Leonard Pitts: Don’t say, ‘I am not a racist’

This column is presented as a public service.

A few days ago, Greg Glassman, the founder and CEO of CrossFit, set off an uproar by belittling the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. In a Zoom call with gym owners, he bristled at the idea of memorializing a man whose killing outraged the nation and the world.

"We're not mourning for George Floyd," he said. "I don't think me or any of my staff are. Can you tell me why I should mourn for him? Other than, it's the 'white' thing to do?"

Then he took his scorn public with a flippant retort to a tweet calling racism and discrimination "critical public health issues." Replied Glassman, "It's FLOYD-19." The social media backlash was furious, and Glassman issued a statement, saying he was "deeply saddened" by the pain he caused. "It was a mistake," he insisted, "not racist but a mistake." By Tuesday, according to the New York Times, nearly 1,200 gyms had decided to disaffiliate from CrossFit, and its founder was stepping down.

That said, we aren't here today to bury Greg Glassman. He's done an effective job of that on his own.

No, this is for the next Greg Glassman, the next white person who finds himself excoriated for saying or doing some racially offensive thing. It is to beg that unlucky individual to not compound the transgression by retreating as Glassman did to the cliche of cliches, the one that makes folks sigh and roll their eyes, that signals like a neon flasher you are not to be taken seriously.

Don’t say what Michael Richards said after he threatened to lynch a black heckler, what Amy Cooper said after she called 911 on a black man birdwatching in Central Park, what Roseanne Barr said after likening a black woman to an ape, what white folks always say when caught with their hands in this particular cookie jar.

For the love of Heaven, please don't say, "I am not a racist."

So what should that person say instead? Glad you asked. Here's a template for future apologies:

"I am profoundly sorry for what I said or did. I apologize to the people I hurt. There is no excuse.

"I won't insult your intelligence by saying 'I am not a racist' because I know I am. As a white person in a society where every institution is geared to advantage people like me, it is literally impossible for me to be anything else. In that, I am like a man in a male-dominated society. He cannot help being sexist, his good intentions notwithstanding. Saying he's not sexist is like a fish saying he's not wet.

"Many of us as white people struggle with that. That's because we process racism as a loathsome character defect, when really, it's the water in which we swim.

"No, the question is not whether we are racist, but what kind of racist we will be. Will we be the overt kind, whose behavior marks her from a mile away? In many ways, her very obviousness makes her the least dangerous.

"Will we be the racist in denial, who thinks that because he doesn't use racial slurs and eats lunch with a black guy at work, he's all good? He's ultimately the most dangerous, because his racism is reflected in implicit bias but otherwise hidden, even from himself.

"Or will we be the racist in remission who knows good intentions are not enough, that he must consciously commit not simply to being non-racist, but actively anti-racist?

"That's what I aspire to and what I hope I achieve more often than not. But when I said or did the offending thing, I fell short. That doesn't reflect my intentions or my best self. So I ask your forgiveness.

"Like all of us, I'm only human. I will try to do better next time."

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com