How to respond when someone tells you what you just said is racist

2 Sep

I can’t take it anymore.

By “it,” I mean the coverage of Andrew Gillum’s candidacy in the Florida governor’s race. I have no idea what Gillum’s platform or policy ideas are because that critical information has virtually been eclipsed by his opponent Ron DeSantis’ comments, and an opposition robocall that, if not from DeSantis’ campaign, is at the very least for it.

In short, after referring to Gillum as “an articulate spokesman,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis warned of a Gillum victory, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”

When DeSantis was called out for racist comments, his campaign responded thusly:

Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”

Then, today, the NY Times reported on an anti-Gillum robo-call to Florida voters:

Well, hello there,” the call begins as the sounds of drums and monkeys can be heard in the background. I is Andrew Gillum. We Negroes . . . done made mud huts while white folk waste a bunch of time making their home out of wood an’ stone.”

Once again, the DeSantis campaign responded, calling the robocall: “appalling and disgusting.”

And current Governor Rick Scott tweeted:

There is no room for any racial politics here in Florida — none. Florida is a melting pot of people from all over the globe, and we are proud of it. No attempts to divide people by race or ethnicity will be tolerated, from anyone. THIS. STOPS. NOW.”

To respond in kind myself, I’ll post here (because I don’t tweet):

Politics in Florida and everywhere have always been racial. And gendered. And socioeconomically and class-informed. And otherwise fundamentally human and thus inextricably linked to our social identities, even if we don’t think a particular identity matters. In fact, especially when we don’t think it matters because that’s a reasonable indicator of exclusion. With all due respect to Governor Scott, when all the candidates are white men, politics are still about race and gender and class, sexuality, religion, abilities and every other aspect of identity that informs our status, access to resources and opportunities and systemically entrenched privileges and disadvantages. Not only because of who the candidates are, but because of the diversity of people whom they are tasked with serving.

And can we just call what’s racist, racist? I agree that the robocall is “appalling and disgusting,” but let’s be clear that what makes it “appalling and disgusting” is that it activates racial stereotypes denigrating black people as a group with the impact of  perpetuating and gaining advantage from discrimination. And that these stereotypes are part of a historic and current system of beliefs and attitudes that continue to incite violence and marginalization on a mass scale against black and brown people.

But wait, you say, how do you know someone’s motives? What if, like DeSantis, whoever is behind the robocall didn’t intend anything racist?

To that I say, racism doesn’t require individual intent to have not just individual but greater social impact. Social norms provide all the intent needed. Furthermore, I don’t even have to do or say anything to advance or sustain racism. All I have to do is not act. Or deny that racism is even a thing.

And that brings me to how the DeSantis campaign handled being informed that what DeSantis said was racist. But enough about them. Let me ask you: how would you handle it if someone told you that what you just said is racist? (Or how have you handled it in the past?)

Personally, I’ll say it stings. And that then, I’ve had a choice about what to do with that hurt.

Here’s how I try to respond.

  • Notice my instinct to recoil, and perhaps to deny, explain, erase my impact by championing my intent, protest or turn the tables (maybe by “what about-ing” what someone else has said)
  • Shut up for a moment.
  • Find my gratitude that someone has–even if harshly–bothered to let me know how they heard what I said. Because they had other options, including letting me continue to say things like that and also writing me off as an ignorant bigot.
  • Add that perspective to what I thought I already knew, instead of trying to cancel out or zero-sum our perspectives. Because the truth is that it is possible for someone to use the word “monkey” without racist intent, and it is well-documented that monkeys and apes have been racist tropes across ages and world cultures. What does that add up to? Not that “monkey” is either innocent or racist. That “monkey” is both innocent and racist, and I don’t get to choose what you hear. People have made that word mean more than its original denotation. And we can’t unring that bell. On that note: It’s OK if I didn’t know something I said was racist, but once I know, I have to decide if I care. Because if I don’t care that what I said is also racist, I should admit, if only to myself, that that’s what my reaction is really about, instead of pretending it’s about how they’re wrong.
  • Thank them.
  • Notice if the sting persists, and figure out what I can do differently to avoid making the same mistake, and also to be present for my next, new mistake.

 

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