Calling All White People, Part 37: No more excuses

Calling All White People, Part 37

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Stop looking for “excuses” for racist outbursts  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

So, on Sept. 24 a Los Angeles CVS store became—instead of a place to grab a quick bag of M&Ms and a Coke or your latest prescription refill—a venue for a racist tirade by a woman named Heather Lynn Patton that included liberal use of the N-word as well as statements that apparently she’d be only too happy to kill every n****r if only the law would allow it.

This post, however, is not about Heather, though I’ll be referring to her again throughout it, I’m sure.

You see, the reason I’m writing this post and why the headline talks about the need to stop making excuses for racists is that even before Heather had been definitively identified and outed on social media and issued an insincere apology and lost her job—even before she herself blamed the outburst on being drunk—I saw on social media no shortage of people suggesting that she might be mentally ill or intoxicated or whatever and we should withhold judgment and contempt for her.

Screw that.

And yes, these posts (in my observations at least) generally (that is to say, all) came from non-right-wing white people (because the right-wing white people by and large wouldn’t have felt a need to label it racism nor perhaps even consider it wrong nor make excuses for it). So, it was largely moderate or liberal white folk trying to pawn off her racism as the effects of something beyond her control (leaving aside the fact she was, if actually drunk, also driving under the influence, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be trying to advocate for patience and tolerance if she mowed somebody down with her car as a result).

I suppose that wouldn’t make the situation particularly worthy of a blog post here at BGIM Media given all the other racists caught on video over the years and posted online. Except that I’ve seen this before. Not every time a white person yells racist epithets and threatens violence against non-white people, but often enough.

What I have seen is a notable amount of willingness by people who claim to be aghast at racism to explain away the racism as the effect of mental illness or drugs or something similar.

Now, look, I’m not saying mental illness cannot cause racist outbursts. As a professor of psychiatry noted a 2002 commentary, delusional effects of schizophrenia or extreme cases of bipolar disorder can be the primary cause of some racist outbursts rather than something that simply amplifies racist beliefs separate from the mental illness (though I disagree with the way his article seems to edge toward suggesting “extreme racism” might even be a form of mental illness rather than simple a symptom/sign of some kind of existing mental illness already in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—and there are reasons to be very wary of categorizing racism as mental illness). But that’s pretty rare overall.

And having seen my share of people with fairly intense forms of Tourette syndrome, I’m sure there are people with that condition who might randomly shout out the N-word without any racist intent behind it (though I’m pretty none of the people in that kind of case would clearly articulate hatred toward a group of people and a desire to kill them like Heather did, nor use the N-word in such a systematic way).

So, given all that, showing any kind of serious desire to take a “wait and see she might be mentally ill” approach with a Heather like this one (or even a Harold) seems to me more a way to protect a fellow white person than anything else. Because it’s become clear in recent years that most white people hate being called racist even when they clearly are and when they clearly embrace racism, and even liberal white people “knowledgeable” about racism often bristle when a person of color so much as suggests they might have done a specifically racist thing). Whiteness has a tendency to protect itself, and “open minded” “non-racist” white people are often all-too-quick to defend other white people against charges of racism.

The same thing applies with the intoxication angle. Why should we withhold judgment about Heather and her ilk because she might be drunk? Or be willing to forgive her because she said she was drunk?

Look, I’ve never done hard drugs, so I cannot speak to what some of them might do to one’s outlook on race, but my inexpert knowledge suggests to me that even if a really wild drug drives you to eat someone’s face off—as some of them do—I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cause you to discriminate on the basis of skin color when you eat that face. And even if it does, again, that’s a really rare case like a delusional schizophrenic episode that involves a racial focus.

No, what intoxication does typically is to loosen you up to do what you were probably inclined to anyway. Being drunk tends to make a person more open. If they are already in possession of violent tendencies, they let their violence loose. If they are already touchy-feely types, they might become more so. If they are already goofballs, they become sillier.

My dad had a tendency to get violent when he was drunk in his younger years; it’s why my mom left him. But in all my memories of him, I don’t remember him ever being violent even when he was intoxicated, because he had gotten his anger and violence under control—not because he stopped drinking (in fact, he got charged with driving under the influence once when I was a teen, and he drinks a fair amount every day even now, as far as I know, even though he doesn’t go for full-on drunk anymore). The drinking didn’t cause the violence. It just helped to unlock a flimsy door leading to a nasty room.

