There is no such thing as “a racist”, “a sexist” or “a transphobe”.
Behaviour is racist, not people. Sure, someone who fires black employees because they are black is committing a racist act and has racist attitudes, but they are not “a racist”.
I treat oppressions as systems of schemata which are reproduced in reality, i.e. in thought or in behaviour, and that work to create a framework of discrimination and disadvantage for a given group, often through hierarchies. As such, they can exist in people’s behaviour and mental processes, but also in discourses, in institutions, etc., which are beyond individual persons. It is a bit abstract, but then Einstein’s general relativity is a bit abstract as well, yet it works.
(NB: In this article, I’ll often use racism as a generic example, but unless otherwise noted, it is probably applicable to any oppression.)
In some ways, it is useful for social movements to talk of “racists” or other oppressor types, as it reinforces internal cohesion by creating an Other, an enemy to fight. However, that is done at the expense of the very goals of the movement, and especially of its educational purpose. When you attribute oppression to people, anyone who practices any kind of even mildly oppressive behaviour is put in an oppressor-category such as “racist”, “misogynist”, “transphobe”, “homophobe”, and so on. Since these words are loaded, it antagonizes the people who do these behaviours, it puts them outside your community and against you — and who is against you? Other people with racist, misogynistic, etc., attitudes and behaviours. Add in the fact that, when cognitive dissonances are resolved, attitudes change more easily that behaviours, and this is what you get: By calling someone a racist, you may have made them one, you actually perhaps not create, but at least strengthen the category you’re ostensibly fighting against. Reality follows discourse on reality. When you turn fairly open-minded people who don’t know everything about oppression into enemies, I say it’s pretty bad education. Here, have an article on “well-intentioned misogyny” and labeling. Oh, and there is a part two that basically agrees with what I say in general in this article.
Calling people “racists” essentializes “oppressors” as a category, that is, it creates a sort of substance of racism that’s put into people and makes them racists. In effect, it defines the person by their behaviour and attitudes. However, all these “racists” are normal people in addition to that, and racist or sexist or other oppressive behaviour can happen from otherwise levelheaded people.
It is also used to reject all oppressive behaviour on individual persons, as it is assumed that racism is caused by racists. Contrary what you may think, this is not a truism. You can’t just reject all that is wrong on individual people, be they racists, sexists, rapists, etc. What needs to be done is not to ostracize or condemn people, but to correct racist, sexist, etc., behaviour. No oppression is the action of any one individual. Sure, a given person can decide to actively harass or attack or fire people from marginalized groups, and that is wrong, but they likely wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a pre-existing structure of oppression. But even once such more spectacular cases of violence and discrimination are accounted for, we end up with a big system where everyone can effect discrimination and cause tiny oppressions, unwillingly and unconsciously more often than not.
The essentialization of “racists” or whatever ties in with the myth that we have somehow reached equality, that racism, sexism and so on are no longer problems. If only racists can cause racism, then we rejected all the blame on an imagined group. However, basically no one will actively say they are racist — the word is so loaded. As such, since racism is caused by racists, and since there are no/few self-avowed or open racists, racism doesn’t exist anymore. QED.
But as we know, this equal society is nowhere to be seen, and it is not only because we don’t see all the “racists” and “sexists” who cause this. A lot of discrimination is the result of deep incrusted biases and mental structures — the very existence of the race categories for example, or of gender as a system, or of “meritocratic” structures where merit is defined by privileged classes. Some oppressive results are not done by individuals, such as in institutional racism or sexism. No one individual is to blame for the fact that legal sex change requires effective sterilization almost everywhere. “Oppressor” categories are not coherent either, as cissexism exemplifies: trans* people are at the receiving end of oppression from trans-exclusive feminists, from people from the LGB”T” movement who don’t merit the T, from the religious or socially conservative right, from the bureaucracy and from other people at random.
There is a version of this that not only works against the cause, but is oppressive in and of itself: blaming racism, etc., on “crazy” people. In addition to doing everything else I’ve already said, especially rejecting the problematic behaviour on an Other, it works from the assumption that people with mental health disorders are dangerous and reinforces their oppression. This is very frequent when misogynistic mass shootings occur. By questing for psychological problems which may have motivated the killers, journalists and others create a fracture between “crazy” and “not crazy” acts of misogyny, instead of perceiving murders as the direct consequence of our gender-system, as the full, violent application of misogyny pushed to its limit — as a proof by absurdity that our society is messed up. And by exploiting mental health (not misogyny) as the cause, it reinforces totally invalid fears and dangerous attitudes against people with mental health issues. It moves the issue from the real problem (misogyny) to another object (mental health) which is mostly unrelated.
Of course, when I say not to blame oppressors, I mean it in the abstract. There are people who actively work for a worse society, and others who could make it better but whose inaction is complicit at least (#politicians). There are people who take pleasure in oppressive behaviour and who will not give away the least amount of privilege. I totally blame the government and individual bureaucrats for some of the nonsense I go through for my name change, and trust me to blame the people who harass me for harassing me (be that sexist or transphobic harassment, because I get both). Yet though these people are to be blamed, even blamed personally, for the specific bullshit they create, oppression as such precedes them.
Blame behaviour, not people. Fight oppression, not oppressors.