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Letter: Calling someone racist is abuse — and shames them into worse behavior

The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square is seen with graffiti reading ‘is a racist’ on the plinth, in London, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020.
Alberto Pezzali, Associated Press

As a social worker, I often refer clients to Patricia Evans’ seminal book, “The Verbally Abusive Relationship.” In it she outlines verbal abuse as one person who defines another’s inner world as if they are an all-knowing god, characterizing their “emotions, needs, feelings, and even very nature in their own terms.” Common examples: “You are crazy/paranoid/too sensitive.”

So why have I let teachers, politicians, newscasters, social media and different organizations tell me, “You are racist”? By Evan’s definition it is verbal abuse. But I don’t need an expert to tell me that because like most abuse, it feels abusive — and like other verbal abuse, it is meant to make a person feel inadequate or be shame-inducing.

Brene Brown, an expert on the effects of shame, states, “When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others.”

This quote shows what most mental health professionals know: that shaming/defining a person worsens behavior. I work with men and women who have committed violent acts. I don’t define them they as “criminals.” I tell them they have worth, value and importance — and that there needs to be some changes. It’s not a tactic I am using. It is the truth. Helping them know their common humanity without inducing inferiority brings positive results and makes everyone safer.

I know racism is real. And if someone wants to find out about my family history; exactly what benefits I receive from my country’s society; my thoughts on privilege, poverty, violence and inequality of the past and present; and where I believe I fit into this all, ask me. I might choose to let you into my inner world, but I will never again let anyone define it.

Rebecca Covey McNairy