Tag Archives: racism

Oberlin: How Can People Be Threatened By Words? Easy.

People amaze me, sometimes in the worst of ways. Again it’s the comments. Always the comments.

Oberlin is having some issues with racism, homophobia, anti-semitism and possibly other things. The popular conclusion seems to be that it’s a very small group of people spreading hate. It probably is a small group; a small group of people can be scary. A small group of people can do a lot of damage psychologically and physically. Take a moment to consider what a group of 5 people* can accomplish in a community of around 3000.

One commenter on this article took it upon himself to talk about how not scary words are.

ronnie lane comment ronnie lane comment 2

Ronnie Lane if you do not understand how words can frighten and hurt people, then I can only presume you are entirely insensitive to what people who are noticeably different from those around them often go through.

You quote Novack as saying he doesn’t believe there is any word that needs to be suppressed. That, I believe, is true. However, there are words that need to be used constructively, not destructively. There are words of which, as a society, we need to work to eliminate the destructive usage. I don’t mean laws, I mean societal values.

When someone calls a black person the “n” word in a derogatory manner – that is something we as a society need to suppress by making it clear that that attitude or belief is unacceptable. As a society, as a culture we need to develop values that ostracize – yes, ostracize – those members of our society that can’t learn to get along. I’d like to eliminate racism even in the privacy of the home, but I’d be okay with eliminating the (now-)acceptable public/semi-public demonstration of it. That means I’d be okay if children of all colors and creeds could be friends  with one another, no questions asked. I’d like if our socio-economic classes were impossible to judge by our skin – that is I’d like statistical equality, so being white or Asian or black or Hispanic could never be a predictor of socio-economic class. Wouldn’t it be great if our chances at a job or a spot in a school could not be predicted by anything other than our merit, if everyone truly had an equal potential to get to a point in life where applying for a career track job or university was a possibility?

When someone calls a woman a bitch derogatorily, when a person treats a Hispanic person as if they are automatically stupid, when someone calls an Asian an “Oriental” as an insult – these are the things that society should react to. We should react, not with government censorship, but with societal censure. To the racist, the sexist, the homophobic, the anti-Semites we should react with harsh criticism. Harsh societal criticism. The local newspapers should refuse to publish letters to the editor that are openly or overtly hostile to a race or religion or sex or sexual orientation or gender or what have you. Friends should confront, family should confront, strangers should confront. It’s not that I think we need hostility in these situations, but we need, “How can you think that way? what could make you think that way?”

At the same time that we need more tough questions, we need more open discussion. We need less accusations of racism when people are simply struggling for words. I certainly find it difficult, coming from a position of relative privilege, to try to discuss race without sounding racist. (Homophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism I have a much easier time discussing.) We need to establish ways to have tough discussions, and we need to come together. There are the straw-men – those that aren’t racist or bigoted or anti-Semite – and there are the real ones. How we identify these mystifies me, but we need to work harder to do so. We need to find a way to talk about our societal problems without attacking each other, without condemning one another so quickly. We need to mingle more in society, rather than segregating ourselves by political party, religion, lack of religion, race, sex, gender identity, etc.

We need a lot of things. I’m sure most of what I’ve written sounds lofty and idealistic. I know it’s a slow process, but doesn’t anyone else feel like we’ve lost the key parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech? What is wrong with our society that on a college campus, arguably one of the most liberal places you can find on the planet, people are running around like it’s the 1950s trying to intimidate and scare people based on some arbitrary status? And can we please have a discussion about race where all the races involved are actually present and represented?

How can people be threatened by words? Easy. People act on words. They may only write the words down, but they may also write racial slurs and follow up with an attack. What can 5 people do? To one, they could kidnap, beat, potentially rape, murder, steal from, cause PTSD. 5 kids can hurt one lonely child easily. 5 adults or teens have been known to do horrible things. Even one single adult can single-handedly wreak havoc on a community with words and actions.

