March 16, 2014
Is it Racism? Is it Ignorance? How to Handle Both!
Recently, my husband and I were eating in a restaurant in the heart of Brussels. Service was surprisingly good. Food was great. Atmosphere was calm and quiet. As we finished our bottle of Bordeaux, our conversation became increasingly intense as we discussed the communist party’s role in the civil rights movement in the first half of the 20th century. Yes, this is the kind of conversation that we hold on Friday nights! We noticed that people were occasionally entering the restaurant in colorful costumes. It is Carnival so it wasn’t surprising—indeed, it was refreshing—to see the different costumes, colors, and excited people bouncing into the restaurant laughing and smiling. Then it happened.
Three men came into the restaurant with their faces painted black and lips painted white. Our “discussion” came to a screeching halt as we watched them bounce into the restaurant smiling and laughing like the others. But this time, it wasn’t exciting; it was revolting. And it was made even more so since they acted as if they were so clever and funny.
I wish that I had taken a picture of them to show that they were neither clever nor funny.
I watched them go from table to table talking to people and showing off their costumes and face paint. Then they stopped at our table. To their credit, they looked embarrassed and sheepishly backed away, wishing us a nice stay in Brussels. (I must add that my husband did order them away from our table; this made me love him more than ever!) After a few minutes, the “painted-faced” men left the restaurant and my husband and I resumed our discussion.
The following morning, I thought about the experience with the “painted-faced” men. They did not seem like “bad” people but why would they feel that it is appropriate, perhaps even acceptable, for people to paint their faces black and bounce around like Tigger the Tiger on Red Bull?
Were they racists? Or were they just ignorant?
Could their behavior be considered racism? Or did their behavior represent ignorance of the historically derogatory portrayals of Black people?
It is an age-old question that rarely finds a definitive answer. At least, no answer arises that applies to every situation.
While this question might seem a bit esoteric, it is a situation that many African Americans (or many Black people from around the world) experience on a regular basis: a dubious comment, a tactless question or opinion, an inconsiderate joke, or a careless decision to wear a costume that portrays a group of people in an offensive way.
As I think about these common occurrences, I begin to realize that racism is more than these situations. It is bigger and more invidious than these annoyances. Racism is more systematic and deeper than comments, jokes, or costumes. But racism could be the underlying basis for these behaviors–that is why we should not dismiss these questionable behaviors, but take them seriously.
With racism as a foundation, seemingly “innocent” behavior can lead to actions that are not-so innocent. Remember George Zimmerman’s actions toward Trayvon Martin. Or, more recently, Michael Dunn’s actions toward four African American teenagers sitting in their car. Or the Supreme Court actions in striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act. These were not innocent actions.
Are these actions any different than the actions by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam who lynched Emmett Till in 1955? Or the rape accusations of two white women in 1931 against nine Black youths in Scottsboro, Alabama? Or the Supreme Court decision in 1857, which held that the slave, Dred Scott, did not have the right to sue for his freedom?
Today’s actions are not new. They have a history. Whether they are ignorance or racism, they can be dangerous and should not be ignored.
How to handle “Ignorant” Behavior
In the restaurant, we (rather, my husband) “handled” the situation by telling the miscreants to go away. And I was proud that he did so. But we could have handled it more directly. Hindsight is a powerful “mental corrector” but we missed that moment to take the correct action.
Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda says that, when we see injustice or other “bad” behavior, that we should express our disapproval or outrage. He states,
When stones are cast at good people, when the rights of honest, hard-working people are trampled, we should be angry! When anyone anywhere around the world discriminates against another, we should burn with indignation! Raise your voices!
Yes, these are the words of a Buddhist teacher in 2013!
We should never sit silently in the face of injustice, racism, ignorant behavior, or other wrongdoing. That it belittles everyone involved. The wrongdoer has lost an opportunity to learn, grow, and change. The “victim” has also lost because he or she has witnessed and accepted the “unacceptable.”
- Speak up.
- Stand up.
- Sit in.
But never dismiss it as simple ignorance.
Because ignorance is neither simple nor innocent.
Remembering the incident of the “painted faced” men in the restaurant, I missed the opportunity to change them and myself. I hope that I won’t make that same mistake again. I wish the same for them. Time will tell.
But I will not forget the words of Rev. Martin Luther King that the tragedy is “not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people.”
Never be silent.