In high school, one day, a long time ago, our history teacher announced the subject of his lecture. He said: “First, we’re going to end the Jews, and then we will …” From before the weekend, there was a little bit left to teach about the Jews, and then he wanted to go to the next subject.
A sigh of horror went out from my non-Jewish fellow students. I was the only Jew in the class, and I didn’t have to say anything. And so, I didn’t get hurt. But the teacher looked around the classroom, wondering what had upset everyone. He had no idea. No one told him, so he never found out. But he was an ex Jesuit Priest so he should have been extra careful with his words. Yet, clearly, he meant nothing by it.
This I remembered when I read that an Israeli soccer commentator in a life broadcast had said about a Panamanian player who, in his estimation, had missed a chance: “Let him go home.” He’s from Panama. “Let him go eat bananas. I would deport him immediately, if it was up to me.”
For those who don’t know, this player looks as dark as if he’s from the middle of Africa. And a racist stereotype of Africans is that they would be monkeys more than human, and so ‘eat bananas’ sounds really racist. If he would said it about a player from Niger, it certainly would’ve been racist.
However, Panama annually exports about 18.5 million boxes of bananas. Bananas are for Panama what tulip bulbs are for Holland. So, maybe, if he had talked about Jordi Cruyff, who missed a chance (impossible), he could have said: “Go home. Go eat tulip bulbs.” Not knowing that the starving Dutch ate just that at the end of the Nazi occupation. No ill intent.
Now, we should not trivialize racist remarks and jokes. They are not only an important part of racism but also a fast vehicle transporting it to everywhere and everyone. And ‘Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt …’ is untrue. However, we should also not be so tense that we shout at any (potentially) innocent remark: “Racist.”
Reminds me of the guy in Tsarist Russia, brought before a judge. “You are accused of calling the Tsar a donkey.” “No,” the terrified guy pleaded, “I wasn’t talking about the Tsar.” “Nonsense,” the judge said, “Everybody knows that when you call someone a donkey, you must mean the Tsar.”
“Everybody knows that when you tell an African-heritage guy to eat bananas that you mean, he’s a monkey.” And that is what this commentator has said in the past when he was accused of racism. Something like: “If you think that what I said was racist, you’re a racist.”
Now, how to solve this? You don’t want to let such a racist remark go unpunished or even exist while on the air and anywhere. But you also don’t want to attack someone who really said or meant nothing racist.
My solution: It is a mistake to think that there are good and bad guys and we need to stand up against the bad guys. Especially, we White people must focus on what we want to accomplish, to uproot racism. As we say in soccer in Dutch: “Play the ball, not the player.” The goal (pardon the pun) is to end racism and to get as many White people to join as possible.
So, the reporter should apologize for dubious language and take upon himself some serious openly work against racism to show everyone that he’s on the good side of the issue. And to teach young sports fans. We need him. We can’t discard anyone in the fight for a racism-free world.
Let us round off pinpointing some of the general ideas behind the above. They are especially important with racism, but also with other troubles.
- Focus on solutions (hopeful high expectation, liberation), rather than on the very real infuriating problems (injustice, (lack of) fighting injustice).
- Be principled and clear, but not too heavy-handed and extreme.
- Be brief, rather than trying to communicate complete manifestos.
- Try win over almost everyone to join, instead of aiming to stand out and appoint select ones as ‘proper,’ while trashing ‘the others.’