“It’s not the same when we do it”
On modern American race relations, I have come to realize I have been too innocent, linear and naïve. I always thought it was a straightforward reality: never judge an individual and certainly never discriminate against an individual based on their broader associations – race, religion, ethnic group, gender. In an utterly silly, childish way, I came to conclude that this wisdom–forged out of the lessons learned by dark chapters in history like the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Armenian genocide–held advantages for all of us, myself included: in polite company, no one could judge me either.
Okay, I was just being stupid. Those protections don’t apply to me, because of the way I look and what I believe.
I should have taken a hint, decades ago, when a guy in my freshman dorm told me I would never be able to speak French well, because of my uptight religious upbringing. He wasn’t joking. He was an atheist, and he passionately hated any hint of faith. He made this observation in front of several people who didn’t seem to register the bigotry. Had I been Jewish, or Buddhist, or Muslim I know full well what would have happened. This would have represented a “teaching moment,” and the Stanford Daily might have been involved – along with a several advocacy groups. A white student who belittled, publicly, a Jew or a Muslim for his faith? He would have been better off throwing himself off Hoover Tower. That’s how thoroughly our generation understood the perils of not being attentive to any hint of racial or ethnic insensitivity.
At the time–having grown up on the Jeffersons, Mary Tyler Moore, and the international Star Trek command bridge—I thought it strange that Stanford allowed essentially segregated ethnic and racial undergraduate housing and female supremacists like Mary Daley to speak on campus. (She wouldn’t allow men to ask any questions. Really.) One day, having lunch in an undergraduate cafeteria, I pondered a wall mural I had seen several times before. It depicted three 10 foot tall faces: an old Latin American woman, wrinkled, wise and smiling, a young Mexican beauty, and a blond woman with no facial features at all, just an expanse of pinkish flesh tone. I asked a friend what the artist intended, had it been left unfinished? He laughed. “No, that’s on purpose: It’s better to be older than dirt than white.”
Again, I was too linear. I registered this sort of thing, in graduate school as well, and as a young married man, and I came to conclude majority culture was being asked to allow people of color a little well earned peevishness. Oppressed people who had no power to inflict harm on majority culture could not, by definition, be racist. Only white people could be racist.
I make no apologies for calling that explanation the dull rationalization of an idiot. Even if the racism of the “under-privileged” carries less weight, less of a bad thing is still a bad thing. Race hatred doesn’t stop being dangerous because it’s less potent. Besides, would anyone seriously conclude that someone like Oprah Winfrey is actually oppressed? How would you like her media engine bearing down on you? But even were there no very powerful people of color in media and politics, how would we end a social evil by actually nurturing it? Would people of color – encouraged in their racism – suddenly become virtuous upon assuming the reins of power? And doesn’t this indulgence itself represent the “soft bigotry of low expectations?” When we encourage a lower standard of behavior for one race, are we even aware what that really means? Think about it. Hopefully, you don’t have to think too hard.
Again, I’m far too optimistic, far too hopeful. Surely, no reasonable person could actually contend that people of color are incapable of racism – especially when they are in the middle of a racist rant? Surely everyone who actually believed in the civil rights movement would have to be at least a tad uncomfortable with Jeremiah Wright’s black separatism? And the “Reverend” Louis Farrakhan? Just take a look at his raging, antisemitic, genocidal fulminations. Aren’t people like Barack Obama, who courted Farrakhan’s support at least a tad complicit in his racism? When LeBron James makes sweeping generalizations about white people, or LeVar Ball claims you can’t win a championship “with three white guys,” don’t they deserve at least a gentle reminder: “Hey, guys, please, that sounds like racism?” Conservative white GOP candidates are sometimes held responsible for the uninvited support of a David Duke, seven states away. It’s called “racism by accidental endorsement.” If that’s the case, why would we excuse a Barack Obama for actually seeking the support of passionately racist anti-Semites?
As a host to several hundred thousand guests a year on our living history farm, I think I probably engaged in what would be a reverse standard of hospitality. Being cordial to strangers is a skill that most people need to cultivate; it’s not always easy greeting people you’ve never met, but with respect to people of color, I always went out of my way to make them feel at home. I’m quite sure, as a middle aged white man, I’m not alone on that front. We’re a generation that has been invited to accept responsibilities for race crimes we never endorsed or even witnessed.
In truth, if you are a person of color, a Native American, or the child of ardent feminists, most of you have been given a grievance card you can choose to play in subtle and not so subtle ways. Any criticism of a woman or a person of color can be skewed using the grievance card: “You wouldn’t say that if she were a man; you’re only saying that because he’s black.” I’ve come to realize this is a powerful cultural narrative, a kind of religion that inspires rage if it is questioned. If your parents and grandparents raise you with an expectation of prejudice, and a flinty determination to find your very own racists to brand and hate, you will find them. It’s almost a rite of passage. When I questioned the reality of “White Nationalism,” (I’ve never met one of these folks; have you?) , even pondering the significance of this mythological threat earns you a suspicion of racism. When Tucker Carlson is accused of being a “White Nationalist,” we find ourselves on the national compound of the race grievance cult. These folks are looking for their great Satan and they need to be deprogrammed.
About 2 or 3 years ago, I just got sick of indulging cult members, and I decided to really put an end to the coddling of race-baiters once and for all. Other generations of Americans had discriminated against minorities with “separate but equal” nonsense, and I think my generation engaged in a different kind of approved racism: the coddling of grievances that don’t exist. If someone plays a false grievance card with me, if someone borrows an ancient oppression for a contemporary crusade, I tell them to get a life; earn a living; and consider the golden rule.
Martin Luther King’s dream, after all, of judging only by the “content of our character” cuts both ways. If a black man called Donald Trump an idiot, I might disagree with him, but I wouldn’t consider him a racist. When Donald Trump called Maxine Waters “low IQ,” I contend it was a great victory in the war against racism because he did America the favor of saying he didn’t see her color, nor was he afraid of it. He saw her ridiculous ideas and called her out on them. Conversely, when Don Lemon contended that white men were the country’s largest terror threat and that we should consider placing a travel ban on them, it taught me something else entirely: majority culture is being asked to accept the most vile hate language in the name of a lower standard of behavior for people of color. Don Lemon could advocate vigilante lynching of white people and he would still hold his position at CNN. Megyn Kelly can’t even wonder why a white child might want to honor Diana Ross, by dressing up like her, without losing her network chair. How long are we going to accept this gross double standard?
So although I was naïve and linear, I’m done apologizing for being idealistic. I’m done with false apologies. Simply put, like millions of Americans, I’m tired of assuming guilt for crimes I never committed. Life is too short. I don’t give a damn about your grievance card, and if you are carrying one around, you should throw it away – for your own good.