(N → -∞)
Late on Easter Sunday 2020, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson said the N-word. Yeah, that one.
He was participating in a virtual charity race, trying to get ahold of his spotter. Thinking he was speaking on a private channel, he said, “Hey, n—–.”
I don’t think his spotter was Black; it doesn’t actually matter. I haven’t watched the video, and I probably never will. From the descriptions I’ve read, which emphasize how calmly, easily, naturally he said it, my mind hears this phrase in the same tone all the bad guys in Law and Order use to discuss their crimes. It’s that casual affectation that signals to the viewer, this is normal for me.
This is normal, period.
Maybe it feels normal to many, albeit in a different way: It feels normal because of course a NASCAR driver said it. Cue eyerolls from the general public. Goddamn rednecks, etc. It’s true that NASCAR flies more Confederate flags than any other sport. In an era where President Trump has excoriated the NFL for its players’ role in protesting racial injustice in the United States, Trump happily flubbed his way through the command to start engines at the Daytona 500 this past February.
So of course a NASCAR driver said the N-word. The general progressive public sighs. They condemn the backwater left-turn-making hicks so outside of their own elevated worlds and scroll past the headline. They congratulate themselves for being nothing like him.
But Kyle Larson is not a Confederate flag-wavin’, moonshine-runnin’, good ‘ol boy racist caricature racing stock cars in 1947 in the Jim Crow South. It’s 2020. He’s a Millennial, 27 years old. He grew up a stone’s throw from California’s state capital, in a town that’s majority non-White. He is himself Japanese American. And for fuck’s sake, he got his start in NASCAR by virtue of the sport’s Drive for Diversity program, which is an initiative that has the specific goal of welcoming and developing NASCAR members from minoritized or underrepresented backgrounds.
For all these reasons and more, Kyle Larson seems an unlikely culprit when it comes to using violent racial slurs. In a sport where tempers flare hot more often than they don’t, Larson is known for being even-keeled. His is the kind of passion that manifests not in language, but in his ability to make a mistake, spin a car going 180mph in close quarters with 30-odd other cars, hold it off both inside and outside walls, and get it straight again without ever coming to a complete stop. When a competitor stole a win from him with a last-lap bump and run, much to the chagrin and fury of his fans, Larson was invigorated rather than soured by his defeat. He likes being raced hard, even if it means losing.
But he can also come across as aloof, reticent. If it’s not explicitly about racing, Larson often forces NASCAR’s journalists to work hard for their soundbite. And there’s a difference here between “about racing” and “about NASCAR”; the latter also involves the business side of the sport, the management. It involves advocacy in terms of rules, safety, driver agency. When it comes to leadership roles in NASCAR, Larson comes across as both apathetic and underprepared.
I know all of this because NASCAR is my favorite sport in all the world, and up until last Monday, Kyle Larson was my favorite NASCAR driver.
Kyle Larson is not a closet Klan member. When you think “racist,” he’s not what comes to mind. He doesn’t dream in swastikas, or wish lynching was still an acceptable spectator sport. He doesn’t post bold, capslocked white supremacist proclamations on social media. I’m willing to bet money that he’s never actually thought a Black man might be a worse racer, or a worse person, than him. He’s not that kind of racist.
But this is not a defense; it is not an absolution. There is more than one way to be racist, and the quieter forms of racism might in fact be the more powerful kind these days. They go unaccounted for; they are downplayed, normalized, and too easily forgiven.
Kyle Larson is not a closet Klan member, but Kyle Larson is still racist. He’s the kind of racist that doesn’t think enough about swastikas, lynching, or Blackness. He doesn’t have to; he’s not Black. What Larson showed when he said, “Hey, n—–” on a hot mic, globally broadcast, was not his latent hatred of Black people. He showed his unthinking disregard for the cultural weight of the term, its history–the gravity of that history. This disregard is also harmful, and it is also dangerous. Again, it may well be more dangerous than tiki torches and white hoods, because it is so much easier for people to hear about it and think, “well, is that all?”
That’s exactly what a lot of people said, eager to spring to Larson’s defense. These people also trotted out defenses so old and stale it’s as though they came straight out of the package, perfectly preserved from the mid-90s.
Things like “but Black people get to say it.”
“If it’s so bad, why is it in rap lyrics? Maybe rap is bad. (RAP IS BAD!)”
In fairness, in NASCAR it is often the mid-90s. Those were the glory days, after all. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was alive and well, still racing for his elusive Daytona 500 victory. Jeff Gordon, young Rainbow Warrior, was taking the sport by storm.
But even in this 90s NASCAR heyday, the sport’s flagbearers knew the portents of the United States’ troubled history with race. Dale Sr. famously opposed the use of the Confederate flag as a marker of Southern pride. Even as a 26-year old rookie in the year 2000, NASCAR’s crown prince, Dale Earnhardt Jr., admitted, “I feel like the weight of the Civil War is resting on my shoulders.” He was speaking in reference to the Confederate flags that fly at races, and managing the tension between his own beliefs–that the flag is a racist symbol–and his relationship to NASCAR’s fans. Perhaps it means something different to them, he reasoned. But nevertheless, it is also a tacit endorsement of a fundamentally racist Confederate state. Again, the refusal to name that history for what it was is its own form of racism.
