Sharon Osbourne is back in the news this week. She had a meltdown on The Talk over her fear of being called racist for defending Piers Morgan’s comments about Meghan Markle, and she ended up leaving the show because of it. She recently went on Bill Maher’s show to defend herself. Normally, I couldn’t care less about anything Sharon Osbourne says or does, but there’s a teachable moment in the whole The Talk debacle, if you’re open to it. Sharon did what a lot of white people do when discussing race and racism: She made it about herself, her ego, and her sense of herself as a good person:
I feel even like I’m about to be put in the electric chair because I have a friend who many people think is a racist, so that makes me a racist. And for me at 68 years of age to have to turn around and say, *in an affected “urban” voice* “I ain’t racist. What’s it got to do wit’ me?”…How can I be racist about anybody? How can I be racist about anybody or anything in my life?
Ummmm…Sharon…Girl, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the fact that you employed “blackspeak” in your defense against being called racist is in itself racist. Not only that, but at the mere suggestion that someone might THINK you’re racist, you collapsed into a puddle of White Tears. Careful, girl. Your fragility is showing.
This is the crux of the problem. Whenever there’s even a hint that someone might have said or done something racist, they view it as a personal attack and immediately get defensive. They feel that the idea of their innate goodness is under attack. This is rooted in two deeply seated cultural misconceptions: How we think about goodness and how we think about racism. Our culture tends to paint both of these topics with very broad strokes, when the reality is a lot more nuanced. The typical line of thought is exactly like what we saw on The Talk: Racists are bad people. I’m a good person, and therefore I could never be racist.
Can we be real about the whole racism thing for a minute? For realsies? For centuries, England literally scoured the globe, colonizing and subjugating Black and brown people in the name of The Empire. Their justification for this was that these people were uncivilized savages and inherently inferior. Being the “enlightened and benevolent” Europeans that they were, they went about civilizing their new subjects, which basically translates to stripping them of their traditions while simultaneously stripping their lands of their natural resources. The after-effects of colonization can still be seen today. America and Australia are excellent examples of those after-effects. Both countries were created out of Great Britain’s quest for colonization. Both Australia and the U.S. were built by subjugating and segregating the indigenous people who originally lived on those lands. America also imported enslaved Africans to help build their nation. Both of these countries were built on a racial caste system and were racially segregated well into the 1960s. Even after integration, that racial animus didn’t just disappear. It can still be seen in disparities in everything from policing to healthcare. Despite what you’d like to believe, racism isn’t a personal failing. It’s baked into the established system. Everything in our society, including the news media and popular culture reinforces that. With that in mind, it’s very likely that you, being a product of that system, are actually racist to some degree. Honestly, given the givens, your being NOT racist is EXTREMELY unlikely.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about goodness. Everyone wants to believe they are a good person. In fact, there’s no limit to the mental gymnastics people will do in order to hold onto that belief. But what if our whole idea of goodness is wrong? What happens to that belief then? Our society has taught us to buy into the false binary that you’re either a good person or you’re not, period. What if, instead of goodness being measured as some perfect beatific state that you reach and cling to into perpetuity, it’s a process that you go through, in an effort to consistently improve yourself?
For a number of reasons, I choose the latter. First of all, it takes the ego out of the equation. When you are operating from a place of ego, you end up devoting a lot of energy to how you are perceived. Sharon Osbourne wasn’t concerned about being racist. She only cared that people would THINK that she was. This is also why a lot of conversations about race are unproductive. The usual result is that the conversation shifts from the POC’s reality to the white person’s feelings and their reputation as a good person. Given the way that our society thinks about the concept of goodness, this makes total sense. After all, if you have established yourself as a “good person”, any suggestion of possible wrongdoing, whether intended or not, becomes a personal attack. When faced with an attack on your character, the natural human reaction is to defend yourself and double down. This is exactly what happened with Sharon Osbourne. She retreated to the position of protecting the notion of her innate goodness, rather than taking a moment to reflect on her position. On the other hand, if your ego is not involved, you’re far more likely to be able to take a step back and evaluate the situation more rationally, without making it all about you and your unimpeachable nature.
This brings me to my third point, that seeing goodness as a process allows for human fallibility. We’re all human. We make mistakes. We fall short sometimes. However, our culture’s approach to the idea of goodness doesn’t allow for that. More often than not, people will choose to metaphorically die on the hill rather than admit that they might have been wrong. This is exactly what we saw play out on The Talk. In contrast, viewing goodness as a process would have removed this problem from the situation, and they could have possibly had a more productive conversation.
Lastly, and most importantly, when you have the view of goodness as something you strive for, it makes room for learning and improving. The world around us is constantly changing. What was acceptable behavior five, ten, or twenty years ago is now frowned upon. This is true with regard to issues of sexuality, gender identity, and relative ability, in addition to race.
With all that in mind, if someone does actually tell you that you said or did something racist, can you PLEASE not take it as a personal attack on your character? Here’s a fun idea: Can you use it as a chance to learn and grow? As much as you like to tell people how you’re a good person, this would actually go a long way toward proving that you are.