Kyle Larson is a NASCAR driver. Kyle Larson said the N-word last weekend on a broadcast. Whether you are offended and upset, you aren’t surprised at all, or you think, “We should move on” (I’ll address that later), we should talk about it. It matters. Anytime that word is said, it matters. More importantly, how we respond matters.
For context, Larson isn’t just a NASCAR driver. Larson is one of NASCAR’s biggest names. A young professional driver that has seen some success and has some major corporate sponsors. In an industry where sponsorship is everything, Kyle has driven in cars sporting the Target and McDonalds logos among others. I say that to illustrate the tremendous amount of influence Larson has.
NASCAR, like nearly every other sport, is cancelled until further notice due to COVID-19. Drivers are looking for ways to interact with fans during this time and continue to promote professional racing. One major way athletes are accomplishing this is by participating in virtual sports or playing online video games and streaming it.
This past weekend, while playing a live streamed event with many of racing’s biggest names, Larson thought he was having communication issues with his microphone. Larson then clearly said the N-word on the live broadcast. Larson’s fellow drivers heard it and responded immediately with cringes, eyebrow raises, and one very appropriate, “Yikes.” However, no one corrected Larson’s use of the word in the moment.
On Monday morning, Larson issued a video apology on his Twitter. This is where the story begins to open itself up to interpretation.
While scrolling through the replies on Twitter I observed many Twitter users issuing quick forgiveness and welcoming him back with open arms. This got me thinking about how we should respond to something so explicitly racist. First, I think we must call a spade a spade. This is racism. That word is racist. That word hurts people. Don’t say it.
Digging deeper, Larson used the word as a microphone check while playing video games with his buddies. He said it in what he thought was a private moment with his friends. This could lead to the conclusion that this word is in Larson’s regular lexicon. This makes the occurrence even more troubling. It means those close to Larson condone or, at the very least, don’t correct Larson’s verbal racism.
Larson has been fired, but this is a piece of a much bigger puzzle. Hundreds of people on Twitter immediately forgiving Larson for such an egregious act should make us stop. If we dismiss acts of explicit racism, what small microaggressions are we allowing in our society every day? Racism is like a virus, it latches onto the heart, grows, and then is passed on to the next generation. However, it’s not social distancing that will eradicate racism. It’s social connection and dialogue that will end it.
As the term “locker room talk” has permeated our culture, we must hold one another to a higher standard of integrity rather than dismiss hurtful speech and be eager to “move on” just because the conversation is difficult and uncomfortable. This is especially true of those with influence in our society. If someone says it out loud when they think no one can hear or will be offended, we should assume it’s being said in their heart when someone can.
I encourage you to hold your loved ones accountable. They may not know the damage a word or microaggression can do. You aren’t just saving them embarrassment; you are saving someone from being hurt by someone you care about. You can correct gently. You can correct with honor. You can correct by simply saying, “Hey, you know I am saying this because I care about you but I don’t think you can use that (word, phrase, name, stereotype) anymore.” Or “Would you say that if (a minority friend or acquaintance) were here?”
Let’s learn from the Kyle Larson incident. Let’s not be silent on the headset, in the Zoom meeting, at work, in our living rooms, or at church. May we always stand up and speak out.