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Can we retire the word "racist"?

You might have heard, there is somewhat of a kerfluffle about the new science fiction movie, District 9. There have been a few blog entries either asking the question, or outright saying that the film is racist. And I don't disagree with many of the characterizations of the movie that some bloggers have. I do think the movie is a pretty interesting mix of both somewhat thoughtful and thought-provoking questions about "other-ness" and how we do, and would, treat it as human beings, as well as some very problematic and stereotypical portrayals of certain groups of people. But that's not what this post is about, really. Like RaceFail09, the scenario kind of goes like this:
  • movie/book/blog entry has problematic portrayals/descriptions/discussions about race
  • people say that it's racist
  • people come to the defense, saying it wasn't really racist, wasn't intentional, etc. blah blah
  • arguments ensue, blah blah blah
  • nobody wins, everyone feels burned
No one likes to be called a racist. I'd even go as far as to say that the most people whose work has problematic portrayals/discussions about race aren't intentionally doing that - they are products of our culture, which is, at it's core, structured around oppression of those who are not white, straight, christian men. There are many people who have spent lots more time than I have on issues of white privilege who will tell you that it takes energy and effort to think and act differently. I know as someone who grew up with economic privilege that it's hard not to think and act in classist ways. It takes time, and attention. And, most importantly, it takes making mistakes and learning from them. These structures don't undo themselves overnight. It took generations to build, and it's going to take generations to tear down. I've thought for a while that using the word "racist" is like throwing a grenade into a room. Everyone scurries for cover, and only destruction, not constructive engagement comes of it. It's a toxic word, which closes off, not opens up, avenues for conversation. And, as seen in a recent situation, it can be oh so easily turned against us. I think it's time to retire it. As I've said before, I like to assume that people aren't doing that sort of stuff on purpose - and I think that "let's talk about why that portrayal is problematic - maybe you should rework it?" is going to be a lot more constructive than "that was racist."
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