On That Racist Photo…

Celeste Headlee
8 min readFeb 13, 2019


An image posted on social media by students at the University of North Dakota

If someone has said something racist, that is not good. If they dressed in blackface or in a KKK costume at some point, that was a racist act. Yet, past racism does not necessarily mean someone is still a racist. What’s more, racism is not the same as discrimination, a distinction that seems to have gotten lost in the mix recently.

Don’t get me wrong: racism is never okay. Under no circumstances is anything I say here intended to excuse, condone, or downplay racist statements, racist jokes, racist costumes, or anything that starts with “racist” instead of “anti-racist.” Racism is a scourge. I hope that honestly calling out racism when he see it or hear it, we can begin an honest conversation about this plague that’s endangered our species for millennia.

However, an honest conversation on any topic requires an understanding of the language we’re using. So, let’s discuss the difference between racism and discrimination and why it matters.

Racism is the belief that personality, behavior and morals can be traced back to race and the belief that one race is superior to another. Thinking that Asian people are better at math is racist. You are attributing qualities to another person based on solely their race. Thinking that black people are more violent or more likely to steal is racist.

Sometimes these assumptions are blatant, as when a store clerk watches their black customers more closely than the white. Sometimes it’s unconscious, as when a hiring manager feels a white candidate is more qualified than a Latino candidate with similar experience. It’s likely that you have assumptions embedded in your mind about how people are likely to behave, based on only their race, and that those assumptions influence you subconsciously. That’s called unconscious bias.

Up to now, we are only talking about thoughts. In the case of discrimination, the issue becomes one of acting on racist thoughts. This can be intentional, as when a landlord decides they don’t want to rent to any Latinos. It can also be unconscious, as when hiring managers disproportionately employ white males while unaware of their unconscious biases and protesting that they are not racist.

Stop for a moment, take a breath, and pay close to attention to what I’m about to tell you: you are biased. Whether you enjoy talking to attractive people more than unattractive, or take advice more seriously when it’s given by someone who is wealthy, or you think overweight people are lazy or dog people are nicer, it’s all still bias.

If you grew up in the US, you are probably sexist. That’s because in America, sexism is codified in our corporate and governmental policies. It is an entrenched part of our culture. So, the majority of both men and women make assumptions based gender. That’s something we should be aware of and work on in order to stop evaluating people in a gendered way.

However, if you own a company and you hire mostly men as managers, you are actually acting on your sexist thoughts and you are now discriminating. If, like Tokyo Medical University, you lowered the test scores of women so that you ensure that 70 percent of your students were male, you are discriminating based on sexist ideas about gender.

Prejudice can be thought of as a stereotype. It can be benign, in that your boss may prefer brunettes, but it’s possible that the prejudice never inspires action and so, doesn’t either harm you or benefit you.

But let’s say the boss thinks black workers are less trustworthy, so he never puts his African-American workers in positions that involve money. That is racist, since it’s a belief that one person is more trustworthy than another based simply on their race, and it’s also discrimination because the boss doesn’t just believe it, but is acting upon it.

It doesn’t matter if the boss is aware of their bias and realizes they are favoring white employees over people of color. What matters is that people are being harmed because of a racist stereotype. They are not losing promotions because they’re bad at their job but because someone believes black people can’t be trusted. It is an assumption based on no evidence that has been put into action.

You can be both racist and discriminatory without being aware of it. In fact, that’s the most common scenario I’ve seen. In fact, one scientist who studied unconscious bias for years said that being aware of your own prejudices doesn’t make it any easier to overcome them.

Therefore, you must assume, at all times, that unconscious bias is influencing your decisions and you must create protocols that prevent you from indulging those biases and behaving in a discriminatory way.

When someone says you are prejudiced, the correct response is, “Yes, I am.” Because everyone is biased. Everyone. We all make assumptions based on what books people read and how clean their house is and what school they went to, what team they root for, their clothes, their weight, their language.

There are two questions you must ask yourself. The first is: is it possible that I have preconceived notions about people that are based on race?

The race scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant say that racism is a belief system that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essential categories of race.” This is why some describe racism as prejudice plus power.