This condemnation might be contested by the “is that all?” crowd. They bristle at the idea that racist words or symbols are still racist, still violent, even in the absence of malice or intent to harm. Countless members of the gaming community took to Twitter to defend–or at least normalize–Larson’s word. With the jaded condescension of a grizzled cowboy drinking bottom-shelf whiskey in a tired saloon, a man who’s clearly seen some shit, these gamers said: If you think that’s bad, you should hear what people say in [insert gaming situation here]. Other Twitter users even called it a “gamer word,” claiming it as part of gamer culture in an attempt to distance Larson from its roots in white supremacy.
But that’s the thing. That word doesn’t just have “roots” in white supremacy. It is and will always, unremittingly be hateful, violent, and racist. That it has become such an accepted part of gamer culture is not a shield; it is a tragedy.
Even before last Sunday, It was clear to me that gamer Larson does not see himself as the same person as game day Larson. The weekend before, when iRacing at the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, he was black flagged and parked for intentionally wrecking a fellow competitor–something that, in a real race with real cars and real bodies on the line, he never would have done. Previously, he’d also gone wheel-to-wheel with a virtual competitor in a virtual dirt race, ultimately spinning the other car and sending it into the wall. In real life, that’s a major infraction. In a fenderless, open-wheel sprint car, that kind of move can kill someone. Despite iRacing’s hyperrealism–touted aggressively by NASCAR’s commentators–it’s clear Larson didn’t buy it (and was hardly the only one). The racing was virtual; the consequences were virtual. Nothing really mattered. Right?
But virtual racing still takes place in the real world. Your virtual car may be on a virtual track, but you’re still sitting in a real sim rig. You’re still you, flesh and blood. Your words are shaped by a real tongue, fall from real lips, and are heard by real ears on real bodies. And the N-word is still freighted by the real history of the United States. It participates in the ongoing systematic oppression of Black bodies. As do you, the real and physical body that utters it.
To suggest that it is a “gamer word” and that guys like Larson use it all the time, thoughtlessly and easily, in virtual space, only serves as further condemnation of the insidious “is that all?” forms of racism that present themselves as organic, de rigeur, normal. In this sense, Larson is a victim of the systemic racism that normalized the word, made its weight and consequences seem less than they are. But Larson is not the victim in this story. He is the perpetrator. Whatever blame we lay on our collective societal failures, individual actions also incur real and individual consequences.
Within 36 hours of the N-word leaving his mouth, Kyle Larson was suspended from NASCAR; he was banned from iRacing, the platform he’d been using when he’d uttered the slur; he lost all of his major sponsorship contracts (with Credit One Bank, McDonald’s, Clover, Lucas Oil…the list goes on); he was terminated from his relationship with Chevy; and he was fired from his race team, Chip Ganassi Racing. This translates to losses in excess of $15 million, to say nothing of the rest of his racing career. He’s only 27. He may never race in NASCAR again.
These are steep consequences. It’s not like he hurled the word at a Black person as a hateful invective, right? It’s not like he killed anyone. Plus, he was deeply, genuinely, publicly contrite and apologetic afterward. Surely these consequences seem excessive?
Yet they are nothing compared to the consequences faced by Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a White woman on a dare. Within 96 hours, Emmett Till was forced into a car; he was beaten violently. He had his eye gouged out before he was shot in the head, tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett Till was only fourteen.
The words that left Till’s mouth were, “Bye, baby.”
Were Emmett Till alive today, he’d be around the same age as NASCAR’s legendary Richard Petty. Petty is very much alive, and very much an active part of NASCAR today. We’re not that far removed from this history, these consequences. 1955 is not that long ago. And it’s not like this kind of thing stopped with Emmett Till. Hundreds, thousands, of Black bodies have met with unjustifiable consequences in the decades since. Last year in Charlotte, North Carolina, the home of NASCAR and the metropolitan area where Kyle Larson also makes his home, 27-year old Danquirs Franklin was fatally shot by the police outside a Burger King. For only the second time in 23 years, Citizens Review Board of Charlotte ruled that contrary to the police chief’s decision, the officer was at fault in the shooting, and should be disciplined. (NB: She still wasn’t.)
If the consequences Larson shouldered seem extreme, I suspect it is because too often we are too lenient. The problem isn’t the standards to which NASCAR holds its drivers. The standards really aren’t that high.
The problem is that these standards are higher than, for instance, those to which the United States holds its President. The President and his “shithole countries,” “bad hombres,” and “Chinese virus.”
False equivalence, you say? A little. None of these epithets are the N-word, which is so powerful to say it is to spit in the face of the millions that died by it. But ask yourself this: Does it matter? If the power of this “is that all?” brand of racism is to negate violence by saying, at least it wasn’t as bad as X… Does it matter?
