There Are No Casual Racists

You wouldn't think a symbol or a collection of words and phrases would have so much power. You would think that after all these years, so many generations of use that they would wear off, unable to produce any level of potent emotion or perhaps wear down- like an old, tired, floppy coat kept around only because you're too lazy to throw it out. It just always amazes me that hatred so effectively disrupts the harmony of the soul. 

Lately, I have had a couple encounters with symbols of racial hatred. And each time, they hurt like hell. The most recent made its rounds on social media last night- "white power" and swastikas written into the snow on the windows of parked cars on our campus. Here's the honest truth, yall. When I first saw the pictures pop up I wondered to myself, "Is that my car?" I wondered if my own students had decided to find my car and intentionally inflict pain for being at Calvin, for speaking about racial justice, or just for being black and easily accessible. It wasnt my car. No one's car in particular was targeted. But that was my first thought. 

And my students, as they learned of this, had a range of emotions. Anger. Disappointment. Frustration. Fear. Exhaustion. Rage. Most of them cycled through all these emotions at different points during the day. I am proud of many of them for being resilient, creative, present, honest. I am so proud, but I cannot protect. I cannot protect them, nor can I protect myself. 

And thats why I have been thinking for the last couple weeks about this thing called a "casual racist". You know that uncle who is always telling "those" jokes? You know the sister who is always using coded language to talk about "those" people. Or how about the folks at church who pull up with a confederate flag on their truck because free speech. And of course the "silly" kids who tag homes and cars and streets with messages that disrupt all that was peaceful about your day. As I was writing about supporting students last week, I stumbled on something that I only fully grappled with this week: There is no such thing as casual racism because the only thing standing between a causal racist and an infamous one, is a dead body. 

It was one thing to write that when discussing other schools. It is another to internalize the realities of that statement as I look into the eyes of the students I adore. 

The weight of this is the weight of white supremacist ideology. White supremacy is and always has been for the subjugation of black bodies even unto death. And any "casual" nurturing of that ideology easily grows into violence that a body like mine will have to endure. That is why hateful rhetoric remains so violent to the soul. Because white supremacy is a promise of violence to the body.  

But we have been convinced that there is a difference. That there is a casual racist and true racist. That there is a passive racist and a violent racist. That there is a regular racist and an extreme racist. We want so much to believe that racist ideology can remain in our hearts without turning folks into monsters. It is a convenient understanding of racism for those whose bodies are never targets. 

White supremacy grows. It encompasses as much space as we are willing to give it. It is all-consuming by design. It is never satisfied. It chases after power in its conception: the power over the hearts and minds of slave owner, enslaved and all those who were disinterested enough to let slavery thrive. And this desire for power, for control over the will, control over the body has been witnessed again and again and again and again in our present day.  We are about to watch it once more with the release of the video of #LaquanMcDonald. Time and again we are watching the snap decision, the snap inclination to brutally overpower black bodies. We saw it with Dylann Roof- a desire that he just couldn't squelch despite the hospitality he received. We watched it in how the resource officer responded to a black girl sitting in her desk. We watched it when an officer wrapped his arms around the throat of Eric Garner. We watched it as an officer callously shot Walter Scott in the back. We heard about it in the case of Jordan Davis who died because of "loud rap music". Loud rap music, yall. That was all it took to make a man take out his gun and shoot at a car of teenagers. All of these cases (and there are so many more) are just a handful of cases that put on display the shallow cause and required overreaction that unchecked white supremacy demands in the treatment of black bodies.  

So those of us who are committed to racial justice, can no longer afford to think of racism in categories- the painful and the painless. Those categories aren't real and we cant endorse them. We must name the depths to which white supremacy reaches. We must take every act, every sound bite, every joke, every message written in the snow seriously. We must. 

Austin Brown