I’m a bigot.
I’m a homophobe.
Yes, I’m one of those people. I haven’t been busted on social media. No one has caught me using a racial slur – no tearful Facebook apology from me with statements like, “I’m sorry you took that word in a way I didn’t mean.”
So what prompts my confession? It’s this growing unease I’ve experienced over the way social media mobilizes to condemn people caught using slurs or acting in other intolerant ways. Like the New York meteorologist who was recently fired after he said “Martin Luther Coon” during a broadcast.
What happened to the weatherman has become a ritual. He was tied to the social media version of a whipping post. Outrage followed. His apology – complete with furrowed brow, unshaved face and pained wife by his side – was too late. He was fired, despite his claim it was an accident. The news cycle moved on, cueing up the next person caught saying or doing something stupid.
But here’s a blasphemous thought:
What if this ritual of going after people like the weatherman actually reinforces racism and other “isms” instead of combating them?
What if this hyper-focus on an individual’s wrong distracts us from directing our outrage at the most destructive forms of intolerance – the kind that’s baked so much into our everyday lives that we hardly notice them?
We get outraged over a man for saying “Martin Luther Coon,” but then we go to back to our all-white communities with our all-white friends and lose no sleep over what we’re doing to brown kids at our Mexican border.
It’s putting a Band Aid on a gaping wound; we sometimes prefer to tweet our outrage rather than deal with tougher questions, says Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” a book that examines why it’s difficult for many white Americans to talk about race.
“We make these kind of superficial scapegoats that we can use to make ourselves feel better about racism, but we don’t address policies, practices or structures,” she says. “To the white people who are clutching their pearls, I really have to ask: How integrated is your life? Yeah, you voted for Obama twice, but do you have any black friends?”
Questioning our zero tolerance policy on intolerance
Don’t get me wrong. I get the outrage people feel when they hear a slur. I feel it too.
I’ve been called the n-word. I’ve been racially profiled by police. I’ve had white co-workers mistake me more than once for a black colleague I look nothing like. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to just be white for a week, to move through a world where you’re not a minority and people don’t move out of the neighborhood when too many of “us” move in.
Words matter. They sting. They can lead to all sorts of monstrosities. I remember my father telling me just before he died two weeks before his 92nd birthday:
“I’ve been called n—– so much I thought it was my middle name.”
So I get the zero tolerance policy on calling out intolerance on social media – no mercy for those who never showed us any mercy.
But here’s why I think a zero tolerance policy on slurs will fail, just as it did with the war on drugs.
None of us are innocent. But the way we talk about intolerance on social media doesn’t reflect that.
Most of us have been taught that some people are more valuable than others. That message infiltrates our lives whether we know it or not. We are profoundly and routinely biased. Social science has proven this point over and over again.
The author Jessica Nordell describes how bias infiltrates our lives in her essay in The Atlantic, “Is This How Discrimination Ends?”
“If you’re Latino, you’ll get less pain medication than a white patient. If you’re an elderly woman, you’ll receive fewer life-saving interventions than an elderly man. If you’re a man being evaluated for a job as a lab manager, you will be given more mentorship, judged as more capable, and offered a higher starting salary than if you were a woman. If you are an obese child, your teacher is more likely to assume you’re less intelligent than if you were slim.”
The research shows something else – you can act in racist and sexist ways even if you consciously reject those behaviors.
I recently learned that when I caught myself doing something that could have gone viral if it had been filmed.
Revelation at Lowe’s
Some people go to Lowe’s to build. I went there and had my self-image torn down.
I went to the home improvement store one Saturday morning to buy some equipment to paint my deck. I wanted to know the best paint and brushes to use but didn’t know where to start. I walked up to a counter to ask for help.
Two men stood behind the counter, a shaggy-haired white man busy on the phone and a young black man with a military bearing who was alone, not attending to any customers. I didn’t ask the black guy for help, though he was free.
It wasn’t until I got home and started staining my deck that it hit me:
“Damn,” I thought. “I just racially profiled a black man – and I’m black!”
I was totally unaware what was happening when I decided to ignore the black guy. It was unintentional. My decision was made in a millisecond. But how was my attitude any different than that of the white Canadian woman who was caught on video last year demanding to see a white doctor because she didn’t want a “brown” one?
The experience didn’t just humble me, it scared me. If I – someone who is black and has read about race and bias for years – could act like this, what was possible for others who never thought much about these issues?
