Home » Social Issues » I used to be a homophobic racist, too

I used to be a homophobic racist, too

MLK

I grew up in the Deep South– from the time when I was 10 years old until I was 22 I lived in a small town that was, culturally, very much like “Lower Alabama.” I’ve talked about my experiences growing up in this community before– how the media only really reported crimes committed by black people, how the town was still run by people in the KKK, how I was in a revival service where a black family was commanded to leave.

When Duck Dynasty first became popular, I was initially confused. I saw a few minutes of the show, watched a few commercials, casually flipped through a few of the books, and it just boggled me. I’d grown up knowing families that were virtually indistinguishable from the Robertsons– and I wondered why so many of the people I knew seemed obsessed with the show. I didn’t get it. I chalked it up to my experience with rednecks of the Duck Dynasty variety; to me, there wasn’t anything novel about it. I shrugged– just more reality television.

And then yesterday happened.

The GQ article “What the Duck?” went up Wednesday night, and some of the people I follow on twitter– in this instance, men and women of color, people like Rod– resignedly made the comment that it was doubtful that anyone was going to notice the blatant racism in Phil Robertson’s comments. They observed that the internet would probably explode over his bigotry (and I do not use that word lightly) and skip right over the racism. Women like Trudy have shown me how racism is constantly downplayed, ignored, and dismissed.

They were right.

When I woke up and went over my Facebook feed the next morning while eating my Frosted Flakes, my heart sank and my stomach twisted. I’d already read the original article, so I knew what he’d said, and the racism had leaped out at me. It broke my heart that many of my friends– and not just Facebook “friends” but real-life-relationships-with-meaning-friends– were posting endless streams of “I <3 you, Phil!” and “I support you, Phil!” and “Bring back Phil!” pictures and statuses.

I hoped against hope that none of them were really aware of what Robertson had actually said. I hoped that they were merely jumping on the bandwagon, that they all believed that Robertson’s comments had been mild and not a gross divergence from what most conservatives say or believe. I hoped that if I took the time to talk about his racism and his bigotry, if I gave them the original quotes from the GQ piece, that they would realize that Robertson was not an example they wanted to be lauding.

I was wrong.

But the biggest reason that it broke my heart, seeing all of that yesterday, was because not even a few years ago, I could have easily said the exact same things that Robertson did. And, looking back, I did say some of those things. I argued against gay marriage using the same ideas that Robertson expressed. I’d dismissed racism using the same exact methods. I’d done that. I’d been that person. Perhaps I hadn’t quite used the “coarse” language Robertson had– but it doesn’t matter how I said it. I’d spent most of my life erasing the brutality and horror of racism and bigotry.

So I spent all day yesterday trying to engage with people, trying to show them how what he said was so bigoted and racist. I gave them the quotes, over and over, tried to point out to those who were arguing that people were over-reacting to his comments and dismissing the issue as “irrelevant” that maybe you think it’s irrelevant because you’re straight. Maybe you think it’s not hateful because you’re white … But trying to point out that being blind to the suffering of black people under Jim Crow made me the racist one.

I gave up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

There’s already been enough commenting on the bigotry displayed in Robertson’s statements, and while talking about homophobia and anti-gay bigotry are important, I thought that most people understood that lumping gay people in with bestiality and terrorists is unloving– usually. Yesterday kind of shot that horse in the face, a bit. But, coming from the background that I do, I actually do understand why people don’t think the comment above was so bad. Look, he’s not racist! He’s identifying with black people! Or He’s not talking about racism. He’s talking about entitlement programs. It’s extremely frustrating, but I get it.

So, I wanted to try and do my best to succinctly explain why this comment was so horrifically racist.

First of all, Robertson is talking about growing up Louisiana, and he’s 67, which would have made him 22 the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. He was a teenager and a young man during some of the darkest days in the South, and in this comment he makes the claim that he “never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once.” He’s talking about a time when racial segregation was everywhere, Jim Crow laws were in effect, and lynching was so bad in the United States that Paul Robeson was able to argue that people in the US were committing genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. Life for black people in the South was so brutal that nearly every black person who could get out of the South left– over 6 million people.

This is what Robertson was talking about when he said that he “never saw the mistreatment of any black person.” A few things are making this sort of statement possible. The first is that Robertson, because of his racial privilege, is capable of dismissing the  atrocities of pre-Civil Rights racism as completely non-existent. The second is something that most people in America have done– in order to ease our guilt, in order to glory in the “good ole’ days,” we have erased the stories of black people. We have looked into the eyes of suffering, and as a people, we have ignored it.

