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Yes, you're racist: The casual comments permeating Twitter

Starting with "I'm not racist, but..." doesn't make all following comments acceptable

When the United States finally elected its first African-American president in 2008, some pundits declared that America had become a post-racial society - that all our racial tensions somehow evaporated as soon as a black guy managed to become president.

Bolstered by polling data showing an increase in racial tolerance among younger generations, these primarily-caucasian opinionators told us Barack Obama’s victory meant race simply didn’t matter anymore.

Of course, anyone who followed the race-baiting campaigns of 2010 and 2012 knows that this rose-tinted look at American politics and culture couldn’t be further from reality. That’s why, at the height of President Obama’s reelection campaign this fall, I created the Twitter account @YesYoureRacist to disabuse people of the myth of a post-racial society one tweet at a time.

For the past three months, I’ve been searching for tweets that begin “I’m not racist, but...”, and the results aren’t pretty. More often than not, the person goes on to say (without any trace of irony) something apparently racist – or at least, that’s what it looks like to me - as if the “not racist” disclaimer somehow excuses whatever they’re about to say.

“Im not racist but a black man as the president is just not smart,” tweeted @JakeBlevins24 shortly after President Obama was reelected.

“Im not racist but asians are most definetly [sic] my least favorite of all the races," tweeted @eassyyj, who apparently made a list ranking their favorite races.

After over 1,000 “not racist but” retweets since the beginning of October, some interesting trends have emerged. For example, people of every race seem to believe people of every other race smell terrible, and that nobody can drive - especially blacks and Asians, according to some. Of course, this isn’t just an American phenomenon; there’s also a significant number of “not racist but” tweets from the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries. Many of the British tweets simply refer to non-specific “foreigners,” though there’s also a great deal of racism directed at Pakistanis.

More depressing is the widely-held view that, to quote a phrase I’ve retweeted dozens of times since starting @YesYoureRacist, “there’s a difference between black people and ni**ers.” The sentiment was popularized by Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, but is now used primarily by white people who want to justify their use of the N-word. “There's a civil war going on with black people, and there's two sides,” Rock said in his routine. “There's black people, and there's ni**as. And ni**as have got to go." The point of Rock’s controversial routine was that people who fulfill negative stereotypes of African-Americans bring down the entire race. Unfortunately, it has somehow morphed into a popular opinion that the N-word only refers to people who fulfill those stereotypes.

Now I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on race relations, but it stands to reason that while such a nuanced use of that word may be appropriate for a race-focused African-American comedian like Chris Rock, the same cannot be said for a 16-year-old white kid living in the suburbs. In fact, Rock said he retired his “Ni**as vs. black people” routine specifically because it gave white people the impression that it was okay to use the N-word.

The most disturbing thing about @YesYoureRacist isn’t the racism itself. It’s that the people I retweet - the vast majority of which appear to be teenagers - genuinely don’t understand whether they’re being racist. It’s a generation that never had to grow up during the times of Jim Crow, civil rights marches or apartheid, and has never been confronted by the institutional racism that older generations saw on a daily basis. As a result, many teens seem to think racism simply means active hatred of another race, and not the apparent prejudices and stereotypes displayed by the people I retweet.

Occasionally, someone retweeted by @YesYoureRacist will protest that the backlash provoked by their tweet somehow infringes upon their freedom of speech. They’re only sharing an opinion, they say. But just as they don’t seem to see whether they’re being racist, they also don’t understand that freedom of speech doesn’t apply to the societal consequences that speech may provoke. Until those lessons are learned (and by the looks of things, that might take a while) @YesYoureRacist will continue to expose the comments permeating social media - one tweet at a time.