Donald Sterling, the Rules of Racism, and White Saviors: Our Word Will Never Be Enough


Then this is a day of independence for all the munchkins
And their descendants
Yes, let the joyous news be spread
The wicked old witch at last is dead

-- Mayor, Wizard of Oz

It's been very entertaining to watch the self-congratulatory outrage from many white liberals concerning the ongoing Donald Sterling saga. On TV talk shows, in graduation commencement speeches, and at receptions for summer law clerks, enlightened white folks use Donald Sterling as a racist boogieman, a literal punchline, as if he was the bottled-up evil jinn of racism and now the good white people are about to vanquish him. Heck, one woman on MSNBC even described Donald Sterling's words as "demonic."

These folks are righteous. And this has been one hell of a self-righteous circle jerk of white liberalism.

Never mind that this whole "Donald Sterling as Wicked Witch of the West" bit is counterproductive to the notion of civil rights justice for several reasons. Firstly, this incident misleads folks into thinking that all instances of racism and white supremacy are so obviously gift-wrapped and identifiable. It provides absolution.

"Well sh*t, I'm not doing what he's doing. Must not be racism."

Also, it creates an unattainable standard for proving racism/white supremacy. "Well damn bro, you say that this landlord has been discriminating against people of color for decades? But you don't have them on tape like we caught Donald Sterling? Can't help you."

And therein lies the rub to this whole affair. Make no mistake: Donald Sterling's crime was being stupid. Donald Sterling's crime was getting caught on tape. Donald Sterling's crime WAS NOT -- contrary to popular belief -- being a racist. No, Donald Sterling was a very successful racist for many years with impunity and very few of those same (now) outraged, liberal white folks said a thing. In fact, plenty of people knew that he was a bigot; problem was, only people of color knew about his racism. And it's an unwritten rule America: UNLESS 1) a white person co-signs what people of color say about racist behavior from other white people, 2) or it's caught on tape (either video or audio will do), people of color are simply unqualified to identify racism/white supremacy for ourselves.

We're not objective, evidently.

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Sterling got caught and that the NBA is taking serious action, but good gravy -- this is what it takes to make white people believe what people of color have been saying about him for years? Finally, a tape that corroborates decades of complaints from people of color, from Elgin Baylor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar to numerous Black and Latinos who said his rental company refused to rent to them. No action from the NBA or the many liberal white folks who are now aghast at his tape. After all, those folks are just Latino or Black -- what do they know about racism? But now that there's a tape? "Hey, y'know what? This Donald Sterling character is kinda a racist!"

Well, doy.

Perhaps it's time we have a more honest discussion about the rules of race and racism and white supremacy and the extent to which, in 2014, these relics still inform every single one of us. Race and Racism In 2014 Rule Number One: Liberals don't like to talk about race but will do so out of necessity when a Donald Sterling situation arises to prove their liberalness. They would prefer to assume that racism is a thing of the past and that these Donald Sterling situations are the anomaly. However, Race and Racism in 2014 Rule Number Two, when a Donald Sterling situation does arise, once the offending party is vanquished, we all must move on quickly and never talk about "race" again (until the next incident). It's a burden when we constantly remind them that racism is still alive and well for many people of color, "Can't we just get past this?" Reminds me of a brilliant statement by amazing feminist theorist, Barbara Smith, "For those of you who are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how much more tired we are of constantly experiencing it."

Barbara, please repeat that: "For those of you who are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how much more tired we are of constantly experiencing it."

Which brings us to Race and Racism In 2014 Rule Number Three: always have a white person or a camera handy to prove what you are saying when you are being discriminated against. As much as many would like to believe otherwise, Donald Sterling is simply the window dressing of 2014 racism because he was stupid enough to get caught. He's the whipping boy, easy to diagnose and ultimately easy to get rid of because of his own stupidity. But the Donald Sterling situation clearly brings MUCH bigger issues to light in regards to people of colors' lack of credibility and the burden of proof that white people put on people of color to prove when accusations of racism arise. People of color's word simply isn't enough to merit much of a response other than that they're "playing the race card," as many accused Elgin Baylor of doing when he accused Sterling of running the Clippers with a "plantation mentality."

Finally, Race and Racism in 2014 Rule Number Four: once an objective white person or camera corroborates what people of color have been saying for years about a particular person's racism, some white liberals will demand immediate action and save the day. We knew this was coming -- as soon as the ridiculously high burden for racism is proved, all of a sudden it becomes a white liberal punchline to show separation from that particular racist's worldview. Like Donald Sterling.

The wicked witch isn't dead -- in this case, that witch is a behavior, racism, and not a person. And until we have an honest discussion about race and why people of color are not competent to identify racism, we'll never be able to vanquish her.

Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and an attorney. He grew up on both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Indian Reservations and continues to work and live within his community. He is the author of two books, "How To Say I Love You In Indian" and "Don't Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)", both available at He also writes his own column for Indian Country Today Media Network called "The Thing About Skins." His twitter handle is @BigIndianGyasi.