Words are powerful. They can be scary, in much more than just a figurative way. There’s a reason yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is illegal. There’s a reason there is a charge called “making terroristic threats” and a reason you can be charged for that without threatening en masse. Words terrorize. Symbols terrorize. Marking a community with the wrong words in the wrong way shuts people off from one another, it segments our population, it makes us suspicious and hateful of one another. Encouraging free speech is not the same as allowing racist remarks to go unchecked or un-censured.

*5 is an arbitrary number

**Truth: I really wanted to rant about the commenter above appearing to be white and male, but he may be of a low class, he could be gay, he could be a she – “Ronnie” is ambiguous – or trans, he could be very oddly strong-minded, he could even be delusional. I made assumptions about him at first (white and male, how much more privileged could you get in the US?), but I guess it’s better not to rant about something when I don’t know the facts.

 

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Rhetoric Should Be Used Sparingly and Honestly

I like the ultimate point being made in this opinion piece: that “the rights [we] take for granted are only valid if [we] fight to give those same rights to others.” Although I could nitpick and say “give” is the wrong word to use.*

In fact, I really like the author’s point, that’s why I’m so disappointed in his beginning, which is full of exaggerated rhetoric.

I will never look suspicious to you. Even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on…in fact, that is what I wore yesterday…I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggie my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you.  I will never watch a taxi cab pass me by to pick someone else up. I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me.  I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles, so they can “run my plates.”  I will never have to pay before I eat. And I certainly will never get “stopped and frisked.”  I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only.  The color of my skin.  I am white.

He’s apparently so delusional that he doesn’t realize that a white man walking around in a hooded sweatshirt (imagine hood up, not down) is suspicious, especially if he tries to hide his face. To a woman, it is extremely suspicious – it has “potential rapist” written all over it. To many others it would be extremely suspicious. Even a teen-aged white boy would look suspicious.

The difference is that a white boy in a hooded sweatshirt wouldn’t face the same kind of  suspicion. It is unlikely that any white person, with the exception perhaps of homeless teens, will ever face a situation in which someone is so suspicious of them that unprovoked violence ensues. In one sense the author is right when he says, “White people, you will never look suspicious like Trayvon Martin!” And yes, he is right that it is because Trayvon was black.

But it does no one any favors to exaggerate. Exaggerating makes people look discreditable. Exaggerating and saying white people never look suspicious, even when wearing a hoodie and jeans and white sneakers, just makes you look like you’re trying to vilify white people. Doing such risks alienating a significant group of people who might otherwise be allies against racism.

It is more honorable and credible to admit that yes, teenaged white boys will look suspicious when dressed in a hoodie with the hood up, but they will not likely ever face the threat of violence because of it. It is more credible and honorable to point out that suspicions faced by black and white teens is very different – the former is more likely to be suspected of dangerous or violent crime while the latter is more likely to be suspected of vandalism. And thus the former is more likely to be faced with dangerous, suspicious people while the latter is likely to be faced with nothing of the sort.

I think honesty is extremely important in cases like this. Tragedies like this. It does only a disservice to exaggerate claims. Does racism exist? Very much so. Is it a major part of what happened in Trayvon’s case? Yes. Do we need to wake up (again) and try to change that? Yes. Does it help to lie and say white people never look suspicious? Not at all.

It is far more illustrative to point out the difference in the type of suspicion faced, than to try to force the situation into opposite type terms – as in one is seen as suspicious while the other never is. By pointing out the differences without denying the truth, we can highlight the actual effects of racism. And by so highlighting, maybe we can figure out better ways of combating it.

*If we fight to ensure those rights belong to everyone equally, without question. They are not my rights to give, I can only help to empower others, enforce equality, and make sure everyone is invested with equal rights.

**That’s right, I used the word hooligan.

***That’s so f***ed up. Seriously. Such blatant racism just flabbergasts me. All racism is disgusting, but it amazes me that people still get away with such blatant demonstrations of it. What the heck is wrong with us?

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