Instead, we have created a different story. We’ve created, together, this bucolic vision of white people and black people laboring side-by-side: both poor, both oppressed. We’ve bonded this cobbling together of nostalgia, and shared suffering, and catharsis and redemption, and we’ve used it to argue for a “post-racial America.” If we can take down the burning crosses, and bury the countless dead, and together exalt in “I have a dream!” echoing in the empty chambers of our hearts, then we can give ourselves absolution.

And, with our guilty consciences expunged, we can move on to ordering men and women of color to move on with us. That Jim Crow is over and gone. That racism doesn’t exist anymore. That they should join with us in the shared effort of the American dream. That they need to give up their Affirmative Action and other “entitlement programs” and stop “singing the blues.”

That’s why what Robertson said was so deeply racist. It wasn’t that he declared all black people inferior to white people. It wasn’t that he donned a white robe. It was that Robertson did what we have all done.

He closed his eyes.

33 thoughts on “I used to be a homophobic racist, too

  1. Growing up as a person of color in Rednecksville, I closed my eyes, too, because that was what good non-white people did. Acknowledging and, God forbid, complaining about racism was what entitled, lazy, oversensitive, politically correct, liberal non-white people did. And, yes, I would’ve been branded racist by my white peers and elders for pointing out that my non-whiteness made things different for me in any way. Or that I was non-white at all. See, they were too enlightened to see me as brown. They were colorblind. As long as we all kept our eyes closed, I was an honorary white.

      • Any Other group gets treated this way, as well. Women, for example, are given “honorary man” status and tolerated in some circles as long as they don’t talk about “women’s issues” like reproductive freedom or unequal pay or representation. The second we make the dominant group aware that our experience is not resonant with the fairy tale they have revised history or current reality to create, the moment we make that dominant group feel uncomfortable or come face-to-face with its oppression of a marginalized group, we become the villains of the story. Heck, just identifying ourselves as that Other will get that ball rolling (“girl on the internet” syndrome).

        Since most folks have some kind of overlapping membership in dominant groups like “white people” or “Christians” or “men,” we need to listen to the experiences of those we’ve marginalized rather than tell the members of those groups what their experiences should look like. Ignoring those experiences, making up our own story of those experiences, or flat-out telling people who have those experiences that they’re just wrong, that’s not what their experiences really look like, that makes things ten times harder to heal. Robertson didn’t see racism, therefore racism didn’t exist. I don’t doubt he didn’t see it. I doubt he can see it even today.

        PS: I’m really glad that I wasn’t the only person who noted how racist that interview really was. Thanks for writing this piece.

  2. I grew up in the ’80s. Post Civil Rights Movement. In Los Angeles – hardly a bastion of institutionalized racism like the deep south. And guess what? I saw *plenty* of racism. It wasn’t that hard to find, honestly. Even in a blue state like California, it is everywhere if you just open your eyes.

    At some point, you have to call this what it is. Not mere ignorance. Willful blindness. Ignoring obvious reality because it challenges one’s own privilege.

    • I live in Los Angeles right now. I still see racism pretty often. I was at the Greek Orthodox church last Tuesday for a Christmas party, and some guy told me very seriously that we white people need to outbreed the Mexicans. I told him he was a racist and walked away.

    • At that point I was in Texas, and I saw racism in plenty of places as well–and I was about as oblivious a teenager in the 80s as anybody could possibly meet. But you are right: the second he acknowledges that horrific institutionalized racism his area practiced and practices today, he becomes complicit in its perpetration. That can’t be easy for someone to realize.

      I just have this vision of him thinking that his redneckistan town was the one sole bastion of race equality and liberty out of an entire state famous for its lynchings, out of a region of the country famous for its endemic racism and brutal oppression. But not his town! Oh no, they were all happy there! Reminds me of that piece you wrote about how right-wing Christians think that the Good Ole Days were this awesome period of harmony and grace between black people and white people, where everybody “knew their place,” and nobody even thought twice about challenging the status quo. Did you notice his swing at Civil Rights legislation and how it backfired, producing black people who were all entitled and “ungodly” and upset and mad at white people? MRAs do that too–feminism is this awful horrible thing that backfired on women and now we’re all super-unhappy and uppity and mad at men. The implication seems clear to them at least–they need to roll back Civil Rights and feminism’s advances so everybody’s happy again.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I wish I had known this earlier when a couple of friends were gushing about how “brave” he was to “stand up for his beliefs.” Then ranting about how homophobia isn’t tolerated. I walked away because I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t understand how wonderful, loving people can be so homophobic. I had never seen that side of them before since the topic had not come up before. I don’t understand why fundamentalists get so angry about this.

