The students who called the service "disorderly," "crazy," or "a joke," were not making any racial reference. They were just expressing preferences. Or It was joke gone too far. Or It didn't mean anything at all.
Whatever it was, this argument goes, these were generally nice kids who love people and do good in the world. They are not racists, therefore their actions cannot be racist.
But do we really need Klan members to have racism?
The title of this post comes from one of my favorite books about racism, linguist Jane Hill's The Everyday Language of White Racism. Her beautifully crafted argument is that U.S. Americans (particularly White Americans) use several strategies in interpreting language. One is "intentionalism," the idea that language gets its meaning from what the speaker wants to say. The second is "referentialism," the belief that language also gets meaning from the objects it references in the world. In much of our communication, this is exactly how language is working. But, she points out, language also has the feature of "indexicality." That is, when we tell jokes, they're often funny not because of what the language references, but because of the context in which it indexes something else. We can be inadvertently funny when we say something (intention) that references one thing, but indexes another. Like when we put our foot in our mouths with a "compliment": "Oh you look so nice! I didn't recognize you!" The intention and reference are clear, and complimentary, but the index (you don't usually look nice) is also clear. Thus, this is an insult, but without an insulter.
Racism can work like this. When someone listens to gospel music and declares it "disorganized," (true example from #chapeltweets), he may just be intending to say that he doesn't know where to look; there's a lot going on; he is confused. At the level of intention and reference, nothing racial there. But indexically there are some layers here. Mind you, the performance in question did not involve people forgetting the lyrics, bumping into each other, or not knowing who should step up to the mic. At that level it was orderly. But it was more complex than some other (European based) forms of music. To call it "disorderly" is to make a comparison. To what? To "orderly" worship. To "normal" worship. To "white" worship. The word "disorderly" indexes similar terms such as "irrational," "uncontrolled," "messy," and "dirty." It is part of a semantic range of terms.
Where is race? In the tweet in question, it was made explicit by saying the "craziness" of the African American worship should be replaced by "ChappyK," our white college chaplain who became a metonym of White "orderly" worship. But he didn't even need this comparison to make it clear to the reader that the "disorderly" worship of these black folks was being compared to "orderly" worship of traditional European musical forms.
I do not think for a minute that the boy who tweeted this is a white supremacist who avoids people of color and promotes racial hatred. He is a young guy who has not yet been encouraged (or allowed?) to question his cultural and racial assumptions, assumptions built into the language of American English where "slang" is for the "ghetto," and to sound sophisticated is to avoid any trace of urban dialect, no matter what you're saying. This boy is not a racist, but his easy indexing of a racial hierarchy, in which language and art forms associated with whiteness are intrinsically superior to those associated with blackness, is racism. This is the system into which he can tap to produce a 140 character judgement that classifies one group as "disorderly," and keeps Bach canatas on top.
Racism does not require racists. All it needs to thrive is people who deny the wider historical and cultural context in which their words and thoughts live.