(above: screen capture from The Root TV, “ARIZ. HIGH SCHOOL GIRL APOLOGIZES AFTER HUMAN N-WORD COLLAGE”)
Class is in Session: Watch Whiteness Work
by: Alyx Goodwin
Last week a photo surfaced of a group of White high school teenage girls, each with a shirt and a letter so that when they stood together it spelled out “Best*You’ve*Ever*Seen*Class*Of*2016”. However, a second photo from this same lineup had a much wider reception on social media when six of those girls lined their shirts up to spell “NI**ER”. Their smiles and poses imply this was just a joke to them, as most “non-racist”-yet-actually-racist White people like to conclude after they have committed such ugly acts. Rachel Steigerwald, one of the teens involved, confirmed during the press conference the joking nature as well. “I know people have been offended from what I did,” Steigerwald said, “and I have come here to say that I am incredibly sorry. I have love for everyone in my heart. I am not a racist. I am asking everyone for forgiveness.” Watch Whiteness Work.
Here’s the problem: 99.9% of time, the person saying “I’m not racist” is still racist after they’ve issued that statement, if not more racist than before. Let’s break it down.
Common instances in which people say “I’m not racist:”
- After they’ve done something racist and gotten caught
- When they are preparing to say or have already said something racist
- When they need to deflect their current racist acts onto someone else
Unsurprisingly, this high school teen has committed all of the above, but let’s talk first about how this statement makes her more racist than she “intended to be.” The pattern looks like this: a person publicly claims that they are not racist, everyone goes home for the day, and apparently the problem is solved. There is rarely an intervention to get at the root of the action and little to no public discourse with this individual on racial equity. Rather than learning from their very intentional “mistakes,” these people walk away with minor repercussions, if any. Ignoring the history and misunderstanding the Black community is what made this group of girls think the n-word would be funny. When all white people have to do is state they aren’t racist, it’s an example of their white privilege again allowing them the room to ignore the experiences of Black Americans in both past and present tenses.
One key piece of knowledge that White Americans fail to unlock for themselves is that while distancing themselves from their role in structural inequalities makes sense (because who wants to be racist, amirite?), it also makes the problem worse. Their distance keeps structural racism intact, further oppressing the people they claim to love and call their friends, families, coworkers and partners. For decades now there has been a very surface level understanding of what racism is. Standard American K-12 education teaches students to believe that they are only racist if they call Black people the n-word and inflict physical harm on them because of their skin color. There has been a flaw in the conversations with young White people about other versions of racism such as housing and school segregation, a growing wealth gap, and inconsistencies in the criminal justice system.
The failure to discuss racism past the surface level–discrimination–of the word, people actually uphold and strengthen structural racism. White people are the majority in terms of political, economic, and social power. Whether they believe it or not, their attitudes towards communities of color make a difference in the socio-economic futures of these communities. In the case of these White teens it makes sense that they would say they “didn’t mean it that way,” because they haven’t been taught the full scope of their complicity in racist institutions and systems. But let me be clear, this does not excuse them or absolve them of their actions.
To top off this extravaganza of white privilege and ignorance, the high school’s Black Student Union came forward and announced their campaign to end using the n-word. Let me put this kindly: IT IS NOT BLACK PEOPLE’S FAULT THAT WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACIST. Black people are expected to dismantle the system of White Supremacy that they didn’t build or weren’t given the blueprint for. I understand the Black community at this high school wanting to step up and set a good example, but that wasn’t it. Black people use the n-word, and as tired as this argument gets, “nigga” and “nigger” are not the same, especially when someone white is using either. It wasn’t Black students’ use of the n-word with an -a that prompted these lily-white teens to intentionally spell out a word created to highlight a false sense of inferiority in Black people. As it was reported, this group of girls actually did it because “…[t]he photo was originally intended for the boyfriend of one of the girls, who is black.”
Let us all take part in a moment of silence, because I truly hope it was ashes to this schoolyard crush.
While these girls may scream and shout at the top of their lungs that they aren’t racist, when you take a look at the facts, they’re racist. Denial comes first before acceptance, and for too long White America has been in denial about disproportionate privileges that keep structural racism intact. The longer we allow these kinds of actions to go without punishment, the further we get from true liberation and equality of Black people in America.
Alyx Goodwin is a staff writer for the Afrikan Black Coalition, with her own blog coming soon. You can find more information on that plus her daily musing about race, culture, politics and whatever else floats through her timeline on Twitter @AGtheGiant