Does using racist words make you a racist?

Who is racist?

Person A: Used to burn KKK crosses, now just uses the N-word when he feels threatened by young black men, or afterward in discussing those encounters.

Person B: Has black friends who party with him in his home and pray with him in their church. Often babysits the children of those friends and camps with them (etc.) during Scouting activities. Independently does the same type of work (snowplowing) as one black friend and pinch-hits for him if his truck or plow is broken, or if he is sick. The brother of Person B jealously wishes he were that close to his brother.

Person A uses the N-word, so many people would say he is racist. Person B is an exemplary model of what we should all strive to be: lovingly harmonizing with others regardless of their race.

So who is racist? Definitely A and obviously not B, correct?

Not so fast. A and B are the same person. This will no doubt cause fuses to blow in the minds of people allergic to ideas that aren't simple: thoughts that take a bit of mental processing and judgment.

President Kennedy repeatedly used the word “Negro” in his 1963 Civil Rights Announcement.

So does using racist words make you a racist? Obviously not. One cannot be racist and a shining example of racial unity who surpasses what most racial leaders do in their private lives and leaves just about everyone else in the dust. Most people are content to pat themselves on the back for not being labeled as racist if they can successfully hide their non-PC words and thoughts from others who might unfavorably judge them. Just sweep the problem under the rug; hide it and it'll go away, right?

Clearly not.

“Racist” isn't the correct word to describe Person A/B, so what is? Episodically crude, perhaps. If the definition of racist were broadened to include people who occasionally use racially offensive words when they are threatened, angry, or fearful, supporters of that broad definition would need to explain how Person A/B could simultaneously be racist and a splendid example of racial harmony. Trying to comport two mutually inconsistent observations—that Person A/B is definitely racist because he sometimes uses the N-word and obviously not racist because he has black friends who are closer than family to him—requires mental gymnastics whose practitioners get bound up in logical knots that evince their eagerness to brand others as racist exceeds their mental ability to plausibly define racism.

Then what is the definition of racist? Here's how various dictionaries define it:

Definition Is that a good definition?
“The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” No, because racial differences exist. For example, is it racist to think that Asian people have higher average IQs? No, because that is complimentary and true according to researchers who found significant differences in intelligence amongst races. People are hotly debating the degree of those differences, how they arise, and how we could level the playing field (I know how we could do that by uplifting everyone, with more benefit accruing to those who have more to gain), but there is some factual basis for them. In terms of mental ability, some races are indeed superior.
“Racial prejudice.” Prejudice literally means to “pre-judge” — something that humans often do because it proved to be evolutionarily adaptive. Cavemen couldn't safely wait to get to know a stranger before judging him; any indication (including race) that an approaching person was unknown and not a member of one's tribe elicited heightened alert and a presumption of “you're dangerous until proven otherwise” in people whose wariness made them more likely to survive. Their vigilance became our vigilance — that's how evolution works. This unconscious prejudice is part of our DNA. If you doubt that it is part of yours, I'm willing to bet $1,000,000 that you aren't free of prejudice, which can be scientifically measured. If you're willing to bet the same, contact me. Good luck; you'll need it.

Let's not hammer people for their unconscious beliefs, whether they arise from our DNA or life experiences. My life experiences taught me that women are more nurturing than men. My mother and aunt were considerably more nurturing than my father and uncle. If I meet a woman who looks like a kindly grandmother, I am apt to instantly pre-judge her as being sweet and nurturing, so prejudice isn't necessarily negative.

In my experience as an ER doctor dealing with many thousands of elderly folks, the ones who looked like sweet grandmothers were more likely to want to give me a hug than the ones who looked like angry old bitter boozing barflies, who sometimes threatened to knock my teeth down my throat. After observing correlations between appearance and behavior in many other patients in which a quick pre-judgment proved remarkably accurate, my informal observational study with tens of thousands of people suggested that there is indeed a correlation between appearance (especially countenance) and subsequent behavior. No one who smiled when I first entered their room later threatened me or even gave me a hard time, while those who looked angry, menacing, and looking for a fight often gave me one—sometimes literally, punching me until the State Police put them in handcuffs.

