It’s time to speak up against the New Racists

It’s time to speak up against the New Racists

I am alarmed at the way ageist, racist and sexist slurs are increasingly being used to shut down discussion and debate. These slurs are being justified on the grounds that they help minority groups. As I understand it, this form of activism views it as OK to direct racist or other such insults specifically at members of a ‘privileged’ majority group. This is not considered bigotry, it is ‘punching up’. In other words, it is OK to be racist, sexist, or ageist, so long as you believe the target to be someone with more privilege that the group on whose behalf one you are acting.

Should the use of racist, ageist or sexist slurs against members of a perceived privileged group be employed on behalf of another group? Should  ‘punching up’ be considered a necessary means to reach a noble goal? 

I argue that this tactic, even if employed with the best intentions, is wrong and dangerous. And it can provoke a response that leaves society worse off. I will do this by talking a little about my own experiences of growing up as a member of a minority group in New Zealand. In a follow-up article, I suggest some better alternatives to ‘punching up’.

The changing face of racism

As a part Asian growing up in New Zealand in the 1980s I experienced plenty of racism. It was overt, and involved physical and verbal abuse. I am proud of my heritage but there were certainly times where, had I been able, I would have gladly erased the Japaneseness from my physical appearance. I couldn’t control that, but I did insist that my mother stop putting (delicious) Japanese food in my lunchbox! By the the time the 1990s rolled around, I no longer felt the desire or the need to hide my ethnicity. New Zealand was becoming much more multicultural, and intolerance was receding. Don’t get me wrong, I still encountered overt racism, ignorant statements, faux pas, and an abundance of things that I could have rolled my eyes at, but my experience of everyday life in NZ was becoming much more positive. I no longer viewed my Japanese heritage as a badge of shame. One might say that this is all part of growing up. The taunts and physical attacks of the playground give way to maturity and decency, in the main.

In the 2020s, things have changed again. Discussions of race are everywhere, but this change has not entirely been for the better. Strangely, I have caught myself feeling tempted to exaggerate my minority status, not out of pride, but for protection.

Some of the people who are championing support for minorities are actually making things less safe, less open, and potentially more dangerous for the minorities they claim to be lifting up.

The reason is simple: some of the people who are championing support for minorities are actually making things less safe, less open, and potentially more dangerous for the minorities they claim to be lifting up. The primary reason is an intimidatory tactic designed to shut down discussion and debate. 

This tactic? Deploying what I call the pejorative bomb. 

What is a pejorative bomb? In part, it is old-fashioned name-calling, of the type I and many minorities have experienced, but it is aimed at the majority, accusing them for instance of being racist.

Let me first explain something about name-calling. Many people fear being called names. Bullies who use this tactic are clever: they know exactly how to hit you where it hurts and it is challenging to fight back against this type of behaviour. Growing up, I had to regularly endure pejorative references to my ethnicity. I couldn’t do much about that as my ethnicity was something I had no control over.

But what I am calling pejorative bombs are different. A pejorative bomb uses the tactics of the bully, but it is being used as a way of shutting down debate by attacking someone’s physical attributes: age, sex or ethnicity. An example is the term ‘pale, stale, male’, to pejoratively dismiss the views of an older white man.

Indeed, I am struck by the increase in the casual use of terms like racist, white supremacist, old white male, and colonist, to name a few, by educated adults who see themselves as supporting minorities. They use these terms as a way to shut down or even preemptively kill off discussion. Often these pejorative bombs are being mouthed by people who are themselves white. 

A pejorative bomb uses the tactics of the bully, but it is being used as a way of shutting down debate by attacking someone’s physical attributes: age, sex or ethnicity.

Having spent a chunk of my formative years dealing with bullies, and having had to think about race my entire life, I can tell you that the latter requires careful, considered thinking and reading. The former? Well I can spot a bully from a mile away. Believing one has the moral high ground and that this justifies acting like a bully still makes you a bully.

What our aversion to being labelled racist reveals about society

Why is this type of insult so effective at silencing people? 

Ironically, it works because so few people are genuinely racist.  Hence people genuinely fear being labelled racist. This is a big change: once upon a time, stating this fact when one was on the receiving end of racist slurs had zero effect. It was simply laughed off because it meant nothing to the perpetrator. The insult works today precisely because so few people harbour genuinely racist views any longer. Instead, most people are mortified to be associated with such views. Granted, people do put their foot in it from time to time, but their intent is most often not to insult. There are of course still people out there who are genuinely racist, but our society has improved enormously on matters of race in my lifetime.

A pejorative bomb works because so few people are genuinely racist. People genuinely fear being labelled racist.

Calling people racist works so well because, for someone who is white, it’s the ultimate insult: denying it is as futile as not responding – the fact has been stated, leaving it pinned on you as a badge of shame. The strategy being employed here is so effective at shutting down debate that it in turn clears the way for change to be pushed through by fiat. When wielded by people with influence, change can be pushed through even if we don’t agree, because the majority feels intimidated. That’s crafty, and in the worst instances where it is used, it is a tool for antidemocratic change.

The pernicious effects of name calling

This brings us to the unintended consequences. My concern is that open, reasoned, and frank discussion and debate are becoming more difficult because of this nefarious strain of bullying. This has two impacts. First, it actually makes it harder for minorities to hold diverse views. Instead, we are all being coerced into conforming to a specific set of views that a particular group demands we hold. 

Even worse, agitating on behalf of minorities risks making minorities the focus of a future backlash.

Working out how to get along in a multicultural milieu despite our differences is a difficult problem that requires careful thought. Working out how to improve society is also difficult. It requires challenging conversations and listening to a diverse range of views; some enticing solutions may actually be bigger problems in disguise. The discussion we need is not happening, in part because of the use of the bully’s approach to shutting down diverse opinions. 

It is a terrible stereotype that a group of people should think the same on the basis of something as biologically meaningless as their skin colour.

It is one of the strangest ironies that shutting down diverse opinions is being championed in the name of promoting diversity. Witness the rise of the slur, ‘race traitor’, a peculiar concept that refers to a person of a particular race who is deemed to hold an opinion that is contrary to what someone else expects someone of that race to hold. This is a terrible stereotype of racial groups as necessarily uniform in thought, a caricature that a group of people should think the same on the basis of something as biologically meaningless as their skin colour.

That the term race traitor has been used by alt-right white supremacists and by left-wing ‘antiracists’ alike illustrates that such groups are intolerant of diversity of opinion, and underscores the tribal nature of such movements: if you are not with us you are against us. 

Both usages appear disturbingly alike, but let’s think about this for a moment.

Society largely views white supremacists with ridicule, but I fear that the New Racists will give them a new lease of life: the frequent, and frequently unwarranted, pejorative attacks on white people who are not racists, but not ardent antiracists, can engender a counter position: people can get fed up, their hearts can harden towards the minorities that the vocal antiracists purport to be in support of. These people don’t necessarily become racists, but if an antiracist can decide it is justified to call someone a race traitor, well, anything is possible. 

The direction we are heading seems astonishing to me and other minority ethnic academics like Dr. Melissa Derby. In an excellent article on the late Martin Luther King, she reminds us of one of his most seminal insights. King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. It’s high time we heeded that advice.

The header image for this article was taken from Unsplash (https://unsplash.com/photos/KflQqYcFknk).

Anthony Poole

Anthony Poole

Anthony is a scientist interested in the evolution of molecules, genomes and cells. He holds a PhD in molecular bioscience and has worked and studied in New Zealand, Japan and Sweden.