When I first encountered blatant racism as a child in elementary school, my first reaction was to cry. This didn’t win me any friends or empathy. In fact, it simply garnered more teasing and bullying. I was already a bookish kid who dressed funny and wasn’t afraid to use his adult vocabulary. I was also the only black child in my grade at the time. When I was physically threatened and called “fag”, I learned that I could literally outrun everyone in the school. This was my golden ticket out from under the thumb of the school bullies for that transgression. Still, I couldn’t outrun the racism.
There was a turning point for me in those early years. I recognized that being unhappy wasn’t working for me so rather than get sad, I tried on anger. I learned that if I couldn’t outrun the racism, I could shout it down. At the very least, I could make it public. I remember distinctly calling it out once and bringing it to the teacher’s attention. But when we were brought before the teacher, the other child said four words that were like a magic code:
“I was just kidding”
This satisfied the teacher that this was just schoolyard taunting and she sent us away.
I will never forget how that white teacher’s ignorance enabled my harm and left me totally vulnerable and unresolved. The teacher’s solution to the problem in the moment was simple: boys will be boys…harmless schoolyard play. But it was not that simple.
It is still not that simple. This behavior is on full display between adults in our government. This week, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) didn’t just mispronounce Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Ca.) name, he was publicly mocking her for it. It was childish, pathetic, racist and a deliberate tool of otherization. And it was casual…like something he would do or say anywhere. When his campaign defended him by saying “Senator Perdue simply mispronounced Senator Harris’ name, and he didn’t mean anything by it. He was making an argument against the radical socialist agenda…” they all but said, “he was just kidding.” And of course, he was not ( Watch video clip)
This is the oldest trick of the bigot, act like your bigotry isn’t really a thing. I suppose that this is easy to do if you don’t think that your racism is really a thing. If, as I suppose is the case with Sen. Perdue, you’ve never thought about yourself in the context of racism or interrogated your behaviors or beliefs to understand where you might actually be wrong or backward or racist.
But then, he’s enabled by the greatest bigot kidder of them all…the President of the United States. The president was just kidding when he disparaged women and joked about molesting them; he was just kidding when he encouraged Russia; he was just kidding when he mocked a disabled journalist; he was just kidding about the kids in cages, the white supremacists, the pre-existing conditions, liberating Michigan and Virginia…
Basically, he’s just been kidding for four years.
But this kind of kidding does real and lasting harm and lands in the ears and hearts of people who aren’t kidding who are armed and dangerous; consider the threats to both Michigan and Virginia’s governors. Making a joke of someone’s name paints them as a perpetual outsider, a non-belonger…a foreigner. Sen. Perdue’s message is loud and clear: Sen. Harris is just another n**ger like Obama who doesn’t belong. According to him, she is going to continue to destroy our (read white people’s) country and you should all be afraid of her.
Just kidding? Like hell.
Sen. Perdue and every politician who publicly mocks another based on their heritage, ability, gender, sexual orientation or racial identity should have their pay suspended indefinitely until they can be voted out of office. After all we (including every Kamala and Keisha and LaTonya) are paying their salaries and none of us want to pay for stupid bigots.
I am not kidding.