Some of the most racist statements I’ve ever heard begin with these words:

“I’m not a racist, but …”

The speaker is usually trying to establish that although he has no hatred for people who are different from him, he has seen something that he thinks puts people of another race in a bad light.

Now it’s my turn: I’m not a racist, but according to an online implicit bias test, I have a moderate bias in favor of light-skinned people.

I’m not aware of it, but if the test is accurate, it tells me I’m programmed to associate good things with people who look more like my mother, my father, my wife, my children and most of my friends than I am to have positive associations with people who look different from us.

Does that make me “a racist”?

It depends on what you mean. The dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” That’s not me.

But “racism” is an “ism,” which tells me that, like Buddhism, optimism or capitalism, it’s a “doctrine, theory, system or practice.”

I am a white male living in a system that prefers white males over all others. Most of the people who have ever held power in politics, business, religion and culture are white males. It’s been true over centuries, and it’s still true today.

That’s evidence either that white males are inherently superior, or that the system is unfair in our favor.

Does participating in such a system make me a racist? Can I be a racist without realizing it?

This question comes to mind with new guidance from the Associated Press, which is the final arbiter of style for many American newspapers, including this one. AP tells us whether “fundraising” or “underway” is one word or two, and sometimes it changes its mind and sends out a directive to its members.

Now the stylebook encourages journalists to use the words “racist” and “racism” in our copy instead of terms like “racially charged” or “racially motivated” when describing “the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others.”  

These are words reporters have been told to avoid in the past, because, like “lie” and “liar,” they assume the reporter has knowledge of someone’s intent. It’s easy to see “racism” at a Ku Klux Klan rally, but what about the other kind of racism, the system of preferences and roadblocks, the kind that is around us all the time?

The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” And that is a better description of the kind of racism that has become such a feature of our politics.

It’s not expressed hatred of brown-skinned people that is driving the crisis at the border, where families are being locked up in pens for the crime of wanting to escape oppression. We’re told it’s being done to protect people like us from crime and disease. The families’ problems are not our concern.

You don’t have to hate anyone to perpetuate a system where one group has all the advantages. All you have to do is to care less about suffering when the people in pain are different from you.

The AP is on the right track with its directive. We should call out racism when we see it, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Telling us to call a Klansman or a Nazi “racist” isn’t much help. They are happy to tell us themselves. You don’t have to look deep into their souls to figure it out.

But what is the word for a race-based system that perpetuates inequality over many generations if it’s motivated by preference and not hate? What is the word for a person who benefits from such a system and accepts its unfairness because of indifference and not because of a belief in their own superiority?

At least by the AP’s definition, that system is not “racism” and that person is not a “racist.”

Issues of race are as much a part of our politics today as they were in the civil rights era, even here in mostly white Maine. If we can’t broaden the meaning of those words to describe what has been going on here for centuries, we’ll never get anywhere.


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