Most everyone who spends time on social media has come across videos in which a white person is screaming racial insults, usually at a Latino or African-American. A recent example shows a woman at a ShopRite in East Haven, Connecticut, barraging a black man with racist invective.
But look more closely at these videos and eyewitness accounts for a fuller idea of what forces are at work. Comments on these videos tend to condemn the perpetrators as evil racists and nothing else. But what should be blazingly obvious to those who watch them carefully is that the assailants are almost always mentally unwell.
In the ShopRite incident, the black man was on a motorized shopping cart and had unintentionally cut the woman off, a white male observer told WPLR-FM. “She wasn’t looking where she was going.”
The white woman said, “Jesus Christ,” and the black man responded, “You talking to me, b****?” The woman then unleashed a tirade full of the N-word.
At that point, however, the dynamics changed. The black man started exhibiting great restraint, according to the witness. Other than the original B-word remark, he didn’t get verbally confrontational. It had become clear to all that the woman was unhinged.
Other shoppers tried to reason with her and worried what the two children at her side were experiencing. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, man, mom’s psycho,’” the eyewitness said.
In October, a video went viral showing a white woman blocking a black man from entering his apartment building in St. Louis. She demanded proof that he lived there. If she had been afraid of him, she wouldn’t have gotten in his face.
The African-American no doubt saw the bizarre behavior for what it was. “Please move, ma’am,” he said patiently while recording the scene.
The same month, a white woman called the police on an African-American child she claimed had “sexually assaulted” her in a Brooklyn bodega. A security camera in the store showed what actually happened: The 9-year-old had turned around, causing his backpack to brush the woman’s rear end.
The boy’s mother made strenuous objections to her ranting, and that’s when the white woman called the police. When they arrived, the boy was outside crying.
The neighbors did not buy into the woman’s denial of racist motives. She did eventually apologize. But the locals, convinced that she wasn’t playing with a full deck, nicknamed her “Cornerstore Caroline.”
Another video, taken at an IHOP in Los Angeles, shows a white woman yelling at another woman for speaking Spanish to her son. In a calm voice, the son tried to reason with the verbal attacker. “She’s not perfect, but she speaks English,” he told her in flawless English. And the mother did demonstrate that she could speak some English, not that she had an obligation to.
But really, what do you say to someone hollering “Go back to Spain” to a Spanish speaker in L.A. and asking, “Do you want the Russians over here telling you what to do?” I would have offered less explanation than the son, but he wisely spoke to her more like a child than a miscreant.
Psychologists have written a great deal on whether racists are actually mentally ill. They tread gingerly on the subject so as not to give excuses for vile conduct.
And it’s well-known that exposure to racism can do great psychological damage to people of color. This subject deserves its own discussion.
But let’s praise the victims of primitive racist taunts who maintain their cool. You offer us all instruction on how not to escalate conflict when provoked by those not entirely in control of their mental faculties. We thank you.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.