized assertions because that always moves the conversation away from blaming, shaming and name-calling.
Who is a racist?
There are times when the label is appropriate and effective. When you want to warn people to steer clear of racist groups or politicians, the word is a powerful branding tool. In this use case, you are trying to reach the racists’ potential audiences, to prevent them from being duped.
But we have we used too broad a brush in the racist branding game. We’ve used it punitively: “Trump voters are racist.” We have used it to simplify much more complex abominations: “Steve Bannon is a racist.” When we do this, we not only diminish the power of the word racist, we actually give fuel to our opponents. The very essence of the anti-establishment alt-right is to equate racist labeling to “political correctness.” The further we stretch the label, the more we prove their point.
The alt-righters themselves are of little concern – they are noisy but ultimately feckless. Their narrative, however, provides an escape route for people whose opinions and behaviors we really must care about. Police officers, for example. There are discriminatory practices baked into policing that must change. But will officers and their chiefs tackle that hard work if it’s easier to chalk it all up to “political correctness?”
What if, instead, we use the equivalent of “I” statements when calling out racial insensitivity? What if we focus on the cause and impact of actions, instead of branding individuals or groups as racist?
I met a retired real estate executive at the gym and we quickly established that we are on different ends of the political spectrum. Our conversation orbited around media credibility and I said I am flummoxed by people who believe things that are not fact. “Oh, I do that if it fits with my personal belief,” he said. So I asked him, “do you believe President Obama is a Muslim?”
“In the sense that he is an anointed Muslim, or whatever it is they do, no. But he is extremely biased in favor of Muslims.”
On that basis, if he had been asked by a pollster whether Obama was a Muslim, he might have said yes. I pointed that out to him, and he acknowledged a world of difference between the statements “Obama is a Muslim” and “Obama is biased toward Muslims.” For my part, I am less inclined to think the polls indicate a willing disregard for the truth, but rather an exaggeration of their disagreement with the President’s policies.
What if we quit labeling Trump’s Muslim ban as “racist?” Instead, let’s address the idea strictly on the basis of its impact. Say something like, “I don’t favor singling out people of different religions for different treatment, do you? I’m not saying you’re a racist if you support this idea, but I’m questioning the long-term impact of your view.”
This might invite a discussion. It certainly sets the stage for values-based thinking, as opposed to simplified right/left name-calling.
They started it
It’s easy to blame Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes for the disintegration of our national discourse. But in truth, humans have always divided themselves into tribes and spent much effort in calling the other tribes names. There are those who thrive in the muck, but history is made by those who rise above it.
I admit I am having a hard time rising above the muck. Anger and impatience pull me down. But I’ve always believed that given a choice of the easier or harder path, the latter is always the right one.
Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health.
Steve also is professor of public relations and journalism at Metro State University of Denver.