by Sheila Qualls
In the Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a shepherd boy repeatedly cries “wolf” to trick villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking the sheep. After a great deal of false alarms, the boy’s cries lose significance to the townsfolk. One day when a wolf really does appear and the boy cries out for help, the villagers ignore him. The boy had sounded a false alarm so many times, his true cries for help had no relevance.
Is racism today’s wolf?
I’m afraid it could be. We fail to distinguish between unintentional acts of racial insensitivity or racial ignorance and the maliciousness of stone-cold racism. Ignorance or insensitivity should not be treated the same as an act of hate. Yet, many times we cry racism regardless intent.
True racism is perpetrated with motive and intent. A racist intends to do harm – physical, emotional, or economic – to a person of color because of his color. The motive is hatred.
Because we fail to distinguish between insensitivity and ignorance and simply cry “racism,” we are becoming desensitized to true cases of racism. We need to differentiate between the uncomfortable or awkward and true racism. Racial insensitivity and racial ignorance do not actually reach the bar of racism.
Racism undeniably exists in our society today, but too many times in the black community in the fields of academia, corporate America, and professional sports, we cry racism where little exists. Legacy media consistently claims that being a person of color is the sole basis for unfair treatment. When in fact, no one can seriously argue that America is dramatically less racist now than it has ever been in the past and exhibits far less bias of any sort than virtually any place on the planet.
Unfortunately, racism in America today no longer primarily means an individual act of prejudice against another race, as it was originally defined. It has morphed into a term that encompasses any point of contention between white and black people, regardless of whether race is involved. We have taken the word out of useful social context significantly hurting our ability to communicate with each other and minimizing the recognition and response to true racism.
Condemning insensitivity or ignorance as racist trivializes the experiences and struggles of those experiencing true racism. These acts lack motive. People can learn to be sensitive, and they can educate themselves to eliminate ignorance.
The constant drone of racism by the media conditions young black Americans to deduce racism as a primary motive for any interaction where they do not achieve their desired outcome. Critical Race Theory teaches racism is present in every interaction in society, so we are being conditioned to see racism where it does not exist. As a result, people may believe they are victims of racism when they are not.
Murder and involuntary manslaughter are not treated the same under the law. Murder is the malicious killing of another person, while manslaughter refers to an unintentional or non-premediated act that results in death. This distinction is small but important because it determines the type of sentence the offender receives. The difference in murder and involuntary manslaughter rests in the intent.
Currently society often administers the same sentence for ignorance, insensitivity, and outright racism.
Take former chair of Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman who tweeted about Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech’s skin tone. “Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”
To me, this reads like a compliment. Clumsy, perhaps, but not meant to harm. The internet blew up with accusations of racism and sexism. Lieberman’s true crime was poor word choice. In the not too distant past a comment like that would have simply been called a mistake. Today it is mislabeled as racist.
And as so many white people do, Lieberman bowed to the pressure of woke gods, promptly issued an apology, and called his actions “racist and sexist.” In his apology to the black community, he also wrote, “I’ve hurt many, and I am beginning to understand the work ahead to make needed personal changes and over time regain your trust.” Other than numerous similar recent examples, the last time America heard this type of apology it was from a captive of terrorists pleading for his release.
In spite of his apology, he won’t get an opportunity to make “personal changes.” He won’t get an opportunity to regain trust. He was fired. No opportunity for redemption or repentance. Were Lieberman’s actions insensitive? Yes. Racist? No.
Should Lieberman’s tweet be treated the same as if he had tweeted out the “n” word? I think most would agree not, which highlights the absurdity of treating any unpleasant incident between a black and white person as a racist act.
After the discovery of a racist video posted on social media, students at a Minnesota high school walked out of class and demanded that district officials set predetermined punishments for racist acts, regardless of severity. We fail our young people when we don’t teach them how to deal with adversity, instead of encouraging intolerance. Companies that fire people who inadvertently make insensitive or ignorant remarks are encouraging victimhood and perhaps even encouraging people to “cry racism.”
We will never rid the world of insensitivity, ignorance, or racism. Those who are insensitive should be called out not canceled. Those who are ignorant should be guided, not gutted. The punishment should fit the crime. People, especially children and young adults, unintentionally will make rude or insensitive comments as they have been doing since the beginning of time. We teach children to share and to say “please,” ‘thank you,” and “I’m sorry” because polite behavior is not innate. We must do no less with racial insensitivity and ignorance.
By grouping those that are racially ignorant or insensitive with true racists, we water down our perception and response to the real evils of racism. Losing sight of true racism is an injustice to minority communities.
Most Americans hate racism and see it for the true “wolf” it is. But just as the cries of the boy lost their meaning, I’m afraid cries of racism may lose meaning, too.
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Author’s note: I would like to extend a special thanks to Peter Bell for inspiration for this commentary.
Sheila Qualls is the Executive Director of TakeCharge, which is an organization committed to supporting the notion that the promise of America works for everyone regardless of race or station in life. She is a former national speaker and blogger. Sheila has been married for 36 years and has five children.
Peter Bell is the former Chair of the Metropolitan Council, which is a cabinet-level position appointed by the Governor. He was the cofounder and, for 15 years, executive director of the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse. He has written numerous books on chemical dependence, and for his pioneering effort, was named ABC Evening News Person of the Week in 1989. Peter appears frequently on the editorial pages of the Star Tribune, provides commentary for Almanac, a statewide public affairs television program and often provides political and social commentary for MPR.