Perhaps that is why smiles are infectious. When I walk around town smiling, many people smile back (my usual good mood may shock people who think that when I am venting my spleen online, I'm always that way). A smile is a universal symbol telegraphing that I am friendly, not a threat. Seeing that I am in a good mood helps put others in one. The positive response to observing smiles evolved from eons of observations made by our ancestors who correlated smiles with pleasant interactions, not threat or fear. Countenance proved so reliably predictive that people learned to make life and death decisions based on it:

Smile → let my guard down and reciprocate the friendliness.

Brow furled in anger → get the club ready or run like hell!

With 24 hours per day, who has the time to not pre-judge others? If you meet someone wearing tattered clothes with ground-in dirt and greasy, unkempt hair, do you really suspend judgment until you get to know that person? It can take months or even years to find out what someone is really like, but you likely wouldn't go on a single date with someone you judged to be inferior to you.

Gorgeous women rarely date short, unattractive, obese, bald, and unsuccessful men, and attractive men rarely date ugly women with too many wrinkles and bulges in all the wrong places, even if they are wonderful, interesting, intelligent, and kind. However, plenty of people also discriminate in choosing friends on the basis of their appearance, which explains why some particularly stunning women on Facebook have albums chock-full of photos showing them with a dozen or more pals with supermodel appearance that puts them into the top 1% of beauty. You do the math: with so many other folks who aren't so hot, what's the chance that Ms. Yummy's friends look better than 99% of others? 1 x 10-24, or for all practical purposes, about zero, if Ms. Yummy chose her friends without regard to appearance.

Let's face it: almost everyone pre-judges or discriminates against others, often in ways that have nothing to do with race, so they are not good definitions of racism.

Shout racist if you are losing the debate

People without much intelligence gravitate to simple ideas, simple solutions, and simple definitions. If they wish to brand a political opponent as a racist, their small minds often buzz with joy when seeing what they consider to be rather overt evidence of racism: using racially insensitive words. Simpletons think, “You used the word, so you're a racist.”

Case closed? Not quite. As mentioned earlier, people like Person A/B sometimes use such words when they are threatened, angry, or fearful—times when the more primitive parts of their brains surface and culture takes a back seat. When people are mad, they often say things they don't mean, even to loved ones. When people have venom to vent, they tend to use less than civilized words that often inaccurately expresses their true feelings. Whatever surfaces during those emotional extremes is rarely an accurate reflection of what they're really like, so isolated examples of imperfection are not a valid basis for judging someone to be a racist.

People have an almost endless number of flimsy reasons for thinking they are better than others, so assuming superiority in one's mind is just another common human foible—not necessarily racism, even if racial differences were the basis for that judgment. Scientists know that people usually possess fonder feelings for people in their race and implicit bias for those in others. For example, Project Implicit found that “three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias,” and even one of the professors involved in that project harbors that bias. (I discussed implicit bias and an interesting way to reduce it in an article discussing how the approach the PC police use to enforce political correctness is actually counterproductive.) People are usually fonder to others who are more like them and more hostile to those less like them. This explains why rich people usually hobnob with others in their social class and why sports fans are much more likely to beat up fans of the opposing team.

True racism persists past the “get to know you” stage; it is a pervasive part of their behavior that surfaces even when they aren't threatened, angry, or fearful. For example, one of my grandfathers couldn't discuss black people without calling them names and verbally bashing them. He repeatedly maligned black people without provocation. My brothers and I laughed at him—behind his back, of course, because we were just kids. He had muscles of steel and was often seething with anger, frequently expressing racial animosity so kooky we wondered if he were the head of the Michigan KKK. We knew he was racist, but we never knew why; we wondered where all of that animus came from. He hated black people because they were black, not because of what they did. In his mind, the fact that someone was black was sufficient justification to hate him or her. That's racism.

A paramedic told me that some of his co-workers intentionally murdered black patients. That's racism, too. From what he said, the killers felt eminently justified in murdering because of race; their victims didn't just happen to be black, they were targeted because they were black.

What do you call a batter who hits .400 and therefore fails to get on base 60% of the time? A superstar.

How would you like it if others tried to characterize you based on episodic examples of your imperfections?

Most people are occasionally rude, but most are not rude people. I sometimes interrupt my girlfriend. That is rude but I'm not because I am rarely rude; she says I am the best listener she's ever met—and she is a psychologist, so she knows what good listening is. I interrupt my boss every time we speak on the phone, not because I'm rude, but because his cell phone signal goes through a network that imposes a slight delay that makes conversation very awkward.