Being drunk doesn’t suddenly make you want to shout a word that is pretty universally understood in the United States to be one of the nastiest things a white person can say and also want to express your desire to murder people based on skin color. Being drunk just makes you less willing, in the case of someone like Heather, to resist the urge to burst out openly with your racist beliefs.

No, Heather was a racist. And considering that the vast, vast majority (as in, almost all) cases of stuff like this has nothing to do with any kind of impairment, none of us should be rushing to defend a person who behaves like that. Even if you think you might be protecting some fraction of 1% of the population by being careful, that doesn’t help the 13% of people in the country who are Black and get called the N-word far too often and experience all kinds of verbal, psychological, social and physical violence as a result of specific racists and pervasive racist practices and systems in this country. If your job is to throw a large population of oppressed and violated people under the bus to save a microscopic number of people who are almost never going to show up on the radar (i.e. be filmed and posted online), your priorities are out of whack.

Yes, we should be what we can to protect marginalized people (like the mentally ill) and seek help for people with addictions—just like we try to make sure there are accommodations for people with disabilities and such. But you do not protect a vast number of horrible people to protect a tiny number of innocents. Providing wheelchair-accessible entrances and exits is good; not allowing people with infectious diseases to go to hospitals because some people there are immuno-compromised is stupid. Being quick to caution that a racist act is the result of something beyond the person’s control rather than an expression of actual beliefs and actual hate is the latter.

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Calling All White People, Part 36: Media is complicit in white supremacy

Calling All White People, Part 36

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: The media help prop up white supremacy and racist systems, and it’s not just Fox News  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

We—and by “we” I mean we who are white more so than others—tend to put a lot of trust in the prevailing systems and structures of society in the United States. A lot of trust. Even when we say or act like we don’t. But rarely do we look critically enough at those systems and structures and the people and institutions that comprise them. Because of that we perpetuate, though both action and inaction, racism (as well as sexism, rape culture, Islamophobia and a host of other nasty things).

Media is one of those things we trust and which is a big part of the problem.

Oh, I know a lot of people say they distrust the media or look at it with a critical eye, but that’s not necessarily as true as we think. After all, we say we don’t trust politicians but many of us continue to trust that “the system” will work out and rebalance itself to remove Donald Trump specifically or reverse the darkly uber-conservative turn it’s take in recent years. Many of us still vote, and often without all that much research into candidates or issues. So too do we look to the media to tell us what’s going on, and that’s fine—just as voting is important—but we don’t look often enough or deep enough at what’s wrong in the media and, for example, how is perpetuates and props up racism—how the mainstream media is very much complicit in upholding white supremacy.

And when I say “media” in this piece, I’m mostly talking about news and analysis and not entertainment, though certainly other aspect of media like that are also complicit (look at the overwhelming focus still on white protagonists or “white saviors” in ostensibly Black-themed movies or the way non-white actors in films and shows have so many fewer prominent roles yet filmmakers will put white people in roles intended to be Asian or Indigenous).

But no, I want to focus on the news media and journalism.

Journalism touts itself on aiming for objectivity, but biases often creep in and the wording of articles and broadcasts can shift the way people see reality. The framing of situations and people can skew how people feel. The choices of who to interview or allow to comment very much influence the narrative and what people hear (or don’t) and what they believe (or don’t). And I say none of this as some person casually spouting off about something I only vaguely understand. The media business (journalism in particular) has been responsible for paying most of my bills over the years.

Look, it’s easy to point a finger at Fox News and waggle said finger judgmentally in the news network’s metaphorical face. You can say that they peddle twisted truths and outright lies. Or that they pour poison into the ears of gullible bigots and people uncomfortable with demographic shifts. Even that they are the propaganda wing of the Republican far right wing (which is increasingly the Republican mainstream). And so on and so forth.

And you’d be right. Fox News is terrible and naked in its willingness to stoke racial fears and fan the fires of bigotry, among many other awful things.

