CNN —I’m a bigot. I’m sexist. I’m a homophobe.
Yes, I’m one of those people. I haven’t been busted on social media. No one has caught me using a racial slur – no tearful Facebook apology from me with statements like, “I’m sorry you took that word in a way I didn’t mean.”So what prompts my confession? It’s this growing unease I’ve experienced over the way social media mobilizes to condemn people caught using slurs or acting in other intolerant ways. Like the New York meteorologist who was recently fired after he said “Martin Luther Coon” during a broadcast. What happened to the weatherman has become a ritual. He was tied to the social media version of a whipping post. Outrage followed. His apology – complete with furrowed brow, unshaved face and pained wife by his side – was too late. He was fired, despite his claim it was an accident. The news cycle moved on, cueing up the next person caught saying or doing something stupid. But here’s a blasphemous thought: What if this ritual of going after people like the weatherman actually reinforces racism and other “isms” instead of combating them? What if this hyper-focus on an individual’s wrong distracts us from directing our outrage at the most destructive forms of intolerance – the kind that’s baked so much into our everyday lives that we hardly notice them? We get outraged over a man for saying “Martin Luther Coon,” but then we go to back to our all-white communities with our all-white friends and lose no sleep over what we’re doing to brown kids at our Mexican border. It’s putting a Band Aid on a gaping wound; we sometimes prefer to tweet our outrage rather than deal with tougher questions, says Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” a book that examines why it’s difficult for many white Americans to talk about race. “We make these kind of superficial scapegoats that we can use to make ourselves feel better about racism, but we don’t address policies, practices or structures,” she says. “To the white people who are clutching their pearls, I really have to ask: How integrated is your life? Yeah, you voted for Obama twice, but do you have any black friends?”
Questioning our zero tolerance policy on intoleranceDon’t get me wrong. I get the outrage people feel when they hear a slur. I feel it too. I’ve been called the n-word. I’ve been racially profiled by police. I’ve had white co-workers mistake me more than once for a black colleague I look nothing like. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to just be white for a week, to move through a world where you’re not a minority and people don’t move out of the neighborhood when too many of “us” move in. Words matter. They sting. They can lead to all sorts of monstrosities. I remember my father telling me just before he died two weeks before his 92nd birthday: “I’ve been called n—– so much I thought it was my middle name.” So I get the zero tolerance policy on calling out intolerance on social media – no mercy for those who never showed us any mercy. But here’s why I think a zero tolerance policy on slurs will fail, just as it did with the war on drugs. None of us are innocent. But the way we talk about intolerance on social media doesn’t reflect that. Most of us have been taught that some people are more valuable than others. That message infiltrates our lives whether we know it or not. We are profoundly and routinely biased. Social science has proven this point over and over again. The author Jessica Nordell describes how bias infiltrates our lives in her essay in The Atlantic, “” “If you’re Latino, you’ll get less pain medication than a white patient. If you’re an elderly woman, you’ll receive fewer life-saving interventions than an elderly man. If you’re a man being evaluated for a job as a lab manager, you will be given more mentorship, judged as more capable, and offered a higher starting salary than if you were a woman. If you are an obese child, your teacher is more likely to assume you’re less intelligent than if you were slim.” The research shows something else – you can act in racist and sexist ways even if you consciously reject those behaviors. I recently learned that when I caught myself doing something that could have gone viral if it had been filmed.
Revelation at Lowe’sSome people go to Lowe’s to build. I went there and had my self-image torn down. I went to the home improvement store one Saturday morning to buy some equipment to paint my deck. I wanted to know the best paint and brushes to use but didn’t know where to start. I walked up to a counter to ask for help. Two men stood behind the counter, a shaggy-haired white man busy on the phone and a young black man with a military bearing who was alone, not attending to any customers. I didn’t ask the black guy for help, though he was free. It wasn’t until I got home and started staining my deck that it hit me:
“Damn,” I thought. “I just racially profiled a black man – and I’m black!”I was totally unaware what was happening when I decided to ignore the black guy. It was unintentional. My decision was made in a millisecond. But how was my attitude any different than that of the white Canadian woman who was caught on video last year demanding to see a white doctor because she didn’t want a “brown” one? The experience didn’t just humble me, it scared me. If I – someone who is black and has read about race and bias for years – could act like this, what was possible for others who never thought much about these issues? “We all absorb this stuff,” says DiAngelo. “Sometimes the thoughts that pass across my mind are shocking to me. I don’t think I can be free of it.”