Saturday, October 10, 2009

never admit to being a racist

Here's a news clip about a white American who serves as an especially stark example of a couple of common white tendencies. Somehow, white people in the U.S. of A. have gotten to the point where no matter how racist something we've said or done is, we find it very difficult to acknowledge that it is what it is -- racism. That blockage often seems to happen because of another seemingly universal white American tendency, which is the refusal to simply admit, at least in public, "Yes, you're right, I am a racist."

I wonder if the reporter here, Michelle Marsh, would have gotten any further with Patrick Lanzos if, instead of asking him if he himself "is a racist," she had instead asked him if what he did was racist. Could that be the start of a more effective conversation with people like this guy?

But then, maybe not, with someone this delusional. I think it's clear that a man who would put a sign like that outside his establishment -- an establishment adorned inside with a Klan robe, for God's sake -- is indeed a racist, and that he thinks his racist actions are completely justified (no matter how bizarrely contrary they are to his NAACP membership and the portraits of black heroes hanging on his walls).

I don't mean to overlook Michelle Marsh's action-oriented question in this interview, "Why did you put that sign up?" Nevertheless, there's a lot of attention in this news clip to whether Patrick Lanzos is a racist. Lanzos himself seems to believe what just about all white Americans also seem to believe these days, which is that there's nothing worse than being identified as a racist. Oddly enough, even in extreme cases like this one, focusing on whether someone is a racist can become a distraction from the more crucial question of whether something they've done was a racist act.

As Jay Smooth pointed out awhile ago in a classic vlog post that bears repeating (and so I'll post it here), when it comes to racism, it's usually more effective to make it a "what they did" conversation, instead of a "what they are" conversation. In other words, in dialogues about racism, we should focus not on what white people are; we should focus instead on stuff white people do.

One other thought, also prompted for me by thinking about what Patrick Lanzos did, rather than on what he is -- where's the dividing line here between "free speech," a cherished American right that both Patrick Lanzos and Michelle Marsh cite in this news clip, and "hate speech," a designation that could strengthen efforts to take down this racist, hurtful sign? (I discussed this distinction in this post about another racist, hurtful sign ["Hispanics Keep Out"], as did many readers in the comments there.)


  1. I featured the clip of CNN's coverage of this story. I liked the way he justified the obvious by hiding behind the First Amendment.

    Not only did he not admit that what he did was racist. He went the "I have Black friends," route by showing the camera crew that he is/was a member of the NAACP and pictures of Jesse Jackson on the wall of his establishment.

    Nope, can't be racist when you have Black friends.

  2. I think a lot of people have this issue where they can't separate being told they've done something is racist from being told that they are a racist. And I do believe these are two different things.

    On the other hand, the use of a racial epithet that is KNOWN to be a racial epithet is a case where someone is consciously and deliberately choosing racism. I don't know if I would be kind enough to say the guy in this article is just DOING something racist. Because that is an obvious choice-- it's not like this guy is one of those seventy year old ladies who means well but still says "colored" because she never got the memo.

    I am not saying that ignorant racism is even remotely okay or that it doesn't need to be called out-- it does, and ignorant or aversive racism among people who consider themselves liberal can be really disgusting. I am saying that if someone is deliberately and overtly choosing to partake in a racist act, then hell, yes, they're a racist. There isn't any grey area.

  3. I don't agree with the did/are debate. Let's just face the fact that the man is a nonredeemable racist, who has no intention of thinking about anyone but himself and his privielge. The first amendment allows him to defend his hate speech, rather than acknowledging it for what it is.

    I believe that we spend far too much time worried about the feelings of these people. They obviously don't give a damn about the ways in which their speech or actions harm others. Being called a racist is harsh but if it fits they need to learn to own it. Marginalized bodies continually have to negotiate their speech to cater to dominate bodies and this needs to end. Despite their offense, racist is an accurate descriptor. If they don't want to be called that, they can change their behavior rather than demanding that we police our language.

  4. I got to shake my head on this one and move on. It is possible that the process of normalization has convinced him that he indeed is not a racist. In other words, he has used the "N" word so many times, and he has spent his life around those who use the "N" word so frequently that they actually believe that this type of behavior is actually normal.

    But in the same instance, I am curious of how he could conflate the HCR effort with the "N" word and then try to posit the notion that it is not about race, but about policy.

  5. I don't think calling the person a racist vs. calling an act racist makes any difference. This guy and others like him would probably shy away from either use of the word. This doesn't mean that we can't ask them questions that point out that their behavior and ideology is racist. We can ask questions such as, "How do you think blacks feel about that sign?" "By using that language, are you suggesting that you're superior to blacks?"
    I also think in some instances it's helpful to use the term "white supremacist" over "racist." It's a more shocking term but often gets at the crux of the matter more than "racist" does.
    Lastly, I heard Cornel West speak before, and he said that one of the ways he gets whites to address their white supremacist mindset is by admitting that he also suffers from a white supremacist viewpoint having been raised in the United States. He says something akin to "If I suffer from white supremacy and I'm black, I know you as a white person suffer from it as well." Perhaps the key is pointing out how difficult it is not to be white supremacist having grown up in America while pointing out your efforts to counteract that ideology.

