I came across two pieces today on race: one was an interview with the African (but not African American) author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Americanah, and another on the Paula Deen racism scandal.
In the first, Adichie relates her experiences learning about what it means to be black in America. She has to be told what’s offensive, and why. The example given is a joke about watermelons. She also comments on how frequently she’s told that she’s refreshingly not-angry for a black person.
The second makes the case that racism is so ingrained in southern culture that most southern racists can’t see that they’re racist at all.
As a society, we’ve been attempting to stop this sort of racism (personal, attitude based — as opposed to structural or institutionalized) by “education”: that is, by telling people that certain words and joke topics are offensive and off-limits.
There’s an easier option. We could simply stop passing on the need to be offended. What if, instead of validating potentially hurtful words by going on rants about past injustices, parents decided to brush off these incidents? “Oh honey, she called you a n*gger? Who knows what that silly word means. Nevermind, call her out for ad hominem attacks next time.” Diffuse, distract, ignore. With time, words lose their ability to hurt anyone. It seems a more efficient solution than trying to convince people that they’re bad, bad, horrible, racist people. Besides, nothing’s so troubling to someone who intends to hurt feelings as a person whose only reaction is a puzzled gaze.
On the other hand, the way we’re doing things now results in too many people with chips on their shoulders. Angry, sensitive people looking to be offended. This difference makes racists feel justified. Vindicated, even: “see? I’m right! Those people are just nasty, angry violent people, so unlike us decent people!” Setting aside special taboos for words, jokes, subjects and phrases just gives them special power. Really, it seems useless to teach our children they have to be upset about certain things.