But look at the others, too. CNN recently had overt white supremacist Richard Spencer on to address whether Trump’s recent tweets attacking ‘The Squad” were racist—and CNN also had a group of white women on to defend Trump as not being racist when he obviously is and always has been demonstrably so. And lest you leap to the defense of NPR as a notable bastion of balance and perhaps liberalism, I’ve noted a steady increase in their willingness not only to give voice to the far right but not to challenge them when they blatantly deflect issues or spread lies and—more than that—an NPR executive recently indicated that we shouldn’t call the president’s tweets “racist” because that’s a label and a judgment. It’s part of the whole debate these days over the media’s insistence on using phrases like “racially charged” or something rather than “racist.” At a certain point, though, you call something what it obviously is. If it’s raining outside, your weather guy will say it’s raining, not that the air is noticeably wettened.

I mean, really? If the president had tweeted that a group of white female politicians should stop worrying their little heads about politics and get back in the kitchen would we have a problem defining that as sexism? I think not.

BGIM has had her own encounters with media framing with regard to racist incidents, just this month again in fact with a story that appeared in the Portland Press Herald. Initial handling of the article wasn’t done well, and she was subtly cast as a possible instigator in a racial incident or as someone “claiming” an incident rather than as the very clear victim, as well as having her safety and well-being compromised by the way the story focused on her and not so much on the perpetrator.

The fact is that even if we don’t regularly watch the news or don’t read the newspaper, we get a lot of our information from media—and media that is, for the most part, fairly reliable and honest. We get it from friends, from our Twitter feeds, from overhearing people talking or playing the radio. Whatever. But media forms a major foundation for how we find out what’s going on and what to think about it.

That foundation is also part of what holds up the house of white supremacy.

When one gives platforms to extremists on the racist and xenophobic side of things, whether inviting them as guests or doing puff pieces on their lives (like the New York Times profiling Nazis to give us a glimpse of their human side) or giving them actual jobs as commentators, one gives them legitimacy and power. That amplifies their voices and grants them a kind of authority, and in a world where we have problems calling racist people and things racist even when they obviously are, that’s a problem.

Because that’s how you normalize racism and white supremacy. To be fair, white supremacy has always been the baseline in the United States. But media helps prop that up and reinforce it by favoring the white voices more often and by often putting people of color in a worse light. Photos will often make white people looks better and more wholesome and Black people look sketchy or thuggish. Headlines written and quotes picked for stories will often cast people of color as troublemakers.

Most of this is done without intention to do harm. It’s not as if the entire media apparatus consciously sets out to reinforce an already white supremacist system. But like with so many things in this country, we white people don’t look at it critically enough—certainly not the way Black and Indigenous and other people of color are forced to as the system repeatedly puts them through the kinds of obstacles that white people don’t generally encounter. That is when intention ceases to matter and we need to look at the impact of what is being done so that we can stop doing it.

So, we need to stop blindly trusting or only vaguely questioning the systems in place, and that includes media. We need to hold all of these systems accountable and call them out when they fail. More to the point: Demand that they do better. The more we do, the more likely we can break up the stranglehold of white supremacy and maybe—just maybe—start building a society where people really are mostly just treated as people, regardless of the color of their skin.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Calling All White People, Part 35: Why exactly are you sharing that video or picture?

Calling All White People, Part 35

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: We need to examine why we share pictures of dead or abused Black and brown people  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I rarely watch the videos that make the rounds of the internet, in which a Black or brown person is verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, threatened with weapons or outright shot to death. There are times I cannot avoid the images because there is no warning. There are times I merely glance at a few seconds willingly because I feel I need some context to understand the written story about the incident. There are times I might watch the video with the sound off.

But mostly, I don’t watch them at all.

And this isn’t a situation of me burying my head in the sand. Back in the days of the Trayvon Martin killing and the senseless murder of Tamir Rice I would watch the videos because I felt it was a duty to do so. To force myself to see just how bad people could be, especially law enforcement officers dealing with Black people who posed no threat but were treated like the vilest of evildoers. I watched the Tamir Rice video just to understand how aggressive the police were, how unwarranted their response was and just how impossibly little time they gave Tamir to even respond to them (a literal second or two) before they opened fire. I’ve seen videos of Black kids being pinned to the ground violently when they weren’t resisting and had done nothing wrong but have the police called on them for existing. And more.

There was a time going back to that watershed moment of Trayvon’s death when many white people like me had to see the brutality to understand it fully. To really realize that the police were even less fair and equitable to Black and brown people compared to white people than we had ever imagined. To understand how senseless an act of violence could be and how obviously wrong it could be—and yet still see police and average citizens alike (but especially police) found not guilty by juries.

