It is an interesting thing to observe that whenever I hear the term “real racist”, as in “maybe you’re the real racist here!”, it’s coming from the mouth of a white person. I have never heard a person of colour use this phrase either to a white person, let alone another PoC. I say “let alone” because maybe, just maybe, PoC trust each other to have a pretty accurate working definition of what racism is. Or maybe I’m reading too much into too little.
At either rate, the reason I find this little observation so fascinating is as follows: white people are far less likely (some would say it is definitionally impossible || EDIT: I have been asked to clarify this point, which I have done in a companion post) to experience racism than are PoC. It seems preposterous to assume that you, a person with no experience in the topic under discussion, would be in a position to lecture someone about that topic. It’s textbook ‘splaining. You’d have to have less than a spoonful of self-awareness to fail to see that.
It’s the “oh yeah, well if evolution is true why are there still monkeys?” of racial entitlement and ignorance.
There is an argument, by the way, that says white people do experience racism, just never in the role of the recipient. I would argue that members of a majority group do not usually experience the oppressive acts they perpetrate. They typically conduct them blithely unaware of the consequences of adhering to the discriminatory status quo. One thereby learns nothing, because one has no notice of anything being amiss.
Regardless, the point remains that it is deeply bizarre that a white person would appoint hirself the objective arbiter of what is and is not racism, over a PoC. It is a preposterous arrogance in any other circumstance, treated with loathing akin to what we assign backseat drivers and Monday morning quarterbacks. And yet we see this ridiculous pattern pop up again and again.
A perfect illustration of this phenomenon comes to us courtesy of the Buckeye State:
The staunch, redfaced Rodriguez refused to acknowledge that the Native American man standing before him — Robert Roche, of the Apache Nation — could possibly take offense. Rorche literally told him he was offended by Chief Wahoo and the use of tribal feathers and redface, and Rodriguez just kept shaking his head.
Before you click that link, I would like to caution you if you are triggered by images of redface.
There is an abundance of this kind of clueless arrogance wafting its way through the conversation around racist depictions of Indigenous people being used as mascots and monickers of professional sports franchises, fouling the air with the stench of privilege. Defenders of, for example, the Washington NFL team (whose name I will not print), insist that they are proud of Native American images, that they symbolize strength and nobility. If liberals think of negative things when they see “Chief Wahoo” or whatever other disgusting caricature is being discussed, then maybe they are the real racists!
But then they follow such racial high-horsery, almost inevitably, with behaviour like this:
Here’s a quick rundown of the rhetorical strategies at work today. (All of this I personally overheard.) …
2) De-legitimize the anti-Wahoo protesters themselves:
—”They’re not even Indians.” (Quite a few of the protesters weren’t Native American. Nice work!)
—”It’s funny cuz they all look homeless.”
—”Get a job!”
—”Find something better to protest.”
7) Outright Wahoo-specific chants and noise-making.
—”Keep the Chief! Keep the Chief! Keep the Chief!
—(Obnoxious Indian battle cry ululation stuff.)
The whole list is awful. Numbers 2 and 7 were my least favourite.
But strangest perhaps among them was the idea that their support for the name/mascot despite the pain it causes is that “It’s all about Cleveland Pride. That’s all it’s about.” As though racist iconography has ever been something meant to evoke pride. As though we don’t see how transparently disingenuous that argument is when deployed in other contexts. Why on Earth would anybody think that it would be in any way persuasive to someone not actively looking for excuses to avoid changing their mind?
Moving on, and yet staying right where we were:
Though Chait acknowledges that appeals to white racism have undergirded the modern Republican Party since the civil rights era, he insists liberals are bullies who refuse to “acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power.” He singles out MSNBC for special scorn (full disclosure: I’m a contributor there), while never once mentioning Fox by name. “MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation,” Chait writes.
Jonathan Chait seems to be a fan of the “locate foot, load shovel gun” approach to political discussion. When faced with repeated, meticulous takedowns of his absurd arguments about race, Chait has decided that the best course of action is a combination of shooting himself in the foot and digging his own grave by sharing his opinions on the topic in the media instead of in his private dream journal where they belong.
Chait seems especially preoccupied with the awful way the liberal bullies are using the word “racist” as a ploy to discredit their opponents:
Well, that’s if you can get past the opening anecdote, which features a clash between Bill Maher and Bill Kristol in which Maher claims the rise of the Tea Party is about having “a black president” and Kristol gets really mad and sad, and the whole mess is supposed to sum up the ugliness of American political debate. Clearly the angels are crying over poor Bill Kristol being hurt by charges of conservative racism made by a liberal comedian on TV. I think Reince Priebus ought to set the whole Kristol-Maher exchange to that Sarah McLachlan music the SPCA uses, and raise money for the RNC.
The snark is strong in Joan Walsh.
It’s a pretty devastating takedown if you enjoy reading those sorts of things. The fact that Jonathan Chait gets paid to write while people like Tressie McMillan Cottom toil in relative obscurity is too depressing for my elation at the keen edge of Walsh’s quill to survive very long.
I do realize, by the way, that the odiousness of the “real racists” trope does not appear so obvious to those using it. Hypocrisy, properly done, requires selective omission of the obvious. Thus, while it strains credulity to accept it, white people making this argument really do believe that theirs is the objective standard by which we should judge whether something is racially offensive. Over that of someone who has a lifetime’s worth of experience. Often on the strength of no more than a passing familiarity with the first half of a dictionary definition and their favourite Morgan Freeman video clip.
But the rest of us, those not so dazzled by their self-regard that they able to see through the banal falsity of such posturing, we recognize that racism is real and has real effects and is not some convenient flail with which to thrash our opponents. That, while some examples of “crying wolf” may indeed exist, they are a drop in the ocean of accurate identifications of racism. That people of colour tend to take racism seriously because it’s serious.
And because we recognize this, we should further recognize that it is never a good idea for a member of a majority group to take it upon hirself to adjudicate what should and should not offend members of a minority group. It’s just not cricket. It demands that the conversation be centred around those with the least information, rather than spurring naifs into educating themselves before opining. It is a surefire method to ensure that concepts that are not generally well understood will stay misunderstood. It promises nothing more than everlasting oppression.
It would be nice, perhaps, to live in the world of the Rodriguez’s and Chaits among us. A world in which racism is just an abstract notion; a political trump card; a chunk of anti-conservative Kryptonite. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), I live in this world, where racism and structural white supremacy continue, mostly unabated, to ravage Native and Black communities alike, held aloft by the ghosts of Wounded Knee and Tuskeegee. And because my lack of that privilege requires me to see the way racism carries on with its destructive work, I will not stand idly as those who will never know it demand that I be stripped of the right to call it by name.