Essentially, when one expresses a racist thought or idea, even if you are not actively discriminating, you are contributing to and strengthening an existing system of oppression that punishes other people based solely on race.Saying the n-word may not be the same as giving black kids more jail time than white kids, but it is a racist act that feeds a malevolent and racist system.

That says nothing, of course, of the damage done to the others who hear you make racist comments. Racism is traumatic. If you had been beaten or harassed as a child, how would you feel about others making jokes about your pain, or making off-handed remarks that remind you of the worst day in your life? If you asked them not to mention the event again, how would you feel when they told you to “lighten up” or “stop being so sensitive”?

This is partly why people of color get upset when they’re told to stop complaining or to “get over it.” In the end, when we talk about racism, we’re talking about real trauma African-Americans have experienced in their lives. Instead of expressing concern, people sometimes try to ignore or diminish what blacks have been through. Would you make a joke about cancer to someone who’s struggling with lymphoma?

A few years before his death, Gregg Allman was asked what he thought about the Confederate flag and he said, “I was taught how to play music by these very, very kind older black men. My best friend in the world is a black man. If people are gonna look at that flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say burn every one of them.” This statement is remarkable to me because he’s not responding to the question based on what the flag means to him and how he feels when he looks at it. Instead, he realized the flag caused pain to people he cared about. If it causes pain to someone else, then put it away, he said.

When someone tells you that you’ve said something offensive or racist, they are often trying to tell you that what you’ve said has caused them pain. Blanket denial (‘that wasn’t racist’) is not a great way to respond. If you accidentally kick someone and they say, “you kicked me,” do you say “no I didn’t?” Most likely, even if you didn’t realize that you did it, you would apologize. That’s the best way to handle accusations of racism. Apologize, knowing that you are biased and you probably do make assumptions based on race or gender or any number of other factors. Then, reflect. What did you say that caused them to react the way you did? Perhaps that person did you a favor by making you aware of an unconscious bias.

A few years back, I used the term “paddy wagon” in conversation. One man in the group said, “That’s actually a racist phrase and you might want to stop using it.” I promise you that my first instinct was to say, “I’m not racist!” Instead, I said I had no idea it was offensive, asked him some questions, and learned that “paddy” is a slur once used to describe people from Ireland and police vehicles were often called paddy wagons because the stereotype was that Irish people were either criminals or policemen.

It was an interesting and enlightening history lesson, but it wouldn’t have been particularly useful if I hadn’t then asked myself whether I make assumptions about Irish people. Do I assume they are mostly Catholic? That they drink a lot? These are all common (unfair and untrue) stereotypes and it wouldn’t be surprising if, after hearing these ideas repeated by others in movies and TV and conversation, I had absorbed that prejudice.This is the process that should occur when someone accuses you of holding racist beliefs.

If you are accused of discriminatory acts, it’s a more serious situation. That means you may have directly injured another because of your prejudice. If you did that unknowingly, you must apologize and attempt to make amends. If you did it knowingly, you should be removed from power because you can’t be trusted not to abuse it.

If an employee embezzles money and is fired, it’s unlikely that another employer will put them in charge of money. They have proven they cannot be trusted. In the same way, when someone abuses power in a way that damages others, they have demonstrated they cannot be trusted with power over others. Their next job should be one in which they are not making decisions that affect others, since they have proven they are willing to make those decisions based on bias and racism.

No one is entitled to a position of power. If you lose your job as a senator, you are perfectly welcome to take another job in another industry. We should never hesitate to remove someone from power, especially political power, if they’ve proven they are willing to abuse that power for unethical, racist, or sexist reasons. I’ve lost jobs for far less serious reasons and no one bothered to worry about how I might support myself.

Frankly, racism is terrible, but I would like racists to feel comfortable expressing their prejudice so we can identify them and be forewarned. Discrimination is racism made real. It should never be tolerated.

If we discover that a political figure once expressed racist ideals, we must do an investigation. Have they also discriminated? Do they still believe people can be judged by the color of their skin? Have they changed their mind since that statement was made or photo taken?

The purpose of having discussions about racism is to enlighten and inform. I dearly hope that some who currently believe in racist ideals, even unconsciously, will learn the error of their ways. If they do, I don’t plan to punish them 30 years from now for what they believed decades ago but have since renounced. If they discriminated and harmed others based on those beliefs, though, it’s a totally different conversation.