Smile Politely

Finding nuance in times of great offense

You know Smile Politely’s brand is progressive, liberal, and occasionally snarky. So you may be expecting a Meyers Leonard article from us, in light of his undeniably generous donation, to have a flavor of condemnation and discontent. Surely the decision to announce his donation the day after a hostage situation at a synagogue in Texas was ill-timed and questionable.

Instead, we are using the resurgence in this news story as a springboard to contemplate forgiveness, nuance, and who gets to bestow absolution on behalf of a group or community. 

One problem is mistaking these sorts of incidents as individual or isolated. By that we mean two things: This is probably not the first or only time Leonard has used this or other slurs in casual conversation, and he is a product of the society and culture in which he was raised. 

It’s important to highlight this difference between Racism™ and the Racist, and racist/prejudicial actions. The first instance describes the totality of a person’s identity and because racism is evil, ipso facto that person is evil. Any conversation becomes focused on an individual’s morality, goodness, or worthiness. In the second instance, an observed behavior becomes a point of conversation in which a person’s “evilness” isn’t what is up for debate, but rather the merit of that discrete action, the harmful thoughts that underpin that action, and what impact that action has on others.

This is not to give a free pass to anyone who says racist things to just shrug and say they’re a product of society, but to instead ask us as a collective to take responsibility and examine the racist systems and biases that fuel these incidents. In other words, we’re not saying all the people behind the Chief mascot accounts defending Leonard are racists, but we are saying their mascot choice is a racist action and perhaps they ought to think about why they are so staunchly committed to perpetuating it. What is happening in our community that promotes these kinds of decisions as a positive choice? 

So having separated the individual issue and the systemic issue here, where does that leave us with Leonard as an individual? On an individual level, Leonard seems to have taken some sincere steps to atone for his action. These steps are beyond any punishments or requirements imposed by the NBA. This included meetings and some charity work benefiting Jewish communities close to Leonard’s current community in Florida, as well as having a meeting with the Illini Chabad during this visit to announce the donation. 

In our opinion, this is modeling good behavior in these types of situations. Leonard held himself accountable, acknowledged the pain he caused and sought to learn more about it, and consulted with at least some members of the community to make amends. And while a handful of representatives from Chabad cannot be said to represent the entire Jewish community locally or globally, it seems evident that a good faith effort was made. No one individual has the power to grant forgiveness on behalf of an entire group. 

Furthermore, if a group or members of a group that has been targeted or harmed by racist, prejudicial actions decides that the action was unforgivable, they are well within their rights to refuse to forgive the perpetrators. In an ideal world, allies and bystanders who were not directly harmed by the perpetrator would intervene to mitigate the possibility of compounding the harm that was already done.

In other words, members of a marginalized community shouldn’t have to do the emotional labor of educating someone about why it’s important that people not dehumanize them. In an ideal world, Leonard would have known the harm he was causing by perpetuating anti-semitism. But that is not the world we are living in. We are living in a world where Leonard played for a team that still refuses to name a new mascot to put an end to the racist mascot argument. Indeed we are specifically living in a state that elected Mary Miller, who said “Hitler was right about one thing” in a speech. 

Miller and Leonard are both public personalities and as such have a responsibility to society to model good behavior. For better or for worse, their choices both reflect culture and create it. The difference between a Leonard and a Miller is that Leonard has demonstrated humility and a willingness to learn, whereas Miller offered a tepid apology only after receiving enormous backlash, and has done no meaningful work to demonstrate personal growth.

Moving from an individual level to a systemic level, Miller’s continued presence in the United States House of Representatives demonstrates just how grandly we continue to fail to adequately address these issues. In America, we hold dear our right to free speech which some people interpret to mean freedom from consequences, no matter how hateful the speech. But hate speech has grave consequences. Often, it is the precursor for suppression of rights and even genocide

And if you are sitting there thinking that sounds like an exaggeration, then you have the luxury of growing up without the family trauma of having lost ancestors to the Holocaust, the Atlantic Enslavement Trade, apartheid in Israel, the Rohingya Genocide, the Uyghur Genocide, or any number of historic and ongoing genocides. Consider yourself lucky and ask yourself: How can I be part of ensuring this doesn’t happen again, to me or to anyone else? 

Many countries in Europe banned hate speech for these very reasons, and in December the European Commission put forth an initiative to criminalize hate speech throughout Europe. Maybe it’s time we consider something similar in the United States given the clear links between hate speech and violence.

In the meantime, it’s important to hold celebrities, politicians, neighbors, and ourselves accountable for the speech and ideas we put out into the world, though not by “canceling people” who make mistakes. Certainly they should be “called out,” but then it’s time for “calling in” to provide an opportunity for atonement, education, and growth. Sitting in our isolated echo chambers and othering those who don’t agree with us is not productive. 

If we can’t agree on the fundamental humanity of people in our community and their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is nothing further that can be said here. So if someone persists in their racist/prejudicial actions, despite backlash and criticism and being ”called in,” maybe then we label them a Racist™ and give up. But the stakes are too high to not try to find nuance, give grace, and address the systemic issues rather than just walk away.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

Top image from the Illini Chabad Facebook page.

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