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On Tuesday, Rep. Brad Boles of Oklahoma publicly referred to Black infants as “colored babies” while speaking on the Oklahoma House floor. He later walked back his statement, sheepishly claiming he had a momentary slip of the tongue, and then allegedly reflecting upon the harm his words caused, through the lens of his own Indigenous history.
While I do not dispute Rep. Boles’ ancestry, I have a response: You cannot hide your racism behind a momentary lapse in judgement. You cannot hide your racism behind your identity and privilege. And if you are willing even to think that phrase, you clearly cannot hide your racism at all.
I say this is a Jewish woman with white skin. I can reminisce about the positive impact Jewish people had during the 1960s Civil Rights era, or the fact that Jewish professors taught Black students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) following World War II. Jewish stores were lost when 35 blocks of Greenwood was burned to the ground during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Recognizing racism doesn’t mean one is above racism
But the fact that I am Jewish does not absolve me from saying and behaving in racist ways. And the fact that I am Jewish does not preclude me from apologizing, and working to speak and behave in ways that reflect my commitment to equity and accessibility.
Consider that we are still in an era of Civil Rights — in an era of human rights, in fact, as we watch innocent Black men and women killed with impunity, oppressed by voting restrictions, and held to standards that my white brethren wouldn’t recognize or accept. That is the reality for Black people and other POC in the United States in 2021.
I hear the chorus of resistance from white people, who often protest, “But I don’t have privilege because I grew up poor!” Or “I can’t be racist because I have Black friends!” I do not deny the challenges created by a lack of financial resources. However, poverty does not mitigate the fact that white skin tone engenders privilege. I do not deny that having a diverse group of friends helps one recognize the systemic racism in this country. But it does not mean one is above racism.
Meanwhile, Rep. Boles’ apology also included the “slip of the tongue“ defense, in which he claims he was not fully cognizant of his words. I, too, have many slips of the tongue, often resulting in harmful words for which I later apologize. A slip of the tongue is not an excuse for racism either.
Rep. Boles, from one white person to another, I urge you to reflect upon your racism and work to improve your words, along with your actions. You represent citizens in the state of Oklahoma. Now that you have been seen, it’s time to focus on fighting against the pervasive racism in Oklahoma.