“I’m not racist…”

Reading through a history of film textbook, the third chapter included something that pops up quite often among white people- and it’s a terrible and invalid excuse when it’s trotted out.

The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith, is as a historical marker important. Prior cinema tended to be short- less than half an hour, and had a fairly inert camera. Birth introduced film to the scale, length, and cinematography that would define the next hundred years. Children are taught “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” but not shown the Disney film it came from (Song of the South, here’s the song complete with offensive Uncle Tom character). Similarly, Birth is given much space within the book, but would be very difficult to watch. The pro-Ku Klux Klan message and cringe-inducing black caricatures  bury it in cinematic history.

Griffith didn’t understand the hostile reaction to what he had made. It was a huge financial success, yet met an avalanche of criticism from the large amount of the American public that didn’t buy into the Lost Cause mythos. He didn’t think see it as racist, and sunk a huge amount of money into Intolerance, a movie created solely to show how not-racist he was.

It reminds me of the defense made from many people in many places. The UK Independence Party has several recent examples- members say racist things, then dispute that they are racist, or that they don’t “understand” how people would be offended. It’s grouped with a faux-apology- “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” and its ilk.

White people, especially white men, seem to think this sort of dodge is acceptable. Being ignorant of how racism affects other people isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make one’s actions not-racist. Too often those who make a racist comment attempt to explain and justify it. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding. But sometimes it’s a privileged person ignoring public opinion. What people say or what they write and create can be deeply offensive. Just because there isn’t a rigid, natural structure to recognize and understand hate speech doesn’t mean it’s excusable.It’s better to educate yourself out of ignorance than create a fortress and defend the indefensible to the grave.

The truth is far wider than an individual’s perception. Personally each year I learn new things from new people- what offends them, and where does it come from? I don’t show up thinking I know everything about society. If I did, my ignorance would be all the more inexcusable.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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