White Denial

[Atypical of my blog posts, please note that words often deemed offensive are included below.]

During the controversy over former LA Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling expressing racist comments on a recording by a companion, I highlighted Ta-Nehisi Coates confronting “oafish racists” as a public and political target to express token outrage but ignore systemic and lingering racism.

In many ways, businesses placing “No Blacks” signs in their windows were easier to refute than the less overt racism found when blacks and whites with the same education from elite universities receive inequitable opportunities for work, skewed in favor of whites. Or the blunt racism and sexism exposed by data:

access to good jobs race gender

That context serves well to understand how a young college student-athlete whispering “nigga” with a live mic nearby and a police shooting and killing of an unarmed black man in North Charleston, SC again speak to how white denial of racism perpetuates racism, especially when that denial is subtle.

First, a Kentucky basketball player trash talking off the court—when he should have been better aware of his surroundings—appears (and in many ways is) less significant than the shooting and killing of an(other) unarmed black male by a white police officer who also, as the video reveals, went to extraordinary and disturbing lengths to create a lie about his inexcusable actions.

However, the reactions to these separate events are very much equally illustrative of white denial of racism as a mechanism for perpetuating racism.

As a life-long Southerner and 30-plus-year educator, I have witnessed both the most vile use of “nigger” as a dehumanizing racial slur and a common response to blacks using “nigger”/”nigga”: Why can blacks say that to other blacks but whites can’t say it?

This is a common-sense mask for racism.

The common sense mistake in this claim is placing the offensive power within the word itself, instead of the context of its use and the agents involved, who uses the word and toward whom.

As listed below [1], marginalized and oppressed groups have often reappropriated slurs as an act of empowerment. Thus, the use of “nigger”/”nigga” between equals and the intent of that use are profoundly different than a white person (as an agent of white privilege) using that term to “put in her/his place” a black person (a target of oppression).

Since “nigger” is a volatile word (one I do not use and prefer that others do not use), let me offer another example.

I have also witnessed the use of “boy” as a way to demean others, both as a racist slur and as an attack on manhood—particularly in the South. In almost all ways, “boy” is a harmless word, but when an adult white male uses “boy” toward an adult black male, the word carries a level of offense nearing “nigger”; in fact, as the direct racial slur has become more publicly taboo, words such as “boy” and “thug” have gained weight as offensive words that seem covert to the users.

And yet, I hear no one claiming that “boy” should be banished from use by everyone.

Further, the evidence of the use of “nigger”/”nigga” in non-offensive ways within a racial minority comes from the slurred/marginalized people themselves. To reject or discount that claim is itself an act of marginalization, a denunciation of the value of a people’s voice—and thus, racism.

Next, the shooting and killing of Walter Scott by a police officer has entered the seemingly endless narrative of the U.S. that itself reveals the country is not post-racial. Shootings of black males by police are stunningly common, often controversial, and nearly always coupled with equivocation by the white/privileged majority.

That Scott’s killing is documented by a video that also exposes the officer’s horrifying dishonesty, one would expect the equivocations to be nearly silent; however, the subtle racism following Scott’s shooting is the “rogue cop” argument, the concession that all professions have some “bad apples” (that phrasing particularly tone deaf and offensive since a 50-year-old, unarmed man was shot 8 times in the back and killed by an officer sworn to protect and serve). Or as Leonard Pitts Jr. confronts, discounting each shooting as an “isolated incident.”

Reducing Scott’s shooting to “one bad apple” is denying systemic racism in the U.S. judicial system. It is turning a blind eye to the reality than many countries have police forces that rarely, almost never, use deadly force. It is embracing a culture of violence that remains unpunished among the ordained, glorified in popular media and entertainment, and swiftly punished among the marginalized.

The “one bad apple” denial keeps the gaze superficial, in order to deny systemic racism, and fails to witness when even black police officers are agents of a racist system (in ways replicated all throughout history and society when individuals from an oppressed group are themselves drawn into the bigotry codified by policy, law, or tradition).

To remain unable to listen to the context of a racial slur while also waving off the shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer as a regrettable outlier—these are acts of subtle racism that perpetuate systemic racism.

And here, once again, we must return to Coates, and we must listen—especially whites in denial:

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws….

A racism that invites the bipartisan condemnation of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell must necessarily be minor. A racism that invites the condemnation of Sean Hannity can’t be much of a threat. But a racism, condemnable by all civilized people, must make itself manifest now and again so that we may celebrate how far we have come. Meanwhile racism, elegant, lovely, monstrous, carries on.

[1] See on language/slur reappropriation:

The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: Implications for Social Identity, Adam D. Galinsky, Kurt Hugenberg, Carla Groom and Galen Bodenhausen

The semantics of slurs: A refutation of pure expressivism, Adam M. Croom

Appropriating a Slur: Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of Nigga, Andrew T. Jacobs

Matt Barnes, the N-Word and Reappropriation, Jonah Hall

‘Cunt’ Should Not Be a Bad Word, Katie J.M. Baker

Laurie Penny: In defence of the “C” word

Reclaiming “Cunt,” “Bitch,” “Slut,” and more

The feminist mistake, Zoe Williams


One thought on “White Denial”

  1. Amen. My white students continue to insist that racism “was back then,” and that accusations of racism against police and others are purely political. (When they say this, my black students sit in silence, not looking at the speakers.) I see racist attitudes all over our campus (and I mean even the faculty and administration) and town (Montgomery, AL). We still have Jefferson Davis Middle School and Robert E. Lee High School, with statues out front and Lee turning his back to the North.

    The problem is so ingrained that I have not been able to get students to recognize their own prejudices. I don’t want them to feel attacked or hated by me. Have you found ways to persuade others?

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