The Accidental Racist?

Earlier this evening, I posted the video of an interview with Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus from the home they have apparently been held captive in for 10 years.  The story is amazing and Charles’ interview is not only riveting but entertaining- he speaks with emotion and style!  I thought it was wonderful and posted it to Facebook with a comment to the effect of “Best Interview Ever.”

Shortly after my post, two friends commented with clips that they felt were equally entertaining.  And suddenly, I felt very uncomfortable with my own post and motivation.  The two clips that my friends posted were strikingly similar in some ways- African American individuals, being interviewed shortly after they were involved in traumatic events in their neighborhoods (the first an attempted assault and the second a fire), and in both cases the people interviewed are certainly memorable, but I wouldn’t say in a good way.  I have seen both videos before and had been uncomfortable with them then.  The two women and one man being interviewed come across in a way that could be (and was) easily mocked and to me- the clips feel exploitative, at least in hindsight.  To say that these earlier interviews were newsworthy strains the definition.  And to be clear- I am confident that my friends, in no way, meant to be disparaging.  Charles’ interview reminded them of these other two- and I have no doubt that his interview will far eclipse these previous ones, in terms of fame and viewership.  I can guarantee Mr. Ramsey will be on a morning talk show within the week and his heroism rightfully celebrated.  It is the videos viewed together that brings up some uncomfortable but worthy questions for us all to ask ourselves.

To begin- I feel like I need to take a look at my own assumptions and attitudes, and examine exactly what within this interview connected with me.  Did I REALLY think he was articulate and heroic or was I responding to something less “noble” within myself?  Should I, as an individual, or us as a society be concerned that Charles’ thoughtful and compelling interview is viewed in the same light as the Antione Dodson or Sweet Brown interviews (you can look them up- I don’t want to repost) just because there were similarities- significantly they are all lower income, African American speakers?

Should we be looking at the media and asking how it is that these very different events end up looking so similar through the interviewers lens?  When I really boil it down- was I being racist in my perception or sharing of this video?  I don’t like the answer because I don’t know.  I think this is not a question of “truth” but depends on your individual perspective.  I certainly wasn’t trying to be racist or judgmental , in fact my perception of the video and Charles is extremely positive.  Even re-watching the video- I see a hero, a well spoken man, who under such intense circumstances tells a wonderful story.  But, I do also see someone very different from me- someone that I would be unlikely to cross paths with in the course of my daily life- even if these events were playing out in Seattle and not across the country.

I don’t know what the next step is in this inquiry is but I’d love some suggestions.  I know I have looked in the mirror tonight and am left wondering if I am as open and fair in my views as I like to think I am.  It is a humbling question that has no easy answer.

Your thoughts and feedback are welcome and appreciated.

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in product development. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at

Posted on May 7, 2013, in Big Ideas. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Hi Jennie. I don’t know if you get automatic notification of postings so you may or may not eventually see this, but I was reading your last post and saw this headline so I had to check it out even though it’s older. It intrigued me because knowing you I had to wonder about what might have caused you to feel that way. I remember that interview very clearly, and even though I first heard it on the radio, the style of speech was so distinct that it was clearly a person as you described. And even though it was clear that the individual was different from me, I don’t really think it was hidden racism that made it stand out. In this case I think it was several things. First, I think it was that something wonderful had happened and he was the instigator which gives him instant likeability, at least in that moment. But more than that, I think this was a case of viva la difference! Yes, our paths would likely never cross and that is what made his response so refreshing. If it had been me our someone like me the words would have been more reserved, carefully chosen, and as a result less honest. His response was completely honest and true, which if you saw my recent Facebook post on Richard Sherman was why I did not think his response was wrong and in fact I liked it for the same reason even though one was very humble and the other was most definitely not. Each was in the moment and we got a real glimpse at the full emotion and somewhat experience it ourselves, if we allow ourselves to. We go to theater and movies to feel. These interviews were real life but opened up those connections.

    Anyway, I go to movies to feel and read this blog to think. Thanks for sharing and keep it up.


  2. What would it mean to ignore him if he made you feel uncomfortable or because you worried too much about perception? I think as long as we truly see and hear people without judgment, we are honoring them.



  3. Kathleen Davis

    I agree wholeheartedly with both Lisa and Roger. I mean, there he was, eating his lunch, and he got pulled in to this unbelievable drama! I enjoyed the original clip very much just based on the utterly astonishing sequence of events, his ability to tell it in such a captivating manner, AND his use of humor why conveying it! That’s as deep as it goes. Sad that we live in a society where our enjoyment of story telling, which this basically was, is examined as to WHY we liked it. It’s okay. It’s not exploitive. Really. ;D


    • Kathleen Davis

      “while conveying…” not “why…”


    • Thanks Kathleen- appreciate your thoughts. I think his interview could be used in a writing class as an assignment- deconstruct what makes his story so compelling! It would be an insightful exercise for young writers.


  4. I struggle with my perceptions of racial identity and my inherent biases all the time…thanks for having such an open and honest forum!

    I think you are being too hard on yourself, Jennie. I watched the interview and was immediately reminded of how I felt when I watched this one, from Kai the hitchhiker: Many “person on the scene” interviews are exercises in discomfort…pablum questions from the reporter, awkward clichés from the regular person. What resonates with me for both of these isn’t the ethnicity of the interviewee, but the panache, the unguardedness, and the humility that come across so clearly.


    • Thanks Roger- you know I love a subjet with some meat on its bones- especially one that makes us look inside, not just at the world around us. Agree that Kai’s interview was riveting too- I remember discussing it in the office with you! Thanks for the feedback!


  5. Although I didn’t see the other clips that your other friends posted, I watched the original interview and was captivated by the storytelling ability the man who helped get them out. I can honestly say that I would have had the same reaction with anyone telling the story the way he did, and don’t think my reaction to it was any different because of his race or economic background. I too thought the interview was “interesting”, as you initially labeled it, because how often do you see such a raw commentary of an amazing rescue such as this. He was just going about his day, like any other day, heard screaming and did what he could to help. He did what we would hope any of our neighbors would do if they heard a call for help. What would happen if something totally crazy and out of the ordinary happened in our little suburban drive? Would the play-by-play account have been as sincere, expressive, and complete, or would it have been a controlled mini version of the same? I’m guessing probably the latter, and it that contrast that makes this interview so “interesting” to me.


  6. Kelly Kincaid

    Hi Jennie 🙂 been a while!!!
    Well, really interesting post, well done. i love uncomfortable honesty. What I was immediately reminded of is the idea of ‘othering’, going back to Said’s Orientalism – or Mohanty’s dramatic slaying of white/Western post-colonial feminist authors writing about ‘Third World Women’. Social constructions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ are very strong; ‘they’, and all that ‘they’ are – vulnerable/victims/whatever – need ‘us’ to help them, civilise them, provide development aid, or even intervene through heroic journalism. If we aren’t conscious of how people are othered, we can’t take it apart. There are still continental gulfs between races, sexes, countries, the abled and disabled, sane and mad, straight and everything else.
    Thanks, Jennie – you’ve thoughtfully and articulately confronted a very difficult issue. Again, great post.


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