Since joining OS, I've been involved in a number of discussions concerning race. I've said before, as a middle-aged white man living in a large city of the American South, that race is something that I am conscious of, but which has no bearing whatsoever on my evaluation of a person's character. Merit, intelligence, skill set, decency, standing, work ethic, honor, generosity, goodness, and other intangibles are colorless.
Nonetheless, ethnicity is a part of every person's basic makeup, and cannot— and indeed should not— be ignored. In an ideal world, all people should be viewed as more than the sum of their parts. Still, we cannot deny that our parts help make us who we are. If I were black, I likely would not be simply a darker version of the person I am right now, because the way in which I interact with society would likely have been colored by my race and the way those around me chose to process my racial identity.
In the last sentence, I used the word "colored." Instead, I might have said, "affected." For a split-second, I thought it better to change it because the word "colored" can be inflammatory. But not in this context. My word choice— and even my consciousness of the potential for misconstruction of my word choice— is a by-product of my own race. Being a "well-meaning white person" (a phrase I use with a certain amount of disdain, but a group of which I am nonetheless a member), I have learned that using the word "colored" to indicate a person of color is offensive.
Like many well-meaning white people, I find it ironic that "colored" is offensive, but "person of color" is not, but I have come to recognize that it is simply not for me to decide. I have no right even to weigh in on the matter, because I am not a person of color. So while writing, I gambled that "colored" is a perfectly fine word in this context, and rationalized that anyone who would be offended by its usage here is being an oversensitive jackass.
Or, are they?
My detour is germane, and illustrative to the argument. Well-meaning white people need to understand one nagging inheritance of having dominated the socioeconomic power structure for so long: It is the prerogative of the minority to feel oppression.
I usually back up this statement with anecdotal evidence, to wit:
- White coach asks white child to gather up equipment after a little one-on-one practice. When the child accedes, the coach says, "Good boy." Not racist, no possible offense.
- White coach asks black child to gather up equipment after a little one-on-one practice. When the child accedes, the coach says, "Good boy." Not racist in intention, but the potential for offense exists if the child chooses to be offended.
The same holds true for other social minorities who are outside the prevailing power structure:
- Among young people, the word "gay," for example, can be used to express lack of popularity: "Don't play that song, it's totally gay." A homosexual sitting within earshot would be entirely within his right to be offended by the statement, though all connotations of sexual orientation have been stripped from the word in this usage.
- A female lawyer scores a big win in court. A male associate sees her in the hallway and to congratulate her says, "You go, girl!" She may, if she chooses, glare at him icily and admonish him to never again refer to her as a "girl." That would be her right.
The possibility is rampant for what well-meaning white men might perceive as hypocrisy.
- To cite one of the more common examples, hip-hop culture makes rampant use of the word "niggaz." The spelling, incidentally, is key. Just like "gangsta" is not the same as "gangster," so too "niggaz" is not the same as "niggers." Still, the more important referent, much more so than the spelling, is the source. As much as well-meaning white people don't understand it, blacks can say "niggaz" as much as they please, and whites simply can't. That's a rule, and it can't really even be debated. It is a virtual axiom.
- The female lawyer above, just two hours later, is on the phone with a female associate, and proposes that they get together to celebrate her win, and adds, "Call Karen, too... we'll have a great night out, just us girls." No oppression is involved here, because it is she who self-identifies, in this case, as a "girl."
Self-identification is the key. The determination of one's own identity is the paramount act of human actualization. Oppression occurs precisely when one person (or group of persons) attempts to define the identity of another person (or group). The defining group violates the basic human right of self-determination, resulting in oppression.
This is true across the board, but a perceptual breakdown occurs in reverse discrimination.
- At a good-natured gathering of co-workers outside the office, a black man jokingly ribs a white male peer returning from the dance floor, saying "Well, you danced okay, considering you're white." As racist as that statement is, it would be very hard in a social setting for the white man to do anything but laugh. If the white man says, "That's racist," his black co-worker need only say, "Do you really want to go there?" and it's all over. It would be socially unacceptable for the white man to exhibit outrage, because the converse of my initial argument doesn't hold up: it is in fact the prerogative of the minority, and only the minority, to feel oppression. Minorities cannot oppress the majority because of the inherent overriding power structure.
It is this false contrapositive that fuels racism, sexism, ageism and other social phobias in the majority population.
- When white people try to blame "the Mexicans" for the country's unemployment, it's a racist argument for many reasons, but mostly because it is categorically impossible for the Latino minority to oppress the white majority. It's been pointed out that illegal Latino immigrants usually work cheaper, often harder, and cause fewer management problems than their white counterparts. And who's trying to make a buck? The employers. They control the power structure, so Latinos are hardly to blame for simply filling a need in a marketplace.
- In cities like Detroit, Memphis and Washington, where African-Americans are in the majority, many whites feel oppressed by laws that promote black culture, and in this case, on a local level, they are within their right. It is, however, the national culture that trumps, and it goes without saying that a "White Pride" parade, or a street festival celebrating white people would be perceived, locally or nationally, as being intolerably oppressive, offensive and racist.
What is usually called "political correctness" has paid lip service to much of the oppressive language bandied about in modern society, and PC language has at the very least made the majority of well-meaning white people aware of the possibility of offense.
The ascendancy of Barack Obama has also opened up an important dialogue on race in the USA. Obama's presidency will be the fulfillment, God willing, of Martin Luther King's famous dream speech: that a man will be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. But it also brings up the words of a less eloquent King— Rodney King— who asked, "Can't we all just get along?"
To answer Rodney King with Barack Obama, "Yes we can." But we cannot ignore race. We mustn't forget, as white people, that by taking consciousness of race (which is inevitable) there always exists the danger of removing the self-determination of racial minorities. Minorities must be able to define themselves, and we whites must honor those self-definitions, and not impose our own preconceptions upon them.
Well-meaning white people have to get their heads wrapped around the notion that all our good intentions, all our attempts to blind ourselves to color, and all our seemingly kind statements may be perceived as racist digs if the minority recipients of such overtures see fit. We've seen these veiled racist statments before, such as when Joe Biden called Barack Obama "the first mainstream African-American [candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." This remark was panned all-around as a racist left-handed compliment from a well-meaning white man. By calling Obama "articulate," the implication is that blacks aren't generally. Whether or not that's what Biden meant is irrelevant. It is the prerogative of the blacks to feel offense, and equally, to forgive or overlook such offense.
A shift in perspective is all it takes. Well-meaning white people have to realize precisely that, while they say race isn't important to them, they only have the luxury of thinking that way because they are in the more powerful majority. Race doesn't have to be important to them: they can take their race for granted because they suffer no oppression due to racism. For blacks and other minorities, the oppression of racism is very real, and race, by default is, and must be, quite important.
We need to respect that. And for that very reason, race must be important to us as well.