BLACK VOICES

'I'm Not A Racist But...' And Other Stupid Excuses For Being Horrible

06/06/2014 02:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2014

In the most recent controversial video to go viral, the details that led up to the altercation are murky. A white woman, Janelle Ambrosia, claims that Narvell Benning, the black man behind the camera, started it by "almost hitting her son" with his car and calling her a "crack-headed cracker;" he denies it, saying that he just started his car and then she went off on him.

Her recorded rant is filled with racial slurs and explicit language (and readers should know that the following discussion here includes them in their uncensored form). But more notable than the incident itself are Ambrosia's words in her defense. "I'm not a racist, I was just pissed off," Ambrosia said in an interview with 93.7 WBLK. "I'm just not a racist."

She also defended herself by saying that she has a black cousin, and that "nigger means 'an ignorant person'" and "has nothing to do with race."

Her comments echo the same tired arguments that are trotted out again and again when people are caught saying racist things in public. So it's worth examining a few of those arguments more closely:

'Nigger ... Has Nothing To Do With Race,' And Other Variations Of 'Why Can't I Say That?'

Words have a history, just like people do, and they carry that history with them into the present. "The N-word was used to describe black people as they were being stolen from Africa, put into slavery, chained, lynched, beaten, spit upon," comedian and vlogger Franchesca Ramsey explains in this great YouTube video. "The word was created as a tool of oppression, its historical context cannot be erased."

Because this history is freighted with meaning, context matters. The significance of a word changes depending on who's using it and how -- kind of like how you can complain about your mom but no one else is allowed to bad-mouth her.

Author Kiese Laymon eloquently sums up the word's shifting meanings in an exchange between two friends, one black and one white, in his novel Long Division:

"Damn girl. Didn't I just tell you not to say that word? Look. I know that I'm a nigga. I mean ... I know I'm black ... but 'nigga' means below human to some folks and it means superhuman to some other folks. Do you even know what I'm saying? And sometimes it means both to the same person at different times. And, I don't know. I think 'nigga' can be like the word 'bad.' You know how bad mean a lot of things? And sometimes, 'bad' means 'super good.' Well, sometimes being called a 'nigga' by another person who gets treated like a 'nigga' is one of the top seven or eight feelings in the world. And other times, it's in the top two or three worst feelings. Or, maybe ... shoot. I don't know. I couldn't even use the word in a sentence, MyMy. Ask someone else. Shoot. I don't even know."

In short, the word "nigger" and its history are bigger than you and me, here and now. It's inextricably tied up with the ways that black people were, for centuries, treated as less than human in America.

'I'm Not A Racist'

Sure, we can never really know what's in someone else's heart -- which is probably why "I'm not a racist" is the first thing people seem to say when they're publicly shamed for doing or saying something racist.

Jay Smooth, a multimedia producer for the nonprofit Race Forward, explains it best: "Just think about how this plays out every time a politician or a celebrity gets called out. It always starts out as a 'what they did' conversation, but as soon as the celebrity and their defenders get on camera, they start doing judo flips and switching it into a 'what you are' conversation."

The problem is that what's "in your heart" and the effect of one's public actions are entirely different things, especially given that thousands of individual words and actions combine to make a larger pattern.

Take the response to NFL cornerback Richard Sherman's post-game interview after the NFC Championship, and everyone who called him a "thug." Arguably, it's unlikely that everyone who called him that thinks of him- or herself as a racist.

But regardless of the content of those individuals' hearts, the reaction to Sherman's post-game exuberance had, on the whole, strongly racial overtones. The day afterwards, people on TV said the word "thug" more than they had on any other day in the previous three years.

What's at stake in these cases, beyond the interpersonal, is how people who have every intention of being "good" can perpetuate racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about this at length. In a piece last year, he singled out the example of the language used to defend segregationist policies in the Pennsylvania suburb of Levittown:

"As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community."

Some of this may be due to the cultural baggage attached to another word: "racist." Gene Demby at NPR's Codeswitch blog points out the difficulty, almost the impossibility, of conceding that one's actions may have been racist without defining one's whole identity exclusively in such terms -- making the question of whether "is so-and-so a racist?" less useful:

We argue about the composition of the accused's soul and the fundamental goodness or badness therein. But those are things we can't possibly know. And as we litigate that question, other more meaningful questions become obscured.

Racism remains a force of enormous consequence in American life, yet no one can be accused of perpetrating it without a kicking up a grand fight. No one ever says, "Yeah, I was a little bit racist. I'm sorry." That's in part because racists, in our cultural conversations, have become inhuman. They're fairy-tale villains, and thus can't be real.

There's no nuance to these public fights, as a veteran crisis manager told my colleague, Hansi Lo Wang. Someone is either a racist and therefore an inhuman monster, or they're an actual, complex human being, and therefore, by definition, incapable of being a racist.

'I Have Friends/Family/Acquaintances Who Are ___'

Racism is more about your ideas and your actions than about who you are or who you know.

Research has borne this out. In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks noted in Time magazine:

[A] 2011 study specifically looking at the impact of interracial friendship on white concern about local crime found that when white people have close relationships with black people, their concerns about crime actually increase. More broadly, when scholars have studied the racial beliefs, feelings and policy views of whites who have contact with blacks as friends, acquaintances or neighbors, they consistently find that the negative racial perceptions of those whites are substantially similar to the perceptions of whites who have no black friends. Friendship with black people -- and even being a black person -- does nothing to change racial bias. Indeed, almost one-third of black people hold similarly negative views.

Racism is deeply engrained in our society, and we'll all probably end up reflecting that society in some form unless we actively acknowledge it and push back against it.

So even though nobody wants to admit to doing something racist -- especially not in public -- the best thing is not to hide behind these kinds of weak excuses, and just apologize without a bunch of caveats.

CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Richard Sherman's much-discussed post-game interview took place after the Super Bowl. The interview took place after the NFC Championship game.

Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS