Thursday, October 07, 2010

But was it "Racism"?

Okay, I know I'm not the first person of color who has said what I'm about to write. However, it seems as if some people think the jury is still out when it comes to how incidences like Lawrence O'Donnell's recent verbal gaffe should be viewed.

O'Donnell has apologized and explained why he shouldn't have said what he did. For the most part, he took responsibility for his words even though I would argue that the last part was an attempt to minimize his actions via a tu quoque argument about how the Republican party has also made similarly problematic statements without Steele making a public comment. Never mind the fact that Steele didn't make a public comment about O'Donnell's words either. Instead he chose to contact O'Donnell personally to address his thoughts. However, that's not the main thing I want to address.

I've noticed that there are still people who think that this is an issue of whether O'Donnell is a racist or was making a racist remark. What I think is that whether it should be considered racism is irrelevant. If it makes you more comfortable, we can call O'Donnell's words "problematic" , "thoughtless" or whatever else you'd prefer. This is about the effect of his words. Regardless of whether O'Donnell was trying to make a racist remark, describing the relationship of a person of color and a group of mostly rich white men in the way that he did, has a historic context that is still relevant today. This is certainly true in a political discussion and it would be hard to argue that it isn't especially the case with Steele's role as the Republican National Committee Chairman. Race was undeniably a factor in why he was appointed to that position just as the Democratic party was patting itself on the back after making Barack Obama their Presidential nominee.

Some people are saying that Steele ran with what O'Donnell said, but even if that's true, would it really be all that surprising? That's what political advocates do! O'Donnell does it, too. He did it during the interview with Steele when he asked if the Chairman's comments about the tea-baggers' relationship with the Republican party meant that the Republicans now considered the minimum wage unconstitutional (as some tea-baggers have claimed). It's an easy (or some might say cheap, depending on how you want to look at it) technique used to box your opponent into a corner. They can either agree with an odious position that has been asserted by someone else or risk alienating a demographic that they are trying to court.

I'm a (relatively) economically-privileged person. There are things that I could say about quality of life issues that might be interpreted as thoughtless or problematic or even classist. If I am told that I've said something classist, I should understand that those on the short end of the stick with regards to classism don't go around making these accusations for no reason. If I think that classism is wrong, then I should learn from what they have to say about how someone in my position can do better in the future. That's just one example.

Some people mistakenly believe that situations like O'Donnell's are best handled by listing the person's "street cred" as if it's proof that it's impossible for that person to ever do anything that might rightfully be construed as bigoted. However, none of a person's prior actions or beliefs preclude them from causing harm in a particular incident that might crop up. The best way to show that you aren't a particular kind of bigot is by listening when people who are on the receiving end of that kind of discrimination are telling you how you've messed up and then acting on what you've learned.

I think that is what we should really be focusing on: how to learn from what people in marginalized communities have to teach us about the effects of our words and behaviors.

1 comment:

libhom said...

I can see why people would find O'Donnell's comments offensive or hurtful. The thing to me is that, as far as I can see, Steele does act towards racist Republicans in a way that is frighteningly similar to the ways that slave characters behaved towards master characters in old movies about the pre Civil War South. The way that Steele behaves is so painful I have to avert my eyes or click off the web page every time I try to watch him.