Last week started with a low uproar over comments made by Condoleezza Rice. In a CBS interview, she deflected from specifically addressing the current president’s divisive rhetoric and stated:
“…I think we could all be better in the way that we deal with this very raw nerve which is race. I think it’s time to stop labeling each other and using explosive terms like ‘she’s a racist, he’s a racist,’ that stops the conversation. When you say that, that’s meant to stop the conversation and we need to have the conversation.”
She has a valid point – kinda. Allow me to say the same thing and give it a different meaning.
Last week ended with the release old photos exposing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in “brownface” and “blackface” (???) at various costume events between high school and the age of 29 when he was a teacher. The question marks are meant to underscore both the nuance and bold fonts of language.
When the first salvo of pictures released was from an event themed “Arabian Nights,” the media emphasized the word “brownface.” When the next set showed Trudeau impersonating singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, the media converted headlines to “blackface.”
Interesting, but why? What exactly is the difference between “brownface” and “blackface?”
My question is deeper than semantics. It is a question of power. Since there is no periodic table that quantifies the properties of words, the litmus test is the emotional response. Racism is more a chemical reaction than we realize. It is best measured by the blood-boiling anger, pain and suffering it causes.
Why is it, Trudeau’s ‘gotcha’ moment felt more like disappointment than irate outrage? Sometimes when we feel a person’s heart outweighs that person’s hate then their actions become more forgivable. This is precisely the problem when dealing with many white liberals.
Though race is a societal construct and hate is taught, being conditioned to have some kind of prejudice is basically unavoidable, making it impossible to “not see color.” American talking heads love to say “we need to have a conversation on race.” Which is weird because nowadays all people talk about is race. Unfortunately, we often discuss it all wrong because we haven’t mastered our own language when using parts of speech. Racist – the noun and adjective – isn’t always interchangeable as one size fits all.
We should be sensitive to the weight of the word as an absolute stigma. You don’t want to throw paint on faux fur thinking it’s real. I know white people born and bred in Harlem but because of gentrification now get called “colonizer.” This doesn’t mean they can’t be racist but it means there’s a spectrum. I always say if you’re not the only Black friend of your white friend, that’s a good sign.
There is no perfect white ally. They all have had multiple racial faux pas, but did they learn from it? Did they make the effort to improve on their unconscious bias? Was it a cultural misdeed or a cruel intention?
I’m not trying to make excuses but to Condoleezza’s point, when you call someone a racist they immediately get aggressively defensive and predictably say, “I can’t be racist because… (spin the token wheel)…” Yeah, we know, you’re ONLY racist if you’re a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Good at the game of tricknology” –Grand Puba
Now that I’ve set the welcome table, here’s where I turn it.
We need each other; that’s a simple fact in the fight for equality and justice. However, don’t mistake my seemingly pacifying statements as forgiveness. I actually think white apologies should be treated as a conditional truce but not forgiven. Forgiveness must be earned through action, not tears that come from the guilt of being caught.
I’m saying the language of racism is a powerful trick bag and we should use more of their tricks. The founding joke of this country is writing documents of liberty while making it illegal for Black people to read. Let’s start there. Inherent in American white supremacy is the missing hyphen. Now that we know how to read and write, let’s add it. If they are first-, second-, third-generation immigrants, then make them own it – call them Euro-Americans. If they date back further – call them Colonial-Americans.
Wordplay matters. That’s why conservatives went through great lengths to turn ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change.’ So when they tap dance around race we have to make it a breakdance battle.
If you notice, white America treats the label “racist” like a defamation suit if you don’t preface with the word “alleged.” They try to regulate the difference between racism and bigotry like criminal charges of manslaughter and murder – all while disregarding the fact that a Black person was killed.
“It’s like burning the cross and saying it’s about God” -Dan LeBatard
The label, or libel, becomes a trick question where the burden of proof is deflected to the accuser who is often also the victim. Oh, I’m racist, prove it. Plus, that accusation now feels like a threat and I can have you arrested. Boom, just like that, you must make a life or death decision to stand your ground against the armed forces of white supremacy. Hence, racism is about power and its institutional infrastructure.
Knowing that, I’m saying change the approach and make more of a legal argument when someone does something racist. Instead of just focusing on the Black injustice, we also focus on white exemption. Let’s not call immigration policies racist because they expect and deflect it. Ask the other question to ICE officials: How many white “illegal immigrants” have been detained and deported? Now, instead of our reaction being merely emotional, we have tangible records that make an unconventional case for discrimination.
At the same time, we can’t take the bait every time racism is used as a weapon of mass distraction. In the case of Trudeau, the timing was clearly election sabotage where real Black and brown faces are being used as pawns. The manipulation relies on our reflexes to shame, boycott, cancel or force the perpetrator to give back to the community, whatever that means. Sometimes we have to care less and conserve our energy for self-care.
Collectively, we’re not being honest. We’re being self-righteous, tribal and political. Being honest means teaching truthful history in early education, this is the cornerstone to build equality. But remember: Racism is a trick bag for their white magic, and their favorite illusion is using their gaslighting lips to cynically alter history to their liking.
Case and endpoint: Why do you think the GOP reiterates the “Party of Lincoln” as a moniker? To take credit for the Emancipation Proclamation and absolve themselves of the odious exclusion of Black people while using people like Condi as their magician’s assistant – in blackface. Simultaneously, the implied messaging is you ungrateful n-ggers better not call us racist since we gave you freedom.
That’s why when discussing Confederate Flag heritage, I simply ask: If the South had won the Civil War, how long would it have taken before they abolished slavery?
See? I didn’t even have to call it racist.
Trevor is a creative mercenary and ethical lobbyist born and raised on Beale Street. Follow him on Twitter @trevbetter.