A police official in Wolfeboro recently made offensive racial remarks. It torqued people off more because the remarks were about Obama, but to my mind it would be about the same if he said the same about the kid next door. He used the word nigger, and would not apologise because “he meets or exceeds my definition of the word.” Everyone focussed on the racism, because that’s considered the worst sin to have currently, and we want to hit bad people with our top criticism. But I like paying attention to words and what they reveal about the thinking underneath. I believe that people reveal what they really mean eventually if you let them go on long enough.
I wrote something similar about NFL-player Riley Cooper, who seemed to be using racial insult instrumentally to get his way and wound as much as possible. I saw that as different from racism, and probably worse. The police official’s comments may also be something worse than racism, though in yet another direction.
Note to new readers: It’s important to try and wrap your head around the idea that racism isn’t the worst of sins, nor is homophobia, intolerance, sexism, or the other favored Top Sins of our era. I admit it is initially counterintuitive, because there are decent historical and cultural reasons for their prominence, and it’s the world you grew up in and absorbed. But racists are just the regular old garden-variety sinners that Jesus ate with all the time.* His anger was directed more at folks like the celebrities and politicians of our day who make a great show of supporting Good Causes – suspiciously, always the fashionable ones (see Matthew 6.) You know, folks who you and I usually applaud for caring so much, bringing attention to important issues, devoting their time, and providing leadership. Those folks tread on dangerous ground. We should be glad we don’t have to face their temptations to self-righteousness, because few come out unscathed.
Back to Wolfeboro. The offending official claims he is not a racist, because he doesn’t think all black people are niggers, he likes some just fine. It’s not surprising that people don’t want to be thought of as having society’s worst sin, because that would make them one of society’s worst people. But the reasoning is always of that form. I’m not a bad driver, because I never drink and drive and I keep both hands on the wheel. Well, great about the sobriety and paying attention, Chumley, but you were driving 90mph through a school zone, so you’re a bad driver. But this having a personal definition of important words has a narcissism about it that’s worse than racism. It would be easy to dismiss word usage as a comically minor infraction, but if one expands the examples, I think you will take my point. Abusers often have idiosyncratic, troubling definitions of what love is; sexual perpetrators of what consent means; violent people of what justice is. I am not one who believes that bad definitions create bad behavior so much as that bad thinking reveals itself in bad definitions. Narcissists don’t get it. They don’t share in the general pool of knowledge, because at some level they choose to regard their own internal impressions as more important than our shared humanity.
The individual in question might be reasonable, even humble or deferent, in other areas of interaction. That isn’t usually the case – general arrogance is more likely. But it does happen that people are narcissistic in few areas, or only one. I make no comment about him in any other opinions. He qualifies as racist because it is pretty generally known that black people dislike the word nigger coming out of the mouths of white people for any reason. (Yes one can find or imagine the occasional counterexample. Irrelevant.) If you haven’t picked that up yet, your claims of respecting some black people are just empty. You missed one of their big-ticket items.
But he’s not racist so much as Narcissistic, Also Racist. Much more worrisome.
Tangent: There may have been times and places years ago when the distinction the police official made was more common. I remember a person being shouted down in the 60’s who was trying to make that claim “I say there are two kinds of black people in the country. Some are niggers…” An occasional person spoke like that when I was in Virginia in the 70’s. I recall Senator Byrd, who was much older than I, talking about having known many “white niggers” as late as 2001, which seems a related distinction. But it’s not a distinction I have any understanding of, so I can’t shed any light on it. I’d be pretty suspicious of it no matter how far back we’re talking about. I wrote about nigger not long ago.
*I know, the popular representation of those are people who like to party, and drink, and flirt, dance, gamble, dress sexy, and make jokes and have a good time – what prudes call “sinners,” but actually the best sort of people. It allows society to completely redraw Jesus in its own image. The theological version is to think that Jesus had some special affinity for outcasts, to import all that American mythology. Pure rubbish, but powerful rubbish, because we like to redraw Jesus in our own image that way as well. We can blame Hollywood or New York or Nashville, but it’s us.