Rebel is Rebecca Carroll's regular column on race and pop culture. You can hear Rebecca talk about these issues with guests on Wednesday mornings on WNYC, or participate in one of Rebel's monthly conversations in The Greene Space.
This week a white Seattle man, Steven Jay Watts, went on a public tirade, hurling racial slurs at a black man on the street. Last month in Midtown, a safety poster was found at a construction site that showed a black man with a noose around his neck. We’ve seen a steep increase in public displays of racism since President Trump took office, and at least one instance with swift and real consequences, when ABC cancelled Roseanne Barr’s show following her string of racist tweets.
The show’s cancellation marked the first instance of a high profile figure being fired for racism during the #MeToo Movement, when a spate of high-profile figures like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer have been forced out of their jobs for sexual assault. But what about the racist outbursts that occur outside of someone’s workplace? Watts was arrested for harassment and obstruction, but should he be eligible for a job? Would you hire a racist?
HearRebelon WNYC—Rebecca Carroll’s conversation with Vulture's Hunter Harris on whether you should hire a racist is below.
That is the question I asked a panel of critics and thought leaders at a live event I hosted this week at the Jerome L. Greene Space as part of the #RebelConvo series. Kara R. Brown, co-host of the podcast Keep It, writer and comedian Ziwe Fumudoh, and author and activist Mona Eltahawy joined me in a conversation to define the parameters of racism, and to try to establish what concrete repercussions might be. It’s important to define racism, because we can’t tear down racism if we can’t agree what it means. Most of us on the panel agreed that racism is the abuse of systemic power by white people to dehumanize people of color. But things start to get complicated when people, mostly white, co-opt the less blunt term “racial” and turn it into a euphemism for racism.
When terms like “racially charged” and “racially insensitive” are used to describe racist behavior, it’s gaslighting people of color, because they downplay or dismiss the damage racism causes. Kara Brown pointed out during the panel discussion that many white people view racism as “impolite” as opposed to the emotional and psychological terrorism that it is. And that, above all else, might be the reason we’ve not seen the same discipline enacted on racists that we’ve seen amid the #MeToo movement for offenders of sexual assault and harassment.
If Steven Jay Watts had grabbed a woman’s breasts in public rather than called a black man a n***er, he would have likely been arrested, because the legal system understands that as assault. Regular people would also likely see the incident as flagrant and dangerous, because many people think that only physical assault is violent. But the emotional and psychological trauma of racism is a form of violence, too, even when there is no physical contact made. Seeing a poster that shows a black man with a noose around his neck invokes the centuries of lynching and torture inflicted on black people during slavery. And it also sends a clear message to black Americans today that violence — and dehumanization — is ever present..
Racism, like sexual assault and harassment, is about the abuse of power in a system that is designed to favor and elevate white men. As we begin to dismantle the misogyny that’s been built into that system, so too must we dismantle the white supremacy that serves as the engine of racism. And we must do it with the same vigor and rage and focus we’ve applied to #MeToo. Before we ask ourselves, “Would you hire a racist?” we should first ask, “Would you hire a sexual predator?” And if the answer is no — then why are we still hiring racists?
Not only can you continue the conversation below in the comments section, but you can also participate by joining Rebecca's event at the The Greene Space on July 18.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, and a regular columnist at Shondaland in addition to Gothamist. She is the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely.