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When context obscures

There is a disturbing tendency emerging around instances of public acts of racism. Essentially, an act of racism will be captured, shared and condemned immediately, only to then be redacted and obscured as more “context” emerges around the act. News media will go to significant lengths to share this additional “context” until the matter is obscured entirely by useless side facts and tangents.

The most notable instance of this so far is perhaps the incident that occurred when a group of students harassed a group of Native Americans after the March for Life in Washington D.C. However, the first time I noticed it was a few weeks prior to that when two students made and presented a “KKK jingle” for a class project in my hometown of Dover, New Hampshire.

This incident initially sparked outrage, leading to the students being suspended and the teacher being put on paid leave. Almost immediately following that, however, the local paper was flooded with letters and comments insisting that the incident was taken out of context. This outcry eventually led to the students returning to class and the teacher being reinstated with no real consequences.

So what exactly is this context that changed the perception of these two seemingly clear-cut instances of racism? In both cases little more than unrelated facts that muddy the waters and appeals to the “character” of the individuals committing the racist acts.

Take for example the sudden shift of focus in the D.C. incident to the presence of a group of Black Hebrew Israelites who had clashed with the students earlier in the day. What did that have to do with anything the students did in response to the Native American activists? Nothing at all, really. Yet the media painted that earlier conflict as an essential part of the later conflict, associating the group of Native Americans with the Black Hebrew Israelites despite the two groups having nothing to do with each other.

In the case of the Dover incident much was made about the individual who had originally filmed and shared the KKK jingle. Many claimed that the student had a history of seeking attention or poor behavior. Many brought up that the student had disobeyed a request by the teacher to not film the presentations. Yet this does not at all address the root of the issue, it instead creates the idea that exposing racism is somehow as bad as committing acts of racism.

The second common thread in these incidents is the attempts to try and show instances of the perpetrators of these racist acts not being “racist people.” In the Dover case, many tried to focus on how the song was intended to go over the history of the KKK during Reconstruction after the Civil War, and that many of the verses in isolation are not racist at all.

Yet this ignores the fact that the chorus of the song is clearly quite racist, going “KKK, KKK, let’s kill all the blacks.” The educational intention of the song or project does not excuse the racism present in the execution of the project, even if attention is drawn to those parts after the fact.

A similar argument was made about the students in D.C., claiming that the incident was not as racist as it once appeared. In particular, one student was filmed staring down a Native American activist. In full context it seems he had not gone up to the man but was instead approached and refused to move.

That does not address much of anything at all. Refusing to get out of the way of someone is clearly rude. Given the further context of students whooping, chanting, “tomahawk chopping” and generally mocking Native Americans, a racist motivation can certainly be implied from that rudeness.

Overall it seems that a narrative is being pushed that seems to indicate that no one is really racist unless they are cartoonishly evil and single-mindedly so. Showing that the people who commit acts of racism are normal people who are not constantly striving to be as racist as possible says less about their acts of racism and more about a prevalent social discomfort with the idea that racism is perpetuated by otherwise normal people.

That discomfort is at the root of this obsession with context. The real intention of “adding context” to either of these stories was to resolve that discomfort. If it was not, then certainly we would have heard more about the connections between the far-right agenda of the March for Life and the history of racism from the students that attended it. We similarly would have seen how the teacher who assigned the KKK jingle project had a history of insensitivity and complaints from marginalized students.

The uncomfortable reality of these racist acts is that normal people can be and often are racist and furthermore, that racism is not always a stereotypical cross-burning hatred, but could instead be rooted in anything from a cold condescension to simple ignorance.

That should not be normalized or defended. Rather it should be confronted head-on, as we deal with racism as it does exist, not as we would like it to exist. The reality of racism in America is and likely always will be messy, thus requiring an honest attempt to identify and solve the underlying threads of oppression. Dishonest smoke screens of supposed context might make some people more comfortable but will do nothing to solve anything.

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