The summer before my senior year of high school I was dating two girls, one of whom was the star of the volleyball team and half Chinese. She had a suped-up late-nineties Honda Civic, with a turbocharger, lights in the footwells and all that. Before me she had been seeing one of my teammates on the cross country, a tall, quiet white kid, and everybody who knew her was surprised when they saw us together. I came from the other side of the tracks, literally, and by then I already had a reputation, even at neighboring high schools.
We were headed to Woodfield Mall one day, or actually to the swanky outdoor shopping area next door called the Streets of Woodfield, where they had a Jamba Juice. Now, this girl had a bit of a death wish (as I found out later), and having a suped-up Civic, she would speed and dart in and out between cars. So she was racing for a parking spot as usual and cut off this white-haired little lady in an old-lady car.
Neither of us thought much of it. But as we got out of the car and started strolling toward the stores, the old lady came up to my girlfriend and, just as the lady was about to tell her off, she spotted me, put one and one together, and a sneer oozed across her wrinkled mouth.
“Porch monkey,” was all she said, just loud enough for me to hear it.
I half laughed, not because being called a porch monkey is something to laugh at; I just never expected to be called one, not in real life, and especially not on such a lovely summer day, in the year 2002. I was also able to laugh it off because the old lady was frail and on her way out, while I was young and in the prime of youth, and could easily break her hip, if need be. Plus, old people tend to say the darnedest things, no matter what color they are, and as a young person I’d learned to shrug off the ignorant things old people said from time to time.
Nothing more happened. The old lady went her racist way, and my girlfriend and I went and got smoothies.
About four or five years after that, my friends and I were coming out of a bar, hammered. This was outside the old O Lounge in Lakeview, around two in the morning. We were headed for the car, at a parking garage right around the corner. My vision was blurry, and none of us were saying much, just focused on walking. I could see the parking lot up ahead on the left, on the same side of the street that we were walking.
Right when we reached the garage, I heard a bunch of yelling from across the street, as if someone were trying to get our attention. I turned my head and spotted this big white frat boy, clearly drunker than we were, swaying on his feet, his face all red and puffy, yelling and pointing at us, at me it seemed.
Then I heard him say the word “nigger.”
Being drunk and tired as I was, I immediately made a beeline straight for the guy. We met in the middle of the street, at which point he hip-tossed me to the cold hard asphalt. My friends came to my rescue, and to this day I’m still not sure what exactly happened, but somehow or another, the Frat Boy managed to get his cheek punctured by a key. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital, while my friends and I, all batoned and pepper-sprayed, rode in a paddy wagon to the Belmont police station, where we slept off all the booze in our blood.
They charged me with aggravated battery, but luckily Frat Boy never showed up in court and the judge threw the case out in five seconds.
I met with racists before these two instances, of course, and I’ve met with them since, but these two cases stand out. In each one, I dealt with the racist in a wrong way.
By smiling at the old lady and laughing off her “porch monkey” remark, I gave her the false impression that I was someone who enjoyed being called a porch monkey — I don’t, at least not beyond the absurdity and daring of it — or that I enjoyed racist slurs slung at me in general. Even worse, I left her with the belief that she could go around calling people porch monkeys or who knows what else, and not meet with any resistance whatsoever, just a smile and a chuckle. I failed to help correct her social behavior, which is what fellow citizens must do for one another — we must help socialize each other.
The law gives a few basic outlines on how each citizen is meant to behave, but there are so many ways of speaking to and treating other people in a society that are left to the citizens to work out amongst themselves. Helping other citizens become better citizens is part of what being a good citizen is about, and in that, I failed this old lady, as well as the other people who might have had to deal with her racism afterward due to my failure to, as the young folks say, “check her.”
But the way I checked the racist frat boy (or tried to) wasn’t right either. Even if I had beaten him down there in the street, leaving him with nothing more serious than bruises and sore bones the next day, what good would that have done? Would the beatdown have cured him of his racism?
I ask the question because, looking around these days, a lot of people seem to believe the proper way to deal with racists is by shouting and, if that doesn’t work, beating them down — with the hope being that, at the very least, the racist person will think twice before saying or doing anything racist in the future. The goal here is to make people afraid to be racist, or to have their racism discovered by someone who might shout or beat them down for it.
But I’ve always believed that might never makes right. Violence — and shouting is a form of violence — never won any argument. Was the Union right merely because it won the Civil War, or were the Nazis wrong merely because they lost World War II?
Or say you and I disagree on some issue — you think I’m a porch monkey, for example. Now, if I shouted you into silence, or beat you into submission, would I win the argument? Would I have convinced you that you were wrong, that I’m not a porch monkey; or would you simply learn to keep your opinions to yourself?
Maybe that’s the immediate goal: to get racists to keep their racism to themselves. But we should be trying to get rid of those racists beliefs full stop, not just have them buried out of fear.
Fear never made anyone change his beliefs, merely mask them. There are stories of Jews in Spain who pretended to convert to Christianity to avoid Torquemada and the Inquisition, observing Shabbat in secret; and Oskar Schindler famously pretended to be a Nazi while saving over 1,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In both cases, violence, the threat of it, did nothing to change people’s minds.
