Want to try high-risk writing? As in, the high risk of offending, being sued, losing a job, or worse yet—getting killed? Try writing the word racist.

Using this word carries those risks, assumes a status, makes a statement, and comes with consequences. To live longer, smile more, and stay safe, write about low-risk “r-words”—like rainbow, rabbit, or recess.

“Race”[1] is a term that refers to groups of people with differences and similarities in biological traits deemed by society to be socially significant, meaning that people treat other people differently because of them. “Racism” is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person, a crowd, or others because of their racial/ethnic grouping. It’s the grouping that counts, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

It is reasonably safe to write about race, but if you add that infamous “ist” to the word, look out. It’s the hinge between slamming the writing door shut and keeping it open.

“Ist” is a suffix added to a word to mean “one who.” A physics researcher becomes a physicist. A biologist studies biology. “Ism” is a suffix added to the end of a word to indicate that the word represents a specific practice, system, or philosophy. Often these practices, systems, or philosophies are political ideologies.

The August 2019 filing of a lawsuit against politicians and reporters by a high school student prompted this blog. The student claims he was defamed when the defendants[2] made defamatory social media claims and wrote false news stories about interaction between student activists and Native American activists in Washington D.C. Race became racism. The students and the Native Americans became activists. Racism and activism often fuel political demonstrations. One tends to begat the other anytime a cell phoniest is on duty.

Allegedly, a video recording became a viral meme depicting a “smirking face-to-face with [a] Native American elder.” National news coverage of the public confrontation said the student was wearing a Make America Great Again red hat, the teens around him were laughing and jeering, and . . . [the student] appeared to smirk in [the elder’s] face as the elder played a ceremonial drum.[3]

A video of the interaction first went viral on social media, which led to people investigating the high school, which allegedly had a history of blackface allegations, which explained why the teens were in D.C. to begin with (an anti-abortion protest), and why the Native American was beating his ancestral drum for the Indigenous Peoples’ March.[4]

As was virtually guaranteed in today’s social media environment, race and privilege became the narrative of what did, did not, or might have motivated one group to leer at the other. That motivation would cause one to react and the other to sue. None of that matters to the ethical norms for using the words raciest or racism in writing for public consumption. The words themselves put a shine on a 21st Century version of McCarthyism—communism is a scourge, activism against it will get you reelected, or sued, as the case may be.

I think we have should follow commonly accepted ethical norms when writing about racism for public consumption.

First, don’t label private citizens as racist unless they are in fact what you say they are; your opinions are not news—facts are news.

Second, don’t take a political position to advance your own political ideology unless you make it clear to your readers you do not know what you’re talking about; you are merely offering alternative narratives about something you saw on TV, which was debatable at every level.

Third, remember that what looks like leering to one viewer may be deadpan to another.

Fourth, remember that capitalized letters on a red baseball cap may spell racist to one viewer, misplaced hope to another, “who cares” to many others, and absolute glee to racists the world over.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] Other definitions include a competition between runners, horses, vehicles, boats, etc., to see which is the fastest in covering a set course. It also means a strong or rapid current flowing through a narrow channel in the sea or a river, as in looking for tuna in turbulent tidal races. Some use the word to mean a water channel, especially one built to lead water to or from a point where its energy is utilized, as in a mill or mine. The word is also used to describe a smooth ring-shaped groove, or guide in which a ball bearing runs.

[2] The defendants were people who did not personally witness the exchange between the student and the Native American who became the object of attention by the student activists. They read about it and offered their views on what they assumed happened, based on the news stories about happened.

[3] https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/2/20/1836378/-Covington-Catholic-teen-sues-Washington-Post-for-250-million

[4] Ibid.