On The Nuances Of Racism

A Fitting Conversation For Black History Month

I used this same image in a similar post back in 2016, just after the presidential elections. That particular post discussed the reality of racism in America and in American politics (Spoiler Alert: it was real and prevalent then, and is now).

So here we are in the very beginning of Black History Month 2019 — a month in which the President of the United States gave a State of the Union Address without even mentioning Black History Month — and the number of times I have heard the words “I’m not racist, but…” in just the past week is quite astronomical. That, however, is not to say necessarily that all of the people using that phrase are racist. The discussion on these things is more nuanced than that. And that is the core topic of this post — the nuances of racism.


Blackface In Virginia

Billy Van, the monologue comedian, 1900. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID var.1831

The constituents of the state in which I currently reside, Virginia, are split on the issue of whether or not the Governor of our state, Ralph Northam should resign after a yearbook page allegedly depicting Northam in blackface from 1984 surfaced. Since the original surfacing of the page, Northam has wavered on whether or not it was actually him in the image. At this point it does not matter, because as many have rightly pointed out, he believed at some point that it could have been him.

The history of blackface is important to understand before forming any type of opinion on this matter. I recommend you take the time to educate yourself, but simply put, in the 1830s white actors began using shoe polish to depict black men as lazy, ignorant, and effectively worthless individuals. It was a depiction that very much so exaggerated every negative stereotype of black man that we still see in America today, and helped to continue to separate blacks from the whites. Blackface, no matter the context, has racist undertones that cannot be ignored. We are hardly a generation away from when blackface was still used in very racist contexts.

Interestingly, Virginians are still pretty split on whether or not Northam should should step down, even while the Democratic party overwhelmingly continues to call for his resignation. A more interesting point is that blacks in Virginia by a pretty wide margin do not believe Northam should step down. As a black man, this is not a particularly surprising point. Although he should not have been the one to say it, Northam was correct in later saying: “In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we regard as abhorrent today, were commonplace”.

And this brings us to my point — racism is a nuanced topic. Yes — the act of dressing up in blackface is indeed racist regardless of intent given the history, but individual racist actions in isolation do not make a racist. At the same time, intent matters, but lack of malicious intent does not immediately excuse something from being racist. These are not contradictory points — this is the nuance of racism.

Northam has no further history of racist actions (that we are aware of) so to judge the entire man on this one particular instance which he has shown remorse and apologized for would be unjust. Because of this, as a black man, I can forgive what was more than likely a handful of indiscretions (and racist actions) during a time in which such indiscretions were not viewed as they are today and were not committed in malice and remorse was clearly felt.

For the record, forgiving those actions does not mean I believe he should stay in office, but that is for another post.


Unconscious Prejudice

Another event that occurred in the last week involved a well known actor — Liam Nesson. Liam is a wildly popular actor of Irish decent most well known for his portrayal of a badass former special forces officer who rips his way through France to hunt down the sex traffickers that kidnap his daughter in the 2008 film “Taken”.

Earlier this week, the British paper The Independent published an article in which Liam made a comparison of his own life to his newly released film “Cold Pursuit” — a revenge story where a father goes after the killers of his son (typecast much?). During this interview, Liam describes a situation from his own life in which a friend comes to him and tells him she was raped. She does not know the name of the individual, but tells him he was black. Instead of paraphrasing the rest, I will provide this exact quote in Liam’s own words from the article:

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”

Liam goes on to say that he realized after about a week this was a not the right approach and as he thinks back on the situation how horrible that mindset was. The entire point of his anecdote was lost on the world — and immediately after this article comes out, there were countless others headlined some variation of “Liam Neeson Says He Wanted to Kill ‘Some Black Bastard’”. These were shared all over social media and Liam faced tremendous backlash which resulted in the cancelling of the Red Carpet premiere of his film.

Liam has since come out to try to explain his comments. Another prominent actress, Michelle Rodriguez, also came to his defense only to face her own backlash for the example she used. She has also since apologized for her own deaf tone response.

