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Language of Closet Racism:
An Illustration

by Paul Gorski

Any person who has grown up in the American public school system has been educated to hold racial prejudices. To illustrate this point, ask any child to tell you about the first date in history he or she remembers learning: "In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." What happened in 1492? "Christopher Columbus discovered America." Did he? The history books I prefer to read have informed me that people were actually already here. Remember, the people who would eventually be driven from their sacred lands, forced to surrender their native tongue and customs, and "American-ize"? The result of children learning such "facts" is a depreciation of an entire people--in this case, Native Americans.

So the American education system (with strong reinforcement from the media) has bred a nation of what I will call "closet racists." Closet racists are unaware of their prejudices. They have learned from text books presented to them by people who are supposedly knowledgeable enough to choose the best possible materials. They are trained, or more precisely, coerced into believing in "the system." If a child were to question a teacher's assertion that "Columbus discovered America," it is more likely that the child would be chastised for showing disrespect than the possibility of the teacher initiating a discussion on the discrepancy. A closet racist is defined, then, as simply a person with racial prejudices who is unaware of those prejudices as such, usually because he or she has never been afforded the opportunity to discuss racial prejudices as such.

The question arising from this assertion is clear: Where is the evidence of this nation of so-called "closet racists?" What links them? What are their characteristics?

The answer, emerging from years of experience facilitating conversations on race issues, interviewing specific cases, and participating in a variety of cultural diversity workshops, is equally clear: language. Closet racists share a distinct and surprisingly easily detectable language when observed in a discussion about race or racism. The intention of this paper is to explore this language through the case study of Jen, a third year college student who participated in Multicultural Education, a class designed to help students find, face, and battle their own prejudices. In order to analyze Jen's closet racist language, interviews were conducted and reaction papers written at the end of each class were collected and analyzed.

Based loosely on research conducted for a Master's Thesis completed four months ago, though more focused, this paper will refer to data, analysis, and conclusions from that thesis. The lack of citations from other scholarly sources reflects the lack of material available concerning the language of race issues and unaware racists.

Who Are Closet Racists?

Though everyone who has experienced the American education system is in some degree a closet racist, certain people, and indeed, certain groups, tend to portray the characteristics more than others. At the most basic level, people who have experienced consistent racial discrimination tend to be less assignable the label of closet racist. Such people have, through their personal experiences with discrimination, been afforded opportunities to discuss race issues. As Kim, an African-American student in a Multicultural Education class during Spring semester, 1995 explained,

I live these issues every day. I can't escape them anywhere: stores, classes, the gym. Three, four, five things happen everyday to remind me that, no matter what white people believe, there is still a ton of prejudice out there. It reminds me to think about the things I do and say, and the prejudices I have.

In short, closet racism is a continuum. Those with the least exposure to racial issues fall toward the high end. Experience suggests that those falling on this end are usually "white," or "European-Americans," while "African-Americans" fall toward the low end. So-called "middle-man minorities" tend to be spread between the extremes.

Jen, a white woman, was chosen for the case study because her sheltered home-life and general unaware-ness of race issues have served as catalysts in her formation as a high-end closet racist. An admittedly extreme case, and for that reason purposively chosen, Jen illustrates clearly the language patterns of a closet racist.

The Three Strands of the Language of Closet Racism

Three language indicators of closet racism are evident across the continuum. These are what I refer to as "strands" because, when woven together, they form the language web of closet racists. Again, strength of language and degree of racist attitudes change dramatically across the continuum, and as a result, these strands, or indicators are more readily observable in certain individuals and groups than in others. They include fear, unaware-ness, and dis-ownership.

Consider the following excerpt taken from Jen's reaction paper from the first class meeting of Multicultural Education:

The idea of political correctness with the black race astounds me. I found it extremely interesting that some blacks in our class prefer to be called African American. In all of my classes...I have felt like I was stepping on egg shells as to not offend the blacks in my class. I am honestly glad it is not that big of an issue to my fellow classmates--it promotes a more comfortable, genuine environment for me to be totally honest and carefree.

Jen reflected each strand of the language of closet racism within this short passage. These strands can be un-woven as follows:

1. fear: "I have felt like I was stepping on egg shells as to not offend blacks in my classes..."
2. unaware-ness: "I found it extremely interesting that some blacks in our class prefer to be called African American."
3. dis-ownership: "I am honestly glad it is not that big of an issue to my fellow classmates."

Some would argue that Jen's statements as pulled apart above are arbitrary, or taken out of context. But as we consider a year's worth of interviews and written reactions, and as we discuss each strand separately, a language pattern--the language of a closet racist--undeniably emerges.

Fear

We consider fear first, because it is, on the surface, the most surprising strand to find in the language. If closet racists do not consider themselves racists, then why would they show fear in discussing race issues? In the most simple terms, closet racists do not want other people to consider them racist, either. This is why white people developed "political correctness." The idea was to develop a system in which everyone knew what to say in order to allow everyone to avoid, as Jen mentioned, "walking on egg shells."

Fear also becomes the catalyst for many closet racists' decisions on what information to offer (and likewise, what not to offer) during a discussion of race issues. As Jen explained in her second reaction paper:

I was apprehensive to tell my group that my prejudice experience was within my family. I thought they would think that because my grandfather and father were racist, that I am as well--I thought they would dislike me.

