Are You a Racist? Let’s Think Bigger about Our Language

The tragic death of George Floyd has triggered a much needed conversation about race relations in the United States.

In this post we will examine how specific words are used to heal or hurt, build or destroy, continue the conversation or squelch it. My intention is to help us communicate better to heal this ugly divide.

Murfield Coaching works to solve significant problems. One of the ways we solve the most serious problems, like racism, is with compassion. By coming alongside another to help them alleviate their pain, we reach higher and collaborate to do what we may have never thought possible.

BEFORE READING: This post is about communication. Please keep an open mind and accept the words I’m using. I may use a word that violates your sensitivities. My use of words is simply to create shared meaning. Anyone can be offended by any word at any time. Please lay aside your sensitivities and understand the principle I’m working to articulate. Thank you in advance.

Defining Communication

Many people define communication as “getting your message across.” From my academic studies, I prefer the definition, “the negotiation of shared meaning between two or more very different people.” The latter helps us to understand that communication is not a physical exercise like playing catch with a ball. Our words do not stay the same as we toss them back and forth. Instead, we negotiate with words and symbols to come to a common understanding.

The problem is that we have very different experiences. Below is just a few of the many differences we have.

  • Location: Some are raised in the inner city, others in suburbs, others in small towns and still others on farms or in the mountains.
  • Religion: Some have been raised deeply involved with religion while others with no religion.
  • Family Structure: Some were raised in a single parent household while others had both parents. Still others had the influence of extended family.
  • Income: Then there is the matter of income ranging from poverty to excessive wealth.
  • Education: Throw in educational differences and world views and we get a good picture of how very different we are without ever considering the color of our hair, eyes, or skin.
  • Personality: Oh yes, let’s not forget each of us is a unique person with a unique personality.

To build shared meaning is difficult. No wonder we are only effective in negotiating meaning about 3% of the time.

Words as Political Filters

Shared meaning is reached using words as well as nonverbal symbols. Actually nonverbal gestures and voice inflections comprise approximately 97% of the meaning. For our discussion today, we will focus only on the words.

Given that we are so very different, it may be easy to see that we use different words in different ways. Those words may change meanings when used by different people in different situations. Of course that complicates things.

Within the political world, words are often used as “filter terms” to refer to a primary value that motivates an audience. In my 1994 PhD dissertation, I detailed the intricacies of how the same word and be used very differently to construct different meanings.

When Dan Quayle said those rioting after the Rodney King beating didn’t have “family values,” he was appealing to his conservative base of voters core value of “property.” When Clinton responded, he was appealing to his voters and their core value of “equality.”

This worked because “family” meant so many things to so many people but carried the similar intense emotional meaning.

Words have a dictionary meaning but they also have a personal meaning. Debates often begin by establishing the agreed upon definition of the terms. But when it comes to the racial discord in our country, it seems we can’t even agree upon that.

When it comes to using the words, we need to THINK BIGGER in order to REACH HIGHER.

Black Lives Matter

This seen in the slogan/statement “Black Lives Matter.” Only the most racist individual would argue that they don’t matter so let’s look a little deeper. Good people who are not racist will content, “All Lives Matter.” Of course they do. Black, White, Brown, all colors of skin matter. But “Black Lives Matter” is a filter phrase to draw awareness to the oppressive and unequal policies in the United States.

The supporters of “Black Lives Matter” do not disagree that “All Lives Matter.” However, making that statement at this time distracts from their purpose to end the oppressive policies. At at time when Black Lives Matters movement is at it’s peak, they cannot afford to dissipate the energy.

So there is yet another divide. The crux of the counter statement “All Lives Matter” is to make several points. First, no race should be given preference. Second, bad cops hurt all races and it needs to stop. But then there is a devious third aspect where some don’t want to acknowledge that Black Lives Do Matter. What could be a very powerful slogan for equality becomes a racist slur in “All Lives Matter.

Even in our attempts to communicate, negotiating share meaning with words, we come to a Grand Canyon divide. Could we agree that all lives matter but at this moment in time, we need to focus on why some policies and actions show that black lives don’t matter? Can we come together to right that wrong?

Failing to address “Black Lives Matter” at this time is actually saying that “All Lives Do NOT Matter.”


Then there are the words, “Racist” and “Racism.” That is why, in my title, I asked, “Are you a racist?”

Don’t be too quick to answer.

Adam Grant is one of my favorite authors. He is an organizational psychologist professor at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and author of ORIGINALS and GIVE AND TAKE, and host of the TED podcast WorkLife. I first became acquainted with his work through his two TED Talks, The surprising habits of original thinkers, and Are you a giver or a taker?

He asked a simple question in his Facebook page, “What is your definition of racism.” Being intrigued by language, I quickly did a mental search for my own definition before reading the answers. Several were in line with what I later found in the dictionary. defines racist as “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”

Then I read a statement that made no sense. “Blacks cannot be racists because they are a minority.” I was stunned and incensed. To me, either you follow the philosophy that your race is superior or you don’t. It is a standard that we measure ourselves by so how can it be relative according to race?

In the ensuing discussion, the college professor and researcher argued that the scholarly research included the aspect of power. She was using an academic definition that states the following.

“Racism is analytically distinct from racial discrimination
and racial inequality. Racial discrimination concerns the
unequal treatment of races, whereas racial inequality concerns
unequal outcomes (in income, education, health, etc.).”
Clair & Dennis, 2015, Projects at Harvard

The researcher was adamant that this was the official definition was right. I have to admit, so was I because I knew that narrow definition did not work outside of academic research. I fully understand the value of that narrow definition in the course of research but, to me, it does not transfer to the streets. Outside of academia, that definition does not work to help us negotiate shared meaning but rather divides.

Here’s the problem. Anyone who sees another as inferior due to the color of their skin is a racist. To claim that two people, one black and another white, can both be prejudiced and treating the other poorly based on skin color is wrong. That is the caustic attitude, belief, and value that we all must work to eradicate. We cannot live together in harmony if one of us is seeing themselves as superior.

Let me ask the question again. Are you a racist? Do you see others as inferior to you based on the color of their skin?

Reaching Higher: Do The Impossible

To resolve this hideous problem, let’s begin with the basics. Bad police must go, NOW! Prejudicial policies must go, NOW! When it comes to fairness as guaranteed by the Constitution and common standard of ethics, we need to THINK BIGGER to reach higher and end this nonsense. We need to see each other as equal human beings. We each have our pain but in the process of constructing laws and policies, there is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately.

THINKING BIGGER begins when we have compassion for each other. We must see them as another valuable human being that has pain. Let’s notice that pain. Let’s feel for them by understanding their pain from their perspective. Then let’s work together to alleviate that pain. Let’s have open dialogue where we truly listen to each other.

Healing begins when we change our attitudes. Let’s agree to work together. When compassion is collaborative it becomes a power that leverages the best culture where we can do what we otherwise thought was impossible.

Please leave positive comments below. Let’s start the discussion to heal this horrible wound.

(c) 2020 Murfield International, Inc. All rights reserved.

Learn to Listen Effectively




Loren Murfield, Ph.D.

Dr. Murfield holds a PhD in Communication and works with leaders and organizations to solve significant problems with innovative thinking. What problem is frustrating you? Contact us today.

Check out my two podcasts, “Holy Crap, How’d They Do That?” and “Trends, Bends & Opportunities.”

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