Monday, September 28, 2009
About a week ago, someone left a comment on this blog that seemed way off the post's topic. I published it anyway, because it expresses a common white sentiment:
im a white guy ... I just want to be around my own kind ... I dont hate anyone but thats how I fell most comfortable ... I don't begruge that of anyone ... Its a natural desire. when blacks or any other group feel this way ... Im cool with i t... thank you.
Surely there's something being expressed beyond these words. Something that this person won't come right out and say, perhaps even to him- or herself. I sometimes hear this commenter's claim from other white people, that they spend most of their time around other white people because they just like people who are like themselves, because they're also white people (which then makes me wonder, are white people really THAT much like each other?).
I think what goes unexpressed in this common white claim about spending so much time with other white people is something like this: "I don't like people who aren't white." Or, perhaps it's even more simple: "I don't like black people."
So, it's not really that most of us are surrounded by white people because we just prefer our "own kind." In many cases, it's more that we don't like other kinds. And that we know we're not supposed to say that, so we don't say it, sometimes even to ourselves.
So okay, it's easy enough to point out that when white people claim that if blacks or any other group feels this way too, that's "cool" -- and when they thereby anticipate and also deny the charge of racism -- this common white claim about sticking to our own kind is hypocritical, and even delusional. What interests me more about it, though, is another common claim buried within it: that there's something benign or "natural" about overwhelmingly white gatherings.
White people often think like that about the very white groups they typically find themselves in -- that's just the way things are. It's natural. Like, whatever, it's not racist, you know? Maybe you're the one who's being racist, by insisting on pointing out race, when none of the rest of us want to talk about it, let alone even notice it.
I've been thinking about white homogeneity lately, and I now see something that I didn't see earlier during my very white American life (which reminds me -- isn't NPR's "This American Life" almost always about white lives? A very, that is, "white" gathering? If so, why don't they just say so?).
I'll put what I now see this way, and call it a hypothesis for now:
A) Even though white people still make up over 70% of the U.S. population, whenever a fairly large or significant gathering is all white, or almost all white, that's not an accident.
B) Whenever a white person spends almost all of his or her time with other white people, that's not an accident either.
C) Neither of these cases is benign, or natural, or just a random coincidence; digging deeply enough will reveal that racism is a root cause.
D) If A, B, and C are true, very few white Americans know that, or care to know it. And yet, at some level, they probably do know it.
From what I've observed, in others and in myself, a common white tendency is to fail to even notice how unnaturally white the gatherings of people around us are. And thus to notice or even wonder how, in one way or another, racism accounts for that.
What I try to do now when I encounter yet another very, very white gathering is to figure out how it got that way, and how it stays that way -- what's kept non-white people out, and continues to keep them out? If I can't figure that out, I at least I try to keep the unnatural whiteness of the gathering in mind, and I also try to point it out to other people.
I notice that in rare instances, some other white people do this too. Take Choire Sicha, for instance, who writes for the Daily Beast, and who certainly looks white in his author's photo. When Sicha wrote recently about the Emmy Awards, he noticed an overwhelming whiteness -- that of the award presenters, the award winners, and the crowd.
Sicha then acted like an abnormal white person, by seeing that overwhelming whiteness as a problem, and by trying to figure out what caused it:
As has happened before, last night brought that horrifying moment -- when the writing staff of many of the shows up for best comedy or variety show were displayed, including Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien's. Let's look for the people of color! Hey, there's Wyatt Cenac, the lone black man, hired last year by the Stewart team! And -- oh, no, that seems to be it. But at least that young white Simon Rich, the son of the New York Times columnist Frank and also Harvard '07, is working as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
If you worked for one of those shows, could you really face the shame parade of all-white faces at next year's Emmys? Wouldn't you go back to work and try to fix it? Maybe not -- because you would have done it years ago. . . .
[Back in the late 80s,] we thought that was the beginning of the end of the "black men can't open a big movie" era, when black actors were also making inroads on TV. But sometime between the original Melrose Place and the new one, all that progress stalled. What did we get last night? A lot of white people, a bunch of oddly nervous Kanye West jokes -- and a lot of people eyeing Tracy Morgan suspiciously. Looks like Mad Men is the perfect show for our time in every way.
As I said, I think these are unusual insights from a white person about a very white gathering. Actually, the comments below Sicha's post demonstrate a much more common white tendency, a blindness to the white elephant that squats in so many rooms (and newsrooms, and boardrooms, and studios, banquet halls, university classrooms, corporate offices, law offices, and on and on):
[Your] 'all the white faces, all these caucasians!' material was tiresome, especially coming from what appears to be a White Boy.
