Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, October 14, 2005  

Opinion: White people fear being found out

Earl Dunovant, the blogosphere's Prometheus 6, has more patience than I do. He still will engage people who are either clueless about the role of race in our lives, or, complacent in their white privilege, in conversation. Recently, P6 has been directing some of his more benighted Internet acquaintances to an essay at ZNet by Robert Jensen. Doing so allows him to shift the burden of heavy lifting in regard to race relations to where it really belongs -- to white people.

Jensen's article, titled The Fears of White People, goes where only a few people dare to tread. Discussion of race by white Americans too often involves an attack on a nonwhite population, either subtly or blatantly. I believe the point of those attacks is to allow whites to avoid discussing themselves. Attack, so you don't have to defend. Make a William Bennett-like remark and then act offended when you are rebuked, and you've sabotaged the prospect of further conversation. Safe from self-examination again! One of the most amusing ploys I've seen used is for the white speaker to blow hot and cold about the O.J. Simpson case within a few sentences. The topic hardly matters. The goal is to cast blacks, including the black speaker, as unreliable, or even violent, from the outset. Jensen is interested in addressing the very fears that so many white people are determined to hide. He explores four of them, but, for now, let's concentrate on the last.

A final fear has probably always haunted white people but has become more powerful since the society has formally rejected overt racism: The fear of being seen, and seen-through, by non-white people. Virtually every white person I know, including white people fighting for racial justice and including myself, carries some level of racism in our minds and hearts and bodies. In our heads, we can pretend to eliminate it, but most of us know it is there. And because we are all supposed to be appropriately anti-racist, we carry that lingering racism with a new kind of fear: What if non-white people look at us and can see it? What if they can see through us? What if they can look past our anti-racist vocabulary and sense that we still don't really know how to treat them as equals? What if they know about us what we don't dare know about ourselves? What if they can see what we can't even voice?

I work in a large university with a stated commitment to racial justice. All of my faculty colleagues, even the most reactionary, have a stated commitment to racial justice. And yet the fear is palpable.

It is a fear I have struggled with, and I remember the first time I ever articulated that fear in public. I was on a panel with several other professors at the University of Texas discussing race and politics in the O.J. Simpson case. Next to me was an African American professor. I was talking about media; he was talking about the culture's treatment of the sexuality of black men. As we talked, I paid attention to what was happening in me as I sat next to him. I felt uneasy. I had no reason to be uncomfortable around him, but I wasn't completely comfortable. During the question-and-answer period -- I don't remember what question sparked my comment -- I turned to him and said something like, "It's important to talk about what really goes on between black and white people in this country. For instance, why am I feeling afraid of you? I know I have no reason to be afraid, but I am. Why is that?"

I won't say that the fear itself is justified, but I know that people of color, or at least perceptive people of color, do see through the various contortions that white people use to mask their racism from both themselves and others. So, much of the time, Jensen's suspicion that he, and other white people, are being seen through is accurate. Hell. It is worse than that. People of color know that white people are usually racist to some degree, that some of them commit crimes, and some have disgusting habits. They also realize there are plenty of stupid white people. The bewildering thing is that so many white people do not realize they are being seen through.

So, you have this fear of being found out. The question is: Where do you go from there? If your pretenses aren't working, why continue them? Why not say, 'I think X, and I know that I think it because I believe black (or brown or yellow or red) people are not really equal to white people?' The answer, of course, is that would be admitting being a racist. However, the person still is a racist whether he admits it or not. It seems to me that the result is that the person who can't make the admission is valuing whatever comfort he derives from the would-be deception too much. Jensen has solved the problem by being willing to admit that he still has vestiges of racism despite his desire to live a non-racist life. That seems to be the first step away from both the fear and the deception to me.

The essay P6 relies on is an excerpt from Jensen's book, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, September 2005). You will find the full article worthwhile reading.

posted by J. | 11:45 AM

Wednesday, October 12, 2005  

Other voices: Bennett's fantasy made real

Sometimes a picture is worth a few hundred words -- a blog entry.

Read Margaret Kimberly's meditation on William Bennett's psyche at The Black Commentator.

posted by J. | 11:45 PM

Monday, October 10, 2005  

Commentary: Clear eyes and common sense

Todd, at The Blue State, has republished an Andy Singer cartoon under an interesting headline.

Todd tagged the item "The Eye of of the Beholder." But, it seems to me that a reasonable position can be reached on each of the issues involved based on a clear-eyed look at the facts and common sense.

The war in Afghanistan and Iraq was premised on three claims:

1) The Iraqi government was harboring weapons of mass destruction,

2) The Iraqi government was responsible for the terrorists attacks of 9/11, and

3) Terrorism, or at least terrorism of militant Muslims, can be ended by the U.S. occupying Iraq and installing a new government.

Both issues one and two have been proven to be false. Iraq never possessed WMD. The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had tenuous relations with Al Qaeda and was not involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Issue three is wishful thinking that has little factual basis. I believe the ultimate result will be that the U.S. will gradually learn that, despite its willingness to continue fighting, its goal is a chimera.

The war in Vietnam was billed as a crusade against communism, but was really a colonial and imperial war. The force that won in 1975, the Viet Cong, was supported by the majority of Vietnamese. The Vietnamese government still seems to have the support of most of its people. Only from the perspective of some in the West is the resolution unacceptable, for reasons having to do with their belief that America should be an imperial power.

I don't think any person who knows American history can seriously dispute the outcome of the Civil War. But for the Union's victory, the country would have been divided into two nations, one of which would have continued practicing chattel slavery, perhaps into this century. There might have been additional wars between those nations. Despite the cottage industry in neo-Confederate apologia that has developed during the last decade, any reasonably well-informed person should know the resolution of the Civil War was right on both legal and moral grounds.

It is a mistake to take the bait of creationists by accepting their challenge to prove evolution occurred. Evolution is a scientific theory. It offers convincing evidence that explains how life arose on Earth and how the species developed. The imperfections of the theory do not negate what is known, but merely provide reason for ongoing development. In my opinion, the presumed conflict between evolution and religion is overstated. Millions of Christians also believe in evolution. They do so by accepting that religion relies on faith to sustain it, and, acknowledging the symbolism in the Bible. It may not be possible to convince people who interpret the Bible literally that science has an important role to play in understanding the world. However, as long as religion is not allowed to supplant science, as the supporters of 'intelligent design' seek to do, the different factions can coexist as they have since 1800s.

The dialogue in Singer's cartoon implies he may be winking at the credulity of significant segments of our population. Todd's headline, "The Eye of of the Beholder," suggests he missed that wink. The fact that people can mangle history does not mean the positions they reach by doing so are viable.

posted by J. | 8:15 PM