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“Cancel culture” forgets most racism happens in private

The debate is focused on public acts of racism. But what about what people say or do when they think no one is listening?

Hans Neleman/Getty Images

“Cancel culture,” a new way to police the boundaries of race, has produced a number of recent high-profile dismissals.

Sharon Osbourne exited The Talk after her defense of Piers Morgan’s racist attacks on Meghan Markle led former coworkers to unearth past racist behavior by the cohost. Journalist Donald McNeil resigned from the New York Times after admitting he’d used a racial slur in front of high school students on a newspaper-sponsored trip. Matt James, the first Black male Bachelor on the long-running TV franchise, refused to propose to his chosen partner, Rachel Kirkconnell, after photos of her attending an antebellum-themed party emerged. And journalist Alexi McCammond resigned before she officially began her new job as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue because anti-Asian tweets she posted when she was 17 resurfaced during a period of heightened anti-Asian attacks.

Most of the conversation around these recent stories focuses on whether people should be penalized for racist language or actions of the past — or, in some cases, the impulsive nature of youth, who presumably lack the insight to know that controversial tweets could come back to haunt them someday. But there has been little focus on another lesson learned by all involved and watching: Keep racism private. Racism is not for public consumption, but rather for DMs between like-minded friends, for conversations at dinner parties, for mutterings in hushed tones when people think no one else is listening.

Because even after the firings and resignations and apologies, racist views still exist — people are just being asked to push them underground.

Which brings us to the question: What is the ultimate goal of punishing outwardly racist acts? Is it to banish people publicly expressing racist opinions, or is it to dismantle what is beyond the public sphere and dig deep into structural racism? Because to do that, we need to do more than simply shun someone — we need to wrestle with the underlying assumptions behind their racist speech or actions.

Sociologists have long known that people tend to behave differently in private spaces than they do in public. For example, sociologist Erving Goffman believed the world could be likened to a play, where society and the people within it constitute the actors while sociologists compose the audience. The front stage is where people are most concerned about impression management, because they can be seen by an audience. Behind the curtain, in the backstage, people relax the rules governing public engagement and let their hair down.

And most Americans, when they’re in the backstage, don’t actively disapprove of racism, especially if they benefit from it. Racism exists to preserve the ranking of groups by race, with people of color positioned toward the bottom of this hierarchy, a vantage point from which it is much harder to achieve economic success. Whether they realize it or not, white people, and those scrambling within the hierarchy’s ranks, feel threatened when those at the bottom seek equality — they feel something is being taken away from them.

To be sure, most people in 2021 know there is something immoral about openly saying that minorities shouldn’t be afforded opportunities. When surveyed about the outcomes most important to getting ahead — a quality education, a safe neighborhood, an opportunity to work in a job of your choice — most people know to say we should level the playing field. A good education allows people to circumvent discrimination, they say. People have a right to live wherever they want, and the most qualified applicant should get the job.

This is what people tell researchers. But their actions prove differently.

School segregation persists despite court-ordered desegregation, a consequence of white families abandoning school districts with a non-trivial population of Black students for neighborhoods where the schools are more homogenous. Residential segregation surges on, in part because the average white person searches for a home in only a narrow fraction of the housing market, avoiding listings in neighborhoods where Black people are present in large numbers for the same school reasons. The stereotype that the presence of Black residents pushes up the crime rate is another factor in white avoidance of Black neighborhoods. Employers also continue to prefer white applicants over Black applicants, an indication that racial bias has real-life consequences for Black people in the labor market as well.

Even people who believe they are not racist have been shown to hold unconscious racist beliefs. Researchers find that 68 percent of people who take the IAT (Implicit Association Test) think more favorably of white people than they do people of color. When attitudes toward Asian Americans are evaluated separately from other people of color, the majority of test-takers, 63 percent, perceive white people as the “real” Americans, while attributing the label “foreigners” to Asian Americans.

These stereotypical beliefs shape people’s expectations of racial minorities. Their accomplishments and failures are attributed to their membership in a racial group, not to their personal talents or failures. When a white man commits a mass shooting, many politicians are quick to bring up potential mental health issues. Yet attacks against Asian Americans escalated in the past year after Trump derisively labeled Covid-19 the “China virus,” pinning blame for the virus on a specific ethnic group.

In this way, implicit racism is a factor in the Atlanta shootings and in the perpetuation of inequality in America more generally. Similarly, after 9/11, unprovoked attacks against Muslim Americans increased dramatically. Law-abiding Muslims were being held accountable for the actions of terrorists they did not know and whose extremist beliefs they did not share.

Communities of color also feel the need to filter our attitudes about race — or how our race should be presented — through front- and backstage personas. My research shows that middle-class Black people have mastered the strategies needed to negotiate race in predominantly white workplaces and other front stages. They do so by manipulating language, mannerisms, clothing, and credentials in ways that amplify their middle-class status, what I call public identities. They do so with the hope that social class will temporarily supplant race, encouraging white people to treat them fairly. But in the backstage, majority-Black spaces — such as their suburban neighborhoods, social organizations, and churches — middle-class Black people relax these rules.

There is no doubt that public racist language should not be normalized. It has the effect of making its targets feel unwelcome and diminished at work, while shopping, on vacation, or as a contestant on a television show (which is the very point). But we should also consider what we are really asking of people when we sanction them for expressing racist beliefs likely held by many others with the foresight to remain silent. While important, it won’t be enough to reverse the 400 years of ongoing racism that they embrace. We are so focused on making an example of people who slip up and say what they — and many Americans — really believe that we have lost sight of the larger goal: creating a society where everyone is treated fairly and has an opportunity to get ahead in life.

Racism is embedded in America’s institutions — its schools, churches, politics, housing market, and labor market. Laws can help to reduce discriminatory treatment, but anti-discrimination legislation on its own will not eliminate racism. We have to change the culture reflected in society’s institutions. Organize events in your community to educate people about the consequences of white privilege and to actively work toward building an equitable society. Write to your local officials and your representatives in Congress to let them know you will not support candidates who don’t get behind anti-discrimination policies, like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and local fair housing policies.

Recent public falls from grace due to past racist language are a call to action for all of us, not just those who have fallen. If we really want to create an anti-racist society, let’s work diligently toward that goal. If we are committed to doing it, we could end structural racism. We could. We could dismantle the racial hierarchy in which white privilege masquerades as merit. But if all we seek is to limit racist speech to private dinner parties, then we don’t need to change a thing.

Karyn Lacy is a sociologist at the University of Michigan and the author of Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class. Find her on Twitter @karynlacy.

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