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Should We Really Crucify Someone If They’re Accidentally Racist?

Last Monday, during Fox 8 News morning show in Cleveland, Kristi Capel was discussing the previous night’s Academy Awards with her co-host. While describing a rather impressive performance by Lady Gaga, Kristi used the word “jigaboo” to describe Lady Gaga’s typical music.

The internet was quickly in an uproar, because the word “jigaboo” is apparently a derogatory term for a black person, compared closely to a certain “n” word I’m not about to write. [RELATED: When’s It Ok For A White Boy To Say ‘Nigga’?]

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Kristi quickly apologized for her use of it, stating that she had “no idea it was a word or what it meant”. Which sent another flurry of upset individuals to express their disbelief.

Now, I’ve been around the social justice scene for a bit of time, though I’m far from a “Tumblr SJW”. I’m a known feminist (though I’m often described as “a dissident feminist” by acquaintances), and have been an activist for minority rights for my entire life (remember that “the smallest minority on Earth is the individual”). So what I say next may surprise some people but — I had no idea it was a word or what it meant either.

Cue reference to how much goddamn white (and pretty!) privilege I have, that I’m completely blind to a word that is, I’m told, as bad as that one I’m not going to write out. I do appreciate an education about words that are terrible offensive and have a long history of meaning that I should be aware of and sensitive to.

When I first saw the headline, in fact, it simply said a newscaster called Lady Gaga’s music “jigaboo music” and I assumed the internet had found a new meme with a made-up word. Since I’d never heard it, I attempted to glean the meaning from the context – comparing it to “hullabaloo” and thinking “oh, it must mean a loud commotion, like that.”

I had no idea it was a word, and no idea what it meant. Then again, I’m a 27-year-old white female who grew up primarily in Manchester, New Hampshire, a city of approximately 110,000 people in which 86% of them are white.

Kristi Capel is a 31-year-old white female who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, a city of less than 160,000 people in which almost 89% of them are white. She was also a beauty pageant girl, which doesn’t make her inherently stupid, but let’s be honest, that scene is not known for its feats of intelligence.

People on social media don’t want to hear any excuses. Ignorance is apparently not enough, they attempt to ascribe intentional hostility and racism upon her. Or even accidental racism. But racism.

I’m so tired of racism. I’m tired of shitty racist people, and racist cops and a horribly racist legal system that incarcerates a comparable number of black men as there were slaves. I’m also tired of hearing about the racism that isn’t apparent. The internalized, unintentional racism that apparently exists like original sin – it’s not our fault, we inherited it from our ancestors, but apparently we’re going to hell for it anyway.

I was on at least one comment thread on Monday that reminded me that there are people out there for whom hearing this word is like being slapped in the face. That was a powerful feeling to understand.

I cannot control how people respond to this word, nor what it makes them feel. Apologizing isn’t going to make it better, nor is telling them to “get over it”. I can only try to be a good listener while people fill me on the things I miss. I can be an advocate for those I listen to. I can try to teach compassion and kindness. But that means being compassionate to everybody.

Kristi Capel clearly made a poor decision. She will probably never forget that day, and may suffer many consequences, whether economic or social, for her use of this word. She apologized, which is pretty much all she has in her power to do.

That’s not enough for some. Conversations about closeted racism bubbled up in posts led by some of my closest progressive-minded friends. I see people presuming Capel grew up in a racist home, surrounded by racist people who must have used that word in front of her and certainly knew what it meant. In her single mistake, she carries the weight of every time we’ve ever witnessed racism. There’s so much conjecture that is aimed at a woman who none of us know personally.

Should anyone ever use a word they don’t know the meaning of? Probably not. Definitely not in mixed company or on television. Could she have heard it in her youth and possible not known what it meant? I’m going with yes, that’s a possibility. Could she have been struggling to phrase a flurry of dissonant activity which would accurately describe Lady Gaga’s music and grabbed at some odd-sounding word? Quite likely.

Honestly, if she’d said it about a white artist who “acts black”, like, Iggy Azalea, I’d be willing to seriously entertain the idea that she was making a racial comment.

Whether Capel has some deeply internalized racism, or vaguely remembered a word she heard once, or made up a word on the fly — none of us really know that. All of those options are entirely possible, and I think it’s really awful to presume people’s motivations, or their intentions, or their deeply seated biases. We have no idea. We are ignorant of how others may feel or think. Which is why compassion is so damn important.

I feel bad for her, because she clearly made a mistake. I feel bad for the people who are hurt by this phrase. I feel bad for the people for whom it reinforces their ideas that the world is a hostile place that will never be rid of racism. In my quest to be and do better, it means I should make very few presumptions about people and their situations. Including hers.

I’m giving Kristi Capel the benefit of the doubt. Something many of my friends were willing to give me when I stated I’d never heard the word before. Why is that? My social justice credibility is apparently high enough to be taken as an honest person? When I walked around my office of 20-somethings and asked them if they knew what “jigaboo” meant, nobody did. This actually gives me quite a bit of hope.

I tell people that someday I wish to live in a world where my kids turn to me and say “mama, what was war?” and I have to explain it in a historical context like when we describe gladiators and fights with lions. I want oppression to be a distant social memory, one we understand and learn from, but something barbaric that everyone sees as clearly wrong.

If the first step of that process is for a word like “jigaboo” to be totally unknown by the newer generations, I see that as enormously powerful and progressive.

Yet my social justice friends don’t seem to. In situations like this I watch as bullies stop all compassionate dialogue by threatening their defectors with adjectives like “racist” or “misogynist”. Imperfect activism and advocacy that doesn’t march in lock-step gets rejected with hostility, and as the thinking gets so much more black-and-white, allies are lost and I think that’s a huge detriment to something that should be tremendously unifying – a fight against oppression.

It is that fight where liberty and social justice can come together on the same side. My advocacy for anything is based on my capacity for compassion. It’s my guiding moral principle, that informs my commitment to non-aggression. I hope others feel this too.

Now we all know, don’t try to make up strange-sounding words while on television. You may not be a racist, Kristi Capel, but you’re also not Dr. Seuss.