We have been working together for over eight years now. We come from different backgrounds (personally and professionally), but we share a common vision for advancing racial justice by learning (and sharing) through employing the most contemporary social science research theories and methods to the study of race, politics and communication. As regular TWIR readers know, we try to provide a unified perspective on current events in this space each week. That is, except in very rare circumstances, we put forth analysis here that is a representation of our collective thoughts and application of social science research. Occasionally, however, we write separately, either because we disagree with one another (see here
, for instance) or because the topic is primarily relevant from one of our perspectives (see here
THIS WEEK, Charlton provides his unique perspective on interracial friendships in this era of heightened awareness of race and racism. It's not that Stephen has nothing to offer to this discussion (after all, he has interracial friendships – Charlton being the most valued – as well), but as you will discover, what Charlton has to say represents a perspective that we decided is best presented from his voice alone. As always, we look forward to your thoughtful comments.
Race. Politics. Race politics. The politics of race. Identity politics.
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill is perhaps most famous for popularizing the phrase, “all politics is local.” Those of us who venture into that tangled web where race and politics intersect are especially reminded that all politics is also, personal. In fact, no politics are more personal than racial politics (and the politics of gender and sexual orientation are equally so).
Today’s electoral politics are – in the words of Thomas Hobbes – nasty, brutish and short. But at the end of the day, there is a winner and a loser. Life goes on as the thrill of victory eventually ebbs for the former as the sting of defeat does for the latter. Members of Congress do legislative battle with competing bills, ingenious maneuvers, pointed hearings where they skewer opposing colleagues and roast them with fiery floor speeches meant to paint their adversaries as the worst among us – from heartless baby killers to Machiavellian demagogues and all else in between. Still, they emerge able to shake each other’s hands, extol the virtues of bipartisanship, and then share slippery oysters and a sip of whiskey at Old Ebbitt’s.
Those of us who willfully surround ourselves with the critical minutiae that race bring to everyday life sometimes like to think we are playing the same game.
From the verbal beat-downs we apply to modern racial rabble-rousers like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck (I specify “verbal,” lest any of these folks mistake me for just some Black thug like Barack Obama who inspires Black violence against White people), to the daily debates we engage in over controversial race-based social policies like affirmative action, school desegregation or health care. From our heated discussions on national television designed to convince the public of the folly and fallacies of post-racialism, colorblind ideology and the like to our attempts to get youthful undergraduates to understand the subtleties of modern racism, persistent discrimination, and notions of White privilege, we (more a personal projection than a factual generalization) often like to think that we can immerse ourselves in these murky waters and emerge unsullied and unaffected. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that our engagement with the stuff of racial politics is a wholly intellectual enterprise – participation in a kind of rational discourse from which we can simply redirect our attention when we wish not to talk about it anymore. We sometimes like to think that what we do and what we talk about exists primarily in that mystical abstract world of ideas.
Then sometimes, we are reminded that the political is the personal when it comes to talking about race. Sometimes we are reminded that despite the hordes of protesters hurling racial insults while the whole world watches, despite all of the “liberal media’s” talk of racism replete in today’s conservative rhetoric, despite our penchant to talk about the broad, statistical realities of racial inequality, skyrocketing incidences of racial violence, increased accusations of workplace discrimination and the like – our discussion about race often comes down to those most basic features of everyday conversation: two people, face-to-face (or what passes for it in our electronic age), talking about something that matters to them – personally.
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Thanks to Facebook, I have recently been back in touch with people from what seems like a different life – particularly, folks from the conservative, Baptist, predominantly White college I attended and from which I graduated nearly twenty years ago. In that much time, some things – some people – change, and some things and people remain the same.
For me, college was a continuation of high school, where learning and learning to be liked alternated and competed for top billing on my life’s marquee of personal goals. (I completed college with a 2.7 GPA, so it is clear which one prevailed.) Where I grew up – on military bases in a city with a large minority population – racial diversity was as ubiquitous as MTV . My schools ranged from being 98% Mexican-origin to highly diverse, though slightly majority-White. So when I showed up for college in the middle of Oklahoma, on a campus where I could count the number of people who looked like me on two – okay, maybe three or four hands – I was a bit taken aback.
But I knew one thing: you do not make friends talking about race, racism, racial discrimination and the like. So I did not (talk about it, much), and I did (make friends). When a few of the women from the campus’s small Black Student Union asked me to join them at one of their meetings, I smiled, said okay, and quickly forgot about the fact that I never intended to go. Who wants to be part of the militant crowd when there are parties to go to, fun to be had, women to meet?
The reality, of course, was that I was not always able to avoid difficult discussion about race. But those are different stories for a different time. For the most part, I became a model for all our colorblind dreams. I even had one of those red, yellow, green “Love Sees No Color” t-shirts that were popular in the early nineties and wore it with pride, hoping forever to avoid those uncomfortable moments having to confront the issue of race.
Fast forward almost two decades. Facebook. Becoming new friends with old ones, eager to see how everyone turned out, these friends and acquaintances – many of whom I hadn’t seen or heard from since we walked across the graduation stage.
In the heat of the moment – post 2008 election, the beginning of the nastiness of the health care debate, amidst the discussion surrounding Henry Louis Gates’s run in with Cambridge cops, surrounded by birthers, hordes of “I want my country back,” protesters, yelling "communist, communist, communist" in the streets about everyone from Barack Obama on down to almost every Black person in or nominated for cabinet posts – I just could not help turning my personal Facebook page (not to be confused with the RaceProject Facebook page) into a site for political warfare. I posted articles of interest about race. I posted my own published or on-air commentary. I responded to comments made by my some of my new and old friends.