Now let’s go back and review what Liam actually said — the point of his story was that revenge is a powerful force that can cause you to do some very twisted things. In his particular case, whether he realizes this is what happened or not, it exaggerated and already existing unconscious prejudice regarding black people and sent him down a path that he later realized was completely wrong. He was not saying that he actively hates black people.

Again the racist action in isolation here does not make the individual a racist. It does not make the thoughts and actions he took not racist — because let’s be clear, hoping any random black guy comes up to you to start something so you can kill them because of something one black person did is racist by definition. But in the context of the story he is telling, those actions and thoughts are more nuanced and do not necessarily make him a racist.

Trevor Noah does an amazing jobs of discussing the nuances here in a between the scenes segment and I highly recommend you take a quick watch:


Micro-Aggressions and Unintended Racism

One of the comments that Trevor makes in the above video is particularly important — in the society we live in today people believe if you admit to having done, said, or even thought something racist, you will forever be labeled a racist. Because of this no one ever feels comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations. I have a few thoughts on this:

  1. Black people are significantly less likely to forever brand you with a Scarlet R for a one off racist action or micro-aggression. Even if there is a pattern of these events, if we realize it is something you are not even aware you are doing we will take steps to educate you. Sometimes that means telling you directly when you are doing something racist, which does not mean we are calling you racist. We are just trying to educate you so you do not continue those action.
  2. Unfortunately attempts to educate in this manner often result in an immediate defensive position “Are you calling me racist? I’m not a racist! How dare you!” which exasperates situations so black people end up letting these things build up and you continue these actions without realizing you are doing something that might be racist. The show “Dear White People” on Netflix does an amazing job for exploring these particular issues and prompts some great conversations.
  3. “Woke” white people in American society do a particularly bad job in this area and actually cause more problems than they solve. In an attempt to be politically correct, and allies, they often go too far and will immediately and forever brand someone as a racist for one action. No forgiveness, no nuance. That actually makes it harder for us to have the uncomfortable conversations.

Here is a personal anecdote that explains the above points. One of the things I have heard from a number of my white friends is the following phrase:

you’re the whitest black guy I know

That phrase has always killed me. The undertones of that statement cut deep. For a long while I let it go, or laughed it off, or just ignored it — but more recently I’ve gotten to the point where I cannot continue to let it go. What that statement is actually saying is “black people aren’t intelligent, they don’t use correct grammar, they don’t speak certain ways”. Sure, when my friends say it they are not intending on being malicious, but the statement is still inherently racist.

So I began explaining this to those friends as I would hear it and would immediately get the defensive response — “are you calling me racist?”, “Come on man, you know I’m not a racist”, “oh you’re just being sensitive, you know I don’t mean anything by it”. In most of those cases they eventually got it — in a few they just stopped because they now knew I had an issue, but still took offense to me calling it out. Uncomfortable conversations are hard and there is clearly no easy solution — that is why they are uncomfortable. Does not make them not worth having.


Key Takeaways

Despite what some may want you to believe racism still exists in this country. In just a few weeks we will hit the 7 year anniversary of the unjustified murder of Trayvon Martin which was just one of many murders that were the result of racist tendencies and systemic racism. But again, individual racist actions in isolation do not make a racist. The lack of remorse or even acknowledgement of wrong doing definitely points in that direction, however.

Racism is a nuanced concept and actions require more in-depth evaluation before a determination on the character of the person can be assessed. Further to that point, just because someone calls you out when you commit racist actions or have racist thoughts does not mean you are forever labeled a racist.

Historical context matters and also has an impact on these determinations in both directions. Is there a historical precedent for something being racist? Are there undertones that are rooted in a dark past some would rather forget or ignore? Was there a time where something was accepted as the norm and not identified as particularly racist which deserves consideration?

Racism, like most things, is nuanced.