    Of course, they probably wouldn’t have listened even if I had pointed out the racism. They are not racist, but they probably would have brushed that off.

  4. i was both not allowed to be not-white and not allowed to be white. i was never permitted to forget my mixed-race status, yet to point it out myself was to be bitter.

    i was 3 when a cross burned on our lawn and the men stood around our driveway in their robes of white and red. i remember this. i remember the smells and the fear as my mother drove us to the church – they did not let us in.

    i learned, we all did, to hide our Other and pretend we were almost white. all the while the churches we attended preached against mixing, against any non-white. and we-i hid. i hid until i couldn’t anymore.

    i am mixed race. and i hated both sides of my skin for so long that i don’t even know how to articulate to our children what mixing and beauty and other means. but we do not mark white on the census and i’m learning to own my heritage in all forms.

    another product of racism, subtle and otherwise, is self-hatred in those who can almost pass.

  5. I think I’m giving myself an ulcer trying to explain to people on facebook why it was a racist statement. My brother-in-law says I’m reading too much into what Phil Robertson said, and that I should give him the benefit of the doubt since I don’t really KNOW if he is a racist or not. No thank you. A racist statement is a racist statement, regardless of intent.

      • I’m avoiding FB like the plague the last couple of days. I have some “nice” Christians on my friends list and I don’t even want to know what they’re saying. I hope they’re condemning such racism and bigotry. But I just have this feeling like if I go near FB I’m going to be in serious fights for the next couple of weeks, and I don’t know whose mind I’d change. Gives me more time to write, I guess.

  6. I totally agree. It makes me so angry when people try to ‘brush way’ racism or minimize it. I posted The Wartburg Watch post about Phil’s racist comments, since my fb newsfeed was full of ‘support Phil’ posts. I got two comments from white friends who basically said racism was overblown and described a similar life to Phil’s, or that it was made worse by ‘Washington convincing people that anyone who was different from you was out to get you’. Seriously? I lived in all white “booger county” for most of my life, even today, there are no blacks living there. I will always be grateful that the first decade of my life was lived in more racially diverse neighborhood. I played with kids from all over the world, some who barely spoke English. That experience will stay with me the rest of my life.

  7. I hope you don’t mind another comment from me. Upon further thought and discussion in another venue, I had this realization. He said, “…they weren’t singing the blues” . Um, hello, they literally WERE singing the blues. We have an entire genre of music that is born from some of the United States’ most legendary, uniquely talented musicians whose gave voice to their experience of slavery and discrimination and mistreatment. I know I’m probably expressing myself poorly, but, wow, the more I think about this, the crazier it makes me that anyone is coming to this guy’s defense at all. What he said was indefensible.

  8. Sorry I missed commenting on this when you put it up.

    I’m going to say one thing that will probably get me burned in effigy- As a writer, I was NOT impressed with how the interview was run OR presented. Granted, GQ is not Time or some other in-depth mag, and they were just looking for a personality snapshot, but the writer admitted himself that he was “too cowardly” to confront Phil and go deeper.
    Secondly, the quotes in grey were not attributed, and it’s unclear whether Phil himself said them, or if they were lifted from his “ghostwritten book, which he has never read”.

    Regardless, I think that the gist of the interview probably does reflect Phil’s thoughts, since he has not refuted any of it, and so I cannot give him the benefit of even a little doubt on this. My above comments refer to the writing and presentation, not to the content.

    With my inner editor and writer satisfied, I will go on to say AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN, Sister, to what you have said. Anyone who doesn’t believe racism is alive and well is ignorant, deliberately or otherwise.

    I would not call my tiny little upstate NY town racist, in general. However… My beautiful, amazing niece was bullied at school by a kid in her class a few years ago. Every kid gets bullied, of course, but he made comments and taunts that were specifically targeted to her kinky hair. The school came down hard, and let it be known in no uncertain terms that his behavior was unacceptable, but the very fact that he felt that her mixed parentage made her a legitimate target points to the pockets that still exist in some people, even in my “nice” little town. He wasn’t born with those ideas. He had to learn them.
    In the same way kids learn that it’s ok to pick on someone for being gay, female, fat, thin, male, not athletic, or either blessed with or lacking in IQ, kids have to learn racism… and one of my goals as a parent is to teach my kids what racism is and instill in them the skills to not become racists themselves, even in subtle ways.