But how much do you need to see? And how much do you need to share? And why?

Very recently, a photo appeared in news stories and got spread around the internet of a Latinx father and his very young daughter face down in the Rio Grande, drowned. And it was a stark image. And one that many of us were confronted with on absolutely no warning and not having gone looking for it.

And part of me gets it—both the taking of the photo and the sharing of it. Photographers often capture images because they are stark or even shocking. Because they seem to encapsulate a multitude of issues and concerns in one single scene that cannot be conveyed the same way in words. I’m not going to fault the photographers nor even cast dispersions on the media outlets who run these photos from AP and other sources (as long as they are providing some warnings). We’d probably be raking them over the coals if we found out they were refusing to show the horrors of Trump’s treatment of immigrants at the southern border (or police brutality or whatever).

But the part of me that gets it also gets something else: White people have been sharing and spreading images of horrors for ages now, even before the internet. Postcards of lynchings being one of the more infamous examples. Moreover, taking it to the current time, we’ve been sharing horrific images of Black people being killed or nearly killed by police for quite a number of years now and not only has nothing changed, but it’s gotten worse in many ways. Now we have more police with body cameras and we see even more images but we still almost never bring those police to justice when they do wrong. Now it almost seems like many law enforcement people are happy to have so many images out there, as if to say, “See? We can still get away with it. You’re screwed now and forever.”

Whether it’s a Black child being shot to death for playing in a park or a dead immigrant father and child in a river who represent victims of very obvious American government abuse (we have concentrations camps for children, people…what more do you need to know?), what are we doing when we spread the images far and wide?

I fear that we don’t do much at all.

We desensitize ourselves in many cases. We sometimes demoralize folks by showing how little changes and will perhaps never change. We embolden the people who like to see such images and praise the violence.

I’m not saying we should ban the images. There needs to be a record of abuse and there needs to be a way for people who don’t understand the scope of abuse and racist policies to see it up close and personal, as it were.

But the thing is, with our internet-connected world, we can find these images on our own. That’s the power of Google. I don’t think we need them shoved in our faces anymore. I don’t think we need Twitter or Facebook posts that blast a video or photo right at us without giving a chance to look away. No warnings in many cases: Just the raw horror dumped in our laps.

And the thing is, I’m not saying this to protect white people. I’m not saying “Please stop making us white people see this.” Because the thing is I don’t see nearly as many white people in my circles complaining about this as I do people of color, particularly Black and brown people. They live these horrors daily in many cases, because they know they have targets on their backs societally speaking in the United States and many, many other parts of the white world.

I’ve seen more white people rush to the defense of “We have to see these images to move people and to understand the horror” than Black people. I’ve seen more Black people say “Please stop showing me this” than I have white people.

That said, I will admit that I’ve seen Black and brown people insist that we have to see the horrors. It’s not like Black people or other people of color are monolithic groups with a single opinion.

So what is the answer?

Well, I’d say (as I did before) that the answer isn’t to delete all these images or to never record them to begin with. And the answer isn’t to never share them.

But I would say ask yourself why you are sharing them. Is it because it makes you feel like you are doing something (when you probably should be doing something more direct)? Is it because it’s become a form of torture porn? Is it because you want to change the minds of wishy-washy moderates who don’t want to rock the boat (you probably won’t) or Trump supporters (with those people, they probably smile when seeing those images) who you think can be turned?

Bottom line: We need to stop being so aggressive with forcing people to see these images. Try some trigger warning or content warning messages if you must share. Try providing links (with warnings) instead of automatically embedding a video or photo in your post.

What we need to do is look less (being bystanders and hand-wringers) and do more (by tearing down white supremacy and white nationalism). Images have motivated people and have turned the tide of public opinion in the past, but we aren’t in the same world as, say, the 1960s/1970s and the Vietnam War, when there were only a relative handful of media outlets and no internet. We are in a time of a fascism-fueled White House committing overt acts of evil and lying daily without shame—so much that every new sin is forgotten the next day by a new sin and so on and so on and so on…

The fact is, most of us who don’t want the world to be this way and to treat Black and brown people as less than human already know the score. It’s just that many/most of us are afraid to confront the problem directly or put ourselves on the line. There’s nothing subversive, bold or game-changing about sharing images of what increasingly amounts to trauma porn. The images have a place and a role, but they aren’t the answer to social change.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.