Is it a coincidence that one of the most anti-racist white people I’ve known nailed the coffin shut on our nascent friendship when he called me “uppity”? Or, what about the number of times an interested white man has told me how much he’s into Black men, as though exotification is a compliment? I have to say no. I fail to believe that the way that racism operates as a social system is anything of coincidence. That the US’s “first Black president”, Barack Obama, was benefited by the white privilege of his white mother, and likely would not be president today if both of his parents were Black, is no coincidence but a sad irony of our racist nation. I’ll admit I do not have a grand theory to propose here, but would like to share a few anecdotes that have led me to describe racism as an ironic system.
I’ll first share with you the first time I began to recognize the ironic character of racism. I had begun my first year of graduate school, disappointed to see that academics, even sociologists, can be just as prejudiced as individuals outside of the academy. (Ain’t that ironic?) Toward the end of that first year was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had discovered that when King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy announced the sad news at a presidential campaign stop in Indianapolis – just 40 years before, only 40 miles away from my university, Indiana University. I predicted that few in my department knew much about King and his assassination, so I sent a bit of information to our grad student listserv, highlighting the irony that RFK announced King’s assassination in the nearest major city. A fellow graduate student, a white heterosexual man who studies race and gender, emailed me to correct my use of irony – he suggested I meant to say coincidence. Ironic. A white man, who studies race, sent a curt email to a person of color to correct their use of the English language, about irony vs. coincidence even, completely ignoring the content of the original email, which was about race and racism! To add to the complexity and contradictory-ness of all of this (i.e., irony), I’m sure to some to whom I complained thought I was being overly-sensitive or “playing the race card.”
The most recent event, that which inspired this blog, has occurred on my family vacation to New York City. My parents and I went to see the Broadway show, Race, which addresses the complexities of subtle racism and the racialization of every day life. (We can’t dare attempt to ignore race when a white man is accused of raping a Black woman.) During the show, my mom whispered to me, “race,” as the answer to a question that one of the play’s character had asked of another. The woman in front of us, white and probably middle-class, turned her head around quickly and gave a belittling frown, as though she was frowning at children. My mom said nothing, I said nothing, and my dad was too oblivious to notice. At the end of the show, my mom and I began talking about it – how ironic… a white woman who was liberal enough to see a show on race and racism scowled at a Black woman for whispering one word. The woman came over to apologize – she heard talking. My mom responded that the woman likely didn’t know who was talking, as there were a number of people whispering at the time, so she was wrong to single out my mother. The woman apologized again, and pressed that she heard talking and wanted to hear the show. My mom ended her role in the conversation and carried on with me. I could see the woman still standing there as we walked away; she looked so hurt, and said softly “I apologized, and that’s all I can offer.” I presume this woman is somewhat progressive with respect to race, so I find it interesting that this event occurred in the first place.
I do not mean to suggest that racism is an irony to be found clever or funny. My concern is the prevalence of subtle racism that allows us to think that racism is no longer an issue so long as white people in white hoods are not burning crosses on the lawns of families of color. White liberalism and supposed “color-blindness” are good in their intentions, but sometimes they blind whites to their racial privilege and the systemic nature of racism. This is a difficult matter, as one does not want to risk alienating one’s allies, but our allies need to be validated – they need to know that they’re headed in the right direction in their efforts. But, one cannot turn a blind eye to the racist side of one’s otherwise anti-racist allies. Where we are at now is a place where we need to move beyond playing the racist game – we’re all racists, there it’s done, now let’s have a real conversation about race. So many, particularly whites, are fearful of even broaching the subject of race for fear that anything they say will earn them the label of “racist.” If we recognize that we’re all implicated in racism, we can eliminate the power that label carries and begin to talk about racial inequality and discrimination that supersedes individual-level prejudice. But, the irony is, today, whites are too afraid of being called racists, so they fail to address racism all together.