When Racist Words Slip & the Absence of Pink Slips

Most of us have been there.

You are talking to a co-worker or friend when they say something racist.

It’s like a slap across your face.  First you feel the force of contact, then you feel the initial sting — as if 100 bees are stinging you at once; then the stinging spreads and the venom moves through you like lava – so hot — flowing through the crevices and hollows of your body until every centimeter of you feels aflame.

Did he just say that?

Your associate seems equally surprised: as if the words escaped from his mouth like a hyper-focused prisoner that had been restrained for years and was desperate to get out.  Shit! Did I just say that?

The words float in the air between you two– so present – that it’s as if both of you can see them – forever blocking a clear, unobstructed view of each other.

Most of us have been there. We have been Jason Hackett (in some form), whose co-anchor, Alex Housden said that a gorilla at the Oklahoma City Zoo “kind of looks like you.”  Multiple studies have indicated that the stereotype that blacks are somehow apelike — is lodged in the minds of white Americans, just below the level of consciousness. So while Alex Housden’s characterization is despicable, it is not uncommon.

Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda. August 4, 2005. Mountain Gorilla Eating – the Mountain Gorilla of Rwanda eats up to 30kg of food per day. Credit: by Philip Kromer.

Housden apologized – as everyone always does after they say or do something racist. In America, displaying racism has been conveniently classified as something that people accidently do – like a Freudian slip. It’s viewed as a simple mistake or lapse of judgement; instead of it speaking to who the speaker really is and representative of what that person believes. A perfunctory apology should be sufficient in many people’s estimation.

And for most people in America, her apology will be enough. They will hear it over their morning coffee, acknowledge it, and return to checking their social media. It is essentially impossible for a White woman to be seen as a perpetrator. The foundation of her eternal innocence was built in fairytales; further developed in news stories that highlight the latest White, female victim of abuse, rape or murder (though white women are victimized at far lesser rates than women of color) making her the perpetual damsel in distress who deserves sympathy and protection – not judgement or admonishments.

But Housden didn’t say what she did in the heat of an argument, when we oftentimes say things we don’t mean to hurt the other person.  What she said slipped out; and showed her co-anchor and all of us exactly how she views Black people: like gorillas.

Hackett has no choice but to accept her apology – gracefully – or he will immediately become the villain. Ridiculously, in America, the pressure to perform correctly in these situations isn’t on the racist but on the Black victim.  Black people are expected to forgive, to be gracious, and the ultimate Christians, so much so, that we are more harshly judged for how we react to racist behavior than the racist behavior and the racists themselves. 

He, the Black man, will be expected to come to work, sit next to, banter with, be friendly towards, and absolve this woman who on television said he looked like a gorilla. He will immediately be asked to both forgive and forget, despite the longstanding racist history of associating Black people with gorillas, apes and monkeys.

The network, which is his employer, will not protect him.  When have you heard of a company protecting a Black male employee from abuse? They will not abide by their zero tolerance of discrimination policy that is sure to be in their employee handbook and on their website.  There will be no conversations of firing Housden.  Quite to the contrary, undoubtedly, there have been countless conversations about the steps needed to protect her, her reputation and theirs.  We all know that had he offended her – called her a “bitch” or a “tramp” that he’d most likely be fired by now.  HER feelings matter. 

There will be no consideration of how Hackett may feel; only of how to manage the “situation.”  He won’t be treated as a human – one who could be deeply hurt or offended by her racist and hurtful words.  He will be expected to perform, on cue, almost like an animal – like the gorilla he was compared to.

Most of us have been there.

4 Responses

  1. Wow!!! I hadn’t read this incident or seen it. I agree with you that the company will just move on, however, many horrible racist things are said in 2019 that I never heard like what is going on now. I am in constant shock.

  2. As welding says they say these things amongst themselves when we aren’t around and then it comes out….. more and more lately. You are right what could he do be the angry Blackman nope that would have made it worse for him not her. Off air She would definitely know her apology was not accepted….

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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