Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared at FlipCollective on February 11, 2015.
These days, it seems that every time I turn on the Internet, I am faced with someone making the snap judgment that someone else is a racist. These accusations are sometimes justified, but they often seem to be based on specious evidence, like that the person accused had the nerve to be critical of Suge Knight’s murderous tendencies.
Classifying people as racists based on incomplete evidence is counterproductive for a fairly obvious reason: it serves to dilute the accusation. If you call everyone a racist, the word loses its power, and actual progress is prevented. It is the modern-day version of the boy who cries wolf.
What’s not as obvious, perhaps, is what that wolf-crying says about the boy doing it.
A few weeks ago, before this year’s Super Bowl, I eavesdropped on a Twitter battle over the behavior of the Seattle Seahawks’ star running back, Marshawn Lynch, who was stonewalling members of the media during his league-mandated interviews. After reading the transcript of Lynch’s press conference, a writer covering the Super Bowl (I’ll call him Sportswriter A) tweeted that he was eagerly anticipating “the Marshawn-to-English translation.”
The comprehensibility of Lynch’s statement is debatable. On the one hand, Lynch drops lines like, “So y’all can go and make up whatever y’all want to make up because I don’t say enough to put anything out on me. But I’ll come to y’all’s event and you can shove cameras and microphones down my throat. And when I’m at home in my environment, I don’t see y’all.”
On the other, the gist of Lynch’s statement is pretty clear, and anything unintelligible could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that the transcript appears to be taken verbatim. (As it turns out, almost none of us would like to hear exactly what we say in the course of a day. There are far more sentence fragments than we’d like.)
Soon after Sportswriter A’s Tweet, another sportswriter (Sportswriter B) tweeted that Sportswriter A was both a “bigot” and “racist.” His take: that Sportswriter A was calling Lynch’s statements unintelligible because of Lynch’s blackness, and thus, Lynch’s status as lesser-than.
And this is where things get sticky. Because it is possible that Sportswriter A was being a bigot and a racist. But it is also possible that Sportswriter A was being hard on people from Oakland who adopt Southern vernacular. (Lynch’s statement contains 22 uses of “y’all.”) Or that Sportswriter A went for an easy joke. Or that Sportswriter A genuinely didn’t understand what Lynch said. We don’t know what motivated his comment.
Some people would probably make the case that it doesn’t matter—that when it comes to racism, grenades are better than sniper rifles, because the intent is to eliminate racism wherever it is. On its surface, this might seem to make sense: we are trying to move toward a race-blind place, and snuffing out even the hint of racism would seem to be progress—it would mean that we are shepherding in a more gentle and tolerant world. But in cases like these, I don’t think grenades are signs of progress. In fact, I think they’re the opposite: they show off the darkest sides of their users. How do I know this?
Because I sometimes throw grenades, too.
My moods vacillate according to the things that have happened to me on that day. Over the years, I’ve noticed something about those moods: they affect my worldview and my capacity for compassion. Let’s say, for example, that I am faced with a homeless person begging for change outside of a grocery store.
On days when I am feeling productive and whole and content, I am likely to view this homeless person as a tragic figure who was probably given little chance to succeed by a society that turned a blind eye to his education, his upbringing, and his psychological well-being. But on days when I am feeling unproductive and fragmented and frustrated with myself, I am likely to view the same person as a layabout—someone who ought to get his act together and find gainful employment.
This bit of self-awareness has helped my understanding of human behavior because I think most people wrestle with similarly dichotomous views of the world. This awareness also means that I can recognize when someone is behaving like the worst version of myself.
When faced with Sportswriter A’s joke about Marshawn Lynch, Sportswriter B had a choice in how he viewed Sportswriter A: he could see the good in Sportswriter A, or he could see the bad. He chose to see the bad. But he didn’t stop there—he went further, impugning Sportswriter A’s character by calling him a thing that is bound to cause damage to one’s reputation: he called him a racist.
This is not a progressive stance. This is not a loving approach to one’s fellow man.
It is also probably not representative of Sportswriter B’s entire worldview. Maybe he was having a bad day himself. Maybe his lunch wasn’t sitting well. Maybe he was on an airplane, and there was a baby screaming in his ear.
We can’t really know. We can, though, take a lesson from the entire exchange.
We live in an age of easy access to information. This has almost undoubtedly offered the prospect of progress, allowing us to bring light to dark places. The more we know about one another, the less fear we have of one another. But we also live in an age of easy dissemination. This doesn’t necessarily cause us to become malicious people, but it does amplify whatever maliciousness we may be prone to. This behavior is not limited to Sportswriter B, or to sportswriters, or to writers. We are all prone to these missteps, because we are all human, imperfect, and allowed to have Twitter accounts.
However, in our search for progress, we can guard against our imperfections by considering our accusations, by making sure those accusations are based on credible evidence, and by examining where the temptation to make those accusations comes from, before we make them.
Especially if we’re about to call someone a racist.
Paul Shirley is a former NBA player, and a current writer. He is at work on his second book. You should follow him on Twitter.