I didn't see quite so many white faces getting awards at the Essence Awards. Terrible isn't it?
Can anyone tell what this article is about? Three paragraphs in, I gave up. Not worth it.
Choire, we gave them BET -- isn't that enough? Seperate but equal is a viable business model, no?
Okay, that last one seems sarcastic. I hope it is. The other comments perform a common white refusal to talk about white dominance, even when someone else points it out and tries to talk about it.
Again, I now try to do what I think Sicha is doing here, by analyzing very white gatherings. I go against my white training by "denaturalizing" them, as scholars sometimes put that kind of thinking, and ultimately, by showing that racism accounts for them.
Here's one other example. Remember the Huntingdon Valley Swim Club? The one in Philadelphia that turned away a busload of inner-city, mostly black and Hispanic kids this past summer? And then claimed that racism had nothing at all to with that rejection?
According to CNN, a state panel charged with reviewing the case (the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission) recently disagreed. The commission issued "a finding of probable cause that racism was involved in the [club's] decision . . . to revoke privileges of a largely minority day care center."
So yes, as so many observers and protesters pointed out at the time, the swim club's rejection was clearly motivated by racism, as were the comments spat at the day-care children that day when they entered the pool.
But again, what interests me more is another detail in the CNN report, the club's stunning, overwhelmingly white membership:
The commission noted in the finding that none of the club's 155 paid members this year was African-American and that last year there were "179 paid memberships, none of whom were African American."
In addition, the commission said that in 2009, the Valley Swim Club "made a concerted effort to expand the geographic range of its membership by engaging in a marketing campaign. . . . The respondent efforts were mainly directed at areas with overwhelmingly caucasian populations. . . . The respondent made no effort to direct such marketing efforts at areas with significant African-American populations."
So what we have here in the Huntingdon Valley Swim Club is another overwhelmingly white gathering. As well as another gathering in which most of the members clearly see no problem at all with that. Another example of de facto segregation that probably seems perfectly natural to the white people involved, as well as comforting, safe, and even sort of "clean" (a cleanliness suddenly sullied by the entrance of black bodies into the mingled waters of the swimming pool -- a sudden impurity, which prompted some club members to pull their own children out of the pool).
Certainly that overwhelmingly white gathering would not strike most of the Club's members as "racist." That could never, ever be what accounts for all of us gathered here being members of the same race.
And so, as usually happens when the racially exclusionary practices that account for such overwhelming whiteness are pointed out, the white people involved contort themselves into rather desperate postures, suddenly reaching and stretching for alternative explanations. Instead of waking up to and admitting what's really going on -- racism.
As the CNN story goes on to say,
[Commission Chairman Stephen Glassman] said the swim club had 30 days to appeal the finding.
Joe Tucker, a lawyer for the club, said his client will do just that. "We believe this is wrong," he said.
"I believe the people at the PHRC are very good people, but they were put in a tough position. . . . If the PHRC would have decided against the children or in favor of the club, they would have been painted with the same unfair and untrue racist brush that the Valley Swim Club was painted with."
The day care center had originally contracted to use the pool during the summer, but the club canceled the agreement and returned the day care center's $1,950 check without explanation. The club canceled contracts with two other day care centers because of safety and crowding, swim club director John Duesler said.
Those facilities have not protested the club's actions.
The issue was exacerbated when Duesler told two Philadelphia television stations that the children had changed "the complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. The comment brought protesters outside the facility.
Duesler later said that safety and crowding, not racism, prompted the cancellation.
So what I'm really wondering is, why wasn't the overwhelming whiteness of this club already considered a glaring problem by its members? That whiteness is not "natural." It didn't just happen. It's not an accident. It's also not something that's ultimately good for the club's white members, including their children. Especially their children.
As for me and my own life, I'm still in the process of waking up to how delusional and oblivious the whites-in-a-group mindset is. And to the racism that produced it, and still sustains it.
Most Americans are not clustered into more or less homogeneous groups because they just prefer it that way, like the proverbial birds of a feather who naturally stick together. In terms of race, and how it continues to profoundly influence where people in the U.S. live and work, most white people gather in overwhelmingly white settings because they've fled from non-white people. And because they still have ways, whether conscious or not, of keeping most non-white people out.