“Hey, that was kind of racist.”
“I’m not a racist! I have Black friends.”
This is the kind of conversation that Jennifer Kling, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UCCS, holds up as a symbol of how people in the United States tend to talk about racially tricky situations — or rather, how we don’t talk about racially tricky situations. One of the problems, says Kling, is that we don’t have the right racial vocabulary.
“There are often situations that are racially not good, but that we do not want to categorize as racist, either,” Kling said. “However, since we don’t have the language to describe this in-between, we are forced to fall back on the racist/not racist/antiracist trinary, which tends to shut down productive discussion. This is especially true for white people, who tend to take claims of racism — be they interpersonal or institutional — as a personal attack.”
This topic forms the basis of her new book, “Racist, Not Racist, Antiracist: Language and the Dynamic Disaster of American Racism,” published by Lexington Books in 2022 and co-authored with Leland Harper, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Siena Heights University.
At the heart of the book is the idea that America could become a W.E.B. Du Boisian democracy — one that is “conversation-oriented and community-based,” said Kling.
“To transform the United States into a Du Boisian democracy, we need to create conversational spaces where people can engage in difficult, productive dialogue about the nature of the race-based problems American society faces and potential solutions. For this to happen, we need a way to converse with others about race-based incidents without triggering their white fragility. Only then do we have a chance of achieving true democratic equality for all.”
To share more, Kling answered seven questions about the book and her findings below.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
When people encounter racially tricky situations, they ordinarily categorize them as either racist or not racist (or, in other cases, as antiracist). The problem is, there are often situations that are racially not good, but that we do not want to categorize as racist, either. However, since we don’t have the language to describe this in-between, we are forced to fall back on the racist/not racist/antiracist trinary, which tends to shut down productive discussion. This is especially true for white people, who tend to take claims of racism — be they interpersonal or institutional — as a personal attack.
This is problematic, not only because it means that white people never learn about their own racially troubling behaviors, but also because such fragility keeps them from being able to engage in productive discussions about systemic racial oppression. In the book, Leland and I demonstrate how expanding our racial vocabulary is crucial for the attainment of justice equally enjoyed by all.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
In 2019, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, among other things, that paying reparations for American slavery was not a good idea because the country had previously elected an African American president. McConnell’s comments elicited, from us (two academic philosophers), two questions: “Is he that stupid, or is he that racist?” and “…Is there a meaningful distinction between the two?” To be sure, racism does not equate to stupidity and stupidity does not equate to racism — but the simple fact is that we did not have the correct terminology that we needed to describe the situation in the way in which we wanted to describe it. How should we regard McConnell’s race-based comments?
Thinking about the distinction between stupidity and racism, considerations related to responsibility, and the role that language plays in how we contextualize and communicate about race-based situations, led us to co-author an essay addressing some of these theoretical ideas and their practical consequences. This essay is titled “The Semantic Foundations of White Fragility and the Consequences for Justice” and was published in Res Philosophica as part of a 2020 special issue on the topic of Mass Incarceration and Racial Justice.
Given the space constraints that come with publishing a peer-reviewed essay, we were unable to consider in full detail the various issues at play. The next natural step was to expand our thinking into a full-length book. As such, over the next 18 months, through the course of a global pandemic, we read a lot, presented at conferences and workshops, spoke to colleagues and students, and ultimately put together this book.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
After submitting our book proposal to Lexington Books and receiving an advance contract, Leland and I knew we needed time to develop our ideas and arguments. We submitted for, and won, a Heller Fellowship for him in Fall 2021, which enabled him to travel to Colorado Springs so that we could meet and think together for a week. Thanks to the UCCS Heller Center for the Arts & Humanities, we were able to broaden our focus to not only theoretical, but also practical considerations. In short, the book became an exercise in practical philosophy. It both provides a way forward, in the American context, for those who care about justice and gives arguments for why our proposed semantic route is appropriate. It is not the only route, to be sure; but we do think it has so far been under-utilized in the fight against structural, antiBlack racism and for justice more equally enjoyed by all.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
In Chapter Four, we argue that taking up an expanded semantics of racism is a political obligation both for those who are concerned to make the United States a democracy and for those who care about justice more broadly.
First, following W.E.B. Du Bois and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., we take up a conception of democracy that is conversation-oriented and community-based. To transform the United States into a Du Boisian democracy, we need to create conversational spaces where people can engage in difficult, productive dialogue about the nature of the race-based problems American society faces and potential solutions. For this to happen, an expanded semantics of racism is needed: we need a way to converse with others about race-based incidents without triggering their white fragility. Only then do we have a chance of achieving true democratic equality for all.
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
I work on my laptop, so my writing space is anywhere, provided I have 30 minutes to get to work! That being said, I often write at my desk, which is something of a disaster zone — but on the plus side, it has stacks of books that I reference often, various gifts from friends that have accrued over the years, and a million drawings, notes, and arts & crafts projects from my young daughter that inspire me to keep writing.
I often write best when I can get to it first thing in the morning — I try hard to write before looking at email or anything else for the day. It’s a struggle, but when I get into that routine, it’s worth it! The key thing I do is set a timer for 30 minutes; I stick to the work for that long, and then anything after that is gravy. Sometimes, I’ll write for two hours, if I get into a groove. Other times, I’m really happy to hear that timer go off! (I should also note that my timer is in the shape of a giraffe — that helps a great deal.)
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
“In some ways, it is easier to focus on the Halloween decorations in Kelowna, Mitch McConnell’s public commentary, or Christine Caswell’s calling the police on Boston Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Tommy Harper (or any other race-based ‘Karen’ incident, for that matter). These race-based incidents so clearly contribute to, and are part of, the dynamic disaster of racism, that they are easy to categorize within the semantic false trinary of racist/not racist/antiracist.
However, focusing exclusively on such cases, as U.S. and global media tend to do, reinforces the false trinary, and so contributes to the false belief that if you’re not doing anything analogous to such cases, you’re not doing anything wrong. This in turn contributes to white fragility — when people only have the language to categorize situations so extremely, equally extreme responses are provoked. Nuanced conversations about the bulk of race-based incidents, which are not often like those commonly depicted in the media but are more like the cases we see in our everyday lives (some of which we have described in this book), are shut down before they can even start. Thus, white supremacy and the dynamic disaster of racism continues, preventing the transformation of the United States into a Du Boisian democracy where justice is more equally enjoyed by all.
As a partial remedy for this complex problem, we introduce the term “racial insensitivity,” which better and more accurately describes the situations we are more likely to encounter day-to-day. It provides us with a way to call people in that is not necessarily character-based; the hope is that we can thus avoid triggering their white fragility, and so communicate with them productively, in ways that lead to positive change.”
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
Leland and I are currently working on a follow-up to this book. We maintain that we need the language shift regardless, but worry: what if that alone isn’t enough? We consider what reasons we have for thinking that language shifts and conversations alone won’t solve the problems we’ve identified, and think through how we might move forward from the current cultural, social and political stalemate.
UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.