Thinking About Racist Speech

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.

Sunday with family and friends. I'm the one in the middle with the black and white bonnet.

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.

My current family met in Chicago last fall.

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One Response to Thinking About Racist Speech

  1. Zari says:

    Good post Renee-

    The reason why Jews and Blacks support Mel Gibson is because he is very supportive of minorities in his movies. Remember, Danny Glover couldn’t have done all of his philanthropic work without the Lethal Weapon franchises and Bill Duke’s directorial break for the epic movie Deep Cover came after he co-stared with Gibson in Payback. One may argue that these Black men did it on their own, but we know that without the support of White leading men, many Black actors do not get the breaks that they deserve.

    At least Gibson doesn’t pretend to be a white liberal who punishes Blacks when they don’t act how they want them to. These types of folks one can find running around Santa Cruz en masse. They would NEVER say the words, but believe me, they will display the ACTIONS. They embody racist behavior and are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. In other words, Gibson is not PC, but he is not a player hater.

    I could go on and on about this, but to end my Stream of Consciousness:
    As for his personal matters, that woman who is spreading the beef did not care about Gibson’s morals when he divorced the mother of six of his children after umpteen years of marriage to hook up with her. I don’t know what their personal life is like, i’m jus’ sayin’…

    Thank you Renee for having the courage to open dialogue about race and the intricacies of our words v. actions.

    In the Spirit,


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