Sep 25, 2018

Mean, Kind or Non: Which Type of Racist Are You?

By Carlos Hoyt /
Mean, Kind or Non: Which Type of Racist Are You?

Do you take issue with the following declaration?

“Race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity.”

Let's break it down. Many people are aware that the concept of race has no biological validity; that it’s a social construct, like gender or money, which are "real" only in so far as we treat them as such. So, in response to the first part of the thesis, many people might say, “Race is a social construct with very real effects.” As such, race certainly matters in myriad ways. As for race as the foundation of identity, many people might reason that, since identity is multi-faceted, race is, indeed, among the factors that comprise it.

Despite our best efforts to eradicate racism, it comes back like a toxic weed because we fail to pull it up by its root.

If, so far, you don't take issue with the declaration, then you share something very important — and very problematic — with Richard Spencer, president and director of the National Policy Institute (NPI), “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” Spencer made the pronouncement about race at NPI’s annual conference in November.

I do not mean to offend by connecting the dots between a racist's declaration and what you might think of it. I mean only to provoke the realization that we have to stop believing and acting as if we can have it both ways: adhering to the notion of race while also trying to end racism. The scourge that is the latter is inextricably contingent upon the former. Despite our best efforts to eradicate racism, it comes back like a toxic weed because we fail to pull it up by its root: the notion of race that Spencer and so many treat as real.

Years ago, I came across an insight in an essay by anthropologist Donald Muir that perfectly articulates the flaw in how most people think about racism.

The term “race” was introduced into science two and a half centuries ago as an arbitrary convenience to describe geographic groupings of humans. These ad hoc racial taxonomies were seized upon, however, as “scientific” justification for slavery and other forms of social, political, and economic oppression. Over the last fifty years, geneticists and biologists have quietly abandoned race as a scientific concept, leaving the general public unaware that racial categories, associated only with culturally selected, physically superficial characteristics, are social rather than genetic. As a result, most individuals remain “racist” in the sense of predicating interaction on racial assignments thought to reflect deep physiological differences. Some of these are conventionally recognized “mean racists.” The remainder, however, could well be considered “kind racists,” for their seeming benign tolerance defines limits to integration, and their unreflective perpetuation of the enabling belief of racism, that races exist physiologically, serves as a wellspring for mean racism during social crises. Many societies are thus much more racist than they appear. Since the belief that others are physically distinct tends to extend social distance and exacerbate hostility, analysts of social conflict ignore this pool of hidden racism at their peril. - Donald Muir

Muir distinguished three types of thinkers when it comes to racism: “mean racists,” “kind racists” and “non-racists.” Mean racists and kind racists share a belief in the thesis articulated by Spencer. Whereas mean racists take the thesis as an imperative to menace the racial other, kind racists wish to ignore that the very essence of the idea of race is unequal worth, and they campaign for racial equality, effectively an oxymoron. The only people who qualify as non-racist are those who defy and denounce the false logic of race altogether.

White supremacists, white nationalist, neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right — or whatever we choose to call mean racists — are, like all humans, driven to achieve consonance between their convictions and the shape and functioning of the world. Their motivation is rooted in the belief that race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity. We fail to vanquish racism because we argue with mean racists on their terms — race is real -- instead of working to disabuse them (and ourselves) of the delusion.

Race is not real. Race must cease to matter. Race is not a legitimate foundation of identity.

The only people who qualify as non-racist are those who defy and denounce the false logic of race altogether.

The false notion of race was prescribed to allay the hypocrisy associated with our fledgling country’s aspiration to liberty and concurrent reliance on slavery. The declaration about race being real, important, and legitimate grew up in direct contradiction to our other declaration, the one that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” A technically perfect principle that was woefully imperfect in its application.

Before the ink on the Declaration of Independence was dry, the burden of our Founding Fathers' belief in race had already plunged this country into a moral quicksand. In it, we continue to flail. To climb out and secure real safety and justice, we must do two things at once: monitor abuse based on the belief in race and repudiate race as a legitimate basis of belief and behavior.

We can do this. We have to. There is no other way.


Carlos Hoyt, Ph.D., LICSW, is assistant professor of Social Work at Wheelock College, Boston. He consults and writes on matters related to identity, diversity and pluralism.

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