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The Difference Between What You Say and What You Are

As is often the case during major online blowups of one kind or another, I have lately found myself having to explain more often than I would care to the difference between “You said something racist” and “You are a racist.” Granted, a lot of people, including anti-racist activists, make a step from the first statement to the next with no problem. But it isn’t always the case that someone who says racist or sexist or other oppressive/prejudiced things is themselves a prejudiced, racist, or sexist person. They can be, certainly. And if you give certain people enough time and space to talk, they’ll prove themselves so.

But not always.

I want to try and unpack this in a way that will benefit future discourse because I think this is a very important point. I’m not the only person to point this out, of course. But it helps me to be a better debater in the future if I make posts and put my thoughts in order.

The truth is, everyone can make prejudiced, offensive or oppressive statements. Many people have prejudiced thoughts. And I mean people as in humans as in everyone, not just those whose groups have historical power.

In the case of those who do not belong to the dominant group, those statements can be hurtful, but often do not have the same impact. This is due to power imbalance.1 When someone in the dominant group says something prejudiced or offensive, many people will (perhaps correctly) assume that they said such a thing because they really think and believe it. And if a person really believes that prejudiced thing, they must be prejudiced themselves. This is not illogical.

However, humans often are.

Bias, prejudice, wrong thinking can be the product of conscious thought or unconscious/unexamined thought. It seems to me that a large percentage of people who bust out with really ignorant statements often do so because they have not ever, ever truly thought them through to their logical conclusions. If they did, or if someone challenged them to, their thinking could change.

Most activists realized this about people long ago. And thus many attempt to make a distinction between “You said something X-ist” and “You are a X-ist.”

Doing this is hard. Especially when the words that come out of people’s mouths are so very, very hurtful or very, very ignorant. It also doesn’t help when the person is acting like a jerk, all prejudicial talk aside. That is usually when people make the leap from “you said” to “you are” — I include myself in this.

So, two thoughts. One for those who say things that get them in trouble, one for those who hear/read these things.

First, the guide to How Not To Be Insane When Accused of Racism is very, very useful and I suggest you read it. Also, I urge you to read or listen carefully when someone takes exception to something you said/wrote. Are they saying that you’re an X-ist? Or are they saying that what you said is X-ist? If they say the latter they’re trying to make the distinction I’ve been talking about here, and you will not help the conversation by assuming they’re accusing you of the former.

If you are being accused of X-ism, then it would behoove you to examine what about your statement made people say that about you. Do not attempt to destroy, suppress or otherwise derail the discussion of racism (it’s not helpful either to you or to other arguing against you). And remember that admitting that you were wrong to say that X-ist thing is not the same as admitting you are an X-ist yourself.

Second, for those who see or read offensive, X-ist, prejudicial, or stereotypical things, I suggest attempting to make a distinction between what folks say and what they are. It’s not an easy path to take, and it involves a lot of giving the benefit of the doubt, patience, and tolerance. But I think it does help to start by saying “you said something x-ist/offensive” instead of “you are an x-ist because you said that” unless this person has proven, through past or further statements and actions that they are indeed x-ist.

Then you can have at.

That’s my advice, take it or leave it as you will. I do admit that for the activist, this can be hard. Especially when you run up against the thousandth instance of a particular prejudicial or offensive mindset. I make no claim on being perfect or even halfway decent in this regard at all times. I’m just trying.

I’m hoping for better discourse, but I have little hope of getting it from certain quarters of the population.

  1. A black person calls a white person a cracker: that’s not cool. But it does not have the same impact, or have the same level of wrongness, as a white person calling a black person a nigger. Still, doing both things is wrong, period. []

7 thoughts on “The Difference Between What You Say and What You Are”

  1. The Menstruator says:

    Hey there. Nice piece you’ve written here. I like that you just say things. No wishy washy. It’s appreciated.

  2. Momsomniac says:


    This is a wonderful post – I am not Black, and though I have learned much here – that is not why I came or stayed – I came with an SF related search and stayed because it often seems that this blog is one of the few TRULY “Safe Places” I have found on the internet. Lots of places claim to be safe, but try pointing out that something stated is classist [or problematic in some other way] & you can find out real quick that it isn’t.

    I suspect the feelings you express above are at least part of the reason WHY that is – this blog attracts (well, trolls, of course) but long term, people who approach discourse thoughtfully & people who know how to apologize for real (and who know how to handle folks who really NEED to apologize but won’t). Wonderful posts by wonderful writers too.

    Thank you.

  3. Heather says:

    Thanks for this post! I think this is a necessary conversation that needs to be happening more often. Jay Smooth tackles the issue and points out that if our goal is really to keep people accountable for the way they act and the things they say, then we need to approach the particular action that took place instead of attacking the whole person.

    Jay Smooth video –

  4. Mel says:

    A black person calls a white person a cracker: that’s not cool. But it does not have the same impact, or have the same level of wrongness, as a white person calling a black person a nigger. Still, doing both things is wrong, period.

    This. I am getting so tired of “Well what about all the [minorities] who say mean things to [majority], huh?”

  5. Comm grad student says:

    YES! Yes, this is such a fantastic point to make.

    I like to think in terms not of racists and antiracists, but of whether people are *practicing* antiracism. I may never be perfect but I get better with practice.

  6. black yoda says:

    It’s depressing that you need it.

  7. Melinda Bishop says:

    ABW…this. I’m not cool with ANYONE who has racist attitudes, whether they admit it or not.

    I’m biracial and very light-skinned. I’ve been called every racial slur in the book by blacks, whites, and Hispanics.

    My white husband is far from being racist…but there is still some discomfort with talking about it. I hope he will understand someday. Maybe I talk about it too much? But it is only in an effort to open up dialogue about an issue that is still very relevant today.

    I believe that racism will always be around. I believe that hateful, ignorant people come in all colors. Although my white conservative Republican Southern Christian in-laws are very kind and accepting of me, I know that they are unaware of the prejudice in some of their remarks. My MIL, while she is a simply wonderful lady, seems to have trouble with President Obama and anything he says or does. I realize that this might mostly be because she is Republican but part of me believes that it is because he is not white.

    She looks for any reason to talk down on him. I simply smile and nod, but at times I wonder if she realizes that her comments make me uncomfortable. Recently she had hip replacement surgery. While we were at the hospital, she made a comment about her Jamaican nurse being “black as the ace of spades”. This bothered me a bit, because why was it necessary to talk about the woman’s color that way? I love my MIL, but that comment threw me off. It had me looking at her differently. And his sister is simply weird. She seems to be very into her privilege as a white woman. Lots of entitlement issues. Loves to tell others what to do. My husband is the only one who seems a bit willing (if reluctant) to examine race relations.

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