  6. Sigh...this is my home state and that report if from a television station in my home town. In my mind, being a card carrying member of the NAACP and having pictures of black leaders on your wall is completely contrary to the message that having a mannequin with a Klan hood in your establishment and use the N-word to describe the health care debate conveys....a debate in which race isn't/shouldn't even be an issue. Yes, I'm all for freedom of speech, but there are more effective and intelligent ways of getting one's point across than to stooping to racial slurs. Clearly too many folks in my home state still haven't learned that little lesson. And too many folks in my home state who are as racist as the day is long refuse to admit to being racist because they "get along fine with the n-words." I've actually heard this said as justification for why someone wasn't racists.

  7. "where's the dividing line here between "free speech," a cherished American right that both Patrick Lanzos and Michelle Marsh cite in this news clip, and "hate speech,""

    There isn't a dividing line between free speech and hate speech, as the latter can be a subset of the former under our Constitution. Now hate speech that incites violence or illegal activity, is another matter entirely.

    As to the main issue of pointing out a racist act as opposed to a racist person, I think that such an approach only works if the person really believes that he/she is not racist (though they may be). At least in those instances you are perhaps able to get that person to think about his/her actions and then (hopefully) the motivations for such actions. If the person is perfectly aware that he/she is racist (but is merely deflecting or being defensive in response to being called out publicly)then he or she will still try to steer the conversation his/her way (despite the tactics you use).

  8. Sorry for going off on a tangent, but what on Earth is that sign of his supposed to mean? What does 'rig it' mean in that context? It's slang I am not familiar with.

    Also, I'm sure I'm being very naive, but my first thought was the unembarrassed use of that word and the KKK mannequin combined with the NAACP membership and the black leader photos, made me think at first that the guy was "not all there". I find it hard to understand how someone in their right mind could reconcile those things with each other.

  9. fog hat,

    Are you familiar with the term "jerry-rigged"? Some people replace "jerry" with the n-word.

  10. One can of course, be 'not all there' and still be racist. I'm not excusing the guy. But the way he didn't seem to see any problem in what he was doing was just, bizarre to me.

  11. I'm not sure there is any difference between doing racist things and being a racist. A desire to change, while it may put someone on a different place on the "racist continuum", doesn't make them not racist. If we only confine "racist" to the "nonredeemable" cases, instead of anyone who has a passing racist thought, we can forget how ingrained in society racism is. And I think it's important to recognize that *wanting* to change isn't enough.

    But in conversation with another person (whose "soul" you can't "see inside of") it's still more *effective* to focus on the actions. We tend to believe that changing one's own actions is easier than changing what one is-- calling someone stupid is more likely to make someone defensive than saying "Wow, that was a stupid thing to do." Calling someone a racist basically cues them to find counterexamples (like having black friends or voting for Obama), because they don't *want* to believe that about themselves, much less admit it to you. But maybe if you convince them their actions are racist, we can hope cognitive dissonance will run its course in time.

    We shouldn't *have* to pretend there's a distinction between acting and being racist, of course, but sometimes bald honesty just doesn't work.

  12. this isn't new, plenty of white supremacists have said the very same thing, david duke being one of them.

  13. After seeing his facial features and hair, and reading this article, it's clear that guy is all over the map. I'm truly not convinced he is 100% white, and I suspect that he is privately insecure about his racial identity.

    His diametrically opposed beliefs and behavior makes him a lightening rod for attention.

    However, I don't think he's the typical white racist who won't admit to being racist. He's too conflicted. People like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Dick Cheney can win that distinction, 'cause I can't imagine they have pics on their walls of black achievers.

  14. I blogged about this guy in regards to the linguistic double standard that some white people feel exists because some blacks choose to do the n-word. This man is getting what he wants, publicity. This isn't his first time being controversial, it won't be his last. This is him getting the attention he wants.

  15. I've thought so much since you posted this, and I'm still thinking about it. Because I see this a lot over here and have too much to say about it for this comment.

    But I will say that I think when someone is racist, it doesn't matter how you say it, they will deny it (or deny that what they said/did was racist). When someone who genuinely isn't a racist person does something racist and gets called on it, they back off instantly because they don't *want* to be racist.

    But some racist people will go to any lengths to argue that what they did wasn't racist so therefore *they* aren't racist. They use all the common tactics - derailing, minimising etc.

  16. I've also noticed, particularly over the past few days, that racist people who don't want to identify as racist use derailing tactics when you call them on something racist they have done.

    I've never seen people who aren't racist but *unintentionally* did something racist use these tactics when called on what they've done.

  17. I have been thinking about this post, too, especially because I gave essentially the same comment on one of the fail threads last week. I hadn't seen Jay Smooth's video at the time, I have since watched it, and I think there are two basic perspectives on the be a racist/do a racist thing issue (or more precisely, point out to someone that s/he is a racist/has done a racist thing). But I am probably missing something.

    1. Suggested by the video: "doing a racist thing" is coddling the white person, but it helps head off derailment. It might not change the person's future actions overall, or have postivie long-term consequences, but it might work out okay in the short term.

