Why CAN’T We Talk About Racism?

michael brown ferguson
Image courtesy of sfgate.com

Yesterday afternoon, 18-year-old (or 17, depending upon the source) Michael Brown was shot 10 times and killed in a Ferguson, MO apartment complex by Ferguson police. Witnesses say that the unarmed man was shot in two rounds of gunfire–some time after Brown reportedly shoplifted from a local store. The reason for his death has not been released.

But the stories go beyond the death of another unarmed black man. If you were to go solely on media coverage, the murder was not the focus of the story but the “outrage” of the “mob” angry at Brown’s death. A Google search of “ferguson police” yielded nine articles talking about the community reaction before a link that actually discussed what happened to the young man. The supposedly unruly “mob” dissipated into candle vigils.

Officers from 15 departments, totaling somewhere between 80-100 members, were dispatched sometime after the second round of gunfire. While the cops brought in their defenses, Brown’s body reportedly remained covered on the ground for four hours. St. Louis County Police spokesman Brian Schellman noted that the overflow was to “protect detectives and to ensure that they could reach the scene.”

A community as well as a nation wonder where that same protection is for millions of innocent African Americans. And we’ll continue to want for that safety, even if no one else wants to figure out how to attain it.

***

I often joke about the disingenuous cries of America being “post-racial”–the term seared in my brain after MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews used it to describe the nation after Barack Obama was nominated President of the United States in 2008. I can list the names of blacks unjustly killed, the fact that millions of people of color suffer from institutionalized and societal racism, and that whatever incremental improvements in civil rights made over the past 40+ years are slowly being rolled back as most Americans do nothing.

But we can’t talk about that. Because we are too uncomfortable and/or unwilling to have these conversations.

A good example of this discomfort lies in three words: social justice warriors. This term is used derisively by others (anti-social justice warriors?) to describe people (often people of color of both genders) on social media discussing issues of racism and sexism in the world. The word “justice,” what I know as determining just conduct or determining rightness and lawfulness, has been given a derogatory tinge, and those putting word stank on it are those that do not want to talk about race or gender issues. Basically, the message is that what is important to you is stupid.

Some won’t shut down talks of racism or sexism by using “social justice warrior” like how a racist uses the word “Jew,” but they’ll use other ways. Websites like Mother JonesRacialicious and The Root examine plights affecting people of color in worldwide events and pop culture through essays and articles, and while they can stray into hyperbolic shrieking (not unlike most other websites), they provide viewpoints and provoke discussions not often had in our multiculturally fearful society. To a vocal portion of the population, these posts and their surveys of race and sex are unnecessary explorations that should not be had. A common tactic is to deliberate the need to even bring up the issues, to contend the purpose of the discussions, to think why there is the need to drill down deep into the origins and explanations of why a behavior or action is racist and/or sexist, and to discredit the source and the conversation. It’s like having a conversation with a selfish child unwilling to talk about anything other than what they want.

This denial of minority views is not only self-defeating but toxic for three reasons:

  1. It vilifies those wanting to have the discussion. By questioning the need for talking about picking apart the items of discomfort, it establishes the protester in a dominant position, putting the other person on the defensive–to their disadvantage.
  2. It is essentially burying one’s head in the sand. It inhibits examination and understanding of topics outside one’s realm, essentially preventing one from learning about new experiences and subjects. If we applied such denial to science, we wouldn’t have any of our modern conveniences (smartphones, computers, medicine)–let alone evolution to the point of being able to communicate and function in the world.
  3. It prevents further conversation. By restraining communication that is not in one’s wheelhouse, the story remains the same. Unique viewpoints and stories are eschewed for what appeals to the majority, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of banality–which can be harmful when it comes to important cultural issues.

Their efforts to stymie discourse seem to hinge on topics often seen as progressive–AKA things not affecting them. Like most things in life, the group in power threatened by the rising influence of the minority find ways to belittle and obstruct the views and actions of the outnumbered. Think about how female geeks are accused by sexist guys as “fake,” hating on a popular music act, or any racial issue handled on Fox News: inflammatory rhetoric and a lack of facts are used to continue the narrative of the status quo to the detriment of diversity and inclusion.

***

So what did that long diatribe have to to with the death of Michael Brown? Plenty.

Thousands of thinkpieces will be written about Brown’s untimely and unfortunate passing. Many will take to Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler and YouTube to protest the Ferguson police, the current predicament of how African Americans are seen in America, and how racism is alive and well. Thousands more will decry those discussions and protesters as either “social justice warriors” or worse, wondering aloud why such things need to be talked about–let alone why we should suss out the intricacies (the roots) of the issues at large. And many will be straight-up racists, saying that Brown deserved to die, that blacks should stop forming “mobs” at the slightest predicament, that blacks are violent and probably had it coming.

That is why we NEED to talk about racism, sexism–hell, everything that is holding people back in our society from attaining any semblance of the inclusive society we often say that we are but act like we’re not. Bringing up serious stuff is hard (think about any relationship where one person wants “to have a talk”), but both parties are usually better off for it. And if that means a few uncomfortable conversations as to why Michael Brown’s death is a microcosm of the racism still present in America, then we will all benefit.

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One thought on “Why CAN’T We Talk About Racism?

  1. Racism never ends. Humans are weird. They will let you ‘fit’ if only they want you to fit. I am half white and half black. I know ‘me’ but I am still trying to ‘fit’ out there because they (whites, blacks) don’t know. I live in Australia where my father IS a white migrant but I am brown and regarded as black. My mum is from PNG. I was addressed in the shop by a white woman as “people like you”. So, in general, humans do not want to come out of their comfort zones to talk about racism or sexism. They are afraid to deal with what they are ignorant about. It is sad and heart-breaking in your country where we keep hearing about the countless attacks such as Brown’s. For me, I would say I generally ‘fit’ more into the black side of my heritage than my white heritage. I guess my colour is not white enough, who knows…I don’t give a shit about the colour of anyone’s skin. What is in their heart counts. I HOPE – that you all get the protection and respect you deserve.

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