Today’s news coverage has been dominated by the revelatory nature of the most recent Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s recordings with Donald Trump’s campaign and administration staff and a how the president has decided to respond to them (and for the record, when men call women dogs, the logic is really linear – female + dog = bitch. The president called a woman a bitch on his official communications platform. Let that sink in.).
But the other thread of this ongoing national political soap opera that has been equally dominant but also most concerning to me has been the obsession over whether or not there exists B-roll footage of Donald Trump referring to a past contestant, Kwame Jackson, on his old reality TV show, The Apprentice, as a “nigger.”
This rumor has persisted for years now, peaking in the mainstream media’s curiosity last in 2016, in the wake of the infamous Access Hollywood tape where the future president was caught boasting about how much fun committing sexual assault is to the juvenile laughter of Billy Bush. After that bombshell of an October surprise, rumors swirled that there was video evidence of Trump using the N-word on the set of The Apprentice, but nothing ever materialized.
In the time since, Donald Trump has been elected president and his administration has subsequently been arguably the most hostile – both in policy, personnel, and rhetoric – to communities of color and their interests since Woodrow Wilson. He has disparaged African-American women with a disturbing level of consistency, saw no moral difference between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, has no senior White House staff of color, called majority-black countries in Africa and the Caribbean “shitholes,” has separated overwhelmingly Latino migrant families, ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a punitive measure, has lamented aloud about why we don’t have more immigrants from places like Norway instead of the Dominican Republic, built his political identity on questioning the birth of America’s first black president, and has yet to fail to call prominent black folks he disagrees with dumb – including, I might remind you, said former President and constitutional law professor Barack Obama, whom Trump questioned openly about how he got into Columbia and Harvard Universities, respectively, suggesting that he only got where he got in life because of a racial quota system.
And yet, the conversation today on most news networks and politically-themed radio shows has been about how much of a game-changer the existence and reveal of a tape of the president uttering the word “nigger” would be for our collective national consciousness. Pundits have pontificated all day about how such a tape would finally be proof that the president is, in fact, a racist and that THAT moment would help to silence those who have insisted otherwise. And it’s that belief that is most telling about our society as it pertains to race and the continued misunderstanding – even among allies to causes of social justice and civil rights – of what racism is and what those of us who are fighting against it are fighting for.
In 2015, shortly after the Charleston Massacre but right before President Obama’s famous “Amazing Grace” eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pickney, Obama gave an interview to comedian and WTF podcast host Marc Maron that touched on a host of issues, but was most notable at the time for Obama’s use of the word “nigger” at one point in answering a question about racism and the state of race relations in America at the time:
“It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. Racism, we are not cured of. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to 300 years prior and so what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave, commemorating the march there, again is a notion that progress is real and we have to take hope from that progress.”
At the time, the quote was most provocative to conservatives, ignoring the substance of what he said and instead somehow taking offense to a black man using the N-word in an academic-style answer to a question about racism in America. For the record, I’ve never understood the congnitive dissonance of taking offense at a word that would never be applied to them on the basis that “Oooo, that’s a bad word and it offends black people” but then disregarding the offense many people of color have at their substantive policies that affect black people. But I digress…
The quote was taken out of context on conservative outlets because they either didn’t listen to the substance or didn’t want to. Either way, at the time, I thought his reflections were really powerful and poignant; what the president was saying was that we have for too long in this country only addressed fundamental societal issues at the surface level and eschewed the work necessary to addressing them at their root cause. When it comes to race and racism in America, too many people think the definition of a racist is someone who calls a black person a nigger, or refuses service to people of color, or makes an off-color remark at Thanksgiving. So when slavery ended, when Jim Crow ended, when the “Colored Only” signs came down, when you couldn’t say “nigger” in public anymore – that, for many Americans, was a job well done on the issue of race and now it was time to move on to the next thing. And what the president was saying was that while it is absolutely progress to have moved on from those extraordinarily heinous practices of our past, by no means were those the extent to which racism was defined and articulated in body politic.
Racism isn’t just the now almost-comically absurd expressions mentioned before. Those things were the most extreme and disgusting displays, but racism is deeper. Racism is about the treatment of people of a different race and treatment isn’t simply limited to how to talk about them. Racism can be demonstrated in perceptions, like presuming that black folks are less intelligent or more violent than other races. Racism can be demonstrated in actions, like taking those perceptions and allowing them to influence a split-second, life-or-death decision as we’ve seen on some of the disturbing police-involved encounters with African-Americans. It can be demonstrated in inequitable policy, when a government is either intentional about, too ignorant of, or willfully ignores how a blanket policy will impact specific communities of color that have unique and systemic conditions. It can be demonstrated by lowering the bar for people of color because one thinks they simply lack the capacity to be judged on the same merits, or “the bigotry of low expectations.” Racism isn’t defined by a word; it’s defined by a worldview and that worldview then impacts not only language, but action and interaction.
Would you consider your daughter’s new boyfriend – who may call her a “cunt” and tell her to shut her mouth when men are speaking – a feminist simply because he doesn’t hit her or threaten to kill her like the last guy? No, that’s insane. It’s all bad. One is worse, but worse in the context of really shitty all around. Apply that logic to racism.
I don’t care if there’s a tape of the president using the N-word. I really don’t. Because Donald Trump has shown us who he is and what his values are. He’s demonstrated time and time again that he doesn’t see people of color as equals nor worthy of the same kind of place in American society as white men. In the same way that women didn’t need to hear the Access Hollywood tape to know that Trump was a misogynist, people of color have a treasure trove of evidence that Donald Trump and his administration see diversity – specifically people of color – as a bug of America that he must fix, not a feature that makes this country great. But that realization shouldn’t be limited simply to the people who are affected by the bigotry; if I – and every other person of color – can easily recognize racism without needing to hear the speakeasy password, our allies need to be willing to recognize it and call it out for what it is when it’s happening.
If someone or some institution’s actions are treating me differently or causing me a qualitatively lesser experience as a result of the color of my skin, my allies shouldn’t withhold their voice and their advocacy on my behalf until they hear a magic word or trip the proverbial security wire. For those who have experienced prejudice, misogyny and bigotry, we know that by the time the word “nigger”, or “cunt,” or “wetback,” or any other absurdly bigoted phrase is used, the overwhelming majority of the damage has been done. The word is the sadistic cherry on top, but it most certainly didn’t make the sundae. If you really want to express outrage, express outrage at the economic disparities that exist in communities of color and the policies that refuse to address them; that’s racist. Get upset at the administration’s policies on immigration; those are racist. Call for the president’s resignation over his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; that’s racist.
But if you’re waiting to hear Trump say a specific word or phrase – and ignore the actions that make the mental image of him using it pretty easy to imagine – then you’re already in denial. And his words won’t change that either.
Like the late, great Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
I see you, 45.