I said earlier that Kyle Larson’s brand of racism was defined by not thinking enough about lynching, white supremacy, or race. He seized the privilege of getting to be thoughtless about the weight of his words, because they didn’t affect him personally. It’s easy to be dismissive of him. To think, well, I’d never say that! But just as you don’t have to be a Klansman to be racist, you don’t have to say the N-word, either.
The problems with #cancelculture are many, but one of the big ones is that #cancelculture suggests that if we can just excise the “bad eggs,” then we’ve solved the problem. The woke “we” can go about our business, and the “cancelled” can rot. In reality, racism is and has always been a more pervasive force in our world than that.
Of course, it also doesn’t seem like enough to condemn the act, but not the person. It’s inadequate to say, for instance, that while Kyle Larson said a reprehensible word, he’s not a bad person. It’s true–I don’t think Kyle Larson is a bad person. But I don’t think he gets to be a “good” person by separating a word from the mouth that uttered it. Racism is and has always been a more pervasive force in our world than that, and his use of the term is a manifestation of a pattern of racial thoughtlessness. It’s not, in fact, a one-off, and it demands accountability at a deeper level. What #cancelculture does not leave room for is cultivation of this accountability.
By contrast, I believe in restorative justice. In this case, restorative justice offers an opportunity to be called in–to be invited to learn from your mistakes and do the hard work of being better. It doesn’t mean there should be no consequences, or that Larson should get to keep his lifestyle, his salary, his dream career. It means only that when I say “Kyle Larson is racist” I do not mean that from this point on, he always has to be.
As far as calling in goes, it feels like the cards are stacked against him. He doesn’t have, for instance, my own privilege of being constantly surrounded by scholars and activists thinking very deeply about race. What Larson needs to do is something that even activists and academics committed to remediating racial injustice find personally difficult. Meanwhile, Larson has a high school education, and no extra training in African American history, or critical ethnic studies. He may never have even heard that term before. His life since graduation has been marked by his quick ascent into a world that thinks in terms of asphalt and tire wear, downforce and engine heat. It thinks in money, and more money–the Fortune 500 and the glitzy spectacle of things called “The Big Machine Vodka 400 at The Brickyard, presented by Florida Georgia Line.” He is part of a world so much a picture of the failings of late capitalism, our national failure to root out gross inequality, that watching Larson’s sponsorship deals fall like dominoes can perfectly mirror the groaning tilt of the U.S. economy under global pandemic. It’s not a world well-equipped to meaningfully discuss or address systematic oppression. If it were, maybe a Drive for Diversity graduate wouldn’t be broadcasting the N-word to millions in the first place.
But then, I’d also push back on the notion that being non-White automatically makes you less predisposed to racism, or more equipped to understand it. Like Larson, I am Japanese American, and anti-Blackness is alive and well in my community, too.
In characterizing the uphill battle Larson faces, my intention is not to focus on the tragedy of the racist–to say, Okay, racism and the legacies of slavery are sad and all, but look at how hard these legacies make it for non-Black people! Anyone ever think about THAT? That’s definitely not the point of any discussion of race. But I’m a teacher. I’m part of a learning community that focuses specifically on race and ethnicity, and antiracist pedagogy. I have a PhD with a sub-speciality in critical ethnic studies. I believe that there is once instance in which the focus should be on the perpetrators of racism. That instance is when we name the racisms within ourselves. When we name them in order to admit our culpabilities, work to unlearn these cultural reflexes, and wrestle with the bald truth: For most of us, racism doesn’t just belong to someone else. It’s work we all must do. And this work is hard as hell.
I see in Larson a potential student.
Can Larson rise to the challenge? I’ll admit I’m selfishly invested in this question. I want to root for him again. But I’m not sure. Because I’ve been a fan, I know that Larson has a tendency to be dismissive of failures that arise from his mistakes. To say “whatever” when he wrecks out of an exhibition race, or to say “it’s just a video game” when someone calls him out for unsporting virtual behavior. And yeah, as a racer, you can’t take all your failures personally. Sometimes you need to brush off and move on.
The N-word is absolutely a failure to take personally. It’s also one where it seems like it might be easier to disappear, and quietly resolve to never be heard from again. To give up on the possibility of remediation and shrug, damage done. To my cautious but pleasant surprise, however, Larson hasn’t done that. Thus far, the Larson that’s shown up in the wake of his incredible, violent thoughtlessness is game day Larson: The Larson with humility, and willingness to address his failings. The Larson driven by heart and raw passion–the Larson willing to expend endless energy fighting for who he wants to be, what he wants his world to be. The Larson who revels in rising to challenges. The Kyle Larson that I root for.
He has a long way to go. I don’t know if he’ll be able to find the tools, or know what to do with them. The fact remains, the odds are stacked against him. But I want to root for him in this–more than I’ve ever rooted for him on track. I will root for him in this. I want to believe that he can do this, because I want to believe that I can do this: We can unlearn our racisms, endeavor to be always thoughtful, and commit to the work of being not only “less racist” but actively anti-racist. I want to believe that the United States (and the rest of our racist world) can do this, too.
(N → -∞)