I was going to stop saying “racist” because the word has so many problems. It can be insulting. It can be ineffectual. Racism is a complex and nuanced thing, but “racist” lacks almost any complexity. For example, a person of good intentions can accidentally say a racist thing, but a lynching is also a racist thing. To describe those two extremely different actions (and everything in between) with the same word can totally confuse the issue.
“Racist” allows people of bad intentions to hide behind its most extreme meaning. I have been called “nigger” by people who denied being racists because they weren’t being physically violent. “Racist” can also dissuade positive action. Since starting this column, I’ve received many e-mails from white readers who want to attack the racism they see in their lives, but don’t want to risk being classified as a racist for accidentally saying the wrong thing. It can be a dangerous word. This is an enormous problem, so let’s stop saying the word, right?
And then I started reading about Joe Dunne.
In case you didn’t know, Ben Chin, a man of Asian descent, is running for mayor of Lewiston. Joe Dunne, a white man with a documented history as a slumlord, is unhappy about Chin’s candidacy and his criticism of Dunne’s property maintenance. To strike back, Dunne put signs on two of his buildings that read: “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin / Vote for more jobs not more welfare.” These signs also have a ridiculously racist caricature of an Asian man’s face, which I hope is supposed to be Ho Chi Minh.
When a local TV news reporter asked Dunne if he was racist, he replied, “Of course not. Half my family is black.”
When I heard that, I immediately laughed, then a short film started playing in my head. It featured Joe Dunne walking into a racists-only hobby shop and buying a game called It’s OK, I Have Black Friends! — plus the expansion pack.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Dunne said, “If I knew that everyone was going to assume racism, then I would have obviously done it differently.”
Naturally. This is everyone’s fault but his own. Except in the very same interview, Dunne said supporters of incumbent Mayor Robert MacDonald had told him not to display the signs because, “They thought it was going to get [Chin] a pity vote.” His words.
At this point the lines are so close together it’s almost impossible to read between them.
Following a massive public outcry, Dunne took the signs down. He also issued one of those non-apologies that denied the racist nature of his action and ducked responsibility for it. “I designed the signs ONLY to be critical of [Chin’s] policies and tactics, not his race,” Dunne wrote in an ad published in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Except Dunne’s signs don’t ONLY refer to alleged policies. They have Soviet-era hammers and sickles and five- pointed communist stars, as well as the caricature, but it’s not a caricature of a famous communist like Marx or Stalin. It’s specifically an Asian communist and, oddly, it isn’t Mao. I wondered why Dunne decided not to use Mao, and that movie in my head began again. This time, Dunne picks up a game called Rhyme Time with Asian Names! The side of the box reads, “An American classic as old as the railroads!”
Dunne also wrote in the newspaper ad, “I am truly sorry that my sign was taken as racism and bigotry.” Now, c’mon. Everybody knows that’s not an apology. If I walk up to you, spit in your face and then say, “I’m sorry you’re offended by saliva,” I haven’t apologized. Instead, I’ve insulted your intelligence and implied that you’re to blame for being spat upon in the first place.
And that’s when I realized why “racist” remains so multi-faceted.
It’s because people like Joe Dunne exist in a foggy place where you don’t have to apologize, but you can say that you did. It’s a place where you can be a slumlord, but not be called one. It’s also a place where you can be a racist, but… Obfuscate ad infinitum.
“Racist” is so inclusive because of the deniability of racist acts. Words will always be imperfect, just like people. The trick is to do more good than harm, which will happen automatically if we just own our mistakes.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He lives in Portland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.