It's very strange to be me sometimes. For example, I wish I had a nickel for every time I've wound up trying to explain to a person of color that European-Americans overall are not naive and do not mean well when it comes to race. I fell into one of those conversations the other day with a highly intelligent young African-American guy I've talked with many times. Because he's highly intelligent and because I've talked with him many times, I thought he understood. And maybe he does. But as he advances in the academic world (I knew him first as an undergraduate and now, he's finishing his Master's degree), he may be deciding that he can only espouse what he can "prove" immediately using hard-core social scientific research. Or maybe he now sees knee-jerk perceptions that European-Americans are racist by choice as "Black racism"--something no middle class, upwardly-mobile Black man wants to have thought about himself as he matures (more about that in a future post). Or maybe he just tries to put the best possible face on things so that he doesn't walk out his front door some morning and slap somebody. Somebody White.
The conversation, once more, was on "Black.White." (the television reality series involving two middle class families--one Black, one White--living in the same house and periodically being painted up to "cross races" and go out into the rest of the world to see what they can learn). My young Black colleague was saying that he thought the European-American wife on the show "meant well" when she tried to bond with her Black counterpart by calling her a "Bitch" (she "thought" all Black women called each other that...?). He suggested that she just didn't know any better. That she just hadn't been exposed to African-Americans. That she was a victim of a system that under-informed her, or worse, maybe even misinformed her through dissemination of erroneous and horrifically negative stereotypes about Black people. But that she couldn't help herself because she may not have had any first-hand experience to which to compare the misinformation.
I, needless to say, begged--loudly and adamently--to differ with him.
First of all, it's no longer possible for European-Americans to avoid being "exposed to" people of color--of all kinds. Just as there are White folks all over the place, there are Black folks all over the place. Black folks in lower, middle, and upper classes. Black folks doing all types of jobs. Black folks on television and winning academy awards. Black folks all over the music and sports entertainment industry. Black folks shopping. Black folks walking down the street. All kinds of Black folks in all kinds of places. How in the world could Mrs. White Person have been exposed for years (because the browning of America is hardly a recent development) to all those different Black folks and still wind up with the impression that African-American women call each other the B-word--as a sign of affection?
Secondly, when I go into a room full of White folks--be it a meeting, conference, church, organization, whatever--and see few, if any, faces belonging to people of color, I know that people of color do not feel welcome there. The White folks can say anything they want about how Black (or Latino or Asian or Native American) people just don't seem interested in this meeting, conference, church, organization, whatever. They can insist (and even document) the efforts they have made to get people of color to join them. But I know that people of color only stay away from places where they are made to feel uncomfortable. People of color are so diverse in their interests, capabilities, and accomplishments, not to mention so large a portion of the population now, that at least some of them would be likely to show up in almost any location where they are included, respected, valued, and accepted as equals. So their absence is, for me, the instant barometric indicator, if you will, of the attitude and behaviors of the people in the room. No matter how those people try to defend themselves.
In other words, even though they cannot avoid coming into contact with all manner of people of color, European-Americans are so immersed in their sense that they are rightly privileged as a result of their own superiority that they create unwelcome atmospheres for people of color and then blame it on the Black folks when the Black folks stay away (a la "African-Americans like to stay with their own kind..."). Making it, then, very easy to use the "Sorry--I haven't been exposed" defense for undefendable behaviors.
And this is why I say that White people are not "naive." They may be uninformed. They may be misinformed. But they happily participate in the process of maintaining their "ignorance." As long as people buy the illusion that they have something to lose by knowing and accepting the truth, they will hug a lie like it's their long-lost mother. And, as I am wont to say: you can't wake up a person who's pretending to be asleep.
In all of the scenes of "Black.White." that I have already seen or heard about, and even on the Oprah show where the two families appeared for a promotional follow-up session, Mrs. White Person never once said at all, let alone sincerely, "I'm having trouble understanding what you're trying to tell me about your lives. Help me learn what I don't already know." All I heard over and over and over again was her poor--and embarrassing--attempts to defend herself and talk about what she "meant." But, as Jane Elliott (see my links) says, "It's not the intent; it's the impact."
The reality is that White power and White privilege inundate and inculcate every facet of life in the United States and always have. It's a matter of public record that has been and continues to be documented in a range of ways. New and highly expensive studies, for example, (read Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard here) just hit the New York Times this week full of such gut-wrenching information as the fact that, in the United States of America, 50% of young Black males who are not college graduates are unemployed. Fifty percent.
Now, there are some jobs out there--not necessarily great ones, but some, just the same. Still, there are not nearly enough jobs for every unemployed worker to have one, which is a crucial point, because if White folks started "letting" Black males compete fairly for jobs, White families--and White men, in particular--would feel the economic pinch. Quick. The fact is that it's simply not logical that 50% of the young Black males in this country either don't want or cannot possibly do any of the jobs that are available. It is, in the end, as they say, all about the benjamins. And Mrs. White Person--on some level--knows it.