    2. What I suggested: white people (I'd say especially "white liberals," but I think the original video sort of proves otherwise), on some level, cannot accept the idea that they could possibly be "a racist." For some reason, the lesson we got from the civil rights movement was not that racism is bad, but that being called a racist is bad (stuff white people do: play with semantics).

    For white people, I think, saying "I am a racist" is the same as saying "I am an evil person." It's not that the white person doesn't see her/himself as racist, it's that s/he can't. So if confronted with "you are a racist," the person will deny it, derail the conversation, or walk away. Because s/he doesn't have a choice, mentally.

    What I'm wondering is if we can find a sort of middle ground, so to speak. Saying "a racist" (noun) makes it an identity. If we don't see it as part of our identity, denial is easy and makes perfect sense to us. But what about "be racist" (adjective)? That still requires us to own it, not to isolate it from the rest of our lives. "I did a racist thing, I'm not doing it right now, phew." But "I am racist" is more of an Oh, shit thought, and having someone say, "You are being/you are racist" is an Oh, fuck!.

    But it seems...less permanent, I guess. Something that is changeable, fixable. It's motivating, in an odd way.

    Of course, this assumes that white people actually *want* to change.

  18. Thank you, Willow, very clarifying input.

    Abby Ferber put some of that this way, in her article "I Am Racist!"

    We need to shift from using "racist" as a noun, to an adjective. The reality is that white folks are racist; how can we grow up in this culture and not internalize racism?

    The task that faces us is not to try and identify who is or is not a racist, but to examine the many invisible ways in which racism and white privilege pervade our lives, our views, our assumptions, and our opportunities.

    The question is not are we racist, but are we anti-racist? What are we doing to recognize and undermine racism and privilege as it shapes our life, day in and day out? We need to strive to make racism more visible, more conscious. Only once it is conscious can we work to undermine it.

  19. I agree - it would be much more useful to focus on whether a person's particular act is "racist," rather than on labeling the person as wholly racist.

    Calling someone "racist" implies that they dislike all members of a particular ethnic minority, or of all minorities. Said in a certain tone, it implies that the person would welcome a return to the days of slavery.

    And that can feel insulting, when you in fact believe that every person, regardless of race, is entitled to equal opportunities and a fair shake in life, and when you don't judge people based on their physical characteristics but on what you know about them.

    When I was in college, I was repeatedly accused of being "racist" by a black man, a fellow student. When I protested, he said "why can't you just admit you're racist and move on?" Well, I'll tell you why: it's because I felt judged and demeaned by that word. Wrapped into the same category as a full-fledged KKK member, when I believed in my heart of hearts that I am nothing at all like that.

    I asked him what I did that made him think I was racist, and he wouldn't answer. Not necessarily couldn't, but wouldn't. He'd say, "You know what you are and what you do. I don't need to tell you." It was maddening, really.

    Maybe I did something insulting to him, or projected some subtle "better than you" attitude, or maybe he misunderstood something I did or said. Or maybe I did an act that seemed or was racist and I didn't know it. Or maybe it was nothing and he was just mean. Who knows? He certainly never told me.

    But the conversation would have been much more productive if he had identified what (specifically) I had done, and accused me of a "racist act" (or two or three or five or whatever it might have been!!) rather than accusing me of "being a racist," thereby lumping me in with the KKK and the skinheads. Then maybe I could have admitted to a racist act, apologized for it, and tried to fix whatever attitude or actions needed fixing, in the future. Instead, I was left wondering whether he was merely a bully or whether I project some racist attitude that I'm unaware of.

  20. Isn't hate speech constitutionally protected? I seem to remember the Nazi's being allowed to march in Skokie.

    Why would we need First Amendment speech protection except to say things that make people really mad?

    I imagine some folks were really mad when gays stood up for themselves and criticized discrimination against gays.

    It seems pretty much all or nothing. You have to defend racists' right to free speech or you will find that there will be restrictions on what you want to say as well. If I really want to stop you from saying what you want, the first thing I am going to do is get you to help me pass a law shutting down someone you disagree with. Then later use the same law against you. You need to think beyond step one.

  21. Are you familiar with the term "jerry-rigged"? Some people replace "jerry" with the n-word.

    I always thought it was jury rigged.

  22. Can we just forget racism. I would rather call myself discriminant, a word that has no vernacular tie to race. Because I do not care about color. I am discriminant against tendency. I dislike a person who is not willing to work towards anything, but expects it. I am prejudice against those who are not willing to try and make a difference in their lives. I am prejudice against the person that has a cigarette in one hand and a 40 in the other, asking me for money for food. I can find you a job that will ignore your physical instability. You only have one leg? Perfect, I will get you a nice desk job with wheelchair accessibility. I could care less if you were white, black, green, purple.

    I am discriminant of the young socialites that spend their time and money on frivolity.

    I am discriminant of those that send their kids off to work to support their abusive habits.

    I am discriminant of those that break into others' houses, because they are not willing to work a nine to five.

    So yes, discrimination does exist. But for those that continuously bring up racism in coherence to color, you are the ones that perpetuate it.


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