The states of our union truly are the laboratories of our political culture. It seemed, this week, that Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, had done an unbeatable performance of the politics of whiteness with the one-two stroke of his meltdown during the Michael Cohen hearing when accused of racist pandering, followed by the reappearance of videos of him on the campaign trail promising to send Barack Obama back to Africa. But then a humble state legislator, Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Harford County, Maryland, beat him.
Lisanti was in trouble this week for having, as the Washington Post put it, “told another white lawmaker that when he campaigned in Prince George’s on behalf of a candidate last fall, he was door-knocking in a ‘n—– district.'” White people, and white politicians, are forever getting caught using racist language, but it’s hard to express how spectacularly gratuitous this time was, in context. Lisanti’s constituents live in the poorer, multiracial end of a county that’s otherwise white exurbs and white rural areas not yet converted to exurbs. She reportedly said the slur while out at a bar with white and black Democratic colleagues, using it to insult a Democratic stronghold. Every political and social force around Lisanti ought to have kept her from even thinking about saying such a thing, yet it came on out of her.
A word that was not in her vocabulary came out of her mouth.
And so, presented with this situation of obvious personal guilt, she issued a statement denying it on an existential level. “I am sickened that a word that is not in my vocabulary came out of my mouth,” she wrote.
No matter how many times it reappeared in the news or on Twitter, it remained a marvel. Something serious had happened: she was “sickened” by it. But how had it happened? A word that was not in her vocabulary came out of her mouth. She spoke a word; the idea of a word somehow emerged from her brain, and the signals for how to make the sound of the word traveled down her nerves to her lungs and larynx and mouth, and the word emerged and vibrated through the air, in a way that made perfect semantic sense with the words before and after it—but she, herself, was absent from the whole process. She used a word, herself, yet the word is not in her vocabulary. When everything in the entire fabric of reality says you did something racist, all there is to do is deny the entire fabric of reality. The alternative is impossible.