In Defense of Old "Racists"

stone tower

If you've grown up in the United States and are old enough, you probably remember a different set of words being used to describe people of various racial groups than the words that are commonly used today. Some of these words are now considered racist by some people; however, this was not the case previously. For an example of the sort of thing I'm referring to, consider the word "Oriental." Hearing someone refer to a person today as Oriental makes us wince, but this would not have prompted such a reaction a few decades ago. I'm old enough that I can remember when this word was the accepted terminology.

Back when "Oriental" was the norm, it was not viewed as racist. Someone using the word back then would not have been condemned as racist because he or she was using the accepted terminology. Of course, the preferred terminology has changed over the years. Someone using "Oriental" today is likely to be viewed as out-of-touch or possibly racist. Is this fair?

As long as we are willing to distinguish between someone who occasionally says something we consider racist and someone who is "a racist," I think it probably is fair. It is difficult to imagine how someone living today could be unaware that the terminology has changed. For the most part, we don't say "Oriental," "Negro," or a variety of other words anymore. And yes, this is true even for people who (like me) are old enough to remember different terms. If I heard "Oriental" today from someone in their 70s or 80s, I might consider it racist, but I would be unlikely to conclude that the person using it was racist without additional evidence. I can understand how someone who spent most of their life using certain words is going to have difficulty not slipping back into some of them. This doesn't mean they should not be corrected, but I think it makes sense to use different standards than we'd use for someone who is much younger.

Another challenge, at least for some of these words, is that the changes over time have not been uniform. I grew up on the West Coast, and I remember making the transition from "Black" to "African American." By the time I left the West Coast, "African American" was the accepted term while "Black" was considered unenlightened as possibly racist. When I arrived in the South, I quickly learned that "Black" was the preferred terminology and that most Black people living here did not want to be referred to as African American. It was difficult to switch back, and I am sure I slipped up at times.

The scenario that receives the most attention involves someone in their 60s-80s who uses terms that fell out of favor long ago. Undoubtedly, some of these people are racists. Adults of any age can be racist, and it would make little sense to exempt anyone above a certain age. Still, I think many of these older individuals serve as good examples of the difference between racists and someone who occasionally says something we consider racist using today's standards. I've seen this from my own parents at times. I know they aren't racists because almost all the evidence I have points in the opposite direction; however, they do occasionally use terms that have fallen out of favor. When they do, I correct them. I see them try to make the change, but it doesn't always stick.

What prompted this post? I saw someone on Twitter recently insisting that any person of any age who says anything he considers racist should be judged the same (i.e., negatively). I disagree. I know it is frustrating and cringe-worthy when we hear someone using dated terms which many people find offensive today, but I think that age matters. When someone grew up matters, and where someone grew up matters. These factors do not exempt anyone from racism, but they are relevant and should be considered.

My typical approach when I encounter someone older using terminology that does not conform to today's standards is to calmly point this out and recommend alternative terms. I see this as a teaching moment. Maybe they didn't know. Maybe they did know and this was a lapse. I do not condemn them as racist unless I have far more evidence that this is the case. I see no reason to think that would be helpful.