We're all occasionally angry, but we're not all angry people.

We all sometimes do stupid things, but we're not all stupid.

Most people occasionally do things that are insensitive, mean, or selfish, but we're not necessarily that way all the time. While working the ER night shift, I called 911 and asked the dispatcher to radio the State Police officers to say if they weren't busy, to stop by the ER to have some of the pizza I bought. I often ordered pizza for the police, nurses, and even patients, but on this particular night, my greed for pizza caused me to hog most of it. One of the troopers had a hurt look on his face, as if I'd cheated him out of his share. I later felt bad about that (and still do) because it was selfish, but as a rare example of selfishness, it doesn't mean that I am selfish.

If I were selfish, why would I give someone in India twice as much money as I owed him? I did that at a time when I was poor and desperately in need of the money, but I gladly gave it anyway because I thought it was the right thing to do. That's definitely not selfish, yet I am occasionally selfish because I am human and all people are occasionally imperfect. Just as Person A/B is a shining example of racial harmony—and therefore not a racist—even though he occasionally uses the N-word, I am generous even though I am occasionally selfish. I am selling my Sea-doo, Ski-doo, and shed to help a deported person reenter the United States even though I never met her.

I've helped countless people in the world, donating my time and money, and I've helped people achieve their dreams and become doctors. All that helping took years of my life—thousands and thousands and thousands of hours that added up to years in which I could have been working or playing to benefit me instead of others, but I chose to give to them. How many people do more? Surely less than 1%, so by being so generous, it isn't accurate to say that I am selfish even though I'm occasionally selfish.

Alleging racism as a political bludgeon

It's no secret that people with a political axe to grind use allegations of racism as a bludgeon to whack their opponents.

As the United States is circling the drain, people in it are increasingly frustrated, usually with good reason. Frustration and anger of partisans on the Left and Right often prompts them to try making a mountain out of a molehill when a political enemy makes a mistake, even isolated errors. The Left often wants the freedom to brand others as racist if they make PC blunders, and the Right wants the freedom to brand their opponents as stupid if they do stupid things.

If it were valid to brand someone as being something negative if he were occasionally that way, then Barack Obama would be incredibly stupid and ignorant because he didn't know how many states we have, didn't know how to pronounce “corpsman,” and didn't know what a P/E ratio is. We could also say that Obama is incredibly rude and insensitive for suggesting that physical disabilities are a laughing matter.

Of course, President Obama usually isn't rude or insensitive; he's just human, and therefore occasionally sticks his foot in his mouth. He's also obviously not ignorant despite some surprising gaps in his knowledge, nor is he stupid. Anyone elected President of the United States is by definition a political genius, and even if you disagree with his policies, you should give him credit for the clever ways he is able to outfox Republicans who smugly think they are much smarter than he is.

Just as a batter who strikes out most of the time can still be a superstar, a person who makes occasional PC mistakes can still be a good person. Einstein was wrong about some things, yet his name is now a synonym for exceptional genius. People are defined by what they usually are, not what they occasionally are.

Virtually everyone occasionally utters something that is politically incorrect if not racist, such as this allegation from a United States District Court document: “Officer Bragg, who is African-American, purportedly told Plaintiff that "I hope you come up guilty of something so we can haul your black ass to jail."” Even if he did indeed say that, is the African-American police officer racist against black people? Almost certainly not, but he's as human as others of all races I've worked with whose occasional transgressions of PC standards did not make them racist.

Even Ivy League grads make PC mistakes

I was surprised to learn that some consider using the word “Oriental” to be racist. I can't recall if I ever used it, but I wouldn't be surprised because I thought it was a term of respect and hence may have used it in describing a professor I revered to my Mom. Parenthetically, he is—decades later—one of the few college and medical school professors I still have warm and fuzzy feelings about. I liked everything about him personally and professionally, and I was frankly amazed he sometimes asked to walk with me after class so he could pick my brain, so disparage him? Definitely not intentionally! My extensive education somehow omitted everything pertaining to PC rules.

I'm not alone. In Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence (published by a division of HarperCollins and hence almost certainly edited by bright people steeped in PC rules), Ivy League grad Dr. Ben Carson used “Oriental” in describing one of his neurosurgery residents, Art Wong, who “holds a special place in my heart.”

