Tonight at dinner, out of a clear blue sky, my ten-year-old daughter told me how she’d learned in school today about how Olaudah Equiano, in his Interesting Narrative of his slavery and freedom, had referred to his white captors as “savage.”
My daughter is white. Her glee at this description was undisguised.
I asked her later this evening whether she was offended by Equiano’s assessment. She replied immediately and adamantly. “No. Because the white people were being obnoxious, and their thoughts toward black people were crazy.” Full stop.
I suspect that Joan Walsh would not be pleased with my kid. I am, tho.
Yesterday at Salon, Walsh put up a piece called “How To Talk About White People,” in which she called for “care and respect, not stereotyping and scorn.” That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. Stereotyping is bad, and scorn isn’t of much use as a go-to rhetorical style. Fair enough.
But come on.
Once, years ago, back in the days when I was still a student, I was at a student conference and someone was talking about the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in America. A white hand went up, and a question that wasn’t really a question was asked: “It sounds like you hate white people!”
I scribbled a note, and passed it to a friend: “If you don’t hate white people, you’re not paying attention.”
Now, I don’t actually hate white people. I’m a white people, my kids are white people, my parents are white people. Most of my friends, truth be told, are white people. I love lots of white people. I even love white people as a group. But I stand by my scribbled note, because white people have a hell of a lot to answer for, and not just in Olaudah Equiano’s day. If we want to move forward, we have to be prepared to hear that anger.
“If they want to widen their coalition in the post-Obama age,” Walsh writes, “Democrats, and all of us, ought to think about how to talk to America’s newest minority with care and respect.” But what she’s calling for isn’t care and respect. It’s coddling and pandering.
Because when I talk to you with respect, part of that is respecting you enough to tell you the truth. Not just the truth about you, but also the truth about how I feel about you. When I hedge, when I couch, when I play down, that’s the opposite of respect.
My ten-year-old gets this. I asked her tonight why she thought it was so cool that Equiano had called white people savages, and she said it was “the fact that he could write, because most slaves couldn’t. And because he could write he could put down that awesomeness. I bet you lots of other slaves and blacks thought that they were savages, but they couldn’t write it down. And if they said it, they would be killed.”
This is exactly right. When someone who has been oppressed has the freedom and the space to say what they really believe about their oppressor, that’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever. If you’re a white person, and a person of color tells you what they really think about white people, they’re not disrespecting you, they’re giving you a gift.
“Don’t assume that whites are Republicans,” Walsh writes, and then goes on to acknowledge, while straining not to, that most whites are Republicans, just as most Republicans are whites. “Don’t assume whites are wealthy,” she writes, pointing out that Asian-Americans have a higher average household income, but not mentioning that income and wealth aren’t at all the same thing. “Don’t assume whites are racist,” she writes, chiding us that “the reluctance of many white working-class people to vote for President Obama was routinely ascribed to their racism, rather than legitimate doubts about whether his policies would address their problems.”
I’m not a big fan of calling people racist, myself. (I’m not a big fan of calling people Republicans or wealthy either, though if the shoe fits…) But the idea that any white voter’s antipathy to Obama can be ascribed to either “racism” or “legitimate doubts,” with no murky uncomfortable gray area in between? That’s, as my kid would say, crazy.
Racism is in the water in which we swim. It’s in the air we breathe. When we decline to acknowledge that, it’s out of delicacy or cowardice, not respect.
Roger Ebert got this. Roger Ebert was a white guy, born in the 1940s, raised in a racist America, and he got this. He understood that the racism of American society was profound and lasting, and that the project of bringing that reality to white people’s attention was an essential and urgent one.
Writing about Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in 2001, Ebert said that he was chased out of the world premiere of the movie by a fellow critic who buttonholed him to call it “a call to racial violence!” He thought this was utterly wrong, but he understood the mentality of that critic. She “was most disturbed,” he wrote,
“I suspect, because it was Mookie who threw the trash can — Mookie, who the movie led her to like and trust. How could he do such a thing to Sal? The answer to that question is right there on the screen, but was elusive for some viewers, who recoiled from the damage done to Sal’s property but hardly seemed to notice, or remember, that the events were set in motion by the death of a young black man at the hands of the police. Among the many devastating effects of Lee’s film, certainly the most subtle and effective is the way it leads some viewers (not racist, but thoughtless or inattentive or imbued with the unexamined values of our society) to realize that they have valued a pizzeria over a human life.”
Look at what Ebert does there. Look at how he demurs from the characterization of white moviegoers as racist, and why, and to what end.
They’re not racist, he says — you’re not racist, he says — but they are, and you, white reader, are “thoughtless or inattentive or imbued with the unexamined values of our society,” and those failings, however we choose to characterize them, have rendered us, as my kid would say, obnoxious.
I tweeted this afternoon that one reason I loved Roger Ebert was that he was “a white guy who was eager to talk to other white people about race, and who said stuff worth saying.” He spoke to me as a white person. He challenged me as a white person. He challenged me white person to white person, and I loved him for that.