"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Racial Cowardice

Check out this post from Michelle Malkin.com. Yep, the stimulus bill protests are from racists who don't want to help out the black man-- at least according to Representative Clyburn. As Malkin points out, coming on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder's comment that "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," is just a little too much to take.

It is amusing to me to listen to Holder's words. In college I was called a racist reasonably often (mostly by white students) for saying things such as "I don't believe that the primary factor in the development of person's psyche is race." When I said that in a literature class, we were studying and discussing Wright's Native Son at the time, it was like a bell went off. Bingo. I'm a racist. This happened often enough to disappoint, but not really surprise me. Each class has its own individual character (I remember attending one writing class that segregated itself off into a boys vs. girls mentality-- that was an awkward though highly amusing class-- not unlike 3rd grade students). Some classes are more open to dissenting opinion then others. This literature class was one of the all too common type that was decidedly close-minded.

The illogicality of calling someone racist who was denying race as a primary factor in judging a person, seemed completely lost on the students who claimed me as racist. But then this reaction wasn't about logic or debate, nor about judging the merits or weaknesses of an argument (this was, after all, college)-- it was about conformity. It was about not allowing a stance against the consensus or the established view on race. I don't agree with the position being ham-fistedly shoved at me as an undeniable truth, therefore I am a racist. The term racist has come to lose much of its meaning, disassociating itself from overt racist agendas, becoming a catch-all for those conservatives not toeing the line. As it is used with greater frequency, acting like the clap of gavel to close off honest discussions or debates, it will lose both its power and legitimate meaning.

Malkin's post is mostly correct when she says that "Holder doesn’t want an honest dialogue about race. In the Age of Obama, 'talking enough with each other about race' means the rest of us shutting up while being subjected to lectures about our insensitivity and insufficient integration on the weekends."

While this honestly has little to do with the "Age of Obama," she is quite right in saying that Holder's "racial discussion" is a wish for a decidedly one-way lecture. What is "cowardly" to Holder is the inability of people to simply think the same way as him, act in the way that he wishes, or at least, as Clyburn wants, to just shut up about all these "racist" contrary views.

Apparently cancelling a a charity drive for cystic fibrosis because the disease isn't diverse enough, or suing Miley Cyrus for $4 billion because of tastelessly making slant-eyes in a leaked photo, seem to be hailed as the best inroads to true and honest discussions about race. And why not? They all start with the basic North American premise (that I'm sure Clyburn and Holder would whole-heartedly agree with) that discussions or observations regarding race must contain measures of guilt and hard feelings. Nothing regarding race can be treated as merely observational or academic (in the real sense of the word).

It seems that, almost by definition, there has to be a value judgement contained within any discussion of race in America. I once made an innocuous comment, while watching a Spanish language variety show on T.V., that many members of the studio audience (seen frequently) appeared to be Peruvian. This prompted my politically correct mother to come charging into the living room and accusingly demand to know "exactly what a Peruvian looked like?" Implicit in her reaction was the idea that (a) I have neither the ability nor right to be able to tell different Hispanics apart, and (b) that I was making some sort of value assessment (obviously she believed this to be a negative one) when saying that someone looked Peruvian.

Aside from the fact this makes her look a bit racist herself (why would she assume that my use of "Peruvian" meant some kind of negativity if she did not already have that presumption in her own mind), she also managed to highlight the pitfalls of merely mentioning race. If my p.c. mother is going to jump down my neck for saying an audience looked Peruvian, what would Clyburn and Holder do with something more substantial, like my denial of race as being the prime factor of individual personality? In both cases I could be wrong. Maybe the audience was Chilean or Bolivian (I'm certainly no expert in South American cultures or clothing styles), or maybe race is innately and profoundly important in the development of personality (I see no evidence of that but still...). None of this matters, though, because as soon as I'm heard speculating on such topics, the discussion is immediately closed and any further inquiry from me would only confirm in their minds my overt and terrible racism.

While excluding other incidences with my mother, I can still name a dozen more examples of being accused of harboring racist doctrines off the top of my head. Each of these moments occurred either in college classes (a place for the exchange, examination and discussion of ideas, or so I thought) or among other family members. This has taught me to discuss race with only a very select and intimate group of friends and relatives-- people that know me, know my curiosity and views well enough to not immediately believe that I'm a racist. But, to prove I'm not a coward, should I start bringing up racial discussions more publicly? Should I go into work and casually strike up a discussion about race? Should I say that I don't think that extensive use of the n-word (yes, I will not print it out) by black Americans hasn't dispelled or subverted any of the power it holds over black Americans (as I was often told has happened in college linguistic courses) when used by whites? Only if I don't want to work there anymore, and if I don't mind explaining the reasons for my dismissal to every potential employer for next ten to twenty years.

Is this cowardice? Perhaps it's merely good judgement. I don't want people to hate me by misunderstanding what I say. Nor is it my wish to make them uncomfortable merely for the sake of my curiosity. I don't want to lose a job and make myself difficult to employ by bringing up something that may be misconstrued as racist. I do not believe that I am unique in this. However, what I know is cowardice is the inability to listen to honest questions or comments about race, or the inability to listen to differing views on race without immediately labeling these views as racist. Intolerance, politically correct or not, is very definitely the last refuge of a coward.

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