You can’t just be “somewhat” racist.
This week, Robyn Pennacchia at the Frisky asked an extremely important question. I am sure she meant it to be rhetorical, but her question needs to be answered, and those of us who advocate for social justice need to hear that answer.
“What the fuck is it with people going around saying or doing incredibly racist shit and then insisting they are not ‘racist in their hearts?’ I mean, every time someone gets caught doing something dumb and racist, we end up having to hear all about how that’s not who they are ‘in their hearts.’ Like with Paula Deen! And that Duck Dynasty person.”
I love Pennacchia’s piece and I understand her frustration. Like most of my liberal white friends, she’s utterly confounded by why people who are clearly speaking and acting like racists are trying to make it very clear that they are not racists.
Those of us who grew up in communities of institutionalized racism, know a whole other version of racism. Invariably, in our communities of micro-aggressions where we acted in terribly racist ways toward people we struggled to think of as our equals, there were a couple of people that made even us stop and say, “Damn! That is one racist asshole!”
For the most part, the average person in a community infested with institutionalized racism has no patience for openly racist sentiments or activities. The key word in the previous sentence is “openly.” We all know people, or at least have heard family stories about super-racists, who think and behave in ways you would likely never imagine. But unlike the KKK, stealth super-racists find ways to hide their intense hatred to avoid public censure.
My step-brother, Chip, is a stealth super-racist. For the most part, he keeps his feelings to himself even around family. The one time he went into a diatribe at a family gathering, he was chastised and nearly beaten-up by my Uncle Ron. Just to give you a little perspective, when Ron was the police chief of a small southern city, he often said that he would like to wall up all the black people in one section of the city and just let them kill each other off. Yes, Chip’s racist screed was so bad that the guy who jokingly favors creating death ghettos for black people is offended.
Chip happens to be the best carpenter in three counties. As such, he always has plenty of work, and he can afford to have outrageously racist rules for where he will and will not work. His wife, who books his jobs for him, never explains his policies, such as his rule that he will never take a sub-contract if the general contractor is black. She covers for his racism by claiming scheduling conflicts or problems with suppliers.
Chip, like most super-racists, cannot let go of the germ theory taught to him by his grandparents. He honestly believes, as many people in the South did for generations, that black people get different diseases than white people do. In this theory, white people don’t have immunity to those diseases and can easily catch them if exposed to a black person.
People like Chip, who hide hearts of unbelievably vile racism behind benign exteriors, are what many people think of when we hear the word racist. They think of super-racists who honestly believe themselves to be genetically, morally, and spiritually superior to black people. What the word racist calls to mind is a person who would happily commit ethnic genocide if he thought he could get away with it.
Knowing people like Chip is what makes people like Paula Deen and the parents of Levi Pettit, the Oklahoma University student and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member seen in a video singing racist chants, want the world to know that they are not “racist at heart.” They do not want to be associated in any way with people like Chip who hide their unbelievably violent and insane ideas about black people from all but the most trusted or like-minded.
When people claim that Michael Brown’s killer is not a racist, they are saying that he is not like Chip or like the KKK. The distinction is that while he likely believes that the black people in his town are all trash, he does not believe that black people are genetically inferior. He unconsciously sees black people as more likely to commit crime, but he isn’t going on lynching. Despite that ridiculous distinction, he’s still racist.
Most of us take care to distinguish between anti-Semitism and Nazism and between sexism and misogyny. But we have left holes in our language when it comes to racism and homophobia. Certainly, Westboro Baptist members are not just homophobic. They are something worse, something far more predatory. The term “homophobic” does not describe the nearly cartoonish villainy of Westboro Baptist.
To answer Pennacchia’s question: People talk about not being racist in their hearts because they want to be clear that they are not a stealth super-racist. They want to put as much daylight as possible between themselves and the likes of Chip. They are saying that while they are genuine assholes, they don’t care enough about black people to put any real effort into persecuting them.
But whatever they say, the bottom line is: They’re still racist.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.