Why Do We Get So Worked Up Over ‘Racist’?

Go ahead, disown the word. There’s no denying its brutal reality.

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Targets of a racist England? The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“You need to calm down.” — Taylor Swift

I never thought I would quote Taylor Swift at the beginning of an article about racism, but I think her line actually works better here than it did when she used it in her recent pop single to shoehorn herself into the LGBTQ narrative.

Swift’s lyrics popped into my mind yesterday as I read about another latest Twitter feud, this one between Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan and British actress Jameela Jamil. Her comments about England and the English media’s treatment of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, started the social media stand-off.

Normally, I would have ignored the headline, but a few days ago, I discovered The Good Place, the Netflix series in which Jamil costars, and I fell in love with her over the course of my first-season binge-fest. I was interested in what she had to say.

She didn’t disappoint.

“Ugh. Dear England and English press, just say you hate her because she’s black, and him for marrying a black woman and be done with it God dammit. Your bullying is so embarrassing and obvious. You’ve all lost your marbles. It’s 2019. Grow up.”

Her comments might not have garnered much attention had Morgan not responded to Jamil on Twitter with such unbridled ferocity.

“Vile racist bully accuses all 55 million people in England of being vile racist bullies.

I suggest YOU grow up, Ms Jamil, you pathetic virtue-signalling twerp.”

My first thought: Here we go again … again.

I wonder if “England and the English press is sexist” … or “misogynistic” … or “homophobic” … or “Islamophobic” … or “xenophobic” … or anything else but “racist” would have provoked such an impassioned response. Even without uttering either of the most-dreaded R-words (“racist,” “racism”), simply by implying them, Jamil got Morgan and many of his (no doubt, white) 6.75 million Twitter followers worked up.

It seems to happen to some white people whenever the conversation turns to race and racism. I understand why they squirm. It’s an uncomfortable subject, perhaps even more so for white people than for those who directly suffer because of it. But like global warming (and sexism and misogyny and homophobia and Islamophobia and xenophobia), there’s no denying the elephant is in the room — or downplaying its enormity.

Racism is an uncomfortable topic, perhaps even more so for white people than for those who directly suffer because of it. But there’s no denying the elephant in the room — or downplaying its enormity.

Many try and fail. When Morrissey makes comments that one so easily can construe as being racist and his detractors call him out, he counterattacks in the most shallow and dismissive Trumpian fashion. Last year, he even suggested that “racist” is a now-meaningless word used and abused by desperate people who are too stupid to make a good point.

But the same thing can be said about pretty much every simplistic racial pronouncement Morrissey makes these days. Only someone who has never suffered under the cruelty of “racist” would say that the word has lost all meaning.

I don’t know a black person alive who needs a white person to school them on the intricacies of “racist.” They certainly can’t convince us that it no longer means anything. They can’t convince us that the world — or England — isn’t racist just because they don’t want the word to apply to them personally.

Racism is usually in the eye of the beholder. I don’t believe there are many people who look in the mirror and see a racist — not even card-carrying white supremacists. I’m sure many of them think of themselves as innocents who are simply trying to preserve a grand old tradition (like an England for the English — the white English) that benefits them.

Nobody wants to be deemed “racist,” but on some level, we all harbor racist impulses. Whether that makes us all “racist” is a matter of semantics. But not all racism is created equal anyway.

When those who harbor it hold the bulk of political and economic power, they can wield it more dangerously. That is why I roll my eyes when white people call out the “reverse racism” of blacks as if it weighs the system against whites as unfairly as white-on-black racism does against blacks.

That’s like saying an employee’s sexually inappropriate behavior toward their boss is the same as the reverse. Both need to be addressed, but one has more far-reaching ramifications than the other.

The race card wouldn’t exist if white people hadn’t made it usable in the first place. It’s too late to invalidate it now.

The country vs. the individual

I understand Piers’s frustration. He doesn’t want to be lumped in with the racist masses. Neither would I. Perhaps Jamil should have qualified her comment with a disclaimer: “I’m about to make a gross generalization here, so don’t take it personally if it doesn’t apply to you.” It might have gone down easier with the sort of people who prefer every opinion to be preceded by “I think.”

I imagine most reasonable white people read Jamil’s tweet and realized that what she didn’t say was implied. When I declare that “America is a racist country” (and it is), I’m not talking about every individual that identifies as American. I have good white friends and casual acquaintances in the U.S. whom I consider to be honest allies of blacks and other racial minorities.

But history and current events prove that America is indeed a racist country — generally, speaking, of course. If the daily news doesn’t prove that point, the fact that so many Americans voted for an unapologetically bigoted President does.

I can’t speak about England with as much certainty as I can the U.S., but I think Jamil was onto something. The press hounded Princess Diana, too, but even up to the end, it was more through the lens of intense adoration than random criticism (and I’m not talking about the private plane). Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles — and ultimately, the media itself — were typically regarded as the villains in that sad, tragic story.

And consider Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. She has not received nearly as much scrutiny as the Duchess of Sussex, and I think a large part of that has to do with the fact that Markle is biracial and the Duchess of Cambridge isn’t. I also think it’s partly because Markle is American-born and — shudder — a former actress. That, to more people than would probably admit it, makes her a triple threat.

Wallis Simpson probably would have seen this coming were she alive today. Like Markle, she was an American divorcee. Unlike Markle, she was white. She had the misfortune to fall for Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales, who later abdicated the throne in order to marry her.

If Prince William and not Prince Harry had fallen for Markle, I wonder if their road to the altar would have been rockier. She probably would be facing even more intense scrutiny — certainly more than the Duchess of Cambridge does. Anyone who thinks that has nothing to do with race is incredibly naive.

I wouldn’t call Piers Morgan naive, and he’s definitely aware that racism exists. Earlier this year, I made an appearance on Good Morning Britain to talk about the fallout fiasco after actor Liam Neeson admitted to past racist thoughts and behavior.

When I argued that Neeson’s actions 40 years ago doesn’t necessarily make him a racist today, Morgan emphatically disagreed. Once a racist, always a racist?

I wonder what Morgan would find if he honestly analyzed his own thoughts now and his own thoughts 40 years ago. Neeson made the error of clumsily admitting to something that most people probably would have buried deep inside their memory banks, filing it under “THINGS I DON’T WANT TO DEFINE ME FOREVER.”

When racial minorities talk about the racism they witness and the racism they personally face, I wish white people who think they’re above it wouldn’t be so quick to jump to their own defense. I wish they would calm down, shut up, and listen. They might discover something about a world they only experience through their own eyes, one in which racism is easier to discount because it always happens to other people.

Who knows? They might even discover something about themselves.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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