The New Racism Is Polite Racism

The explicit old evils still exist, but so does a sophisticated new version, cloaked in false kindness that’s anything but

Illustration: Richard Chance

TThe American racist has certainly evolved. Not via their own volition. This growth is the offspring of racism’s primary modes. Its original brand was brutal, psychopathic, deadly, Christian. A couple hundred years later, systemic racism bloomed. It was nuanced, insidious, also deadly. It repeatedly lynched, but kept your heart beating so that you saw another day and invisible noose. Systemic racism didn’t replace the original recipe, it expanded the menu. Today, the unsophisticated original and its predecessor are as alive and unwell as ever, in plain sight from California prisons to Bushwick real estate. Together they’ve procreated a less visible heir; one that’s continued the family’s predatorial business with a more polished, less obtrusive manifestation. This evolution in racism is both systemic and overt. It is polite.

What makes polite racism such a potent evil is its neutralization of black and brown fear. Similar to the close-range fighting style of Jujutsu, polite racism attacks its brown target by first leaning into their conditioned trauma. The lead hand or jab is verbal, at times articulate, often from the mouths of politicians. It parcels messaging via empathetic vocal tone and text, often from the beacons of formal education (ie. legalese). The dominant hand’s power is all psychology. Instead of decrying integration like its oldest parent, polite racism feasts off inclusion, inviting the minority closer for a cleaner strike. African-Americans are so accustomed to being hunted and ejected that the perception of a Caucasian’s open arms is as addictive as glucose. Polite racism is the most seductive mind fuck in the history of American racism.

Your Human Resources department has mastered the art. The executive branch designed an employee handbook with mandates and parameters created under the mirage of equality. As with most American institutions since the Constitution was inked and betrayed for the first of a billion times, said rules were plotted to serve the interests and prejudices of its authors. Today, when Naima floats through her company’s pristine hallways into a meeting wearing a business-blue suit and Kenyan cloth swirled into a head-wrap, she will not be criticized for reflecting her ethnicity. Instead, she will receive a mass email from HR politely corralling “everyone” back to the employee handbook’s section on “professional dress code.” This is passive aggressive; what many race experts refer to as a micro-aggression. Not an attack on Naima’s culture per se, but a friendly reminder that only the culture of the corporation matters.

Polite racism is the most seductive mind fuck in the history of American racism.

To understand the varied applications of polite racism, one must first be reminded that no form of racism is as simple as “bad person versus good.” Racist acts are often committed by those who are genuinely pro-integration and possess no conscious ill will towards another. Ignorance and fear remain the roots of all racism. Whether fear is replaced with curiosity or another social agent, ignorance remains a constant, especially on social terrain. Time-honored tropes are “You speak so well,” or a former teacher’s raised eyebrow and “Well, good for you” after learning of your Ivy League acceptance letter. We’ve experienced these slights longer than memory allows. Today it’s a white co-worker smiling and assuming I must’ve tried the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, or that the writer and actress Mindy Kaling can teach them how to wrap a sari. It’s Liam Neeson using Freud theory to mask his fraud.

Some years ago, a friend of mine, then a graphic designer at a prestigious advertising agency, worked on a campaign for Chase Bank. The visual focus was a photograph of a black family camping lakeside. My friend told me that during one of the edit rounds, he was contacted by a superior (Caucasian) who gently proposed that he digitally reduce the crotch on the father’s swimming trunks. “I’m a heterosexual black man and it wasn’t that serious,” my friend said to me, meaning that the trunks didn’t warrant an edit. The manipulation of any accurate physical appearance to fit a personal or collective perception or comfort is unequivocally racist (see the Sphinx’s nose). That the alteration was ordered as a “request” by a white person makes it polite racism.

Controlling the body parts of brown people has always been a gateway towards determining their existence, like a hunter penning the lion’s narrative. The Academy Award’s 2019 Best Picture, Green Book, is a recent triumph in Hollywood’s history of politely racist expressions — as was its Oscar win. The film, billed as the story of African-American pianist Don Shirley’s travels through the Jim Crow south, was essentially another white savior tale in which Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of Shirley peculiarly scored him a Supporting Actor Oscar. For the record, when Jessica Tandy was chauffeured by Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy (also P.R. cinema), she won Best Actress.

