White privilege, the Oklahoma frat video, and why racism isn’t just a ‘joke’

BY ANDREW POLLOM

I have a specific memory of being on my school bus. I was in the back seats with my normal friends. I did not go to school with them all, but the bus picked us up from various schools. We had formed a friendship by sitting in the back of the bus and complaining about school or arguing about sports; we were trying to be grown-up or what we thought it meant. Almost all of us in the bus were white but not all of us. At least one African-American boy regularly sat in the back of the bus with us and joined in arguing which baseball team was better or complained about his math teacher.

One day, an older boy in the back began to tell us jokes. I recognize now that they were racist jokes, ones that emphasized or made light of stereotypes or prejudice. At that time, I knew they were wrong but did not have knowledge enough to argue why they were wrong. I do remember thinking: Why are these funny? 

The humor in them didn’t make any sense to me, but all the other kids around me, the cool kids, were laughing and so that seemed like what I should also be doing. I was in fourth grade at the time. I recall some Polish jokes, a joke where the punchline was about starving people in Ethiopia, and then there was a joke that I remember very vividly, in the delivery, used the “N-word.” The punch line was something about a “N-word” angel being called a bat. 

I do remember thinking: Why are these funny? 

That particular day, the African-American boy was sitting across the bus isle from me. I was so engaged trying to look cool and being grown up, that I actually forgot he was next to me. I remember very vividly not laughing at that joke. I had been educated by my mother on the “N-word” and knew that it was not a word that anyone should be using. Everyone else around me laughed, and I remember smiling, as though I found it funny.

It was just a joke, but who was it harming?

I turned around in my seat and sat down. I immediately remembered, the African-American boy sitting across the isle in the chair next to me. I looked over at him. It is difficult for me to explain the look on his face.

To this day, because I’ve never been in that position as a white man; I do not know if it is an emotion to which I can put feelings or words, but I understand that he was hurt deeply by the “joke.” Some other boys noticed it to. From the behind one boy said, “Sorry man, I forgot you were there.”

Someone else chimed in, “It was just a joke. We didn’t mean anything by it.”

It was the last time that I recall seeing that kid on our bus.

What is it about being white?

There is something about being socialized, identifiable as a white person, in the white majority culture, that seems to teach us that it’s OK to say racist things as long as the subject of our prejudice and racism is not in earshot or as long as the words are meant to be a joke.

Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of Sociology at Duke University, has researched and wrote several times about white use of coded language and on the white phenomenon of Racism without Racists. The central message in the curriculum of white upbringing is:

  • If it does not sound racist, or someone is not around to hear us being racist, then racism does not exist and I cannot be labeled as a racist. 
  • The words mean nothing really if they don’t mean to be racist. 

It is a lesson not always told to us in those specific terms. It is embedded in our socialization. It is imbedded in our identity of whiteness.

Equally embedded is the idea that other whites have no right to call out, confront, or challenge the racism that we encounter from other whites. That is assuming that we even have the ability to recognize it. Our own racism is often invisible to us because it is so engrained in our socialization and our privilege. We do not view it as racism because it’s meant to be a joke. 

Bell Hooks pointed out when a white person is confronted with their privilege, they often get mad and defensive. That is because the concepts of whiteness and racial privilege are engrained so deeply into our white identity and into the fabric of American ideals and culture. To challenge me on racism (or suggest I have privilege, prejudice, or am racist) is to challenge my very identity as an American. 

  • It turns the table of the conversation to discuss that we did not earn all that we have received. 
  • It suggests the hard work I put into my success is in fact not the sole reason I have success. 
  • It suggests I am un-American. It places us on the same plane as the “others.”
  • It suggests to us that maybe this “wasn’t just a harmless joke” and that a simple apology is not going to make things better. 

Without delving too deeply into the racist incident recently recorded at the University of Oklahoma, we can see the actions and fallout of the video are perfect examples of what our majority, white, privileged socialization teaches us regarding racism. Among other whites, it’s a joke. It’s safe. If you encounter it as a white person and you don’t agree, it’s best to smile and be silent. Everything about what we were taught is wrong. 

We need a re-education

What happened in the video is not an uncommon phenomenon where you have a majority of white people in mass in the U.S. Racism happens in our places of business, in politics, in church, in school classrooms, fraternity and sorority houses, in locker rooms, in our neighborhoods, shops, and homes.

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The video simply acted as a mirror for white people, myself included. The racism of frat boys placed in a different perspective the things that are hidden, kept out of public, and the results show us where everything is wrong with our privileged lens education about racism—what it is, where it is, and how it is. 

The video simply acted as a mirror for white people, myself included.

We need to examine the language we use to speak about racism and the unwritten codes that exist in relationship to race. We should remember to recognize these acts as racist and be horrified by seeing them, acknowledging that these same racist acts and words were not the first time we’ve seen or heard them. 

We might have even said these words ourselves, but that time, it was just a joke.

This article was originally featured on the Good Men Project and reposted with permission.

Photo via dhendrix73/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)