“We all absorb this stuff,” says DiAngelo. “Sometimes the thoughts that pass across my mind are shocking to me. I don’t think I can be free of it.”
Creating a new ritual
What do we do then? Do we give up fighting intolerance in ourselves and others because we all have it?
Perhaps there’s another way. Our language and behavior should evolve. We shouldn’t talk about racism, for example, as an either/or proposition: Use a slur and you’re the Grand Imperial Wizard of the KKK; if you’ve never used one you’re free of intolerance.
I’m talking about creating space for people to admit their flaws – like what I did in Lowe’s.
We’ve done it for other issues. People can stand up in 12-step meetings and admit they’re addicts but we still see their humanity. We see ourselves in their struggles – there but for the grace of God go I.
I’m not saying create “racist rehab” where people can escape responsibility for cruel actions by simply claiming, “My subconscious made me do it.”
No, I’m talking about something else. Here’s a modest guide to help us decide when it’s right to bring the hammer down when someone is being intolerant, and when we should pause:
Make a distinction between those who show self-reflection and sincerity and those who don’t. It’s not just whether they apologize, but how.
On one end of the spectrum are those who claim innocence, who say they didn’t do wrong or that they were misunderstood. They don’t deserve a break.
We saw an example of that this week.
Steve King, the Iowa congressman, was condemned on social media when he was quoted saying:
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”
King denied he was being racially offensive, saying he was not an advocate for “white nationalism and white supremacy.”
But if a white elected official doesn’t see a problem with embracing a term like “white supremacy,” questions should be raised.
On the other end of the spectrum is Starbucks. DiAngelo cites how the company responded last year after two black men were shown on video being arrested in a store just for being there. The coffee chain closed shops nationwide for an afternoon of racial bias training and announced it would hold further training for employees.
“They said, ‘We messed up,’ ” she says. ” ‘We’re going to do something about it and we’re going to make public what we’ve done about it.’ “
That’s the right way to make amends, she says: Apologize profusely and sincerely; say you’re going to work on whatever caused you do what you did; and say you’re going to report back to critics in the future to let them know about your progress.
Jeremy Kappell, the weatherman who was fired from WHEC-TV in Rochester for his MLK remark, may fall somewhere in the middle.
He repeatedly said it was an accident – he was speaking so quickly that he jumbled his words.
He said he would never insult King or risk the future of his family or career.
“That was not a word I said, I promise you that,” he said. “If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, I sincerely apologize.”
Another TV weatherman, Al Roker, came to Kappell’s defense. He tweeted:
“I think @JeremeyKappell made an unfortunate flub and should be given the chance to apologize on @news10nbc. Anyone who has done live tv and screwed up (google any number of ones I’ve done) understands.”
DiAngelo, though, is ambivalent about Kappell’s response.
“Was it really a slip?” she says. “We don’t know. I gotta be honest, I don’t know if it was unintentional. It certainly is an easy claim to make. We are in a political moment where there is incredible permission to be explicitly racist.”
Lesson from another act of cruelty caught on film
Here’s a little secret that I think many minorities can identify with. Sure, we get angry when people get caught saying or doing the wrong thing. But we get angrier when others claim they could never be like those people.
One of my best friends is a fellow bigot – a white minister I’ve known for years. He freely admits he still struggles with the racism he absorbed growing up in the segregated South.
His confession makes me trust him more, not less.
What I look for is the type of honesty I saw reflected in another act of cruelty caught on film, in a different era.
I was watching a documentary on the great Hollywood director George Stevens. He was part of a US Army crew that filmed the liberation of Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany, during the closing days of World War II. He would go on to make classic films like “Shane” and “Giant.”
But it was the film he made at Dachau that had the most impact on him. He once said about his experience walking into the camp:
“When a poor man, hungry and unseeing because his eyesight is failing, grabs me and starts begging, I feel the Nazi, because I abhor him. I want him to keep his hands off me. And the reason I want him to his hands off me is because I see myself capable of arrogance and brutality to keep him off me. That’s a fierce thing. To discover within yourself that which you despise the most in others.”
We should never retreat from calling out the unapologetic cruelty that we see flashed across social media.
But maybe we should temper some of our self-righteousness and remember this the next time we want to tweet when a victim is cued up for saying or doing something cruel or insensitive.
We are more like those people we condemn than we want to admit.