What to do when encountering racist words

Published 9:43 am Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pothole Prairie by Tim Engstrom

One problem with racism in America is many people are unclear on what racism really is. They don’t view themselves as racists, yet they commit racist acts or share racist jokes, comments, stereotypes or ideology. Perhaps the problem is that racism is equated with supremacism.

They don’t view white people as better than other races. OK, fair enough. They aren’t white supremacists. Most people pass that level on the bigot test.

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What’s more, hardly anyone is openly racist. They pass that level, too.

The problem is some folks view skin color like eye and hair color, short and long hair, fat and skinny bodies or a big nose, goofy ears or hairy eyebrows and so they don’t think it is much of a big deal to kid people about skin color.

But they are wrong. Making jokes about skin color — by the far the leading physical characteristic to visibly describe a race — is racism. Racism can be prejudice and discrimination, but it also can be antagonism. That is to say, it can be making fun of someone for their race-related physical attributes.

A young man with whom I am friends with on Facebook posted a meme — which has become the term for those cheesy Internet images with words over them — and I felt this meme was racist. It was picture of a skunk with the words, “The skunk has replaced the eagle as the presidential symbol. Its half black, half white and everything it does stinks.” Yes, the “its” was missing an apostrophe, showing the intelligence of the meme’s creator.

I am not one to breeze past racism. My sense of right and wrong told me I must call this out. I told him it was a racist post. It makes fun of President Barack Obama’s race.

After some banter, his reply was: “It’s only racist if you think if it as racist, soo would that make you racist … Lol.”

My young friend was trying to be humorous, not mean, and he was trying to avoid debating anything, despite posting such a hot-button meme. Knowing him, I don’t believe he is a racist. He soon mentioned he was just trying to say he doesn’t believe the president is doing a good job. I replied that is a separate issue and fair enough to say, but bringing his skin color to the debate is racism. He said he doesn’t get that it is.

Thus, I ran smack into the confusion Americans have about what constitutes racism. I feel like I bonked my head.

It reminded me of how even Donald Sterling, the embroiled owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers who told his girlfriend he didn’t want her to be seen bringing black people to the games, doesn’t believe anything he did or said was racist.

Or how actor Gary Oldman told an interviewer that everyone is a hypocrite about being politically correct about racism because everyone says racist comments now and then. In fact, that’s not true. I’d argue that most Americans do not espouse even the slightest racism even in private moments.

So all this begs the question: Did I handle that situation correctly? What should a person do when encountering a racist comment in person or on the Internet?

I searched the Internet and found a column written last month by Julio Vasquez Sr. of the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat & Chronicle. He had encountered a racist comment in 1994 about that city’s first black mayor while waiting to pay a bill at a restaurant. Later, Vasquez wrestled with the idea of whether he had said the right thing.

He concluded: “And after some reflection, I realized that in situations like this one, you don’t have to say much. Just a simple statement or a question asked with the right intonation and conviction to let the other person know that racial comments or jokes are not acceptable is more than enough to combat ignorance.”

Good advice.

I suppose the next time I encounter a racist meme on Facebook, I don’t need to debate the matter until the other side somehow sees my point. Chances are, like my friend, they won’t. Otherwise they wouldn’t have posted the racist item in the first place. Just a simple mention acknowledging the item as racist is enough.


Tribune Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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