I guess 2017 is the year of “I can’t believe this is still up for debate.”
Recently, Bill Maher acted a racist fool (not for the first time) by referring to himself as a “house n*****” on his TV show. Maher later apologized and said it was in the heat of “banter in a live moment” on television that the most despicable word in the English language flew out of his mouth. Whatever cameras they’re using over at HBO add 10 pounds and also racism, I guess, because that is not a word that’s ever just rolled off my tongue in any conversation I've had in my 31 years on this earth.
For some naïve reason, I expected the white-liberal community to rise up in outrage, condemning him. But you all know how that went. I’m part of a huge Facebook group (over 70,000 members) whose members fight for equality and social justice. Even there, people felt there was room to debate Maher's casual use of the most despicable word in the English language: that there was room to defend some white guy they didn’t even know over the chorus of Black voices expressing their outrage, hurt, and anger.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the root of white people’s “instincts” and our first reactions, and the fallout (or lack thereof) from Maher’s racist comment is a perfect example of what I’ve seen happening in the progressive community. The conclusion I’ve reached: even the most progressive white person’s first reaction in situations of racism will probably be racist.
Take a minute to examine what you just felt reading that.
You probably think you’re not affected, because you're super liberal. You probably think the anger or indignation you just felt was about the way I said what I said, or how little I know you. You marched on January 21, you say. You give to Black Lives Matter. You rail against mass incarceration and poison water in Flint and make all your white friends watch 13th, so your first instinctual reaction must be rooted in all of this goodness and light.
And this is why our first reactions are trash and we can’t trust them. Because that was your embedded white supremacy leaping up to protect itself, all wrapped up in progressive denial.
White supremacy has leeched into our blood over centuries of inequality, oppression, violence, and segregation. Everything is tainted by it: not only white people, but most deeply in us. No one is safe. You can bury it under a layer of activism and progressive ideals, but that doesn’t make it go away; it runs deeper than your time or mine on this earth and will be here long after. In progressives it is even more insidious, because we believe our decisions are no longer governed by this system and thus are free to fight tooth and nail to defend our own instincts. I see this in the choice we always seem to make when something like Bill Maher surfaces.
You’re not Bill’s mom or dad or brother or sister. You aren’t his best friend, acquaintance, assistant, or dog groomer. He wouldn’t know you if you passed him on the street. And still: when faced with who to believe and support, you chose one old white man over the entirety of Black America. Because you thought you could trust your gut.
But you can’t. Your gut is still racist. So is mine.
So. What can we do? Lean into the latent racism? Give it all up and go full David Duke? No. To avoid saying racist things, the answer is simple:
1. Observe that first feeling.
That’s the racism talking. If you start a fight based on that initial “instinct,” you will find yourself in a world of shit defending whiteness. Keep your Twitter fingers to yourself.
2. Let that first feeling rise, crest, and break.
I promise you will have another, and it will be your own.
3. Listen to what the affected party is saying.
How did this comment make them feel, and why? What historical and cultural contexts exist around this comment that you might not have realized? (Notice you’re still not responding to anyone yet.)
4. Digest and reflect.
How do you feel about this topic now? Will your voice add support to the attacked community, or are you still trying to play devil’s advocate for a total stranger who happens to share your skin color?
5. Join the conversation with respect and deference.
It’s very possible this discussion has little to do with you personally. If you feel the need to participate, do so with open ears and the readiness to have your mind changed by someone who knows more.
If this seems like too much work, just remember: people of color have had to code switch and change entire chunks of their personalities in order to survive in white environments for centuries. We can take a few extra minutes before firing off an ignorant tweet to make sure we aren’t operating as agents of white supremacy.
Also, for the love of all things holy: stop f*cking dabbing.