• Charles Steptoe

The Biggest Impact With the Smallest Word

Updated: May 26

by Charles Steptoe

Racism is not always throwing a brick through a window or being denied opportunities because of your skin color. It can be a hurtful word, an opinion rooted in ignorance, or even called a slur.

Mass shootings, police violence, slurs, all of these are frowned upon and actively shamed. But what about the little interactions like sly comments or ignorant words?

These little interactions are called microaggressions and they sting. They are little comments or gestures against a minority that are unintentional but still acts of racism. In my case, it was ignorance.

When I worked for Tiger TV two years ago, we received many hateful and random comments on our stories. One of my coworkers, who we will call Sally for privacy reasons, thought it would be fun to read the hateful comments in a funny social media video.

Late-night talk shows do it all the time, and I, too, genuinely thought it would be fun. We all took turns reading a comment and caught our reactions on camera. When it was my turn, Sally told me she saved a special one for me. So I read one about a former LSU football star.

“Devin White is a cornbread-fed, coonass just like the rest of y’all at LSU.”

I was taken aback and looked up. All of my coworkers were laughing.

When speaking to my friend after the incident, Louisianian Jack Dixon, told me “coon-ass” in Louisiana means a country, cajun person.

Where I am from, “coon” is an equal slur to “negro”.

I told my coworkers this was a slur to me, a Black man.

They laughed harder in my face.

I have been called much worse, but to see my friends laughing and telling me I “don’t understand,” I was shocked.

This was the first time it clicked with me. I am not like them.

When you look around and see a sea of white, you slowly realize you are the Black speck that does not belong. I cannot say that the people in this situation intentionally tried to attack me for my race, but honestly, that makes it hurt worse.

And if the microaggression was not bad enough, suddenly it became my job to educate this group about racial slurs. How is that fair to me?

I have to have the capacity to hear a microaggression, understand it, acknowledge the intention, understand the character of the person saying it, decide if it is worth my time and reputation to be angry, then educate them so another Black person does not have to go through what I experienced.

Then comes the fear of speaking up.

When educating someone willing to listen, the conversation is stressful but can be smooth.

But for many who commit microaggressions, the conversation of acknowledging ignorance somehow makes it feel like they are being called a racist.

Then they shut down.

This was my biggest fear when reporting my incident at school because after it happened, I still considered these people my friends. I questioned my intuition and wondered, am I right for going forward? Was it really a big deal? I don't want to get them fired. Was it just a mistake? This could be a learning opportunity for them. I'll just talk to them in private.

This was the dumbest thought process I have ever had.

To think I was so scared about being seen as another angry Black person, and even lower in the eyes of others, I considered letting it slide that I was made to read a slur on camera where a bunch of white people, a bunch of my friends, pointed and laughed.

I wouldn’t wish a low like that on anyone.

But sometimes, I secretly wish I let them post the video. I knew it would definitely blow up on social media for all the wrong reasons. Websites like Twitter love to attack racism and foster mob justice. I could have provided names, faces, even email addresses if they wanted it. These white people didn't care about me so why should I care about them?

The hordes of faceless critics behind screens in God knows where; sending hate to LSU and getting all of the student media shut down. It would have been easy. There was already bad press on student media and a push to have its funding cut.

They were stupid. They were insulting. They were infuriating. They were hurtful. They were so utterly and completely moronic that they pushed me into what I was afraid I would become, an angry Black man.

I knew that is not who I am, nor is it someone I want to be. I reported them up the channels and decided to put faith in the system. No one lost their job. No one was put on a break from working. They edited my portion out and still posted the video. We had a one-time conversation about racial insensitivity and by that next Friday, everything was back to normal.

They smiled in my face and I stayed another semester. I eventually left Tiger TV because I was slighted again and not given what I deserve but I can't blame that incident on race.

This ending seems unsatisfying, right? That is because it is.

In the end, the little man has to sit on his hands because what would I have gained? Do I really want a branch of student media shut down? All that would do is take away the opportunity for other Black students to discover their love for a field that does not care about them.

I know I’m no hero for not trying to shut down a place where racism is funny, but I’m no punk either. I stood up for myself the best and fairest way I knew how, I’m just a minority. And, unfortunately, my story is not too different from other Black people’s experiences.

I could go on about how I had a panic attack after watching my white peers praise a media piece centered on a Black man being tortured for fun, but I will not.

I could go on about being asked to make a show with the only other two Black people in Tiger TV called “DiverisiTEA,” where we talk about hip hop, but I will not.

I could talk about being outed in New York and the only people who encouraged me to report to my supervisor were my Black coworkers, but I will not.

I am tired of my stories falling on deaf ears.

So, instead, I am going to do what I always do, keep moving forward, keep being an incredible content creator and keep being Black. Whether it’s trendy or not.

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