I have a neighbor who likes to call black people coons in private. He won’t call them coons in public though. Instead, he will stop mid-sentence, smirk and wink, and say, “I have a word in mind, but I’m afraid to use it in public.”
The social pressure on him does not keep him from thinking of black people as coons. But it does keep him from polluting the public space with his inner fears.
When an unknown assailant blows up a bomb in Oslo and opens fire on clean-cut white kids at summer camp, our emotions run high and we want to grab torches and a piece of rope and march off into the darkness to lynch the nasty people who did this to us.
Anger and fear and the desire for retribution are completely normal responses to an attack. Only someone cold and heartless would deny his fellow human beings the emotions that flow naturally after an event like that one.
But the strength of the emotions swirling inside of you does not relieve you of your responsibility to not pollute the public space with your fear and anger.
About a day after the attacks in Oslo, I was talking to a friend of mine. She is an intelligent, articulate person whose opinions I often disagree with, but always like to hear.
She commented on the Oslo attack and blamed it on “the Muslims.”
I mentioned that the police hadn’t arrested anyone yet, and that it was too early to know who did it. Her response was simply, “They have a lot of Muslim immigrants there, they are creating problems, it’s a shame.”
We like to tell ourselves our initial reaction to an event doesn’t matter much. We like to tell ourselves that it’s okay to let our emotions flow unfiltered past our lips, as long as we will let our cooler heads prevail when the facts begin to come in.
But how we choose to react in the moments immediately following an event does in fact affect what the world will look like afterwards. Our reaction might not affect who will go to jail for a particular attack. But it does affect what will and will not be acceptable drivers of our society’s actions in the unrelated events that will follow in the weeks and months and years to come.
If we allow our neighbors to use the word “coon” in public, we signal to them and to others that it is okay to disrespect black people. Similarly, in the hours after an attack on Oslo, if we allow our neighbors to blame Muslims even though no one knows yet who is responsible, we signal to them and to others that it is okay to displace our anger and fear onto Muslims.
My neighbor calls black people coons because when he was growing up, people around him taught him it was socially acceptable to lash out at black people when he was feeling scared and confused. Today it is socially acceptable to lash out at Muslims when we are feeling scared and confused, as long as we tell ourselves we will allow our cooler heads to prevail when the facts come in. It is a childish way to react to the world, and we need to stop it.