“Oh! Incidentally …” You’ve heard that or said something like it many times. You may have been talking with someone and the conversation suddenly called to your mind another concern about which you had forgotten. You mention it, while you are thinking of it … “Oh, incidentally … that reminds me … I just remembered …”

What you were reminded of was obviously not foremost in your thoughts, not a major concern, something relegated to a subsidiary notion, obviously not a priority matter, but something you just happened to think of … “incidentally.”

Most of us would agree that, when acts of bigotry and violence are perpetrated, they ought to be viewed as a major social concern, matters of high priority, to which immediate attention should be given. Yet often the beating, the mugging, the stabbing, the robbery, the break-in, the name- calling, the assault is characterized as an “incident.” So we soon find ourselves referring to a series of racial “incidents.” We can sit in the cool comfort of a cozy chair and talk about “incidents” abstractly.

When we begin to talk about “racial incidents” as a substitute for naming them as what they are, they become trivialized, de-personalized, and both compassion and passion are removed from our response. Maybe that’s why we use words such as “racial incidents;” it sounds a lot better than “racial mugging,” “racial stabbing,” “racial attack.” The abstraction reduces the hurts, the anger, and the shame. It also reduces the sense of urgency, that there is something of first importance to be addressed right now, right here!

I’m not referring to the difficulty of determining whether or not a stabbing or an assault for instance, is racially motivated. I focus rather on how we refer to violent behaviors after it has been determined that race is involved. Categorizing such violence as “incidents” may be an attempt to take the sting out of wounds we wish were not there. But they are there; racism exists, and naming its evidence as “incidents” will not make them disappear. The way of health is to name what happened correctly . . .”stabbing,” “beating” . . . You may call them “incidents;”be around to remind you that they are not incidental!

It may be that the use of the term “racial incident” arises from the fact that society generally does not view things racial as of first importance. If so then the use of “racial incident” is a way of saying “it’s not important” … “if we think of it tomorrow … incidentally … we may do something about it …” You may lapse into that relaxed state too easily; I’ll be around to remind you that racism is not incidental.

Look at that word “incident” for a moment. An incident, according to some of the dictionaries I have consulted, is a “natural happening, especially of a subordinate or subsidiary feature” … it is a “subordinate action or event,” an “accidental occurrence,” a “slight matter,” “something incidental to another.” Deriving from “incident” is “incidental,” defined as “casual, hence minor” or “a chance or undesigned feature.” Then we can add “co-incidence,” “coincidentally,” and with each derivative we are removed farther and farther from the event to which we refer. The heat of the beating, the mugging, the assault is removed, and the passionate anger is removed from our response. Dispassionate reviews are necessary, and I am not calling for blind passion in our response, but our capacity to emote is sometimes dulled by the way we talk about racial “incidents.” At times it may be necessary to “distance” ourselves from the pain of violence; I hope we will never allow ourselves to become “distanced” from the anger which demands that violence be stopped.

Acts of violence are not “incidents.” Let’s not think about them, or feel about them, or talk about them “incidentally.”