The word racist gets bandied about these days with such speed and frequency that it is in danger of losing its meaning.
It is a high order abstraction. In other words, it means as many different things as there are people who speak or hear the word.
When someone says the word “chair,” it is pretty clear they are talking about. When someone says that guy is a “racist,” they might be referring to a 16-year-old wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat or a guy donning the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
That’s a pretty wide spread.
As I white guy, I know a lot of white people. Just about all of them, including me at times, say or do things that are if not plain racist, then insensitive or clueless. If you grew up as a white person in America, you probably have said or done stuff that we know now is pretty bad.
Hostile, insensitive or clueless, those things should be called out, not let to sit and fester. The action or the word should be called out as a racist thing.
It is one thing to say to someone, “Hey, that thing you just said, that’s a racist thing to say because it . . .”
We can then have a conversation about it. Deep down, most people don’t want to be racists or thought of as racist, even when they have wrong-headed ideas that turn out to be, well, racist.
But when you label the person as a racist, that’s a completely different thing. Now, I’m not talking about people who habitually repeat the same nonsense over and over again, but people who try not to offend, but sometimes do.
Labeling someone as a racist, rather than the word or deed, can be like taking a nuclear bomb to the national conversation we say we want to have about race. Detonate it, and the discussion is over. No one wins a nuclear war.
What’s the half-life of a racist act or comment? Apparently 35 years, as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam found out when the world learned about his medical school yearbook page from 1984.
It contains a picture of someone in blackface and someone dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. He was 24 years old at this time.
It is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. If Northam wore the blackface or the KKK robes, (he said it’s not him in the picture) he did a racist thing 35 years ago. He may not be a racist today, however. Some say his record on race issues is exemplary.
Yet there’s really no other way to describe someone who wore blackface as late as 1984. It was pretty clear by then that blackface is overtly racist.
And wearing the robes of the KKK, the most racist garb in America, is probably as overtly racist as you can be.
One act attempts to ridicule and humiliate blacks. The other threatens to kill them.
I suppose it is possible that Northam was and still is clueless, just as many white people are today about the thoughtless things they say and do. But KKK garb and blackface is a pretty big clue.
During his press conference to apologize for the photo, Northam offered that he once wore blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest. When asked if he could still moonwalk, he looked as if he might try to demonstrate the move right there before his wife stopped him.
Northam should have said something like, “I did something very stupid and very wrong 35 years ago. At the time, I didn’t realize how awful and hurtful it was, but I do now. I am embarrassed by those actions, I regret them and I sincerely apologize for them. Since then, I’ve worked hard to be a better person and I hope you can judge me by those actions over a lifetime and not this one horrible action.”
But he didn’t. So for him, the discussion is over.
But for the rest of us, we need to talk.
Randy Blaser is a freelance columnist.