the r-word

A lot of White folks think that a Black person calling someone or something racist is an insult, an attack on a person’s character and a slur that is just as hurtful and bad as the n-word. (This idea was more or less one of the main points in Permanent Collection, a play by Thomas Gibbons that I saw recently. More about that below.) Others who wouldn’t go that far think it is a way to stop a conversation, to put a White person on the defensive and give them no way to reply. I think this way of interpreting the r-word is both sociologically interesting and a big problem in its own right.

Overreaction to the r-word is a big problem in our schools. Some Black children have learned that they can get a big reaction out of naive White teachers who are disciplining them by calling the teacher racist. In one typical scenario, the White teacher backs off on disciplining the child until the child’s behavior is so out of control that she can justify kicking the child out of the classroom; in another, the teacher turns the whole thing into a conversation about trying to get the child to see how much the teacher’s feelings have been hurt by the name-calling. And parent-teacher conferences similarly fall apart – the teacher complains about the child, the parent says the teacher is being racist, and the teacher withdraws into a sullen angry silence, thinking “You are just playing the race card to avoid taking responsibility for your child.” But it is not just the schools, it is everywhere. You point to the vast disparities in Black and White arrest and imprisonment rates and say “this is racist,” and public officials say: “I treat everyone the same regardless of race. How dare you insult my integrity.” Even when the reactions are less extreme, many Whites just shut down when the r-word comes into play.
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