Once upon a time, a college TK sat in a class called African-Americans in the Media. This classroom was one of few where at least half the class was made up of people whose ethnicity was different from mine. It was a far different environment than the high school I came from, where I could count the non-white children in my whole school on one hand. Always an opinionated person, I had a comment about the subject at hand. When called on, I voiced that thought using the term “colored people.”
I have learned since then that offense to that term is varied. Some take great offense and some think it’s no big deal. Regardless, I said it and people in my classroom took offense. Given the state of racial tensions in America, someone could have started yelling at me. I could have gotten nasty looks and been called nasty names. In the right neighborhood, something more violent may have happened. This isn’t something that is special about racism against African-Americans. Use a racial slur towards any minority group and someone is likely to get mad.
What happened to college TK? None of the above.
One of my classmates raised his hand. Instead of addressing my opinion, he addressed the term I used. “I can tell you don’t understand what you just said and why it’s offensive,” he said. He then went on to explain why the term was viewed as offensive and terms that would be more appropriate to use.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated his kindness. I was embarrassed I had used a term that anyone viewed as racist. I was ashamed to have not known. After he, and a few others in the class, kindly explained the issue to me, class went on normally. No one treated me differently afterward. No one labeled me as a racist. To this day, I wonder, would we have a better word if we calmly explained why something was racist in the public sphere instead of jumping on anyone who dares to use racist terminology?
Thinking of this reminds me of Katy Perry’s Japanese-inspired performance. Many pointed fingers at the singer claiming she was racist and that her performance was a sad example of cultural appropriation. The signer predictably became defensive, saying she enjoyed Japanese culture and was only trying to honor it. She denied being racist.
If she had been approached in another fashion, would her reaction had been different. If someone would have said, “I can tell you don’t mean to offend, but here’s what you did that was wrong, here’s why and here’s how you can honor Japanese culture without offending anyone” would she have had as defensive of a reaction?
Perhaps the biggest question is, can the public and the media ever reach out with this kind of kindness. All a news anchor says is “Katy Perry has been accused of racism.” They can’t have a discussion with her. I think we need a way to make this happen, though. We need a way to have a real discussion about these topics in the public sphere where we don’t jump on the first person who says something wrong. People don’t always understand that the terms they use or the ideas they have about an ethnic group are racist. They don’t deserve to be attacked for a mishap.
The same can be said for gender issues. I recently heard about someone in pro gold (not a player… I forget who) who said something like “don’t be a girl” or “don’t hit like a girl.” He may not have tried to say anything about women. Those phrases are unfortunately normal in our culture. Still, this man got fired after many people struck out in anger. I guarantee you that man hasn’t changed any opinions and is mad about what happened to him. Wouldn’t it have been better if someone calmly explained why that was sexist, why he shouldn’t say it and what he could say instead?
I know what you’re thinking. Not everyone will be receptive to that line of discussion. Some people are honest to God racist. This is true, but I still don’t think it’s healthy to lash out. If someone can be proved to have broken the law due to their racist beliefs, that’s one thing. If someone is just voicing an opinion, I feel like this tactic is best. Maybe, with repetition, some opinions can be changed. For those who will never be moved from their racist opinions, what difference does it make? We can choose to be angry or we can choose to be disappointed and move on.
I am by no means saying that racism is ever okay. What I am saying is that we, as a society, tend to have a violent way of speaking out against racism or those who call us racist. I would not be surprised if this atmosphere contributes to some of the actual violence that emerges in America. As a group, we need to step back and really consider what the best way to address racism is. If you ask me, it’s not about proving that Person A is racist. It’s about benefiting the whole conversation and moving the whole country forward to a better day.
Did you ever say something you didn’t know was offensive? What happened? Do you think the current discussion on racism in America is healthy? How can we change the public voice and the media’s voice to be more positive and less accusatory? Is it even possible?