Anybody raised by a parent or two who believed in corporal punishment, already understands the futility of violence. Beatings don’t teach a boy why he should follow his parents’ rules, only that he should avoid getting caught breaking them. My little brother caught way more hell from our dad than I did, and yet, instead of learning to come home at a reasonable hour and do his homework, all my brother learned was to hate the man who beat him. In fact, seeing my brother beat like that taught me the same thing, and to hate anyone who uses violence as a teaching tool.
Violence only teaches more violence, and hate. Hate itself is a form of violence — it is the mental seed of violence, in fact. First you have to hate before you can do violence. If you truly love something, doing violence against it is impossible — unless you really do love the thing but hate yourself, and therefore want to sabotage yourself, and ruin the good in your life.
Shouting or beating down a racist only forces him or her to bury their racism and, if anything, makes them hate and want to do violence all the more. That frat boy called me a nigger and, ignorantly, I answered him, even though I wasn’t a nigger then or now or ever. There’s no such thing as a nigger. But Frat Boy still doesn’t know that; all he knows is that he called some brown guy a nigger and got stabbed in the cheek for it. So, if anything, he still believes in niggers, and now hates them even more.
Thus, fear — the fear of violence — is not the cure for racism. The cure for racism, I believe, is shame.
Instilling shame in a racist is much more effective than instilling fear in him. I’m not talking about public shame, either. The shame I mean is the private, personal, more powerful kind; the shame no one else knows exists except the person who feels it. Public shame evaporates over time, but private shame sticks to the soul and never lets the person feeling it be truly happy. You can make racists afraid to express their racism, but if you want to change them for good, make them ashamed of their racist beliefs.
What you have to do is either make the racist respect you, the object of their hatred, or make them ashamed of their behavior and way of thinking. Those two things are related: If he respects you, then he will feel ashamed for treating you how he did; if he is ashamed for treating you the way he did, then he will respect you for not treating him how he treated you. Shouting down a racist who is shouting racist things at you, while cathartic, only places you two on equal footing, and he goes away thinking nothing more than that he got into a shouting match with some brown person. The goal should be to make the racist ashamed of having behaved the way he did; and to do that, you the brown person must appear better than him by comparison.
Lest anyone say I’m advocating respectability politics, save it. It isn’t important to simply look or act a certain way, to wear baggy jeans or not, wear dreadlocks or bandanas or not. You have to be respectable, and not merely worthy of respect, but demanding it by your demeanor, by the way you carry yourself.
People regularly confuse fear for respect, which is why violence is also used in hopes of gaining respect. It’s why my dad beat me, my brother and my mom; why the drug cartels and Islamofascists decapitate their victims; why the Old Testament teaches us to fear God’s wrath; why the U.S. government has a bigger war chest than the next 10 countries combined; and why City Hall sends cops to beat up protesters and terrorize poor neighborhoods. But belts and bombs and batons never instill respect in the victims; they only make the victims hate the person wielding them, and the victims then begin to fantasize about exacting revenge.
Violence, really, is a sign of weakness and inferiority. Anyone relying on force as a tool for dealign with people, has no other tools, no other powers, and is therefore one away from being powerless. The less intelligent animals rely strictly on force and the threat of violence in dealing with other individuals, but a truly powerful human being has plenty of other tools at his disposable besides violence.
As with any interaction between people, by confronting you, the racist unwittingly opens his toolkit, his character, up to comparison with yours. Thinking you’re nothing but an animal, less than human, the racist lowers himself to the animal level, and shouts his racist slurs and threatens you with the use of force, which is the only thing the lower animals understand. But when you don’t act like the animal he assumed you to be, when you act like a civilized human being, ah! then the only savage in the interaction is him. He abandons his humanity, but by you raising yours, he goes away feeling like he pissed into the wind, reeking of his own inhumanity.
Will he feel ashamed? He should, but of course some people are impervious to shame. Hubris is blinding, and humility, more rare than diamonds. Still, that doesn’t mean you should lose your shame in confronting someone without it. You don’t fight shamelessness with shamelessness; you fight it with pride — and not the pride in your skin or your hair or the food you eat or the music you listen to, not in your culture or race or ethnic heritage, but the pride in your sheer humanity, the pride that comes with being a good person. Just by the way you carry yourself and treat him, even as he’s attacking you, you seem to declare, I am a human being. What are you? You humiliate him with your humanity, and stand before him as proof that his racial superiority is a damned lie.
Of course, you are entitled to defend yourself physically and verbally, which is proper for any and all human beings. But resist the urge for revenge; resist the urge to do violence against the racist, because all that will demonstrate is that you are just as savage as he is. Remember: He doesn’t think he’s savage; in his mind he’s only allowing himself to act savagely toward you, an animal, something that isn’t worthy of the respect he himself deserves as a human being. But you must make him feel that he is confronting, not a brown thing, but a brown person. Let him act like an animal all he wants, which only makes him appear the lesser of you two.
It’s a long shot, sure. But it’s the only shot there is to defeat racism for good — save rebuilding racist societies from scratch.
Featured image: Saffiyah Khan, left, stars down English Defence League protester Ian Crossland during a demonstration in Birmingham, England, on April 10, 2017. Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/AP