Last month, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, gave the commencement address at Hampshire College. In her speech, she called President Trump a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.”
Fox News and other conservative outlets ran stories on it as part of their “radical black academic says something outrageous” series. The Blaze called it “unhinged” and Fox called it a “tirade.” Cue the outrage. Now Dr. Taylor is receiving death threats because of their irresponsible reporting.
These news outlets didn’t bother asking whether or not Dr. Taylor’s words were true. Call me old-fashioned, but that seems like an important variable! A lot of mainstream conservatives seem to think that calling someone a racist is inherently libelous. In many circles, the -ist words are considered equivalent to name-calling.
You can watch the speech for yourself and see what you think of it. As I see it, Dr. Taylor isn’t name-calling. She’s making a good-faith effort to accurately and succinctly describe the President’s public behavior. This is fair and reasonable. It’s not at all rude or disrespectful to President Trump. (To some of you this is blindingly obvious but bear with me, because it’s not obvious to about half the country!)
In modern American history, we had never had a major party nominee that made insults against communities of color a routine part of his stump speech. His background of racial discrimination in his realty business was also unusual for a modern presidential candidate. Add to that the fact that he entered politics by pushing a wild conspiracy theory about the birthplace of the nation’s first black president. Reasonable people might disagree about how best to summarize this record. But calling it “racist” is a precise and careful summation. It’s not rude or disrespectful in any way. (Of course Trump also called an entire nation’s immigrants “rapists” and demanded an immigration ban on an entire religion. In keeping with the theme of precision, some would call these actions xenophobic and religiously bigoted rather than racist as such).
We had also never had a major party presidential nominee who boasted about sexually assaulting women. Again, calling this “sexist” is rather restrained. It’s not unfair or uncivil. And his behavior since taking office has certainly confirmed the appropriateness of the term “megalomaniac.” The sheer volume and audacity of the President’s lies give one indication among many of his unusual mental state.
In my fumbling attempts to resist racism, white people have often asked me to speak more carefully and precisely so as to avoid giving unnecessary offense and allow listeners to really hear what I’m saying. That’s good advice! But it cuts the other way too: what if we use words like racism and sexism precisely and purposely to describe a pattern of behavior, and people are unwilling to hear it as anything other than a rant? Conservatives often accuse liberals of hurling mindless charges of racism (and this does happen) but often we see the opposite dynamic: even a well-founded charge of racism shuts down a white person’s brain.
Don’t be that person! I’ve been writing about race for almost a decade. And I’ve done and said lots of racist things. But I’ve also grown a bit, and people have helped me and been generous. (I’ve grown less in other areas and am definitely sexist in many ways). Despite what it might seem like on social media, in the real world people are not waiting in the bushes to jump out and call you a racist the first moment you say something wrongheaded. We’d be at a much better place as a country if more people could say, “Here’s why I voted for the racist/sexist candidate.” Once you say that, you open up some space to take responsibility for your actions and the people hurt by them. But I suppose that’s asking for more self-awareness than most of us, including me, probably have.
In the real world, people want to know if we’re acting in good faith. Are we trying to learn and grow? There’s room to make mistakes if that’s our posture. But if Dr. Taylor offends you and Donald Trump doesn’t, well, don’t be surprised if some names you don’t like are hurled your way.