Last week I was on a radio show that I've been on a bunch of times. It is a major radio station in a major city. The host likes me because I say inflammatory things like, "If your boss is terrible, stop complaining and start looking for another job." Then listeners call in and tell me I'm an idiot, and in general, they sound like the audio version of Yahoo comments (scroll down).
So we were going through that routine. The topic was presidential candidates and I said I love Michelle Obama because she is not constrained by societal expectations. Then I talked about how she dated Barack when she was supervising him. I also talked about how she recently quit her huge job as an attorney in order to take care of her family during the campaign, even when the baby boomer media is still complaining about women who do this; Michelle didn't care.
The host of the show said she thought you should not date people you supervise: It's not fair, they don't have the ability to say no, etc.
By then, the phone lines were lighting up. "Lighting up" is radio lingo for the process whereby the producer of the show answers the phones, finds out what the person wants to say on air, and then cues up three or four interesting callers. This way, when the host gets a call, she knows it's going to be decent because the producer has already screened it. The producer's job is to get a wide range of callers, talking about a range of topics in a way that will engage other listeners.
The first call was from a guy who said, (I am summarizing) "I agree that you shouldn't date someone you supervise, but I think it's a different circumstance with Michelle Obama because there are so few good black men to date."
Silence. Not for long, but any silence on the radio seems long. What went through my mind was that I am not black and cannot comment on what it's like to be black and dating and I should keep quiet.
The host said, "Well, Barack is a very good catch. Good for her!"
But I am always on the alert for bad talk for women masquerading as feminism, so I said, "Well, Michelle is a great catch, too."
In hindsight, I should have said something like, "That comment is racist. There are men of every race who are good catches and men of every race who are not good dating material."
When Don Imus was fired, I remember a flurry of past guests on his show who admitted to saying nothing on-air when he said something racist. I remember telling myself that I would never do that.
But I have to tell you that it's hard to believe it's happening when it's happening. On a national radio show, there are a lot of checks in place to make sure racism doesn't happen on air: The producer screens calls, and the host can say something if it's bad (I said clitoridecdtomy on-air one week and she immediately apologized to listeners and told everyone I'd never say that word again.) And, if all that fails, presumably advertisers will ditch the show, and it will fail, because no one wants to be associated with racism.
So what happened is that in the split second that racism was happening on the radio, I didn't trust myself that it was happening, and I didn't say anything. And I see now that the way racist ideas go main stream is that the producer gives them air time, and the outspoken host and guest talk about women's issues instead of the real issue that is race.
This will not happen again with me. I will speak up when something is racist.
Being ready for racism reminds me of teaching kids to say no to drugs. If you tell kids "Just say no," it doesn't work, because they don't trust their own decision-making skills. What the drug educators have found is that if you talk about trusting your instinct about what is a positive decision and what isn't, then in a bad situation, you'll trust yourself to say the right thing.
Carmen Van Kerckhove conducts diversity training for businesses, and she wrote a great post about the best response to a racist joke. You'll be surprised by the advice. I was. It's a great post because it teaches us how to understand, at a core, why the joke is wrong. Instead of "just saying no" to a racist joke Van Kerckhove deconstructs the situation to give us our best response.
I have a solid understanding of women's issues, so I was ready with a response for the idea that Michelle Obama was lucky to find a date. I was not ready with a response to there are no good black men, because I didn't trust my knowledge of racism.
But this is what I know: The core to stopping racism is to understand it, and then trust the understanding. That's how we can be ready to call out racism as something wrong when we need to.