Are You a Racist for Thinking a Racist Thought?

“As many of you know, I said something hateful on the air Wednesday night, something no one should ever say. Something that no one should ever think.”

— Thom Brennaman, Fox Sports announcer

Thom Brennaman’s career was already in freefall. Fox suspended him immediately for referring to a city as “one of the fag capitals of the world.” And like many immediate, obligatory apologies, his didn’t feel genuine if, for no other reason, that it came that night.

I made a comment earlier tonight that I guess went out over the air that I am deeply ashamed of. If I have hurt anyone out there, I can’t tell you how much I say, from the bottom of my heart, I am so very, very sorry. I pride myself and think of myself as a man of faith—as here’s a drive into deep left field by Castellanos, it will be a home run, and so that’ll make it a 4–nothing ballgame—I don’t know if I’m going to be putting on this headset again. I don’t know if it’s going to be for the Reds. I don’t know if it’s going to be for my bosses at Fox. I want to apologize for the people who sign my paycheck. For the Reds, for Fox Sports Ohio, for the people I work with, for anybody that I’ve offended here tonight: I can’t begin to tell you how deeply sorry I am. That is not who I am. It never has been. And I’d like to think maybe I could have some people that, that could back that up. I am very, very sorry, and I beg for your forgiveness. (https://slate.com/culture/2020/08/reds-announcer-thom-brennaman-found-a-new-surreal-way-to-ruin-a-public-apology.html)

You read that right. Brennaman made a home run call mid-apology. 

He went on and issued his written apology later in the week.

Until this point, I had a neutral view of Brennaman. I come into this discussion with no malice towards him. 

And though it’s impossible to say what’s going on in Brennaman’s head, I instinctively don’t feel his written apology is genuine. How could he have reflected on his attitudes to change them in such a short timescale?

I’m neither qualified nor interested in psychoanalysis, and I don’t want to get bogged down in the proper apology timeline. Instead, I want to focus on the one line in Brennaman’s apology that I emphasized at the start of this essay:

“As many of you know, I said something hateful on the air Wednesday night, something no one should ever say. Something that no one should ever think.”

It speaks to our overly woke culture that anyone believes that thinking something bigoted means they’re a bigot. It doesn’t.

And before you wallop me with your wokehammer, I’m not saying that Thom Brennaman isn’t a bigot.

I’m saying that thinking something bigoted doesn’t mean a person is a bigot.

I’ll prove it to you.

Read this recent headline:

Hornets suspend radio announcer for using n-word in tweet

Did you just replace “n-word” in your head for the word it represents? Of course you did.

Does that make you a racist?

Of course it doesn’t. It’s absurd as claiming that black and white folks look the same to you.

That’s because thoughts are transitory. Sam Harris, a mindfulness expert, tells us, “not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness—is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness.”

Real Apologies

What matters is what we believe. We mustn’t ignore bigoted claims. They must be called out.  But then we need a path for legitimate character reformation. Cancel Culture needs morph into Reform Culture. 

I imagine it’s satisfying to mete out justice by canceling someone for being a bigot, just as it may be satisfying to put to death someone who has committed a capital crime. 

But shouldn’t we allow more people the opportunity for fundamental change? To reform their beliefs? Thinking that we can eradicate racism by canceling all the racists doesn’t seem a workable long-term solution.

Our justified cynicism of public apologies aside, shouldn’t we want to believe in the promise of Brennaman’s apology — that he will transform his beliefs?

Brennaman’s particular reform path might begin with realizing that all the counseling in the world almost certainly won’t remove thoughts from his mind. 

It might end with his not just refraining from uttering homophobic slurs, but also recognizing gays as equal members of the society in which he lives.

I hope this is an ideal we can at least hope to achieve.


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