    As a parent, my goal is to teach my kids to recognize their own identity. Yes, they’re White. They were born that way, and can no more help it than my niece can help her tan skin. That means that my daughter’s hair doesn’t go into the neat little cornrow braids her cousin wears as easily, something that makes her jealous. It also means that I have to work to instill in them not only an understanding of their own heritage as grandchildren of a WWII vet and German immigrants, but an empathy and desire to understand other experiences, others’ identities. I’m striving to teach them to recognize racism when they see it, whether it’s directed toward them, or toward others, but also to get past racism by recognizing, learning about, and embracing others’ experiences and identities, and recognizing them as equally valid as their own. That is the lesson Phil Robertson needs to learn, IMHO.

    Another resource, I haven’t seen mentioned, is The Laramie Project. I read it for a class last term, and it really came home to me, the responsibility we have, as Christians, and as responsible citizens in general, to speak up and to make changes.

    Well said, Samantha, on all levels. I’ve shared this with several friends, in an attempt to educate them on exactly what they’re “supporting”. I think the knee-jerk “WE MUST DEFEND OUR CHRISTIAN BROTHER/RIGHTS” response needs to be addressed. I may lose a few friends, but in the end, they’re not the One I answer to.

    Mary

    • Thank you! I really liked your point about how Phil is closing his eyes to other people’s reality.

      I’d also like to comment on his remarks about “welfare” and “entitlement.” If anyone has entitlement in this country, it is white people! For example, black veterans were excluded from much of the tuition benefits from the GI bill after World War II. Also, the first minimum wage laws initially excluded most African-Americans. It’s in the book “When Affirmative Action was White.”

  9. People change.

    You changed. I changed; I am 62–not much younger than Robertson. I was raised in an intensely racist Southern community in the 1950s and 60s, and I was more racist than most.

    However, by the time I was 17 I had changed completely and spent the rest of my life opposing racism. Since that time, more people have changed, but there are many who have not. I believe we are already in the majority, but we must continue to fight racism.

    Thank you for your contribution here.

  10. I also pointed out on fb the racist nature of his comments. One person called it an “unfortunate choice of words.” Others said it wasn’t surprising or he shouldn’t be vilified or the whole thing was blown out of proportion. All church going folk. I find it discouraging. I also had Christian friends who didn’t want to see racism in the Zimmerman case. We shou;d want to fix this, not pretend it doesn’t exist.

  11. I grew up & still live in the same town that Robertson lives in. My Great Grandfather was one of the most prejudiced people in the world–a card-carrying, proud member of the KKK. He used to brag about killing people yet was also a deacon at a local Baptist church. Scary thing is, I think most of those stories he told are true. My family used to downplay what he did by saying things like, “That was normal for white men at the time.” Excuse me?!!! They knew even then that killing was wrong in the eyes of God. My grandfather himself used to tell us stories about the way he mistreated blacks. I don’t know how Robertson can say he did not witness any mistreatment when it was definitely going on.

    Most people here support Phil and It’s not a popular thing around here to disagree with the majority’s opinion. Got into a huge argument with a friend the other night about homosexuality and the bible after watching a news story about Phil. This person accused me of mocking God and denigrating the bible because I stated my truth. There’s a lot of pressure to conform to popular opinion.

    • I also grew up in an area of intense hate and racial prejudice; unfortunately, there are still plenty people like that. And far too many assume that acceptance of gays is rejection of God, and they are angry afraid about it.

      People defend such hatred as a righteous and godly thing. They lambast us for the good in our hearts. I am sorry you have to deal with so many where you are, but I think you are now in the new majority on both racism and homophobia in America. Just take comfort in likeminded people where ever you find them.

      • I think the discrimination against homosexuality is the new flavor of racism for this generation. If you look back in history, every decade-every era has it’s own scapegoat: In the middle ages, it was women who did not conform to the cultural norm; in Nazi Germany it was the Jews; in the US it was African-Americans and now gays. Until people recognize and deal with the darkness in their own souls(which we all have), then they will always find scapegoat to blame things on.

        I responded to one of the articles on your blogs under another name and this news topic was the subject that caused the argument between me and my friend. Maybe I’m risking giving my identity away but oh well!! I don’t reckon many die-hard fundamentalists will be reading these blogs unless they’re trollin!

        • I think you are right. Some people are insecure and need a group of people they can be better than; many such people have a wide range of groups they are better than.

          In my opinion, you also got it right that some Christians have so many requirements before accepting another person as Christian that they reject most everyone. Must be quite a thrill to know the absolute truth about everything while the rest of the world is ignorant :-) .

      • Another thing I see is they have a real black/white, either/or view of things: for example, if you accept gays, then you are not a Christian; if you don’t take the bible literally word-for-word, you are not a Christian; if you believe in evolution, you are not a Christian and on and on.

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