What is the meaning of an accusation of racism?

Guy comes up to you on the street and says: “I know who you are. You may look like a human, but I know that’s a disguise. You have taken over the body of a human, but you are really a spy from Alpha Centauri who has come to Earth to spy on us in preparation for an invasion. You may have everybody else fooled, but you can’t fool me.”

“That’s crazy,” you say. “I’m not a spy from Alpha Centauri’ I’m just an ordinary human.”

“Prove it,” he says.

But, of course, you can’t prove it. All you could do is point to your human body, but he’s got that covered. He has acknowledged that you have a human body; his claim is just that it isn’t really your body, you just inhabit it. You could provide him with a full-body MRI scan and it wouldn’t matter.

What can you do that will convince him?

Now let’s play this game over in another, more familiar, register.

Guy comes up to you on the street and says you are a racist.

“That’s crazy,” you say. “I’m not a racist. I’m colorblind. I treat everybody equally. Some of my best friends are black.”

He says, “See how racist you are? Those are all things that racists say. You are a racist.”

What can you do that will convince him?”

The point here is one with which many of us are familiar. It’s unlikely anyone has accused us of being spies from Alpha Centauri, but many of us have been accused, often by people who don’t know us at all, of being racist, or sexist, or whatever, and there are no grounds that we can assert that will convince the accuser otherwise. What does one do?

I know what one wants to do. One wants to lay out the contents of one’s mind on a table and point to each piece saying, in turn, “this is not racist,” “that is not racist,” and so on until the end, knowing, all the while, that it will have no effect. And this is so, even while it is acknowledged that widespread conscious racism is pretty much a thing of the past; so much so that its place has had to been taken by unconscious or  “implicit racism,” as measured in a way that is strikingly dubious. So what is one to do?


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