Dr. Carson, previously the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital and currently United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is simply stellar, also personally and professionally. He was my top choice for President in 2016 and likely would be if he decides to run again.

Eager to advance their wacky political agenda and socialize the United States even though history manifests why socialism is a bad idea with terrible consequences, the PC police goes overboard in attacking notable political opponents who make PC mistakes, but not their allies, such as President Obama, whose Ivy League education and high IQ did not immunize him from saying stupid and offensive things (here's one example). Being imperfect is part of being human.

Related topics

PC police thwarting a remedy for rape


  1. Personality pressure: Study suggests natural selection could have influence on lizards' 'personalities'
    Excerpt: “Besides upending the common view that natural selection and evolution can drive physical, but not behavioral changes, the study points to the need for further research.”
    Comment: Hmmm? This was published in 2108. Decades ago in college, I had a class discussing how natural selection drove behavioral changes—which was obvious then and obvious now because behavior can clearly be adaptive (favoring passing genes to the next generation) or not. Xenophobia arose and persisted, passing into present generations, precisely because it was adaptive.
  2. Infants Begin to Learn About Race in the First Year based on Building biases in infancy: the influence of race on face and voice emotion matching
  3. Excessive Worrying May Have Co-Evolved With Intelligence based on The Relationship between Intelligence and Anxiety: An Association with Subcortical White Matter Metabolism
  4. When it Comes to Politics, Are We More Racist Than We Think? (yes, according to the article)
  5. If people were penalized for their thoughts, almost everyone would be in prison. Appearing on The Big Idea Show, Mel Robbins said, “If we were to put a speaker on any one of our heads and broadcast what was going out of our brains, we would be committed, arrested …” [interrupted by the host Donny Deutsch, but she could have added ostracized, disowned, fired, divorced, etc.]

    Comment: Even very good people have very bad thoughts. What separates the good from the bad isn't what we daydream about, but whether we do things we shouldn't. Example: Many middle-aged men fantasize about having sex with hot 20-something women, but not all men do it or even attempt it. Several years ago, a slim, gorgeous, and intelligent young woman (I think she was then 21) wrote to me seeking a possible relationship. I was impressed by her brainpower because she realized that “histographic accelerometer” (one of my inventions I'd mentioned in a personal ad) must be a sufficiently unique phrase so she could Google it and contact me directly, not via the pay-to-contact dating site, which she did.

    She was as yummy as a woman can be, but I wanted what was best for her more than I wanted what was best for me—or what could have given my 40-something body and mind a real thrill and possibly many years of happiness. However, I think long-term, and I knew that a quarter-century later I'd be well over the hill while she'd still be hot, so I told her that. Unfortunately, in rejecting her, I was not as tactful as I usually am.

    I feel bad about the overly blunt way I advised her to date men her own age, but she did give me the idea for creating, a website that enabled online daters to contact people they saw on dating (or other) sites without paying those sites (most of which operate on a pay-to-contact model) or even registering with them. The site worked well for a time, but I took it down after realizing that most people are so inside-the-box they won't avail themselves of valuable services given to them. (See my article, 649 million reasons to think that people are stupid, ignorant, or both.)

    Now for the racial relevance of this: Most racial antipathy is never seen. It is often present but filtered out by the self-censoring part of the mind that realizes the negative consequences of appearing to be racist. So what do people do? Solve the racist problem? No, they just sweep it under the rug in response to PC pressure, which is thus counterproductive, as I discussed in another article.
  6. Paula Deen, tell 'em all to go to hell
    Excerpt: “ … morons who judge her for her words, rather than for her deeds.” (commenting on that article, Sharon wrote, “Who hasn't said something unwise at some time? To go back many years to find the offending utterance is just plain stupid.”)
  7. Article: My 3-year-old has race issues?! Where did she learn to think that way? (A mother concludes her three-year-old daughter is racist before deciding she just “made a mistake.”)
  8. A surprisingly honest article: Bad Parent: Baby Bigot: Is my child prejudiced?
  9. I thought blacks can't be racist?: Joseph Farah rips multiculturalists over firing of teacher who uttered 'negro'
  10. Whites distrust biracial people when their racial presentation varies, Rutgers study finds: 'Contextual racial presentation' has implications for an increasingly multiracial society
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

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