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Who Gets to Decide What’s Racist?
by Sharmaine D. Barnes
August 31, 2018
Ron DeSantis—the Republican nominee for Florida Governor told Fox News "The last thing we need to do is monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state…" in reference to running against black Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum. DeSantis also referred to Gillum as “articulate” and said “he performed well…”
I posted my concerns about DeSantis’ comments on my personal social media page and below is a response that I received by a former co-worker who is a white male:
“Everything isn't inherently racist ..... sometimes a shovel is just a shovel and a cake is just a cake...... Political correctness is now just another form of controlling our lives and suppressing opposition. Trump does have a big mouth .... but we have him because of the suppression of all opposition to the liberal agenda in the name of political correctness. When they have no argument of facts they just smear someone long enough with fake claims of racism, sexism or whatever until some of it sticks..... You are living in a fantasy world where every single thing is racist. If you thought the world was flat that doesn't make it so. It is the same with your false argument that if blacks think something is racist it is.”
As a Marriage and Family Therapist I was trained to look at things in context so let’s examine why I along with many other African-Americans found DeSantis’ comments racist.
1. Historically, whites have held the belief that black people are intellectually inferior and less competent; therefore, when a white person comments about a black individual’s articulateness, they send the message-- whether intentional or not, that the person is part of a group they don’t expect to see taking on a leadership role or other position of authority. “Oh, you’re so articulate!” “You’re so well-spoken!” are words that I too have had directed at me many times throughout my personal and professional life. The person making the comment actually believes they are giving me a compliment— as if the outward manifestation of my education and command of the English language is somehow an anomaly. Sadly, the people who make such comments are most likely unaware that what they are saying is actually incredibly offensive.
2. Blacks have been viewed as not human or less than human, and likened to monkeys, apes and chimps. Rosanne Barr’s sitcom on ABC network was recently canceled because she tweeted the following: “if the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj” in reference to Valerie Jarrett, an African-American female who served in a cabinet position in President Barrack Obama’s administration. Moreover, a white West Virginia mayor was called out for posting the following comment to her Facebook page: “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an ape in heels” in reference to Michelle Obama—America’s first African-American first lady.
3. Last, DeSantis comment that Gillum “performed” well represents a long-held racist belief that the only thing blacks can excel at is performing and entertaining other people. Unless they are a professional athlete or entertainer (i.e., musician, singer, comedian, etc.) a comment like this about a black person may be viewed as dismissive and insulting.
As an African-American woman, I felt hurt and invalidated by my former co-worker’s dismissiveness of my thoughts and feelings. Derald Wing Sue--author of the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation and his colleagues define comments like those made by my former co-worker as “microinvalidations” which are comments intended to exclude or nullify the feelings or experiences of persons of color. Microinvalidations have a negative impact on the emotional and physical health of persons of color. They also have a negative impact on relationships.
As a mental health professional I believe that validating the lived experiences of others is extremely important and that no one should ever have their thoughts and feelings invalidated. Validation of another’s thoughts and feelings is a way we can communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. Moreover, validation is a way of communicating that the relationship is important and solid even when you disagree on issues.
Rather than getting bogged down in a debate about who gets to decide what's racist, my suggestion is for us all to show more empathy toward one another. What I mean by this is that if someone tells you they are offended by something you said or believe that what you said is racist--don't become so defensive by insisting you're not a racist. Instead, sincerely apologize and try to empathize with the person. That's not political correctness--it's validation.