Casual Racism. Bill Maher’s comedic use of the term “house nigger” has inspired another round of hand-wringing about casual racism. Without defending the use of the term, I am also thinking online brush fires that ignite whenever someone uses racially sensitive language don’t really help us to think properly about racism.
Goals. If the goal is to reduce the impact of racism, we need to focus less on specific behaviors and more on outcome goals. In other words, what would a world in which racism less directly affected life outcomes look like? What is the best way to remove barriers and create openings for populations most directly and persistently harmed by racism?
A Brownian World. A less important, but still relevant, question is whether we really want to waste time and energy judging and censoring people’s random or casual spews. We live in a Brownian world, and this metaphor applies no less to the specific behaviors and speech acts of individual humans than it does to the collisions of various populations. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Rough Drafts. We are all constantly iterating and endlessly revising ourselves. We are all rough drafts. We say and do stuff that we later regret, and while it’s entirely appropriate to call bullshit when someone with a public profile messes up, the important result is not the punishment inflicted, but the lesson learned. The arc of one’s life matters far more than specific speech acts, which from a Brownian perspective, actually do mostly constitute “noise” and not “signal”.
Population Health. A “population health” perspective can more fully and cleanly account for and absorb both the external “motional” patterns of groups (and the internal “emotional” patterns of individuals within groups) that benefit from and are harmed by racism. Because it rests on solid research and technical foundations, this population health approach also offers robust tools for accelerating progress toward racial equity. And because it steers clear of some of the more hot-button and easily exploited and abused impacts of individual behaviors and speech acts, the population health approach creates opportunities for building and sustaining broad foundations of public and political support for the goals of racial equity.
Possession. Ice Cube showed up on Bill Maher’s Real Time and offered a clear-eyed perspective on the use of racially charged terms – “nigger” in particular, but presumably this applies to other terms of racial, ethinic, or sexual derogation (think “bitch”).
This is what Ice Cube said to Bill Maher. “I accept your apology. But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche. Because I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar—or they think they too familiar—or its guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two who made them some Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back. I know they’re tryin’ to get it back.”
Irony and Humor.