That Racism Over There, or, the Fetishization of Racism

It’s weird being in a city where there are so many publications reporting on so many different stories. Back home, I can literally read every news source for local news in any given day. That’s virtually impossible in a place like Chicago.

Today, one of our mentors directed some of my peers to an online blog’s report of an alleged crime committed on July 4th. The blog reported that a black 18-year-old man allegedly stole a woman’s phone. It identified this 18-year-old as a student who graduated at my mentor’s school. The article is very slanted and, well, racist, portraying the recent graduate as a thug. Certainly, stealing is wrong and, if he did in fact steal the phone, he should be reasonably punished. But this article judged this young man by this one, albeit very dumb, action, and attempted to paint a picture of the young man as someone with a history of problem behavior. And the comments are worse–there are literally too many comments to count of the “there goes the neighborhood because of those people” type. (I didn’t post the original article here because I’m so ashamed by its bad journalism that I can’t bear to signal boost it.)

In my CMA group, we had a moment of righteous anger while one member of our group read the article and the comments. And while it felt good to have an example of relatively clear right and wrong in front of me, it also made me a little uncomfortable. I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has to do with the privilege it gives me. By observing and noting someone’s blatant racism, I get to distance myself from racism. I get to feel better about myself. What I’m actually feeling when I think about the young man’s trial is not empathy for the hate he is experiencing but rather relief that I am not as racist as those people.

One of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes about how most racist people are good people because Coates interprets racism broadly. It is not restricted to anonymous comments on a blog. It also occurs every time I make an unwarranted assumption about someone based on their race or when I’m complicit in someone else’s racism.

In some ways, then, observing the kind of bigoted racism that is so easy to find on the Internet is a form of fetishization for me. It enables me to experience relief about my own insecurities. It allows me to box racism in and other it, pushing it far away from me. It’s terrible that this young man has to endure the kind of racism that has been aimed at him, but racism is not fixed by a room full of college graduates groaning over anonymous comments. It’s fixed by every single person examining personal assumptions, biases, prejudices, and, yes, racism.

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