At some point, I looked over at my running count of friends. 666. Hmmmm. I could have sworn I was up close to the 850 mark. Seems that some of my friends were steadily peeling away, and I began to notice how I – like everyone else – had begun to take this race talk very personally.
"With the possibility of a recited "I pledge myself to President Obama" being in there, you're damn right I'm concerned. Bush never asked that. Clinton never asked that. Regan never asked that. There are three acceptable entities to which one may pledge oneself: God, Country, Family. To ease the confusion, Obama is NOT country."
An old friend – a college friend and post-college roommate actually – threw this my way when I explained my utter disbelief that anyone would question the President of the United States talking to children in a televised address. I brushed it off without delving further into the matter. The following came a few days later, when I questioned Conservative attacks against Van Jones and his eventual resignation, saying that I thought it was shame when good people are victims of such witch-hunt-style political rhetoric.
"It's a shame when good, intelligent people are willfully blind to or willfully ignorant of what's right in front of them."
I jumped further into the conversation on this one. The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Me: Willfully blind or ignorant. I'm giving the benefit of the doubt that you were talking about some other group of unknown and unspecified folks, not me.
Him: Sorry, my friend. I may not be able to debate the topics well, but I've never shied away from anything. I've watched Mr. Jones on CSPAN a few times (reruns, you know) and didn't have much issue with him other than all the green stuff. Nice as he seems to be, after his history coming to light, you have to be willfully *something* to think he's good for the country.
Me: Oh, well then. Please do let me know the next time this ignorant fool can be the beneficiary of your infallible wisdom! I'd hate to think I can actually think a reasonable thought and come up with a reasonable conclusion on my own!
Him: Don't play the passive aggressive game. It doesn't suit you. If you think a guy who signs things without reading them, who is an admitted communist and who really thinks green jobs are a viable way to save our nation... if you truely [sic] believe he's good for our nation, then do your best to educate me. Otherwise, the race card is an easy and obvious dismissal of the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you. I love reasonable thoughts and I love a good discussion. Bring it on. Make me do some work.
Me: I'm big, I'm Black and I'm overeducated. Many in your camp would say that aggression suits me just fine! Whether it does or doesn't won't get me to back down from the mote in the eye of folks like you who will cry that folks like me played the race card when you folks seem to always refuse to admit that race is ever a factor, that race may possibly . . . be a factor in any kind of political action, decision, personal preference or the like. That you can dismiss anything like me says anytime we venture to point out the possibility - however glaringly explicit or implicit it may be. So then, why don't you tell me which of the following you would consider to be an example of me NOT playing the race card?
What followed was a list of about 20 things that I challenged him to tell me whether I was – as I am and we are so often accused of – seeing race and racism in everything. He rose to the challenge. I have yet to respond. But the point of it all is simply that with all my talk of “conservatives this, and conservatives, that,” my friend was hearing all of my accusations and claims of conservative insolence as a personal affront. My talk of conservative racism was heard as, “you, my friend, are a racist, a bigot, etc.” and much of our conversation didn’t get beyond that. (Stephen and I wrote more about this a few weeks ago in this space when we talked of the idea of “racism fatigue.”)
I say all of this to remind us – myself really – that all conversation comes down to two people addressing each other. Good conversation is risky, sometimes difficult, sometimes painful, but often productive. On the one hand I WISH I could be like another old college friend of mine who regularly says things to me like, “I look at the values of the people and truly could care less about,” or, “I am sick of race being used...isn't this a Post Racial president...I talk about [race] more now than I ever have in my entire life!" or who sends me articles by Black people with titles such as “American Thinker: Why I am no longer an African American.”
While I am frustrated (both personally and professionally) by what I have been observing on the landscape of racial discourse in America today, I am also saddened because I cannot help but think that these White friends from years past were able to enjoy my company because we spent our time talking about football or music; I was not "acting so Black" back then. My ideas about race and racism have not changed, though, and my guess is that theirs have not either. The suggestion that I am somehow "different now" is predicated on a willingness on all of our parts to ignore the obvious, which was an arrangement that served all of our interests then. In that way, these friendships serve as a metaphor for America's collective relationship with racism. While I have no doubt that their friendship was genuine, I have to wonder whether, at least on a subconscious level, these folks were able to soothe themselves about their own deep-seated racial predispositions (which we all have) through my friendship. In other words, my presence in their lives enabled them to say, "I have a Black friend," which, for many, is as powerful evidence of not being racist as one needs (right alongside avoidance of the "n-word"). Did I (ironically) function as a racial quota, and am I less valuable now that I am active in pointing out that racism is more complicated that individual-level bigotry? Does their White privilege allow them to believe that since I think this way that they are correct and I am "wrong" (overly-sensitive, radical, out-of-touch with "real" America)?
I, too, sometimes wish that race was not such a necessary part of American social and political life. But people of color do not have the luxury of willing it to be so. On the other hand, I am reminded almost daily of the reality that when one talks about race with some folks, they will always hear – no matter how impersonal one tries to pitch the conversation – themselves being labeled and denigrated for being "a racist." Feelings are hurt, misunderstandings occur, time has to be spent easing bruised feelings. It is difficult, it is messy, it is – very personal.
Labels: African Americans, Barack Obama, black, post-racial, race, racism, White