The Ills of ‘Casual Racism’

We are in the midst of a long-overdue racial reckoning in this country.

From systemic racism in the criminal justice system and implicit bias in healthcare to voter suppression and the racial wealth gap, Americans are becoming wise to the inequities that exist that work to uphold racist structures.

But we as a nation still struggle to grasp some of the fundamental concepts of racism.

To many, racism is spoken loudly and explicitly with no room for interpretation. It is the Ku Klux Klan member or white supremacist that advocates for ethnic homogeneity. The man or woman who uses the n-word in its “er” form in an attempt to assert dominance and hostility. But these illustrations of racism are caricatures personified, because racism is not always so overt, so exaggerated.

That is not to say that these obvious examples of racism are not present-day realities, because they are. But racism, in practice, is often much more subtle. An ill-conceived deduction here. An unconscious thought there. Racism can linger beneath the surface, keeping all but those who are directly affected oblivious to its force.

And that is why “casual racism” is so insidious.

When we hear someone use the n-word or see a man or woman in a hood, we are likely to act. But these more subtle forms of racism? The kind that leave space for interpretation? We are more hesitant to address these, worried that our advocacy will be seen as an overreaction.

So it festers, and it spreads, until it becomes pervasive.

We saw this in Bachelor Nation this week.

Now, if you hate quality television and, therefore, do not watch the cinematic masterpiece that is this show, I will provide a brief background.

Pictures emerged recently of one of the contestants dressed in “Old South” attire at an antebellum-themed fraternity event.

Many rightly condemned the behavior, but others failed to find a problem. Likely because they view racism through the caricaturistic (not a word) lens explored above.

But here are the facts: Rachael Kirkconnell, in 2018, attended Kappa Alpha’s Old South antebellum-themed fraternity party.

For those who are unaware, antebellum means “occurring before the war” and is typically meant to refer to the time before the American Civil War, i.e. the time of slavery. And, according to the bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia, “‘Old South’ is used to describe the rural, agriculturally-based, slavery-reliant economy and society in the Antebellum South, prior to the American Civil War (1861–65), in contrast to the ‘New South’ of the post-Reconstruction Era.”

The Old South party was commonplace among chapters of the Kappa Alpha Order. Its members would host women at plantations across the country. They would don smart suits and consume timey libations, and sewing machines nationwide would gorge on pastel and lace, regurgitating it into dresses for the women.

While many today apparently do not see an issue with the practice, the fraternity’s board did, banning their chapters from hosting Old South parties in 2016.

“Chapters shall not sponsor functions with the name Old South or functions with any similar name. All functions and activities must be conducted with restraint and dignity and without trappings and symbols that might be misinterpreted and objectionable to the general public. All functions and activities shall be conducted in accordance with the regulations and policies of the institution where each chapter is located,” the Executive Council wrote in a statement.

More than two years later, in contravention of the ban, Kappa Alpha at Georgia College & State University would host one of these Old South parties, and Rachael Kirkconnell would attend, ultimately leading to her breakup with the first Black Bachelor in Bachelor Nation history.

And the response has been … troubling.

The least evolved subgenus of the human race, i.e. middle-aged persons who inhabit the comment sections on Facebook, have made it clear that they find nothing objectionable about wearing a pretty dress at a fun party.

But to whittle the issue down to such a diluted characterization is to completely miss the mark.

Because this wasn’t just any party. It was a party that had been banned for its racist roots. It was a party that was thrown during “Old South Week,” held on plantations, by a fraternity that embraces a Confederate general as its “spiritual leader.”

If it were just about wearing “pretty dresses,” why specifically reference the time before the Civil War? Did the manner of dress materially change between the time of the “Old South” in the 1860s and the time of the “New South” in the 1870s? And if these parties were not to be conflated with a celebration of slavery, why host them on plantations where, during the very time period being cosplayed, slaves were held captive and exploited?

To me, the issues with the practice are clear, and yet some people are willing to engage in Simone Biles-level mental gymnastics in order to excuse it.

Why?

Because slavery “was so long ago”? Maybe. But its byproducts certainly aren’t. We still suffer them today.

And, regardless, our racist history is a lot closer than we’d sometimes care to admit.

If Emmett Till were alive today, he would be just one year older than our current president and five years older than our last.

Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an elementary school in the South, is alive today.

She’s just 66.

All that to say, our past is near. And if we continue to carry its reckless indifference to human suffering into the present by prioritizing pretty dresses over human decency, it will continue to remain as close in proximity as yesterday is to today.

We cannot excuse racist behavior, no matter where on the spectrum it falls. We must challenge it in all its forms and in all its levels of prejudice.

Because Black people do not deserve to bear witness to white Southerners cosplaying the era of slavery as if it were a form of theater.

They do not deserve to be represented by senators who fear Black people more than white.

Just last week, Sen. Ron Johnson said this of the rioters who stormed the Capitol: “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned. Now, had the tables been turned, and Joe — this is going to get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa, I might have been a little concerned.”

That. Is. Racist.

Saying that you fear those who protest racial injustice more than white Republicans is racist. Implying that those who protest racial injustice do not love our country or are more prone to lawlessness is. racist.

And I will not allow the aforementioned acts to go unchecked, simply because this form of racism is not an explicit rejection of the Black community (although I would argue that Sen. Johnson’s comments were pretty explicit).

We, as a society, must progress to a point where we not only collectively recognize and repudiate explicit racism but also more subtle forms. Because those subtle forms are every bit as damaging, and we see their consequences every day.

We must elevate the experience of the oppressed above the whims of the oppressors if we are ever to achieve equality, harmony, and balance.

So the next time that you see someone do or say something that has been deemed racist, reject your initial impulse to excuse or defend. Focus less on intent and more on impact. Listen to your Black peers and attempt to understand their position in the same way that we are so often inclined to attempt to understand the positions of casual racists.

Do it for the Black community.

And, much less importantly, do it for me.

Because I’m going to stroke out if I have to read one more of these Facebook comments.

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