Some tardy thoughts on accusations of racism in the backlash to Girls

This may be late in the game and no longer topical, but whatever; my timing, in life, love, poker, and social commentary, has always been bad. After wading through all the backlash against the show Girls and all the backlash against all the backlash against the show Girls, I’ve had my fill. Mixed metaphors aside, I’ve somewhat processed my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve read some pieces I found highly nuanced and insightful and some I found rather trite. While racism still exists today in very clear and real and overt ways, I’m a little bothered about how easily charges of racism are levied these days, especially on the internet, which I think amounts to a modern-day McCarthyism. Accusing someone of racism (or sexism, homophobia, etc.) immediately gives the accuser the moral high ground and effectively ends the possibility of reasonable discourse, and these issues can’t be addressed unless we can talk about them. Admittedly, we haven’t been very good at this as a society, but all the more reason to try. And ultimately, as members of a racist society, we have to address racism self-reflectively first and foremost.

I dug up a blog post I wrote on this very topic maybe five years ago, when I was working at a public school in Crown Heights. Those were some tough years, and I was not in the most healthy of emotional spaces, but disclaimers aside, I’m reposting it (full disclosure: slightly revised) below.

And for what it’s worth, I find Girls to be a clever, funny, and insightful show.

As a source of negativity in the teachers’ lounge (I’ve been outted by school administration, my mole tells me), I’m disappointed to find out that I’ve missed out on some serious drama there. Within the last two days, there have been THREE instances of teacher-on-teacher accusations of racism. On two separate occasions, one teacher has accused another of being racist, and, earlier today, a teacher from one of the other schools in our building storms into our teachers’ lounge and accuses one of the teachers there of racism.

To top it off, he casts a disparaging look around the teachers’ lounge and says, “Wow, it really IS bad up here.”

(Which is true. Our windowless teachers’ lounge has been affectionately dubbed the Cave, the Den of Negativity, Where Teachers Go To Die, Nairnia. The lights die without warning, a phantom fan turns on and off randomly, and a family of mice has built a nest in one corner. Like cowboys shaking boots for scorpions, caffeine junkies check the coffee maker for roaches before getting their fix.)

So. Drama in the workplace. A turf war between teachers. Maybe I won’t take a sick-day tomorrow.

Tangentially, I’ve been considering terms like “racist” and “sexist” and “homophobe” lately. First, there was that Grey’s Anatomy actor calling one of his costars “a faggot.” Then there was Rosie O’Donnell talking in fake Chinese on national TV. On a daily basis, I hear comments from my students like, “You just doin’ that cuz I’m black!”

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I’d like to say that accusing someone of racism is the new McCarthyism, a modern-day witch-hunt.

Now don’t get me wrong. I applauded when those radio hosts lost their jobs, the ones who mocked the Asians suffering from the tsunami in Thailand. I frowned when Rosie O’Donnell made racist jokes and cringed when her audience responded with laughter. I myself am stranger to neither racism nor prejudice. I’ve been welcomed to the country where I grew up. I’ve been mistaken for a Chinese food delivery guy in the building where I teach. I’ve heard ching-chong chants in Williamsburg on a Saturday night.

Racism exists.

But the truth is, we can’t legislate thought. Free speech is already under attack. Now we’re going after thought? I’m human; thoughts dance into my mind, often uninvited. I have evil thoughts, vile thoughts, repugnant thoughts, and even racist thoughts–sometimes from interactions with the students I’m to help. (Yes, shocking.) And you know what? That’s fine, that’s my right, as long as I keep them locked away in the Pandora’s Box of my mind. Thought–even evil, heinous thought–is not a crime.

But to hear the anger accompanying these accusations, it’s as if to be racist or sexist or homophobic were on par with, say, child-molestation or mass murdering. They’re not. These are dangerous labels. People lose their jobs over them. But really, what do these accusations accomplish? Do they curb racist thought? Do they erase hateful prejudices?

What they do is they give me, the accuser, indignation and strips you of any defense or moral ground. I can be angry with you because I deem you racist. I can despise you because I label you sexist. I judge you because of your views on a certain group of people. I hate you because of your hatred of others.

Am I not now a racist-ist?

My point is, labeling and judging people based on their thoughts and opinions is to sell them short and is just as wrong as labeling and judging people based on their race or their gender or their sexual orientation or their religious affiliation. To do so is to assume that people can’t and don’t outgrow rash opinions and childish prejudices.

Hate comes from fear, and fear from ignorance. Labels do nothing to temper hate, to quell fear, to address ignorance. Change can only come from interactions that shatter preconceptions. And people, no matter how vile, can and do change.

I have to believe that. After all, if people can’t change, then what am I doing teaching? And what hope do I have for my own racism?


3 Comments on “Some tardy thoughts on accusations of racism in the backlash to Girls”

  1. Greg Gerke says:

    I would like to see Girls. There are 3 episodes out? Send me the link – if there is one.

    Without seeing anything but a clip, what I think it has going for it is that the women do not look like actresses.

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