Here, Slate writer Jamelle Bouie discusses a new PBS series featuring white people talking about race. Bouie expresses amazement at how rarely white people discuss race, but he shouldn’t be amazed. Once a white person opens their fool mouth about race, they’ve automatically lost. So, we learn to shut up about it. The people featured in this documentary apparently illustrate why.
With that said, this idiot white boy will now talk about race.
I work in an office where I’m usually the only white person around. The office’s neighborhood is roughly 50/50 black and Hispanic. I live in a neighborhood that is also majority Hispanic and my child is half-Hispanic. And let me tell you, I am the only person around who never talks about race. There is no scenario where my speaking about race IRL in any capacity could be considered even remotely appropriate. My coworkers and the clients, on the other hand… they are blunt about race to a degree that would make any white liberal head for the fainting couch. It’s shocking because I have been trained all my life to never breathe a word about race, and here, everyone is commenting on each other’s race as baldly as they would address their hairstyle, their kids or their favorite sports team.
I don’t mean they are constantly going off on racist tirades, although there is some of that too. It’s just things like remarks about how all Mexicans are with their kids, or how all black people behave a certain way, or a Hispanic coworker asking blunt questions about a black coworker’s hair that had me wanting to hide under a desk. But in such a multiethnic neighborhood, with blacks and Hispanics of varying origin rubbing elbows, it’s just part of the daily conversation. The things heard around my workplace’s neighborhood would get any white person run out of polite society faster than Donald Sterling, and they are no big deal.
And maybe it is for the best that white people have learned to STFU about race. As the PBS show seems to prove, and as the movie Borat did before it, there are legions of white closet racists. They do go off on racial rants, but only to those closest to them, and only in person — we all know what happens to white people who commit such racist talk to email, or who get secretly recorded on the phone. In public, it’s very different. White people either essentially take the fifth when race comes up or, if backed into a corner, mouth P.C. pablum so bland that it could pass for a university’s diversity mission statement.
Of course, it’s all crap. White people are just as racist as everyone else.
It is my belief that we all harbor racist tendencies. It is baked into the human condition, based on the tribal nature we share with the other primates. In order to have a functioning civilization, we have to ever be on guard against this primitive drive just as we guard against actually acting out violent impulses against someone who wronged us, or guard against the desire to act out sudden lustful impulses we have towards strangers or coworkers. We should not be ashamed about having racist impulses any more than we should be ashamed to have rage or lust — all of these urges are hardwired into our primitive animal brain. It is the constant job of our higher, human cerebrum to self-police these impulses before they become problems.
Conventional wisdom holds that only racism held by white people “matters.” This is because white people are better off economically than blacks and Hispanics. This is true for some extent, but it’s pretty easy to think of examples where this rule does not apply. For instance, if President Obama were racist against whites or against Hispanics, that would clearly be a problem. Or racism held by Asians could also be an issue as they are also economically privileged.
But most of all, I don’t think shaming white people or encouraging white guilt is the healthiest long-term solution anyway. Pretending that white people are supposed to be these enlightened beings without a single racist thought in their heads, lest they be exposed and shamed out of society, is in an odd way demeaning to minorities who are held to no such expectations. I don’t know what the better solution is, but until then, I will go on with my typical cracker’s tight-lip, radio-silence, change-the-conversation strategy. It’s the only strategy we got.