"I’m not racist, but…."

Why nullifying sentences don’t work

gower buzz racism Richard Taylor

I bought a latte on Tottenham Court Road last week. Not in itself particularly interesting, but bear with me. As I paid, from the queue I overheard a young lady turn to her friend and declare, “I’m not racist, but…” If I so much as smell an inference to this whimpering caveat, a liberal monkey starts crashing cymbals together in my head and I prepare to be slightly irritated by what is about to unfold.


I appreciate her attempt to protect her audience from offence, (at least she's aware she's being offensive) but this is an odd, insecure introduction to a statement. It presupposes that what is about to emerge might be considered unsavoury. It also assumes that the audience is too stupid to see through this transparent veil.

Which begs the question: 'Why are you saying something you think needs excusing?' It seems daft to me to hold up a conversational white flag and point a finger at oneself, whilst using one’s best synonym for “Cuff me, I’m guilty” before the statement has even been made. Erecting an 'I'm a good person really' shield is not going to deceive people from judgement.

Bum-covering aside, one has acknowledged that the interpretation to be placed upon the statement is probably going to be negative. Desperately huffing and puffing is not going to hide the smoke from that gun you're holding.

It’s an irresponsible approach to opinion-giving. Other examples are quite common too: “don’t tell anyone, but…” or “no offence, but…” being personal favourites. Realistically, a plethora of topics fit into this simple formula of:

1. Insert controversy firefighting preface.
2. Conjunction.
3. Insert supposedly nullified controversy.

But racism struck me as an interesting example because it is so sensitive. Simply stating “I’m not racist, but…” and then bursting forth with bigoted ignorance is not much more than placing a pillow across a land mine before stamping upon it. If you intend to advance an utterance that may be perceived as offensive, surely if no malice is intended (i.e. you're not thinking from a racialist perspective) then this nullifier is redundant. I firmly believe that if there is no need for insecurity in what you are saying, then why waste the breath?

Obviously this is context dependent and I am referring to general attempts at cloaking opinions. The sort of situation I’m thinking of is where someone who should have no reason beyond personal guilt for sweetening their opinion chirps up with this preface. Just because a brief counterweight has been deployed, does not mean that the responsibility for the statement has been absolved. Moreover, it often might have the opposite effect to that which was desired. It can, in fact, make you sound more guilty than innocent of said racism.

One can hide an opinion, but one certainly can’t run from it, especially with a perceptive audience.