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Shaming is No Substitute for Conversation

February 9, 2019

 

We Americans love to talk.  Incessantly.  Irreverently.  Sometimes hilariously.  Social media is ablaze with our chatter.  We will talk about anything from tantric yoga to toilet paper -- except when it comes to racism.

 

We have developed the habit -- goaded greedily by the media, ever hungry to feed the 24-hour news cycle -- of calling out a bad guy and excoriating him for his sins without ever really delving into the subject.

 

Public shaming has replaced rational discourse on far too many subjects, but one of the biggest offenders is the dance we have perfected with racist-shaming.  We point our fingers at the perpetrator, demand an apology; and, if we like the person, an apology is all that is needed to move on to the next public spectacle.

 

Or, when an apology is refused, we clamor for boycotts and firings.  And that's all well and good except for one little detail: we never get around to doing the hard work of dissecting the whys of it all.  We never speak on the subject in a way that might actually help this broken country start to heal the wounds inflicted over centuries of history, and made worse by refusing to confront chronic racism that is so tightly woven into the old red, white and blue that it may as well be a part of the flag.

 

Take a couple of examples from the news over the last week.  Virginia politicians in blackface and an actor recounting a racist impulse forty years ago.

 

Liam Neeson, for reasons that he may well regret now, whatever they were, described in an interview how he experienced a murderous rage when a dear friend was raped by a Black man.  He walked the streets those many years ago looking for the opportunity to bash some Black heads as a way to expiate his rage.

 

But he revealed this fact in the context of being ashamed of his racist mindset and regretting his thirst for revenge.  Rather than acknowledge that white people are socially conditioned to be racist and to use Neeson's revelation as a springboard for that conversation, the minions of the web latched onto the decades' old misdeed and ... Let the Shaming Begin!

 

Now, I'm not one to blithely accept the perfunctory apology of the unrepentant racist, but when someone recounts the fact that back in the last century they used to engage in racist behavior that they since denounced and to my knowledge never repeated -- what's the point of the shaming?

 

Anybody in Liam Neeson's position forty years ago who claims that they wouldn't have entertained racist thoughts of revenge is a liar.  Why?  Because while not an American, Neeson comes from a country, like so many others in this world, infected by the plague of anti-Black racist hatred and all the stereotypes and preconceived notions that come with it.

 

As for the Virginia politicians, let's set aside the whole flip-flopping of the governor thing.  That was just plain stupid.  But the attorney general made a confession that was probably as accurate as any politician is ever likely to make. 

 

He basically said that it was thirty years ago, he was young and dumb and at the time a lot of young and dumb white boys thought putting on blackface was a hoot.  Now, not so much.  Now, and for the last many years, he has come to realize the racist hurtfulness of parading around as a parody of a caricature of a stereotype and regrets the fact that he ever engaged in that kind of behavior.

 

Once again, the shaming brigade descends in all its righteous fury to demand resignations and to beat their collective breasts with the horror of it all.

 

But let's get real, shall we?  This is some shit that happened thirty or forty years ago, that reflected a state of mind unfortunately common to some young people who do stupid things without thinking, where the perpetrators regret what they did and have done for many years.

 

Contrast these scenarios for a moment with those inflicted on the country by our fearful leader (fearful of impeachment or indictment or both, one after another, I hope).  Unrepentant and current racist behavior is a different thing, I guess. 

 

Instead of jumping on the shaming bandwagon, how about we talk about why those kids thought it was okay to make sport of Black people as if we were things and not people.  Or why a young man would want to kill a random Black man -- any random Black man -- for the crimes of an individual.

 

Rather than shaming, why not unpeel the layers a bit?  Why not examine the privilege behind the assumption that Black people are objects of scorn, of hatred, of fear?  Why not connect the dots between the social and economic motivations underlying the deliberate divisiveness of the politics of race hatred?  Or the historical antecedents.  Or the institutionalization.  Or the just plain wrongness of it all.

 

Without talking and thinking about how it came to be, how it shows up and why we are conditioned to behave the way that we do on this subject, we can never start to unwind the knot.  Cut ties with the past while embracing its lessons.  Heal instead of continuing to hate.

 

And that's the real shame.

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