We are being asked by our President to have a national discussion on racism. Good idea. I would suggest the discussion begin with the word itself.
The First Lady said in a recent interview she was shopping incognito at Target when a short lady approached her and asked if she would mind reaching something for her off a top shelf, after all, Michelle Obama is tall. The First Lady used the incident as an example of racism. Really? She’s kidding, right?
Just last week, I was in Target and a short, elderly lady asked me if I could get something from a top shelf for her. I think it was “tall-ism.”
Yesterday, a black lady asked me if I could undo the oil cap on her car. She needed to add some oil and someone had put the cap back on too tight, and she couldn’t undo it. I think it was “strength-ism,” though I was dressed in jeans, a sweat shirt and wearing combat boots, so she might have thought I was a yard boy.
Of course, in both cases, without thinking about it one way or another, I gladly and politely performed the request.
However, the reporting of the Obama issue brings to mind something that has troubled me in recent weeks: Are the promiscuous accusations of “racism” causing the word to lose its power or significance?
When black leaders of the 60s and 70s used the word racist, we all knew what they were talking about: Jim Crow laws, lynchings, attack dogs, segregated facilities, gross and blatant job discrimination, “n----r,” and “boy.” Today, it is not so obvious what will cause one to be labeled a racist, and I fear as a result, the word is losing its power to shame those who should be ashamed.
Words do lose their ability to move people when abused or overly used. People my age can remember when the “F” bomb was shocking. But, along came the free speech movement of the 60s (Yes, I can remember the 60s, also the 40s and 50s.)when students and comedians demanded the right to use the “f” word wherever, whenever.
I was at an Alaska state wide Toastmasters contest in Anchorage in the 80s when the master of ceremonies used the “f” word in a joke, and it brought stunning silence.
At least two people rushed to the microphone to profusely apologize to the audience for the MC’s faux pas. But, with the proliferation of the use of the word in nearly every social context, except maybe church and elementary classrooms, it has lost its bombast. In many forums, it would still not be polite, but if dropped, there would be no rush to the mic to apologize. And, if there were an apology, it would go something like this: “If I have offended anybody…,” which is to say, the problem wasn’t with the speaker, but with the listener.
I fear the same is happening with the word racist. Forty years ago, you could have shamed me by calling me a racist. I was more than guilty in my distant past of telling racist jokes and making racist comments. Over the years I have repented of such behavior and avoid it. Having lived 20 years in the South and had positive experiences working with and at times for blacks, both as a teacher and a GI, and having black students made me more aware of the issues. And Journalists like Juan Williams and Leonard Pitts have done a lot to increase my sensitivity to the issues of race. But if you called me a racist today, I wouldn’t be shamed so much as confused.
We do live in a society where racism exists, and not just black on white. Through the eyes of my son who is married to an Asian, I have seen how sensitive to racism people of minorities must be when looking for a new job or a new residence. But, when we label every request for help in the store, every police stop, every firing, or every negative interaction with one of another race as racist, we become numb to the accusation or even confused as to what it really is; we destroy its power to move people. People will cease taking the issue seriously. I fear that promiscuously using the word racist has become akin to the boy who cried wolf too many times.