Recently, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook about the media reaction about a comment journalist Dan Rather made referencing selling watermelons in a conversation about President Barack Obama. The essay, penned by Dan Rather himself, does not have a title that clearly indicates anything about race or racism, so I barely even noticed the link. But, it was the response of one of his friends that caught my attention: “jeez louise… some people are just hell-bent on getting offended. they need a punch in the face.” This, of course, warranted my immediate attention, so I checked the link out. Dan Rather came to his defense to clarify that his comment was not meant to be about race, and, the common defensive response when white people are accused of being racist, to acknowledge how anti-racist he is.
As in do in many moments like these, I felt the need to give the anti-racist sociologist’s critique that redirects attention from the “overly-sensitive” individuals to the history and prevalence of institutional racism:
Think about the (racist) society that produces the potential for such sensitivity and misunderstanding. Instances like this can’t simply be blamed on overly-sensitive people, because that would assume that they are sensitive about an issue beyond what is appropriate or expected. We don’t live in a post-racial society, nor one that is free of prejudice and discrimination. So, it makes sense that people in minority groups are wary of the dominant group, ever vigilant. (Think about constantly looking over your shoulder when walking alone at night as a gay man, fearing a “gay-bashing.”) I suspect that no one *wants* to be offended because it is a toxic feeling and it keeps groups distant and distrustful. So long as our society wreaks of racist prejudice and discrimination, things like this with Dan Rather will continue to happen – face it, racism hurts everyone.
Making A Case
I gave this response, a long, accessible, plea, in place of what I really wanted to say: “c’mon, you should know better.” But, realistically, as I am sure many can agree, the strength of ignorance and prejudice disallows for one to simply say “you should know better” when someone like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refers to Black people as “Negroes”, or when singer John Mayer jokes about having a racist penis because he does not find Black women physically and sexually attractive. If I were to call someone out for making an ignorant or prejudiced comment, the onus is placed on me to explain why – and this quickly becomes a matter of pleading my case. Many anti-racist activists, scholars, journalists, and bloggers have been trying to make a case for why the United States is far from being classified as “post-racial.”
Who’s Truth? Who’s Version Of Reality?
In having to make a case, someone else is to be the judge, primarily the dominant group. That is, in arguing that racism continues to plague our nation, in the form of inequality, exclusion, disparities, and exploitation, is done in hopes that we will be believed, that our perspective will be validated – and whites are the ones to decide whether they buy it. This means then, that there is a way of seeing the world that is regularly privileged over other ways of seeing the world, and that way is the way that dominant groups view the world. When people of color highlight racial prejudice and discrimination, they can be easily dismissed as overly-sensitive, even exaggerating their claims. When women raise doubts or concerns about an issue, they can be dismissed as being on their period, suffering from PMS. This leaves in tact white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, US-born men’s perspective as truth, to which other perspectives must be evaluated as acceptable enough to compliment the existing version of truth.
A Note On Political Correctness And “Hypersensitivity”
As one blogger noted at sexgenderbody, the norm of political correctness is flawed, encouraging people to avoid saying things that could be perceived as prejudice, but failing to critique the prejudice itself. The intent underlying political correctness is misguided, in that it seeks to avoid offending members of marginalized groups for fear of their reaction. There is little critique of why minority groups may take offense. As I suggested in my response to the facebook link of Dan Rather’s defense, I cannot imagine that there are people who actively search for implicit or explicit prejudice – mainly because you don’t have to search to instantly find several examples. For most, there is a response of offense and guardedness because of the history of prejudice and discrimination of the US.
Aside from Klansman and skin-heads, bigots do not clearly mark themselves from others, so one must constantly be wary of members of the dominant group to defend themselves. Potential racists do not inform you in advance that they may turn on you when jobs dry up. Potential rapists do not identify themselves before preying on their victims. There is no special pin that individuals wear to let you know they will gay-bash you when you walk home alone at night. At least, in the past, one could have a good chance of guessing someone is a potential threat just by virtue of belonging to the dominant group. But, today, the numerous forms of oppression have taken on subtler forms, so those who intentionally discriminate must find ways to do so within the confines of the law and, of more concern, is that dominant group members may harbor prejudice and discriminate against minority groups unknowingly while otherwise well-intentioned. (This is why many respond with confusion and anger when accused of being prejudiced.)
It’s Time To Move Beyond Playing Racist Hot-Potato
We have, in fact, made great strides in this country in terms of gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual equality. So, while labels like “racist” used to be worn as a badge of honor, they have quite the opposite effect today. But, my fear is that the game of “whose a racist?” shuts down real, meaningful conversations about inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. Even before being called a bigot, many decide just to stay silent all together to avoid the embarrassing label. Rather than having frank conversations in which we call can articulate our views and understanding of the world, even if misguided or prejudiced, in which we could find out if our views are misguided and prejudiced, we just do not talk.
I will state this plainly: we are all implicated in racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, nationalism, religious intolerance, classism, and so forth – no matter our privileged or disadvantaged status. There, I said it. Now, let’s move forward. If we’re all racist, then the conversation does not cease to play the racist hot-potato game. Further, it is time that we think like sociologists and implicate society as a part of the problem. All of the inequality and discrimination we see is not solely at the hands of a few proud bigots, rather they are sustained by social institutions (e.g., religion, education), social interactions among individuals, socialization (i.e., family, schooling), and culture. In our now frank discussions of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality, we must talk about what we can do as individuals and as groups to change our own minds and practices, institutions, and society at large.