We’ve all seen the humiliating display of the white man who’s not sure if he’s allowed to say “black”. He looks around uncomfortably, slinks his shoulders, lowers his voice and says “The African American Gentleman” as if he’s introducing a foreign diplomat in the United Nations chamber. Not only is this foolish considering not all black people trace lineage to Africa, and there are white people who are African-Americans, but more importantly, this is not how people ordinarily describe their equals.
Perhaps it is this very gesture (and many other similar gestures) that condescends to entire classes of Americans and traps them in a cycle rather than enabling their advancement.
There are a few stubborn issues that prevent us from truly moving past ‘race’ in this country. First, true racism (differentiated from the modern, common misuse of the word) still exists. The extent to which it pervades our society or has been institutionalized is the subject of an epic debate that will not be resolved here. There are, however, fringe groups of believers in the supremacy of certain races based on characteristics, traits, and attributes inherent in those races. Second, there are incentives, and thus motives, in some political groups to perpetuate outdated attitudes about race even while outwardly expressing a different goal. This topic is so large and so prone to misinterpretation that we will not attempt to tackle it here, but will reserve for later.
The Third issue will be the subject of the remaining paragraphs here. Those in the racial majority (white people in the US, for the time being) do not know how to talk about race. This often results in lazy, hesitantly made cultural observations being attributed to that vile foe: bigotry, or even racism, when in fact ‘race’ was incidental to the initial observation, at best. When marked as a racist, many enlightened white men panic and defend themselves vigorously, or even begin to doubt their own heart and spiral down into self-deprecation.
Foundation – suggestions on how to think about race:
- Confront irrational stereotypes. Acknowledge those stereotypes with some valuable basis in fact. Stereotypes are generally considered ‘bad’, especially if they result in harmful prejudice. The idea that they should be eradicated, however, betrays logic. Images or ideas do not become stereotypes until they are widely held, and they are widely held for a reason. Sometimes these reasons are irrational or grossly over-exaggerated, but in other cases the stereotype has probative value. It is a difficult exercise, but we should force ourselves to categorize the stereotypes we have, discard and openly confront the irrational, and give appropriate weight to the probative and allow it to inform us.
- No useful or actionable lesson is derived from “black people are stupid and lazy”, “white people are evil and privileged”, or “Jews are greedy and control the world”. If we refuse to take notice of the man on the dark street wearing baggy pants and a hoodie in warm weather, or the young man in the front row of the movie theatre with shifty eyes and a backpack, however, we are not tolerant, we are foolish.
- Never abandon your common sense observations if you have determined they are logical, in an attempt to appear tolerant.
- Acknowledge the history of slavery. Confront the question of collective guilt. The fastest way to lose credibility is to deny history. Slavery of black people was real. Even after the formal abolition, of slavery, segregation and invidious discrimination really happened. The holocaust was real. The only rationale for denial of these events is an instinctive refusal to accept responsibility for actions one did not directly participate in. The human mind is small in its capacity to comprehend the most horrifyingly wicked truths. “I could never do such a thing. Most people are like me. Therefore, no one could do such a thing”. This introduces the complex problem of collective guilt.
- Picture the descendant of an early 1900’s Irish or Scottish immigrant whose family has no history of land ownership, let alone slave ownership, and who has clung to the lower or middle rungs of the US socioeconomic ladder since arriving on the continent. Privilege and comfort are foreign concepts to this “white” man who grew up on baseball, football, cans of beer and blue collar jobs. Isn’t it a tragedy for this white man to bear the guilt burden of slavery? Maybe not. The problem with collective guilt is that when it is misapplied it is a repulsive form of self-submission and humiliation.
- Collective guilt should not, and must not, ever be forced, either by law, or social pressure. Such a guilt could never be genuine, and forecloses the possibility of sincere reflection. Collective guilt, properly understood, is a personal decision made with self-respect and dignity. Picture now the families of 9/11 victims, the families (especially children) of slain soldiers, or those embroiled in a battle with a deadly disease such as cancer. What is the emotion we feel for these people? We might call it ‘sympathy’, ‘love’ or ‘support’, but is it very different from guilt? Certainly we did not directly cause their calamity, but did we not enjoy comfort and freedom while they suffered? Simply consider the concept. This does not require a personal admission of responsibility and should be separated from the criminal or legal concept of culpability.
- If you make the personal decision to bear a productive level of collective guilt (or whatever name you give it), don’t ever attempt to force your fellow man to accept it. This only works if it is a personal choice.
With those concepts in mind, the following are suggestions on how to talk about race.
- Don’t assume a knee-jerk defensive posture or say “I’m not a racist”. Let your life and your conduct make your case.
- Don’t patronize black people either overtly, or passively. If you don’t obsess over what to call the white guy walking down the street, don’t obsess over what to call the black man on the street. Don’t implement your own personal affirmative action program. Any suggestion that a black man should be given preference for a benefit, advantage or position on the sole basis of skin color assumes that he could not have obtained it with his own efforts. That he is not actually equal to you.
- Think and speak in a cultural framework. Despite the modern use of the term, there are only 3-5 actual ‘races’ in the world, so a good starting point would be to at least understand the difference between race and ethnicity. Even ethnicity is a red herring. Modern observations should be made on the basis of culture, which, unlike the broad supercategories of race, is made up of meaningful and significant attributes, traits and characteristics.
- Appreciate differences, but place more emphasis on what is the same. Some cultures blend well with others. Some do not. It is intellectually dishonest to label all efforts at cultural solidarity as racism. If you think something is rude, exclusionary or snobby, then call it by those names. Larger political ideas which embrace efforts to either blend cultures, or to maintain a traditional cultural identity, are likely to draw the ire of the opposing ideology, but they are valid, legitimate and constitutional. Chief among our cultural priorities should be an ‘American’ culture.
- Be proud of who YOU are. Maintain your self respect and dignity. Don’t apologize for, castigate or deprecate yourself for any reason other than for being a jerk (if you have been one). Even if you were born privileged, but you follow #6 below, then you have committed no crime.
- Treat everyone you meet with kindness and respect, no matter where you are, and no matter who is watching. If you follow this suggestion, you will have no trouble standing up to the scrutiny mentioned in #1 above.
How should a white man talk about race? Unless he is a student in an anthropology class, or he is using skin color as a visual descriptor, he shouldn’t. He should focus his efforts on his own conduct, and he should be free to express ideas on culture. The inevitable next step is to identify one’s self with a culture more granular than “whiteness”, and the next article of this type might carry a different headline.