We’ve all heard by now the violent speech allegedly from the mouth of Mel Gibson. You may have heard too that Gibson’s old friend Whoopie Goldberg defended him saying in all her dealings with him, he never exhibited any racist behaviors. Without defending Gibson’s speech, I want to comment one of the ways we think and talk about race; the ways our brains acquire racial information and our mouths reveal it.
As a suburban-raised white woman, I happened to grow up with personal connections to people of many races (now called ethnicities). One of my clearest memories is the moment I learned what the word “nigger” meant. As a young girl, it was, on my part, a completely innocent occurrence. We were playing a counting game: “Ennie meanie minny moe, Catch a nigger by the toe.” It was a common local variety of the rhyme, but when I used it with one of my black friends, he corrected me and told me that the word “nigger” was deeply violent. I was stunned. How could that word have been implanted in my head knowing, even at that young age, the racial divide between blacks and whites in America.
I discovered that all such knowledge can become implanted in our brains. The words, ideas, prejudices, stereotypes are all around us. We all know how to insult a black man, a Jew, a woman. If you think for a moment that any of us is immune to racist ideas or that we are innocent of racist thoughts, you are mistaken. We are all taught, as the song goes, to hate and fear. It is part of our collective unconscious. The trick is to recognize our internalized prejudices and act appropriately.
I think also that under the pressures of extreme stress, it is possible to lose control of ones otherwise inhibited racist knowledge. Extreme economic pressures or the raging of a drunk seem to be common stressors that expose internalized hate speech. I’m not sure this always means that these are racist people. I suspect a large part of it is an expression of fear and frustration using culturally established know-how for expressing those emotions. It may be the language of racism, misogyny, or anti-Semitism and when it is, it reveals the durability of these ideas in our unconscious.
Let me say once again that I am not excusing or justifying the proliferation of hate speech in America or of intentionally racist statements and practices on the rise here. What I want to stress is the degree to which we all acquire racist knowledge, the cultural context of that knowledge, and the way it sits in our unconscious waiting to reveal itself to us in unguarded moments.