It’s become clear at this point: We, as a society, have become very adept at punishing a specific kind of racism. From the racist University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanters to the Donald Sterling disaster about a year ago, we have become very good at pointing out individual instances of racism. We have also, as a consequence of this, come to agree that making racial remarks of any kind is a bad thing. As long as nobody says anything about race, nobody can be racist, right?

To be seen as racist — to be outed for making an ignorant remark pertaining to race — now stands as one of the most shameful labels we can carry. For me, it’s a very frustrating situation to deal with, because the discussion always shifts to talking about whether or not certain people are actually racist. We get public releases from the SAE chanters, Donald Sterling, Paula Deen, etc. trying to persuade the public that they’re not racist at all. And it usually devolves into something like, “Wait, look at this! See this photo of me and my friend, (insert name of an individual of color)? See how not-racist that makes me?” Instead of turning this unfortunate situation into an opportunity to discuss the ways in which minorities continue to face institutional oppression (for example in regards to Greek life on school campuses), we instead return attention back to the very perpetrators of the heinous situation that started the whole fiasco.

For the rest of us who don’t receive this kind of public attention for our remarks, the behavior is not all that dissimilar. “Why does everything have to be about race?” we say, always in defense of something. We’re scared. We don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people, and what kind of person is worse than a racist? We don’t want to believe that, in our own small way, we might be contributing to a larger system of oppression that has not been eradicated.

As I have said, we have gotten really good at noticing a certain brand of racism and then teaching others that as long as we don’t say anything related to race, we can’t possibly be racist. The consequence of that is counterproductive. Dialogue needs to be happening, much more than it is, both on campus and in our larger society. And to do this, I think we need to reevaluate the permanence of being marked a racist.

By permanence, I mean this: When someone, probably unintentionally, says something racially problematic, we tend to see their whole being as problematic. They are racist instead of they said something racist.

Jay Smooth, the host of a popular New York hip-hop radio show, gave a TEDx Hampshire College talk about just this: the awkward conversations we have when we dare to point out someone else’s ignorant remarks. In the talk, Smooth said, “I think we should consider … how we might take a suggestion that we may have said or done something racist and take it in stride and not completely freak out and assume that the world thinks that I’m a bad person.”

His remedy for how we take criticism was a simple analogy, one that better captures the mentality we should have regarding racist comments: “When you go through your day-to-day lives, there are all of these mass media and social stimuli as well as processes that we all have inside our brains that we’re not aware of that cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice every day, just like plaque develops on our teeth.”

It’s a funny but apt analogy, because it means “racism” is something that needs to be “cleaned” on a daily, regular basis. It’s something that needs to be dealt with in a very direct and attentive way. “I have something stuck in my teeth?” Smooth goes on to elaborate. “But I’m a clean person!” He shows us how ridiculous it sounds to take dental hygiene personally the way we might take critiques of our comments personally.

We’re “socially hygienic” not because that’s who we are, but because that’s what we actively practice. Of course, I should add that by choosing not to “maintain” our social awareness regarding race, we let our biases and prejudices take a more permanent, damaging turn. If left unchecked, they can fester and rot until we’re left with something irreversible.

Another final point I want to make is that being more socially conscious of race is an important step we should take as a school and society, but it’s not the final, all-problems-solved step, not when institutional racism continues to hinder people of color regardless of how well meaning the vast majority of us may be. However, our improved “hygiene” can allow us to be more open and willing to listen to others’ experiences and critiques, thereby opening up the opportunity to shift our institutional practices on a large scale.

Jenny Wang can be reached at wjenny@umich.edu.

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