Several weeks ago I was at work and we were all talking and socializing after work, it was late and we were deciding what to do for dinner. Everybody involved in this conversation was white, except one person, of who was African American. The African American co-worker made a work related comment about some ideas on some capital expenditures that he felt would be a good investment for the company, but our rather expensive. The supervisor, who happens to be close friends with the African American man, on a personal level (they know each other from church), responded to this expensive suggestion by saying, “Well maybe I can sell you for it”. Although, this is not appropriate to say to a person at work, or anywhere, I am not going to focus on the statement itself, but more the reactions. The remaining workers, including myself, had that Did he REALLY just say that, look on their faces, and the supervisor, as in response to these expressions and the sudden and awkward silence said, “Oh, it’s ok. We talk like this all the time”. And the African American man responded and validated that idea by saying, “Yeah, he is the only one who could get away with talking like that.” My question is- who is at fault?
We have a few potential suspects at hand. We have the supervisor, the one who made the racist comment, we have the African American that was the recipient of the racist comment, we have the four witnesses who did not say anything at all (before or after) and then there was me, I am merely a witness too, but I happen to be a witness that is taking a class on racism in America and perhaps I should know better.
I had the book “The Heart of Whiteness” by Robert Jensen sitting on my desk at work on the day of the case study I mentioned earlier, as I was reading it on my downtime. Several co-workers walked by and saw “The Heart of Whiteness”, stand out to them, as those words have a much larger and bolder font that the rest of the title. All of the reactions to this book, most of which were in body language and facial expressions, seemed to be on par with perhaps them seeing Mein Kampf or maybe the Anarchist Cookbook. But nobody said anything in regard to this book. I later, asked a co-worker some thoughts about racism, to see if I can force the conversation a bit and everybody was very open and willing to speak about racism in very bold, big picture ideas- making it very clear that they do not agree with racism.
However, as Jensen’s explained with his example, his colleagues were very willing to speak about racism in abstraction and in the context of the bigger picture, but as soon as the question became more personal, real and direct- then silence. This behavior is quite similar to how my co-workers acted after the racist comment- and me, for that matter. We can all have positive and affirming conversations about racism, but when it is personal, direct and real- then it becomes hard and awkward and maybe it is because people feel guilty, but I will address the “why” in more depth later. So who would Jensen see at fault?
As Jensen explicitly and wonderfully explains is that there is no need to feel guilty, unless you have actually done something to feel guilty about. We do not need to feel guilty for the transgressions from past generations, as quite frankly, that would be overwhelming. And in the case of the witnesses in my case study, there is a look of guilt across their face, which is perhaps why they are so silent, or as Jensen describes it:
“Look how guilty I feel about racism and white privilege. I feel so bad it immobilizes me.” From that position, just talking about race and racism become too overwhelming, and people often use their own psychological angst to escape political responsibility. (Jensen, 2005)
Jensen believes that a better way to respond to racist ideas and thoughts is anger, pure and unbridled anger, from a deep unhinged place. Not malicious anger, as somebody who is validating a wounded ego or responding from a defense mechanism, but the anger a parent would exhibit who is defending their child from external harm- a true and passionate anger.
More righteous anger. Not self-righteousness, but righteous anger rooted in a commitment to justice, the kind of anger that helps shed our fears and let go of our unproductive guilt. The kind of anger that can help us find our place and our voice in social movements seeking justice. The kind of anger that comes from desperation when we realize how powerful an oppressive system is, how deep are the injuries it causes, how destructive it is to everyone’s lives including the privileged. (Jensen, 2005)
From this I would conclude that Jensen would condemn the witnesses as being at fault, as they did not rise up and get angry, they did not pound their fist in the ground and exert that this is not fair and this is not just. We can’t passively accept racist comments or jokes and laugh at them when we are in the privacy of our race, and then stand in awkward guilt when we are in mixed company– and then blame society.
Jensen opens up the book with a story about a friend of his who asks him if a joke is racist, and as Jensen knows “the answer is obvious: Of course the joke is racist (Jensen, 2005)”, but his friends proceeds nonetheless. Jensen’s test for him is pure and simple, would you tell that joke if you were in a room filled with the group it potentially offended, and if the answer is no, then yes, it is racist. So using that test I would have to assume that the supervisor would not have made that comment if he were only in the company of African Americans, which by Jensen’s standards, makes the comment racist and therefore wrong.
In regard to the recipient of the joke: Jensen does not discuss at all really anything in regard to the thoughts and ideas or positions of African Americans in modern times. I feel he does this, for starters, because it is not what the book is about, but also he does not feel it is in his duty to project views upon people, or pretend to understand that perspective with any certitude. However, from the sub-text I feel that Jensen would not approve of any behavior that passively and implicitly reinforced the notion that behavior like this is acceptable in society- as it does more harm than good.
I first want to clarify that the aforementioned ideas are only my opinion of how Jensen would perceive the case study I experienced, which was assessed at the best of my ability, based on his writing. I also want to note that my opinion of the case study has been constructed after the privilege of reading this wonderful book, to illustrate that I am merely standing on the shoulders of a great men, and for this, I am grateful.
Additionally, I was part of the case study and have the privilege of first person witness to help decipher the case study at hand. I am of the opinion that ideology is an illusion or a scapegoat that people use to rationalize fears and elevate their ego- for better or worse. I do not mean that institutional racism does not exist, or there are not larger ideas and concepts that large populations don’t gravitate towards, but I am merely rejecting the idea that it’s disseminated by some higher force, albeit: government, church, school or culture. Ideology is the product of every person and it is inside every person, so thinking that we can act in a way that is immoral, but socially acceptable (like telling a racist joke), is only reinforcing the immoral behavior and creating it. We are not the product of ideology; we are the cause of ideology.
From this I would conclude that all parties involved were at fault, in fact, equally at fault. You could argue that active racism (the joke teller) was the catalyst of the story and should hold more burden of guilt, or that the recipients of the joke should have been more active in defending themselves against the charged comment. These arguments are logical and reasonable, but that is not the way I see it. As I mentioned earlier, that we are the “cause of ideology”, but in addition to being the cause of ideology, we are also the effect of ideology- its self-imposed. We are the perpetuator and the victim. When the comment was made, the ideology of racism was reinforced and we all instantly became the effect of it, we were all the victims. And our silence and refusal to stand up to this perverse ideology also reinforced the ideology and made all of us victims, yet again. Complacency never changes anything.
I really wish that I could say that I actually stood up and said something and I only made myself a silent witness for the purpose of this case study or narrative continuity, but the fact is that I did not say anything. I guess I can rationalize my indifference by claiming I am introverted, I don’t like rocking the boat or that I was so overtaken with shock that I did not have time to react. But, as stated, those would be rationalizations, and truthfully speaking, are false. The only positive take away from this story, or lesson, is that this in depth analysis and the wonderful wisdom of Jensen has opened my eyes to be cognizant of everything I do, and my only goal is to ensure I never close my eyes again.
1. Jensen, R. (2005). The heart of whiteness: confronting race, racism, and white privilege. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.