Calling All White People, Part 38: Ripping off the masks

Calling All White People, Part 38

(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: In this season of wearing costumes, let’s start aiming to be real  

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

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Now, some of you maybe are planning to put on masks today or tonight—maybe you already have for some pre-Halloween costume parties or whatnot. Maybe you’re not dressing up but you’ll be helping your kids fit their masks to their faces. Maybe costumes still aren’t picked out yet and you still need to get a mask (and more) in a last-minute frenzy at the local Halloween store.

Maybe it’s also time—as we do that thing where we take on roles for a few hours to celebrate—maybe it’s time to dedicate yourself to playing fewer roles and being real.

We are in what for many people is an unprecedented (for them personally at least) period of overt racism promoted from on high (the White House and elsewhere) and unfettered cruelty (abandoning the protection of refugees, locking kids in cages and taking them away from their parents and so much more). Many of us weren’t alive for things like the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Many of us weren’t alive or were tiny children during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Even for those people who hate racism and were alive for such things, seeing them return now with literal Nazis marching with torches and police protection and anti-fascists being criticized for punching Nazis is jarring.

Welcome to the horror show. If you didn’t get it before, get it now: The United States was literally built on racism, with slavery a key part of the economy and many founding fathers defending slavery as part of the natural order. The dehumanization of Black and Indigenous people as savages or subhumans has been part and parcel of the American makeup and all its institutions were created with that in mind somewhere, somehow. The educational system has relentlessly hidden this part of history and the media has often been reluctant to highlight it. And so with all that in place, it’s easy for people to be racist, overtly or casually. It’s easy not to challenge things and to accept, on some level, the notion that people who aren’t white deserve less or pose a threat to you and your white kin and peers.

You personally may not feel that way. You might dream of a country were race isn’t a deciding factor in one’s humanity and worth. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t wearing a mask now—that perhaps you’ve been wearing one all along.

Maybe you aren’t racist. Or at least you’re mostly not racist. And that’s not bad. It’s certainly better than being racist. More people like that in this country would be a better thing. It would be progress. But it doesn’t change things when a good chunk of the country is pretty comfortable with racism.

If your kid really, really wants to be an “Indian” for Halloween or dress as Disney’s Pocahontas, will you say “no” and explain why? If they want to dress as a favorite Black celebrity but they aren’t Black and think they should paint their face brown or use literally black blackface, will you put a stop to it? If your kids are grown and in college putting on blackface or whatnot, will you check them? If you have friends dressed as “Mexicans” with sombreros and bushy fake mustaches, will you challenge them on it?

When Halloween has passed and Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners occur, will you refute your relatives when they spout racist feelings or theories? Will you take the chance to educate and to deflate ignorance, or will you keep on that mask of politeness?

In day-to-day life, will you keep wearing that mask and being as “not-racist” as you personally can while also letting racism grow around you? Will you keep that mask on so that you don’t lose out on your own opportunities because giving up white privilege is too scary and you just want to continue to quietly be as not-racist as you can?

Movements and change don’t happen in silence. They don’t happen when people are quiet. If what the world sees is a mask that says you are OK with the way the world is, then the world will keep spinning on in a horrible direction.

Or maybe it isn’t a mask.

Maybe it’s your real face. Maybe you don’t care enough. Maybe trying to be not-racist is more important to you than actually being an anti-racist.

It’s never too late though. If you’re wearing a mask but you know you can do more, you can take it off now. If the apathy isn’t a mask but your true self, you can turn that around—not put on a mask of anti-racism but get a social and philosophical face-lift.

The face of America is racism; the equality for all idea was always a mask. So, while we are ripping away our masks of quiet civility, let’s rip that one off as well.


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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.

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