Belding: Accusations of racism are just as serious as racism itself


Photo: Brianna Buenz/Iowa State Daily

Students come together to take a stand against the current racial controversies at Iowa State on Friday, March 2. Many students as well as some professors discussed personal stories of racism they have encountered. The rally was outside Parks Library in the free-speech zone.

Michael Belding

Racism, sexism, classism, religious bigotry and every other conceivable kind of prejudice abound in the world. One doesn’t have to look very far for examples.

This newspaper got into hot water after two comments in the “Just Sayin’” section referred to ground squirrels or chipmunks as “squinteys” in keeping with old Des Moines River Valley Iowan terminology.

Last week, the University of Texas at Austin’s newspaper got into similar trouble after it ran a cartoon about the Trayvon Martin incident. In that cartoon, a mother reads to her child out of a book called “Treyvon [sic] Martin and The Case of Yellow Journalism” the words, “And then the Big Bad White man killed the handsome, sweet, colored boy!!”

New York City wants to remove words from standardized tests that “could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students” taking them. They want to avoid words that describe topics controversial among adults or that “might not be acceptable in a state-mandated testing situation” or if “the topic appears biased against (or toward) some group of people.”

Journalism is often described as the fourth branch of government. The job of a reporter is to use facts to provide a check on the misuse of power. Without facts, people cannot make their own judgments for themselves. Columnists evaluate those facts and provide an educated opinion that others might read and take something from. Cartoonists caricaturize current events and tell us some things about ourselves that we didn’t want to know.

The fun part about being a columnist or a cartoonist is that we, unlike reporters, are not constrained by facts. We get to talk about truth.

Truth, as opposed to mere fact, implies faithfulness to the spirit of something. Where facts are about knowing raw data, truth is about making some sense of it. All the knowledge in the world is useless to a person without a single grain of understanding. The ability to act on an event or piece of knowledge comes from the sense a person can make of it, not the event or knowledge itself.

We learn truth, for instance, from novels and movies and moralizing stories. Factual accuracy has nothing to do with it. Indeed, emphasizing factual details might even obstruct the search for truth.

Nobody thought that Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was suggesting that the Irish could solve their problems of famine and starvation by eating all their babies. Yet that is exactly what the text of his pamphlet said: “I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs,” in order to provide for the destitute people of Ireland.

Heaven forbid that we have to think for half a minute about what a reporter, columnist, cartoonist or any other author, artist or speaker is trying to tell us. Heaven forbid that we look for some meaning to an author’s or artist’s work than what lies on the superficial surface.

Whoever first said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” was wrong. The things we say have an unlimited potential to hurt the feelings of others. But that does not mean that, through fear of offending someone, we refrain from making assertions and using words that either cause offense or incite energetic reactions.

What are we going to do, censor everything and not allow people to publish works that others might find offensive? I hope not.

Half the problem of racism isn’t racism at all or the use of words such as X, Y or Z that have been labeled as “racist.” Most derisive terms describe very specific individuals and have acquired their extremely negative connotations. Are we to stop using words that describe identities associated with, but even more particular than, racial status just because a few sloppy users of our vocabulary have applied specific terms loosely?

If authors and speakers should be aware of their audience, audience members should be aware of who the speaker is.

The only truly bad words are words that are used sloppily. Before jumping to conclusions, we need to do some homework about what the user meant. If you don’t like something you see or hear, get in touch with the person and ask for clarification. If a speaker’s intentions are benign, a listener has no justification in being offended or lashing out.

Accusations of racism are as serious as racism itself. And, lest we continue to bandy this word around willy-nilly, I remind you of the definition: Racism is the belief that inherent racial differences determine achievement or value.

Terminology is often a reflection of geography and traditions of speech rather than some mental or ideological bias or prejudice. In seeking to normalize for the whole country the words that relate to race, sex, religion and other issues, we are forgetting some of our most important roots.

The United States is huge, spanning an entire continent from east to west and north to south. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates recognized the enormity of America even as it existed along the eastern seaboard with territorial claims extending to the Mississippi.

While some of the founders were worried that the size of such a country would limit the extent to which its citizens could participate in government and demagogues and oligarchs would be able to corrupt the republic, they ultimately embraced its size as an asset.

The value of immense size comes from the large variety of local, state and regional perspectives and their unique customs’ and folkways’ presence in public life. Diversity then, as now, would be a good thing. The mixture of many different cultures would lead to a lively public realm full of new ideas that would bounce off each other — and full of individuals who would bounce off each other.

The richness offered by the uniqueness of perspective outweighs the cruelty of the hurtful words localities might use.

One part of a well-rounded education is study abroad. Modern charges of racism might even involve a double standard. Think for a minute about why we value studying abroad in, for instance, Ireland, China or the Czech Republic? Because we value exposure to other cultures.

Why can’t we tolerate, embrace and love the variations within our own culture back home?