By Elwood Watson
A few weeks ago, I was part of a campus panel discussion that discussed the N-Word, racism and post-racism. I was invited to speak by Bakari Kitwana, author and CEO of Rap Sessions. Other panelists included Rosa Clemente, 2008 vice presidential nominee of the Green Party; MC Serch, host of VH-1 Shows, “The White Rapper Show” and “Miss Rap Supreme,” M-1 , of the rap group Dead Prez; and Lisa Fager Bediako, president and co-founder of Industry Ears, Inc. I was contacted by Mr. Kitwana to be a panel member. I was honored to receive an invitation to be a part of such a well-known, prominent panel.
Attendance at the event was large, and the question-and-answer session was lively and fruitful. The issue of racism and its manifestations dominated the discussion and seemed to intrigue the audience the most. There were a number of thought-provoking questions from audience members; however, one question that stood out among the others (or at least for me) was “do you think some people make an effort to hide behind their racism?” Each member of the panel responded to this question from their own perspective. I responded yes.
I further argued that unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when it was acceptable, indeed even permissible for Whites, especially White men, to openly voice their racism and sexism toward non-Whites and women without fear of retribution, that several decades later, while such views are still largely harbored by many people, we have advanced to the point of where it is totally unacceptable to publicly engage in overt acts of racial intolerance. I mentioned the Michael Richards (aka Kramer of “Seinfeld” fame) nightclub incident that happened a few years ago as an example. A number (certainly not all) of people who were repulsed by the fact that Richards would use such ugly, ferocious language in public would have no problem engaging in such behavior in private among likeminded friends and acquaintances. The “I am among friends, it is safe” mindset reigns in such an environment. It is hypocrisy at its finest.
Indeed, over the past few decades we have seen a number of situations where many people, rather than hurl vicious, ugly callous racial rhetoric in the public arena, have resorted to hiding behind their racial hatred in more sophisticated and subtle ways. Among them, the infamous Willie Horton ad that was used during the 1988 presidential campaign by Republican party operatives, the recent New York Post editorial cartoon depicting President Barack Obama as a murdered chimpanzee (the cartoonist denied racial intentions), and the racist e-mail of former Los Alamos, Calif., Mayor Dean Grose who depicted a White House lawn populated with watermelons (the mayor subsequently resigned after public outrage). There are numerous other examples of such deplorable behavior. These are not isolated incidents.
What is even more amusing (in a perverse way) is that more than often when the culprits of such behavior are caught with their hands in the racist cookie jar, they are quick to revert to defensive mode, blaming those who denounce their behavior as being “oversensitive,” “humorless” and get this – troublemakers who should learn to thicken up their tender feelings. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Such behavior is an example of sophisticated racism manifesting itself.
The good news that has come from this is that those individuals who have found it acceptable to participate in such retrograde behavior have been put on notice that in our emerging, increasingly diverse America, such behavior will not be allowed to be winked at or given a pass. Those who partake in such acts will be called out on it and that’s the truth, Ruth!
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)