(title taken from President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union message)
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but…” is, quite often, a warning sign to all around that what is about to follow is likely to be offensive and they are being asked not to react in kind. My reactions to this statement differ according to the context. If it’s my classroom, I might actually interrupt the student (which I almost never ever do) and suggest, “In my experience, what follows that statement usually should not actually be said. That may not be true in this case, but I would strongly recommend you at least rethink whatever it is you’re about to say.” It’s a bit wordy, granted, but then that automatically gives the student time to think. More often than not, they smile with a hint of gratitude and say, “Never mind.”
If it’s online, I’ll judge the context - what’s the forum, who’s the person, who’s listening, how offensive did the comment turn out to be, what is my relationship with this person - and adjust my reaction accordingly.
But what if this happens in person, a live conversation, with another adult? Nearly all the above judgment calls for online conversations apply here, with the added pressure of immediacy. On rare occasions, I feel comfortable saying what I do to my students. More often, I try to adopt a quizzical “Then why on Earth would you say this?” expression and hope they take the hint. Sometimes, they do. But sometimes, they don’t. At such moments, especially if the person has explicitly looked at me (which, I presume, means they think I’m the most likely to take - or at least express - offense), I never quite know what to do.
I know what I ought to do in my ideal world - tell them firmly but without raising my voice that their joke or statement or whatever was offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or what have you, and take the conversation from there. I also know such a reaction might be especially important if a person of colour, or woman, or gay person, or lesbian, or transgender person, or what have you is in the room (bearing in mind you don’t always know). I know that is one of the most likely paths to undoing systemic racism and patriarchy and building a more open and accepting world. And I also know such a reaction is likely to really upset at least one person, if not most of the gathering.
And here’s the deal. I’m white. In a must-read article shared by Rusul Alrubail, “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism,” Nicole Chung details what went through her mind during and after a similar experience except with the major, and significant, difference that she was the only Asian person in the room and that the offensive remark was directed at her. She concluded her piece, “At the end of the night, I’m certain I was the only person still thinking about that moment over dinner — I was the one left replaying the words over and over in my mind, second-guessing my bearing and my behavior, wondering if I’d done the right thing. As far as I know, I am still the only one who feels anything about it at all.”
When President Obama was elected, many of his supporters - and, indeed, some people who did not support him as a candidate but felt the significance of the moment - wept with joy at what felt like the welcome end to an ugly era. We were, many people felt, finally a “post-racial society.”
But many other people, even in their joy of the moment, knew better, and seven years later, it’s become apparent to many more of us that we are anything but post-racial. It’s clear, in fact, that a number (not all) of President Obama’s detractors are, simply put, racist. Not just deliberately oblivious (which can be seen itself as racism) but openly and unapologetically racist. We can certainly agree to disagree politically; we always have and we probably always will. But we should certainly be able to agree that every human being, of every race, deserves respect, that #BlackLivesMatter. And whatever it is in our patterns of thinking that leads to the racism that pervades our system, it has to change.
We have to change it. Year by year, month by month, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. We. Have. To. Change. It.
Three days ago, the first-ever Black president of the U.S. gave his last-ever State of the Union address. As President Obama built toward the final conclusion of the speech, he observed: “We need every American to stay active in our public life -- and not just during election time -- so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day. / It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word -- voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
May this blog be such a voice. And may yours as well.