I’m Racist

In the mid 90’s I was enjoying teaching at a southern liberal arts college that’s a few miles from where the first Woolworths food counter was desegrated as a result of carefully planned, courageous sit-ins by North Carolina A&T students.

A few college leaders decided it was time for us to address underlying racial problems between people both on and off campus. As part of the process “diversity training” required everyone to begin by admitting they were racist. I vividly remember that being a non-starter for some of my southern white colleagues.

Fast forward to this week and former President Carter’s assertion that Congressman Wilson’s “You lie” midway through President Obama’s health care speech was racist in nature. The right immediately countered that Wilson’s outburst and related Republican anger is explained solely by policy differences.

I wonder what lead diversity training experts to require diversity training participants to begin by publicly confessing racism. I suspect the more racist a person is the less inclined they are to acknowledge it. So as the right’s protests against Carter’s allegations grow more vehement, the more correct I think he is. Put differently, thou protest too stridently.

So which way out of this very human, racism-denial dynamic? What if we agree to talk about race and class differences through more subtle, nuanced starting points like “I have preconceived notions of other groups many which are probably inaccurate.” Or “I overgeneralize too much based upon my own limited life experience.” Or “I assume negative things about some groups of people too quickly.”

In the end, I agree with Carter that a relatively small minority of whites don’t think an African-American is qualified to be President of the United States, and consequently, they question President Obama’s legitimacy.

More importantly, I’m deferring to thoughtful African-American citizens making the same argument based upon all numerous Hitler comparisons from a few weeks ago, the “How dare Obama give a ‘back-to-school’speech to my kids” hysteria, and the repeated condemnations of socialism and the related questioning of Obama’s birth certificate.

I suspect that for maybe ten percent of whites the fact that an African-American convincingly was elected to the highest political position in the land is disorienting and disturbing.

I don’t expect former President Carter’s statement or these words to convince anyone that racism is a contributing factor to these recent events. In fact, I expect Congressman Wilson, the gun-toting Hitler holding sign people, the conservative parents who threatened to pull their children from school, and more radical elements of the right wing to continue to insist that they don’t have any racist bones in their bodies.

2 thoughts on “I’m Racist

  1. Thanks Ron for your series of illuminating articles exploring a society calibrated along class and racial lines.

    (Not that your entry regarding Facebook or the touching essay on Kennedy and your father weren’t good reads as well!)

    In fact, referencing your Facebook article here now, I can say that part of the reason I’m not a fan of Facebook, in addition to simply not needing to expose myself on that level, is because I couldn’t stomach the lives of my so-called crowd with their stack of professional degrees and three hundred friends and their obvious delight they’re on the good sides of most striations.

    I’m well aware of the black elite Ta-Nehesi Coates talks about, its presence. Perhaps because I as well as many people I knew growing up—many of whom I might find on Facebook by the way—could so easily be described as being a part of this social group as it is defined, at least in North America. What makes us different though is that most of us, even if in some cases North American by birth, did not grow up here; we grew up across the world; we’ve brought different baggage to the table.

    Our parents have served presidents, wined and dined with royalty. Most of us have friends of all colors, if not all societal stripes. Most of us know what is going on in the world. Most of us have attended private schools and top universities on this continent or in Europe. Many of us are “classists” if not racists. Many of us have inherited economic buoyancy and have good jobs by virtue of our education.

    Nevertheless I stick out from this group, the proverbial sore thumb. Perhaps because I am not as “personally accomplished” as many, perhaps because I’m gay.

    Growing up, at first I didn’t realize being black and privileged was considered unusual. I was aware of poverty only as something certain relatives were mired in, or as something I might see as disease or starvation in some third world country, in Nigeria for instance, my homeland; perhaps as something my father rooted from, and was determined his three sons and two daughters would never experience—or as something malevolent out there that got children who didn’t study hard in the end. Later on I became more nuanced in my observations; I saw that “bite marks” from other stressful events in life could easily be equated with those of poverty—an English classmate in Germany whose parents abused her and who kept it secret, springs to mind.

    As I gradually became aware of the “entrenched elite echo chamber” you describe I saw myself as a bit of an anomaly in the crowd. Other than my own family and the social network that arose from that, most people I knew from school and onwards and outward were white, with a smattering of Orientals; but a precious few blacks.

    Today the white and black members of my large and extended family have all expressed indignation at the tea parties of this summer and Joe Wilson hurling his insult at your president. But nevertheless there seems to be something missing in the reactions of some of the white members of my extended family, some of those I would consider closest to me: no sense of passion, of sheer and utter condemnation at these people who would hold up hate-filled racist signs about Obama and scream that he should return to Kenya.

    Maybe it is because as you have alluded white skin privilege is something that has afforded them a buffer against this most potent of societal rejections. I suppose what baffles me the most is their true lack of empathy, their inability to draw on those times in their lives they were excluded for one thing or another, a sports team say, and identify with the sense of being downtrodden by another group of people.

    But then again, a lot of them were good at sports too, so maybe that example wasn’t the best one to give.

    I agree with Carter. Racism definitely still exists in North America—even in cozy Nova Scotia. But I don’t take it personally now. Why should I? Someone could choose any number of things to dislike me for. I have absolutely no control over what that characteristic might be. It could be my foreign origins, my English accent; the fact I ought to get my braces tomorrow and not next month. The color of my skin is just simply one of those things, something that may or may not be a factor. I can’t take it personally. I know reverse racists exist as well. I also know about racism within the center, and discrimination amongst the segregated.

    These things are human constructions and nothing else, and how silly it really all is. Racist views are simply another manifestation of “they” vs “us.” I wouldn’t deny its similarities with my own “classist” background and the pressures I felt growing up not to hang around with people “not of my level.”

    One good thing: the America of even fifteen years ago couldn’t have handled the racial tensions currently in the air. I think the current debate with all its passion and heated rhetoric is a good one to have—to air the dirty laundry so to speak.

  2. Given the state of our culture, one can’t simply dismiss racism as a factor in politics. As recently as 1994, with a Democratic President and a progressive female who believes in human rights representing the US at the United Nations, the US worked actively to prevent any action on the Rwandan genocide. Even as Gen. Dallaire was begging for troops and an expanded mission, pleading that it wouldn’t take much, since the perpetrators were teens with machetes, dozens of whom were often held back by one UN officer just raising a weapon, he was ignored. The US and Europe focused instead on Bosnia and the conflict there. Rumors of ten or twenty Muslims executed created a sense of crisis and moral outrage. How can we allow this to happen — didn’t we say “never again” after the holocaust?

    The juxtaposition of the reactions to the gruesome yet relatively minor atrocities in Yugoslavia with the barbaric genocide in Rwanda shows strands of racism. Sure, you could argue there were security issues for NATO since Bosnia is so close to NATO territory, or that Rwanda unfolded so quickly that it was hard to know what to do. But the fact is that the US and the Security Council had clear and accurate information, and not only did they choose to do nothing, they actively opposed efforts to support the mission. Africa was unimportant, primitive, dark, savage, and beset by ‘tribal violence.’ The Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, well, that’s different. Never mind that the only reason the Tutsis and Hutus fought was because of actions by their Belgian colonizer.

    So the racism is deep within our culture, and in our psyches — some more than others, but it’s clearly a factor.

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