It’s almost a cliche. First, someone talking about blacks makes reference to fried chicken, watermelon, monkeys or dogs – or even uses the indefensible N-word. Then, along with the inevitable apology, comes the kicker: “I’m not racist.”
The latest denial is from golfer Sergio Garcia. Asked a joking question about having dinner with his adversary Tiger Woods, Garcia said: “‘We will serve fried chicken.”’ He later apologized for what he called a “silly remark,” then added, “‘but in no way was the comment meant in a racist manner.”
Perhaps the Spanish-born Garcia was unaware that chicken stereotypes have been used for at least a century to denigrate African Americans. Maybe he was unaware of attitudes buried in his subconscious mind. As the backlash increased, Garcia did apologize further, calling his remark “totally stupid and out of place.”’
But, by then, he had secured a place on the lengthy roll of people who have offered justifications for statements widely considered offensive.
How can words so hurtful be so easily brushed off? And what does the word “‘racist”’ even mean if it doesn’t encompass people who use racial slurs?
“‘I think it’s human nature that if you’re a racist you don’t want to admit it,” says conservative radio host Mike Gallagher.
“If Tiger said, ‘Let’s serve tacos at dinner with Garcia,’ the world would go crazy,”’ Gallagher said. “When a bigot tells a bigoted joke and they get called out on it, the pattern is, ‘I’ll say I’m sorry and maybe it will blow over.’”
The pattern is unmistakable. Said golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, after joking that Woods shouldn’t order fried chicken for the Masters champions’ dinner: The comments were “misconstrued.”
Said comedian Michael Richards, after responding to a black heckler with a lynching reference and the N-word: “‘I’m not a racist.”
Said actor Mel Gibson, after claiming that Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world: “I’m not a bigot.”
The phenomenon has been even more pronounced since Barack Obama became America’s first black president:
• Montana’s chief federal judge resigned after emailing a joke in which a young Obama asks why he is black and his mother is white. The punch line involved a dog. “Although [the joke] is racist, I’m not that way, never have been,” Judge Richard Cebull said.
• After drawing national attention for selling an anti-Obama bumper sticker that said “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012,” creator Paula Smith of Hinesville, Ga., insisted that neither she nor the sticker was racist. She called the uproar “amazing and entertaining.”
• New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino was pilloried for sending an email labeled “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal” that showed an African tribesman dancing. His response: “I’m not a racist. I’m proud to have created jobs for hundreds of people of every color and ethnicity.”
• Arizona radio host Barbara Espinosa said she “voted for the white guy” and called Obama a monkey. Asked if that was offensive, she replied, “I’m anything but racist.”
Clay Routledge, a social psychology professor at North Dakota State University, who studies the ways people defend themselves against psychological threats, said they often engage in “self-deception”: They may think they’re a good athlete, for example, or have an outgoing personality – or do not have racial biases.
“People have narratives about themselves, self concepts, a whole host of attitudes that they want to think about themselves,” said Routledge. “A lot of times they match well but sometimes they don’t.”
Other psychologists go further. They blame “implicit bias” – unconscious attitudes based on the way racial groups are commonly portrayed in the public space.
Using scientific studies that measure how quickly people associate words like “black” with “criminal” or “Asian American” with “foreign,” these researchers conclude that many people – of all backgrounds, not just white people – are unaware of their own racial biases.
Phillip Atiba Goff, a UCLA social psychology professor, says this may be what happened with Garcia: “He was trying to be funny. In the moment, especially if you’re nervous and not thinking, stereotypes come to mind very quickly.”
Goff emphasizes that having an unconscious bias does not mean someone is a racist; it means he or she is a human being who has absorbed ubiquitous information.
So, can a person say something racist but not be a racist? Might people who make racist statements be telling the truth when they say they are not racist?
Goff says it depends on the individual – but that the rush to brand people as racist obscures the bigger issue of the harm caused by their statements.
“Let’s have a conversation about why (Garcia)said it in the first place and why these moments seem to come up so much,” Goff said. “We should be able to say, ‘You know what? That was one of those implicit bias moments.’”
Whatever they are called, such moments come up every day for Logan Smith, a journalist who runs the Twitter feed YesYoureRacist. He started about eight months ago, after noticing a plethora of tweets starting with “I’m not racist, but.”
Some of his favorite examples: “I’m not racist but having a black president is just not smart,” “I’m not racist but black people scare me,” and “I’m not racist but I can see where Hitler was coming from.”
Smith said most of the tweets seem to come from teenagers: “They didn’t grow up seeing ‘coloreds only’ water fountains or civil rights marches in the papers or apartheid on TV and, as a result, many of them simply don’t understand what racism means,” Smith said via email.
“They think that unless they’re actually lynching a black person or something, they’re not racist,” Smith said, “because they don’t understand things like institutionalized racism or inferiorization and the historical context of their statement.”
Many might not know the ugly history of chicken and black stereotypes.
In the early 1900s, periodicals and postcards commonly displayed images of black people as grotesque, simple-minded “coons” obsessed with chicken and watermelon.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, a three-restaurant chain of Coon Chicken Inns was popular around Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland.
So when people associate black folks with chicken, the past often rushes into the present – as in a famous routine by the black comedian Dave Chappelle.
“A lot of black people can relate to this. Have you ever had something happen that was so racist that you didn’t even get mad?” Chappelle said.
He then tells a story about walking into a restaurant, contemplating his order with the counterman and, “before I even finish my sentence he says, ‘The chicken!’”
“All these years I thought I liked chicken ’cause it was delicious,” Chappelle said. “Turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken!”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He may be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington or firstname.lastname@example.org