It is a shameful truth that racism exists in 2020. In the age of information and instant connectivity, there remains no excuse for racial prejudice. But if what is seen in the media is an accurate reflection of the true state of society, racist rhetoric seems to be steadily on the rise.
Now more than ever, social media and mainstream broadcasts are packed full of examples of racists exhibiting their prejudice. And while this points toward a recent rise in racial tension, specifically in the US, it may also be a product of the fact that the benchmark for what is now considered racist behaviour is at an all time low.
In an attempt to effectively combat racism, society as a whole has become far more sensitive to racial prejudice. And while this strategy of mounting sensitivity has been effective in the short term, it is destined to become harmful if left to continue on its current course.
Lost in translation
Greg Patton is a professor of business, at the University of Southern California, who is currently on administrative leave due to an incident of alleged racial insensitivity. In an online class, Patton pronounced the Mandarin word for “that”, written “nà ge” or “nèi ge”, in a way that resembles a derogatory racial slur against Black people. Here is the recording:
Several students took offence to the way in which Patton pronounced the Chinese word, referring to his actions as negligent and offensive, and claiming that their mental health was adversely affected. These students subsequently threatened to drop out of the class, and as a result, Patton was placed on administrative leave.
The fact that Patton was punished for the pronunciation of a foreign word that phonetically resembles an English racial slur is an indication of the sensitivity by which society now gauges racial prejudice.
If this incident was a racist dog-whistle caught on camera, then it is a win for the world, and Patton was rightfully punished. But from the footage seen, that conclusion is not easy to come by. Instead, it seems more likely that Patton had either not considered the similarities between the pronunciation of the two words, or instead believed that his students shared his ability to compartmentalise. Either conclusion does not merit administrative leave.
Dilution Of The Term
If the situation is as it seems, and Patton had no ill intent, then the decision to place him on administrative leave is an example of wrongful social conviction. The implications of this are far greater than the harm done to one man’s livelihood. To put well-meaning individuals like Patton in the same category as true racists with ill intent is to dilute the category of ‘racists’ altogether. By progressively lowering the benchmark of what is considered racist, we are lumping more and more people into that category, and effectively desensitising ourselves to the term. This leaves the door wide open for true racists to escape justice, as the accusations against them no longer trigger the same public response.
For this reason it is important to reserve the accusation of racism for those that deserve it beyond a reasonable doubt. To miss the mark in this respect, is to damage the credibility of future accusations, and allow the possibility for true racists to escape judgement.