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That Terrible Banana Peel

  /   Saturday, September 23, 2017   /   Comments(0)

Sometimes it’s hard for me to take allegations of racism in this country seriously. It’s not that I deny that racism exists. Even if I did, the latest events in Charlottesville should have been enough to convince me that it does exist. I don’t deny the evil of racism either. I know it’s sinful. Let me share an incident that has happened in the news to illustrate the problem I have.

In August 2017, a retreat for leaders of fraternities and sororities at Ole Miss (which happens to be where I went to school) was cut cut short due to one supposedly racist incident.. A breakfast had been served that included a fruit cart with bananas. I guess one of the students took his banana to go. He looking for a trash can to throw away his banana peel and couldn’t find one. So, he put the banana peel in a nearby tree. One of the members of a historically African-American sorority saw the banana peel and, having remembered a recent incident involving bananas that really was a racist incident, became disturbed by it.

A meeting was called later that day, and the student who put the peel there explained himself and apologized for it. However, that wasn’t good enough for the offended. They claimed that they didn’t feel safe, and the end result was that a big production was made out of it. The retreat was cut short. My favorite line was that the student who discarded the banana peel needed to consider the “effects of their actions versus their intent” because of the “fear and anger” that was incited. Never mind that it seems pretty unlikely that such an effect could have been anticipated by the student who did this.

I once read a meme that someone posted on Facebook that said something like “If I tell you that you’ve hurt me, you don’t have the right to tell me you didn’t.” There are really two extremes that we need to avoid in cases like these. One is usually not socially acceptable by any decent person. The other seems to be the direction in which our society is headed, and I can only think that it will lead to worse relations between different groups of people as we will fail to walk on eggshells to avoid being accused of “bias.”

The first extreme is only acceptable to genuine abusers. These are the people who do objectively offensive things and blame the other person for taking offense. The incident I have described would have been an entirely different issue had there been a racial slur written on the banana peel or had it been hung from the tree on a noose. It is beyond question that white supremacist groups are wrong. It’s not just about black and white races either. It’s just as wrong to walk up to a Latino or Asian person and tell them that they need to go back to their own country. It would be wrong for someone to meet a Catholic priest and immediately tell him he’s a pedophile. I can’t imagine a decent person saying that a person offended by any of these things is being too sensitive.

The other extreme actually concerns me more because it’s becoming a kind of norm. This extreme basically says that one who is offended by the words or actions of another doesn’t have any responsibility at all for how he interprets those words or actions, and to suggest that he does is “blaming the victim.” This mentality goes beyond the fact that someone was offended by something that was said or done. The person who committed said “offense” is guilty of an enormous evil. Maybe it’s completely unforgivable, or maybe the “victim” makes a major drama about being offended but never seems to be able to describe anything in particular that he wants done about it. Someone has been “triggered,” and now the entire world must be horrified by it.

So, we end up with a group of people being super upset because someone discarded their banana peel in a nearby tree. Great offense is taken because the table centerpieces at a dinner were cotton stalks. If we were deliberately looking for something to be offended by, it would be hard to tell if anything would be any different.

Maybe I had my chance to make some major drama. I am married to an Asian woman, and on two occasions at an amusement park an employee questioned me when I tried to board a ride with my wife and her immediate family. After all, they just assumed that, just because I don’t look like her family, I must not belong with them. What terrible racist people! Really, what could the operators have done? They didn’t have any way of knowing whether I belonged with them or was jumping the line. Still, I could have made it into a racial drama and gotten them in big trouble for nothing more than trying to do their jobs as best they could. Instead, I just laughed about it, and I still think it’s funny.

All of this is not to say that misconceptions and unintentional slights shouldn’t be corrected. St. Ignatius of Loyola is a good guide in this matter. He would tell us to always be ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement. If we can’t, ask the other how he understands it. If the understanding is not good, first correct with kindness before using more forceful means of correction. In other words, correction needs to be done with an assumption of good will rather than making something into a drama by too easily condemning someone as “racist” or “sexist” or “stereotyping.” Only after someone responds in a way that rules out good will can we assume that there is none.

We also need to recognize that we can’t expect everyone to understand everything about any given race, culture, or religion. I’m Catholic, and the number of misconceptions about the Church is huge. Although I love to talk about it and help bring people to understanding, I have to accept that not everyone will understand. It’s not necessarily a form of bigotry or hatred, but instead it can just be a form of ignorance that someone just doesn’t see the need to correct. Often, when people don’t know something, then don’t know that they don’t know it. I can’t imagine the student putting the banana peel in the tree thinking he had better Google that for racist incidents just to be sure. How would that have ever come to mind?

We’d see a much better improvement in any kind of relations if we thought more critically about the things at which we take offense and took some responsibility for our reactions. Some things are objectively offensive, and true hate groups do exist. There’s no question that we need to fight against them. Other things are misconceptions that need to be corrected with charity. Some things are just misconceptions and misunderstandings, and treating them as racist, sexist, or any other kind of bigotry will merely stir up anger which serves no one. If we are continually taking offense, we leave each other walking on eggshells for fear of unintentionally triggering someone and being dragged before a bias incident response team (Yes, they exist on college campuses with who knows what kind of power!). It will become so restrictive that many will give up trying to improve relations.

Category: Catholic, Response, Social Commentary


           



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