On Monday, this video of a blonde white woman doing two minutes of racist ranting appeared on twitter. It’s ugly, bigoted stuff and I have a hard time imagining that it was not emotionally harmful to many of the black people sitting in the same subway care or seeing the tirade on twitter. That’s the purpose of hate speech–to wound, damage, discourage, and depress. I’m white and I felt discouraged and depressed listening to that garbage.
At the same time, I grew up in an abusive family, am writing a couple chapters on 1830’s/1840’s blackface minstrelsy, and see some familiar mechanisms at work. In blackface songs like J. W. Sweeney’s “Whar Do You Come From” and “Jonny Boker,” the “n-word” was used to humiliate and degrade black people while simultaneously providing white audiences a crescendo of shared pleasure. Every refrain would highlight the n-word as if it was the secret to salvation Shared racism has long been a foundation stone of white culture and my father tried to socialize me into racism as part of his effort to make “a man out of me” while I was a teen in the 60’s.
But the audience for the blonde woman in the subway car was overwhelmingly black and her pleasures in racism didn’t seem to be shared with other white people. Instead, the blonde woman was waging a one woman race war that she was determined to dominate through insulting black people, first by using the n-word 7 times–n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word. I’m not familiar with any writing on the ways in which insults are important to conservative discourse in the United States but white conservatives have been working overtime since the 2020 election to apply new insults like “woke” and “groomer” to intimidate and discomfit their liberal opponents. For the blonde racist, openly using the n-word and other insults like the c-word, “mental retard,” and “Black Vagina” are all ways to aggressively attack her enemies.
Another part of the oppressive power of the blonde woman’s racist speech is the transgression of the widely held norm against openly using the n-word in the U.S. Much of the original power of early blackface came from the transgression of white performers dressing up as black men and black women and the blonde racist relies on the transgressive power of the n-word to pursue her race war against the rest of the subway car. People in the car objected, called her “crazy,” and indicated that the video was going viral but they lacked the legal ability to either enforce the norms against hate speech themselves or access to any kind of police power to enforce the norms on their behalf. Unable to silence the blonde racist, they had to listen to her respond to each of their points by yelling more insults and screaming at them to “SHUT UP.”
I don’t have any solutions in which I’d have confidence. As someone who grew up in an abusive environment, I would conceivably have the ability to yell back. But I generally freeze when these kinds of ugly situations erupt and a reasonable black person might think that responding forcefully to these kinds of racist fanatics just makes the situation worse. So I don’t know what could be done about it.
But I still think it important to take note.