She tended to elevate this apprehensive-ness during interviews, sometimes to the point of censoring herself. In one particular case, as she discussed the racial make-up of her hometown, her fear emerged quite blatantly:

...and where I'm from there were two different types of black...there were...I don't want to say this. Is it all right if I say this?...

Her fear was clear, especially as she continued, deciding, in fact, to "say this":

Blacks and niggers, that's how it was defined where I'm from. There were no niggers at my school, they were all black, no niggers. The niggers were at [James Monroe], and that's just how it was, and we knew that.

Jen feared being labeled a racist. Again, it is important to note that she did not consider herself a racist, which leads us to the second strand or indicator: unaware-ness.

Unaware-ness

Closet racists are unaware on several levels, illustrations for which can be found in language patterns. On the first level, as emphasized above, they are unaware of racial issues as racial issues. (How many white people insisted that race was never an "issue" in the O.J. Simpson trial?) Illustrating this point, Jen, in her first interview suggested that at her high school, "there was not any sort of black/white issues or anything like that." She made this statement minutes before offering her story about the "two different types of black." In between the two statements she related stories of "some Ku Klux Klan there," "crosses burning, and stuff like that." But nonetheless, just as she did not label herself as a racist, she was unaware that the very issues she discussed were very racial in nature, and as such she did not label those issues in terms of race, either.

On another level, Jen failed to see the racial prejudice as such in the language of others. For example, she defended her grandmother: "...my grandmother on my Mom's side is not prejudice..." But as she continued, Jen, in her unawareness, all but labeled her grandmother a racist:

...but she refers to black people as 'colored.' Like when we have a Christmas party every year and Mark, a guy who lives around the corner from me, came to the party...and was the only black person there and she was like...'Who was that colored boy there?' She doesn't refer to him as 'Mark,' always 'that colored boy.'

On a third level, while Jen could sometimes point out racial prejudice in other places, she was quick to distance herself from that prejudice, as if she was somehow shielded from its permeation. In this sense, Jen was unaware of racism as it exists at the institutional level. Like many closet racists, Jen believed that racism could be found "here, there, and there," but that, in the correct circumstances, racism could be completely avoided. Again, this naivete could be recognized in her language, as in the following passage in which she compared her high school to the "other public high school" in her hometown:

James Monroe was a predominantly black school, and the only white people that did go to school there were wealthy, and so there was like the wealthy and then there was African- Americans. There was a huge line between them, but there wasn't anything like that where I was.

This passage leads directly into the third strand of the language of closet racism.

Dis-ownership

Closet racists tend to avoid owning their views on race. They often point to other groups, using terms such as "they," or "those people," instead of refering to themselves. In the previous passage, Jen clearly utilized the language of dis-ownership, thus assessing blame to others. "There was a huge line between them.." "I thought they would dislike me."

Closet racists, in avoiding using "I" and "me" statements in discussions of race issues avoid accepting the responsibility for their perspectives, and in many cases, prejudices. Recent articles in the Cavalier Daily about so-called self-segragation at the University of Virginia have been drowned in this language. White columnists posed questions such as "Why do the African-American students sit together at lunch, congregate at the 'black bus stop,'" etc? "Why do they have organizations like the Black Student Alliance?" In shifting the responsibility to "the African-American students," the columnists dodged the intimidating possibility of accepting equal responsibility for the separation.

The Result of Closet Racism

As is most clearly illustrated by the dis-ownership strand of the language of closet racism, closet racists will observe other groups segragating themselves, and suddenly race becomes an issue. But, for example, white students fail to notice that white students do not approach tables filled with African-American students during lunch. And white students clearly have congregation spots (i.e. Rugby Road).

The attractiveness--even if it exists at a subconscious level--of closet racism to those who retain it is that if one never labels himself or herself a racist, then (s)he is free from the obligation of doing something about it. For Jen and many others, closet racism becomes routine, easy, and comfortable. With blinders on their eyes, and the shield of manipulated language in their repertoire, closet racists can live a full life never confronting their own prejudices.

In fact, if the assertion holds up that white people tend to be toward the high end of the closet racist continuum, then the result of closet racism is clear. The phenomenon of closet racism is yet another catalyst in the cycle of discrimination experienced by racial minorities in America since the conception of this nation. Only individuals have the power to change themselves. In the socio-political structure in this country, it stands to reason that those in power will at all costs attempt to retain that power. In "coming out of the closet," labeling their prejudices as such, owning those prejudices, thus placing on their shoulders the responsibility to address those prejudices, those in power fear the loss of their comfortable seat atop the nations's socio-political hierarchy. The status quo is maintained.

So how, then, is the study of the language of closet racism useful? Sometimes people I've labeled as closet racists want to change themselves. Jen was one such person. The study of the language she used when discussing race (and other multicultural) issues, and how this language changed, helped me understand the stages she experienced on her trek toward race awareness and appreciation.

Valuable further study concerning the language of closet racism would include the metamorphosis of the language as an individual becomes more aware, thus working toward the lower end of the closet racism continuum. Also, further study is necessary in addressing the meshing of the strands, and the meanings that derive from such meshing.

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© Paul C. Gorski, 1995-2014