It’s a weird time to be ‘white’ in this culture. Our American ideal, the cultural inheritance of all of us, is one of equality and opportunity, fairness and rule of law. That our country has, in the words of Condoleeza Rice, a ‘birth defect’, is a contradiction that has not been resolved. You can see it in radio entertainer Doctor Laura screaming racial insults one day and denying she’s a racist the next.
I’ll leave it to Laura Schlessinger to psychoanalyze people she’s never met and not presume to guess what set her off, but there’s a transcript of her rant, and it’s not only possible, but fun and easy to analyze her mistaken reasoning. Please do try this at home.
A caller asked Dr. L’s advice with a marital problem. The caller is black, her husband is white, and some of his friends use offensive language around her. This should have been pretty easy to work out. A married person should stand up for their spouse over their friends when the friends are being jerks. That’s why they call it marriage.
(There’s precedent in the role of the traditional husband, who tells his friends to keep it clean in the presence of his wife. They’ll probably even respect him for being a mensch, and take their stinky cigars and profanity elsewhere. Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, could have settled this. And I wish she had a radio show. She could probably negotiate peace in the Middle East if they’d just listen to her. )
Dr. Laura failed to listen to the caller’s actual problem and jumped right into a trap that lies waiting for anyone who doesn’t question the racism implicit in our history and language. I use the word ‘implicit’ because these kinds of traps are hidden in the assumptions we don’t question.
The name of the trap is Us v. Them. See this transcript of the rant she unleashed on the caller, via Huffington Post…
Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is n****, n*****, n*****. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.
Well, Dr. L is making the fundamental mistake of assuming that because the caller is black, she’s one of Them. Never mind that the reason she called is because racist language is offensive to her. She’s black, and therefore accountable for whatever anyone considered black says.
The white side of that coin is that white is normal, neutral and non-ethnic. What a white person does reflects only on them. For black people this coin is called, ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.
Consider the sad case of a rapper called Marshall Mathers, nearly forty and still whining about his mother. Is it likely that I will find myself trying to explain to a black person why my kind love him so?
That’s white privilege, not being held responsible for M&M. I don’t have to worry that he’s a discredit to my race, no matter how embarrassing he is.
Speaking of embarrassing, political celebrity Newt Gingrich made the same kind of false equivalence, when he was speaking about the Islamic Cultural Center planned near the Ground Zero site.
“They ignore the fact that more than 100 mosques already exist in New York City,” Gingrich wrote. “Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca.”
Who is ‘They’? What has the repressive government of Saudi Arabia got to do with the right of Americans to practice their religion? The implicit assumption is that Muslims, whether American, Saudi, Bosnian or Indonesian are all the same. Secondary is the assumption that Islam is not a real American religion, that it’s allowed on sufferance of the majority, and its adherents had better put up and shut up and be grateful they aren’t treated like Christians in Saudi Arabia.
Our Founders understood religious conflict very well, and had the foresight to make it explicit that the government will not officially favor any particular religion. The mosque passed the zoning board and has a right to be there. But it seems obvious to many that ‘They’ should stay in their place.
There are not too many people who will openly brag about being racist. It’s not the American way, not in our best sense of ourselves. But if you go with the flow of our culture you’re going to drift into some dark, skanky places. One day you’ll hear something coming out of your own mouth that you’ll immediately regret. It’s happened to me, it happens to most of us.
Un-raveling racism takes work and insight. You have to question your own assumptions. You can’t just take what the culture hands you unexamined. But it’s not all drudge work, and guilt is not very useful.
Better tools are irreverence, humor, willingness to question assumptions and willingness to listen. It’s not the job of black people to educate white people about prejudice. Being black does not guarantee that you have it all figured out yourself. But when we find ourselves with people who are different, it’s a good idea to listen. You can learn a lot and avoid Dr. Laura moments.
I mean, if she were listening to that caller’s actual question she could have spared herself fifteen minutes of fame she could do without.
LISTENING: Renee, at Womanist Musings has a Womanist perspective on prejudice, open and covert. She knows a thing or two about race and racism.