BY EDWARD KEENAN
No one’s saying communications crisis management is easy—if it were easy, the word “crisis” wouldn’t be in there, with all its attendant associations with beheaded chickens and houses on fire and whatnot. But we can learn from real-world examples to see which strategies work and which don’t, and try to develop better strategies as we go along.
So let’s say you’ve said or done something that makes people think you’re a raving unrepentant racist. That’s a bad thing. And it can be hard to think of a good response, unless you’re proud of being a racist and want people to know you are—and even then, this is likely to be very damaging to your prospects.
The best strategy for dealing with a People Have Good Reason To Think You Are A Racist crisis is preventative.
Step one: Don’t be a racist.
Step two: Don’t say things or do things that are racist.
Step three: If you find yourself about to say something and you’re tempted to preface it by saying, “I’m not racist, but…” or anything of that nature, you’ve likely failed at the first two steps. Immediately shut your mouth—employ duct tape if you have to—and go back to step one.*
But let’s say that you have failed at prevention. What then? It’s hard to know. Let’s look at three cases where that situation arose recently and see what strategies were employed, and see how those involved might have done better.
CASE ONE: DONALD STERLING
The context: An NBA owner with an apparent history of discriminatory behaviour as an employer and a landlord is caught on tape—which is released to the public—telling his half-black, half-Hispanic girlfriend that he doesn’t want her appearing in public with black people or minorities. He goes on national television to clear the air to ask for forgiveness and explain that he was “baited” into saying things that sounded racist.
What he said:
Big Magic Johnson, what has he done? He’s got Aids … what kind of a guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he catches HIV?
Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people, and some of the African Americans—maybe I’ll get in trouble again—they don’t want to help anybody.
Success at proving an absence of racism, on a scale of 1-10: 0
Where he went wrong: If you’re trying to show you’re not a racist, it is absolutely essential that you avoid drawing sweeping negative generalizations about the bad character of specific racial groups. Follow closely: Doing so is actually an expression of racism—it is, in fact, very close to the definition of what most people understand to be a racist belief. Also, it is generally a bad idea to smear prominent members of that racial group as evidence. See, the thing here is that this makes it sound more like you are trying to justify your racism. Which is something racists do. It is not something non-racist people do, or even feel tempted to do. Which may be related to how we got into this mess.
Perhaps try this instead: “I’m an old man, which doesn’t excuse anything. But I guess it might explain why I’ve got a lot of warped attitudes I haven’t examined very closely and, to be honest, when I heard that recording, I was kind of shocked by how hurtful the things I’ve been thinking and saying are. Shocked and ashamed, because these ideas are obviously wrong, obviously hurtful and, in many cases, are hurtful to people I know and respect and care about very much. Life has been very good to me, and after all my blessings, I know no one owes me a chance to learn in public, so I’ll certainly accept whatever discipline I have coming my way from the NBA and whatever disgust people express with me. I deserve it. So I just want to apologize and acknowledge the things I said are categorically wrong. But privately, I have some thinking to do about my own attitudes and actions. I wish I had done that thinking and learning a lot earlier.”
CASE TWO: THE PEOPLE OF GEORGINA, ONTARIO
The context: In a township where, in recent years, there have been scandals about assaults on Asians (called, in their case, “nipper-tipping”), the hanging of a black-painted skeleton on a Confederate flagpole, and students wearing Confederate flags to school, a young black high school student is beaten by a group of white students while racial epithets were hurled at him. People begin to publicly wonder what exactly is going on in this small town that creates so many racist episodes.
What they said:
One resident says there is no racial problem at the school:
“Our school does not have racial overtones,” said Julie Grainger [to the Toronto Star], mother of a student at Sutton District High School, where the incident took place. “I have a feeling that if this happened in Toronto and it was a white kid, and black kids did this, it wouldn’t be news,” Grainger said. “But it’s news because it’s a black kid.”
Another said this is a case of “meep meep”:
“Everybody screams racism, but we, as white people, as a community, I am the minority in my own country, so excuse me if I don’t agree with everything that they say. Because it’s OK for them to say things about us, and as soon as a white person says anything it’s like ‘wah wah wah, racism, meep meep!’”
Success at proving an absence of racism, on a scale of 1-10: 0
Where they went wrong: Let’s get something straight—if you’re discussing a young black boy being violently beaten in front of a crowd on school property while people shout things like “pound the n—–,” your hypothetical about what might happen if a white student was the victim of a crime in another city is not really relevant. Especially not if your main argument is that there are no racial “overtones” at your local school at all. Because you just emphasize that there are, in fact, racial overtones. The kind that lead to violent hate crimes. As for the second person, the phrase “everybody screams racism” might be a warning sign to reach for the duct tape, especially if what follows is going to be a string of stock racist phrases ending in the mockery of those upset at a violent, openly racist beating.
Perhaps try this instead: A couple of the residents quoted in the Star article set a good example for their fellow citizens. One 17-year-old says, “There were only a handful of people involved in the incident and the rest of the student body was very upset.” Another community member says, “I would say there’s an issue with just some kids at the high school, and they’re probably from families where they were raised that way, and that’ll never change. There’s just certain people that are like that … It’s hard to change people.” From that sort of premise, one might go on to say, “The rest of us, who are just as appalled as you outside the community are, have to make it clear to our classmates and neighbours that this kind of attitude and behaviour is not acceptable or welcome or tolerable in this town—or anywhere else. It may be difficult to change people’s minds, but we can certainly make it clear that if they express attitudes like that, they’ll get shouted down, and if they act violently on those attitudes, we’ll fight back instead of standing around cheering. This whole community has some work to do to ensure everyone knows this is a place where we respect and welcome each other, regardless of race.”
CASE THREE: MAYOR ROB FORD
The context: An elected official who has been repeatedly reported to use racist epithets while staggeringly drunk (and engaged in other illegal or objectionable activities), and who has repeatedly claimed he is not only not racist but is in fact the most helpful politician to black people in the country, addresses his attitudes towards race in a secretly recorded audiotape of another of his drunken episodes while he is behind the wheel of his car.
What he said:
During one call as he drives that night, Ford is recorded as saying the following about Jews, blacks and Italians: “Nobody sticks up for people like I do, every f—ing k–e, n—-r, f—ing w-p, d-go, whatever the race. Nobody does. I’m the most racist guy around. I’m the mayor of Toronto.”
Success at proving an absence of racism, on a scale of 1-10: The scale is broken here, I think.
Where he went wrong: I’ll just be over here with my face in my hands.
Perhaps try instead: “I am just going to resign and go away to deal with all of my very many problems privately.”
TO WRAP UP: When in doubt, just say “sorry.” Or, perhaps, say nothing. Nothing at all. ‘Tis better to be thought a racist than to open your mouth and prove it beyond all doubt. Because at least with your mouth closed, you don’t do any more damage, to yourself or to other people.
* Of course, all of us live in a society that has racist elements built into it, and none of us are immune to subconscious assumptions and prejudices and none of us is fully able to extricate ourselves from the apparatus of the the society we live in and be fully aware of how the things we’re participating in a societal level may or may not contribute to systemic racist effects. So perhaps the simple instruction “don’t be a racist” is actually not all that simple at all. That’s a discussion for a more advanced class—today, we’ll deal with the kind of racism that involves using racial slurs and committing hate crimes. Students who successfully move beyond that can begin their reading on more subtle topics. In that class, we’ll likely discuss the advisability of a smart-mouthed white dude writing holier-than-thou humour pieces about racism. [back]