Use the Right Word - Racism

Written by Zach Oaster

Hey church leader,

Are you discussing the most recent social media blowup about the black NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who won’t stand during the National Anthem as a protest against black oppression in the United States? Do you see that as a sermon opportunity to highlight peaceful protest and as an example for how your congregants should publicly stand up against oppressive empires and press into alternative community paradigms – ones that embrace justice, liberation, and right relationships -- like the early church?

Here is some quick and friendly advice. Use the right words.

Namely, I urge you to call racism -- “racism”, instead of walking it back to some other less adequate term.

I’m referring to stuff like this: 


Etzler's heart is clearly in the right place. He wants to confront the injustice that he sees going on here. But really, the fact that a white man can say that America is not great, while standing in front of a U.S. flag (and probably moments after the National Anthem is played), and he gets to run for president; meanwhile, a black man sits down during the anthem in peaceful protest against black oppression and he gets called every name in the book, and is told by the white presidential candidate that he should go find another country to live in… that my friends is not “privilege.” That is “racism.”

Trump is obviously hypocritical and racist here, as the basis of his campaign is to suggest that to “make America great again” the country would need to “encourage” people of color who speak out, like Kaepernick, to leave the country. The campaign platform makes an evil other of any foreigner who might have non-white skin tones, and then posits them either religious terrorists or job stealing rapists.

The list goes on, and this is not a new critique.

But where we need to get serious here is when we’re talking about systemic racism. The tweet above uses the term “privilege.” And yes, it is an unearned advantage that a white man can speak out against perceived social/political/economic problems in the U.S. in ways that a black man in the same situation might not be able to. Further, it is “white fragility” that white people get uncomfortable when their country is being critiqued on the basis of racial oppression. But we must recognize that both of these terms are passive. They describe circumstances. They don’t describe an active response.

After all, white privilege like all different forms of social and economic privilege, demands no apology. Rather, it demands recognition – and once recognized – a commitment to taking action on the side of justice and liberation. Similarly, fragility comes from being insulated from the reality of an oppressive system so thoroughly that the mere discussion of the oppression is taken as abhorrent and offensive by the dominant group member.

Trump’s response goes beyond both of these circumstances. He neither recognized the grievances of his fellow human being, nor did he take action on the side of justice or liberation. Instead, his response was racist. His response was the utter definition of bigotry. But the system that allows his opinion to be elevated in such a way against a peaceful protester who is both experiencing and elevating the discussion about racial oppression – that is systemic racism.

But the liberal blind spot is here: when sportscasters, media pundits, pastors, and leaders of all sorts down-tone their responses to such racism by calling it mere “privilege” – that too is systemic racism at work. Catering to white fragility by moderating word choices and placing the feelings of white folks above the lives of people of color is systemic racism at work. Systemic racism is at the root of that nagging feeling in white folks’ minds that “it isn’t really as bad as they say.”

I hear leaders in the church say all the time that they need to make “these issues” “accessible” to their (mostly white, mostly affluent) congregations. But, when you start from the position that oppression is merely an “issue” you already tone-down its effects. When you decide that “accessible” means to never make anyone in the dominant group too uncomfortable, then you’re elevating the comfort of your listeners over the reality of other human beings’ suffering and death. The contrast really is that stark. You just can’t have it both ways. Either you’re naming the oppression and doing the necessary work of social justice and liberation, or you’re reinforcing the power of the racist system by allowing it to appear not as bad as “they” say.

When leaders use words like “privilege” to describe racism, it reinforces the white perception that racism is a non-issue, a thing of the past, and that the problem is far less pervasive than what people of color are telling us through movements like #BlackLivesMatter. But it isn’t, and the fact that we’re still tiptoeing around what to call it when we see it, because we so deeply want to call it anything except “racism” -- that is evidence that racism, both individual and systemic, is alive and well today.

You can’t begin the work of justice until you call out the injustice. But in the process of that calling out, we must hold ourselves accountable to use the most adequate descriptors, even when they are strong words. We must be particularly careful to avoid misusing passive terms, like “privilege”, to describe actions that are racist and deeply rooted in bigotry. To do so is not justice at all.

“Colin Kaepernick says America is not great, people tell him to leave. Donald Trump says America is not great, may become president… That is <racism> in a nutshell folks.”

There, fixed it.

Zach Oaster is a public sociologist, shepherd, and artisan. He is a full-time graduate student of sociology at Western Michigan University as well as a longtime performer of music and organizer around social justice issues. Find out more about Zach at, or on

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