African-Americans are so accustomed to being hunted and ejected that the perception of a Caucasian’s open arms is as addictive as glucose.

The literary world was infected long before moving pictures. A fitting example is a term lit professors occasionally used to describe the palpable bigotry of characters born by scribes like Eudora Welty: “quirky racism.” Although the label prides itself on not condoning racist language and interaction, its purpose is to excuse the offensive, making it as delusional as it is politely racist. The audacity to forewarn Toni Morrison that she will one day have to write about the “real confrontation for black people” — white people — (“As though our lives have no meaning or depth without the white gaze,” said Morrison) is politely racist as fuck.

A sure way to recognize evolved racism is to develop a healthy nose for exclusion. The quicker you confirm your absence within a message, the sooner you’ll sniff out the inequality. America’s response to the current opioid crisis is a polite middle finger to the black and Latino families gutted by their country’s answer to the crack era: mass incarceration. Like your corporation’s handbook, Make America Great Again speaks for those who believe only their culture and kind matter. On the surface, the slogan is positive. At its core, Make America Great Again is an offering to Trump country that blacks be returned to hell. And who doesn’t love a gift?

The irony is that although Trump relentlessly pulls from the well of polite racism — “What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?” — he doesn’t have the panache to represent this newer brand. He often offends American history’s politest racists. This population consists of white people who take issue not with their president’s xenophobic or racial attacks, but his archaic heavy-handedness. Similar to the mafia, these are traditionalists who aren’t averse to brown blood being spilled in the streets but realize it’s not the cleanest way to shovel dirt.

Like all racism, the psychology of its most civil version isn’t limited to its execution. The depth and breadth of its lasting effects on black and brown minds are why its stock is appraised premium. White liberals’ encouragement of integration and championing of profitable black culture has dizzied the American minority to a degree that they’ve grown farsighted to subtlety. With lesser vision comes a more detrimental symptom: the inability to clearly see oneself. When that occurs, minorities default to the lens of the majority race. This avalanches into brown and black people loving one another the way their oppressors prefer them to love: unhealthily (holding those with lighter skin to a higher beauty standard; equating gangs with family).

The psychosis of it all struck me most while reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist. Kendi recounted a speech he gave in a high school oratory contest. He admitted that in the spirit of being pro-black, he painted his own people with egregious adjectives (to raucous praise from a black audience): “[Black people] think it’s ok to climb the high tree of pregnancy! They think it’s ok to confine their dreams to sports and music!” Despite positive intentions, young Kendi was so brainwashed that he ultimately became a spokesman for his oppressor. That is, until he awoke: “Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas,” he’d say later, denouncing his behavior. “Racist ideas make white people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to more racist ideas.” Kendi’s pages threw me back to my sophomore year in college.

I sat in the off-campus apartment of a biology major who was one year older than me, feeling weird. Two seconds prior, she paid me a compliment that to this day I wish she hadn’t. “I mean, of course, you’re black,” she said. “But you’re different. You know how to switch it off. You don’t always have to act ghetto.” My brain scrambled. Different how? Which blacks are forced to act ghetto? Residential poverty as behavior? The crazy variable is that she was African-American. Ironically, at the time, to me, she too was different: She was the daughter of two (still married) upper-middle-class parents, she grew up in a suburban New Jersey home, and she started college with a red sports car. She squealed and spoke like the girls on the intro of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” From my perspective, she seemed black only when it served her — reciting Lil’ Kim verses during campus parties or pulling the race card when a white professor offended her sense of entitlement.

But her “compliment” said it all. She considered black Americans ghetto and herself, along with anyone else who sat outside of her narrow paradigm, as other. The tinted vision she acquired via her chocolate-chip-in-a-bowl-of-milk upbringing conditioned her into spewing praise that sporadically haunted me throughout the next decade. The effects: occasional fear of appearing too ghetto around people with a poor perception of black people, and being perceived as other by black people who didn’t have the option to not “act ghetto.” Two educated HBCU students mind fucked by the miseducation of the negro. If you’ve ceased keeping score, that’s a 2-for-1 for polite racism.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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