We live in a day and age where it’s common for people to label each other. When we see somebody doing something we find problematic, most of us are pretty quick to cry “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic” or pretty much any other label you can think of. But what are those labels really doing?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying it’s not important to call out problematic behavior. If somebody is using racial slurs, we have to stand up and do something to stop that. But it takes more than just labeling them racist.
Language matters. We still live in a society where most people define racism as a small-scale individual problem, not a systemic problem. So its no wonder we get into arguments about race all the time. Under that old definition, when you stop at telling someone “you’re racist,” you’re really implying:
- You are a fundamentally bad person.
- You don’t deserve your social standing and reputation.
- I don’t like you, and I don’t want to talk to you.
- Calling you racist means I’m not; this pacifies my conscience and tells me that I’m better than you.
- You should be shut out of the social justice conversation because you are a symbol of exactly what we’re trying to eradicate.
I hope you can see my point: stopping at a label doesn’t solve anything. It only creates more divides, more arguments, more problems. It makes people less willing to have actual conversations, it makes the political atmosphere more toxic, and it makes people less likely to see the larger, systemic issues at play.
Because racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are not people problems. They are massive systems of oppression that manifest in the behaviors of both institutions and individuals.
So what can we do? Educate ourselves. Emphasize the systemic, socialized nature of the problem so that people stop equating labels with being fundamentally bad human beings. Exercise our power to change social institutions.
And yes, changing institutions often starts with changing individuals. So let’s start actually changing people. Let’s start having actual conversations. Let’s stop saying “you’re racist” and start saying “I think what you just said was a little problematic and here’s why.”
Let’s stop labeling, and start educating.