Let’s begin by saying that the “N” word is an offensive, ugly word, and one I never willingly use. Racism is a topic that I feel deeply about, and am absolutely committed to confronting whenever (and wherever) it rears its ugly head.
So – when Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy makes racist comments, when celebrity chef Paula Deen admits to using that ugly word, or when LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is accused of making racist remarks – yes, I’m angered; and I will speak up.
But, I’ve done (and said) racist things, too.
In my early 20’s, I worked in a retail store. One day, when I was the only sales clerk on duty, an elderly black man came in to ask for help with a particular item. Right then I was waiting on another customer, a woman, and so ignored him for the moment – in fact, I hardly noticed him. He waited patiently at the counter, since he saw that I was almost done with her.
In the meantime, another person came in – a white male – who walked around the first man and came over to where I was, at the other end of the sales counter. When the woman left, this second man immediately began talking and I allowed my attention to focus on him, rather than turning to the man who had been waiting.
The first man immediately spoke up, saying (and I quote, as it is burned into my memory!), “Hey, I’m a customer too! Or, is it that you don’t like to wait on n—-rs?”
I was mortified, as you might imagine, and immediately turned to help him.
Was I racist, or acting in a racist way? Well, I didn’t think so. I had long prided myself in being “open minded” and respectful of others, no matter who (or what) they were. But I was being racist because the one who determines whether we are racist (or not) is not us, but those who are impacted by our attitudes and actions. The elderly gentleman was right: I was acting in a racist way, even if unintentionally.
Racism is far from merely being about wingnuts using offensive language or people oblivious to the issue admitting they once spoke in that way. Racism, as the columnist LZ Granderson points out, has changed. Or, to put it another way, the basic mechanisms and patterns of racism have not changed. What has changed is that people have gotten better at hiding their racist attitudes from others and even from themselves. The way we express our racism has changed, but the basic issue still exists, and is a pervasive cancer in our politics and society.