Saturday, January 2, 2016

I'm not a racist ... or am I?


I cannot, and would not attempt to deny, that racial problems exist in the United States today.  I’m keenly aware that the election of a black president does not wipe away the hatred and animosity that some white people exhibit towards minorities.  I would not tell anyone that I fully understand what black Americans encounter in their daily lives. 

The catalyst for this post was an opinion piece in the New York Times, penned by George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University.  The article was an open letter, titled, “Dear White America,” and I’m white.  So, I wanted to see what this man had to say pertaining to white America.  I would encourage you to read the article in its entirety. 

The theme of Yancy’s article centered on the concept that all white people are part of the race problem in the United States and we should not only confess our inherent racism, but, according to Yancy, he is “… asking you to enter into battle with your white self.  I’m asking that you open yourself up; to speak to, to admit to, the racist poison that is inside you.”  That escalated quickly.

Yancy’s article seeks to bolster its thesis by attempting to neutralize any attempt by the reader to exempt themselves as a racist.  He wrote,

Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’m [emphasis original] the racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers.

I have several problem with Yancy’s statement here.  First, you can’t disarm an argument in the fashion attempted in this sense.  This thought process tries to place all of us into a scenario where we are inherently racist because we are in a corrupted system.  I’ve seen arguments like this before, where all white people are lumped into one category as hopelessly biased at the unconscious level. 

Even if I agreed with the notion that we are somehow unconsciously biased (which I do not), Yancy has overlooked the crucial fact that as a human being, he too is susceptible to subconscious biases.  If we are as unaware as he claims, then is he not equally unaware of some glaring flaw?  Is he not also a potential perpetrator of racism?

 I don’t understand the logic Yancy is using here.  That a white person would marry a black person would suggest that they see past color.  The fact that Yancy gives a strong implication that he isn’t capable of racism is as ridiculous of an assertion as the one he asserts towards white people all being part of the ‘system,’ as if we’re all stuck in The Matrix and he is Morpheus, rousing us all from our sleep. 

Yancy endeavored to portray white America as unloving and aloof to their racism, noting that he is providing a gift.  He wrote,

As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering. Just as my comfort in being male is linked to the suffering of women, which makes me sexist, so, too, you are racist. That is the gift that I want you to accept, to embrace …

Take another deep breath. I know that there are those who will write to me in the comment section with boiling anger, sarcasm, disbelief, denial. There are those who will say, “Yancy is just an angry black man.” There are others who will say, “Why isn’t Yancy telling black people to be honest about the violence in their own black neighborhoods?” Or, “How can Yancy say that all white people are racists?” If you are saying these things, then you’ve already failed to listen. I come with a gift. You’re already rejecting the gift that I have to offer. This letter is about you. [emphasis original] Don’t change the conversation.

The crux of what Yancy is saying here is that if you don’t agree with him, you have clearly taken the wrong position.  White I understand many of us hold views about various issues that are just as absolute, I find it insulting and degrading to be so dismissive of someone else’s life experiences, of which Yancy is completely unaware.  Is that not the one of the preeminent problems many black Americans have faced?  And now, would Yancy be so quick to dismiss others? 
 
Yancy would have people believe the issue of racism is so singular, and that addressing issues like the number of crimes perpetrated by black citizens against black citizens isn’t important.  But this is significant.  It can’t be ignored, just the same as the notion of white privilege can’t be ignored.

Oh, I definitely went there.  Privilege in society is definitely a real thing.  However, I would say all people are born into positions of various levels of privilege.  Yes, I’m both white and a man.  I’m certain that I’ve had an easier life than others because of these two factors.  Yet, I would not count these as among the most important privileges I have in this life.

I can’t even begin to address the number of times I’ve contemplated how fortunate I was to be born to two loving parents in the United States of America.  I live in West Virginia, which despite some drawbacks, is a relatively safe place to grow up.  Those privileges have mattered more in my life than my race or gender. 

If you live in the United States, you are born into privilege.  Your standard of living is significantly higher than most of the world.  Educational opportunities are everywhere and it might be the freest civilization to have existed.  Social mobility is a reality here.  Are we now going to create the term “American privilege”?

Moreover, would Professor Yancy admit that his children (if he has any) would be born into privilege?  Their father would be a professor with a tenured job at a fairly well-known institution of higher learning.  They would have access to education, means, and the ability to craft their own future.  They don’t have to grow up in Syria.  They’re incredibly privileged to not have to worry about bombs raining down into their living room. 

There will always be people who have an easier path in life, and those who have a far more difficult time.  We all have varying degrees of privilege, and I accept how fortunate I have been for a variety of reason.  Yet, that cannot be what defines me as a human being.  Don’t paint me or anyone with the broad brush of “privileged white person.” I hate racism too.  I firmly believe society should be committed to racial equality and harmony.

It bothers me that unwarranted police brutality occurs.  I hate the idea of someone being followed merely because of their race.  I cringe when I hear the “N word.”  I believe the Ku Klux Klan is one of the most cowardly and terroristic groups in the nation.  I always want people to see past skin color. But when someone casts an entire race of people as poisoned racists, I take umbrage.

Professor Yancy’s article was dismissive, divisive, and hypocritical.  The message itself was flawed and presented in a manner that was condescending, not at all worthy of a man of his academic stature.  I’m saddened that a member of academia can only see white Americans as part of the problem.  That’s exactly the sort of narrow-mindedness that we do not need in addressing the problems of racism. 

So, no, I'm not a racist.  And I won't characterize anyone else as such based on a sweeping generalization. 

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