Saturday, April 13, 2013

Courageous conversation or comforting lecture?

Jonah Goldberg wants us to feel sorry for country singer Brad Paisley and Senator Rand Paul. Towards that end, he's even willing to (almost) give Attorney General Eric Holder some props.
Are Brad Paisley and Rand Paul the bravest men in America?

Er, no. At least not by my lights. But the country singer and the senator are contenders for that title according to Attorney General Eric Holder, who in 2009 famously declared that America is a “nation of cowards” because it refuses to talk about race “enough.”

Holder was hardly the first, nor will he be the last, liberal to call for a national conversation on race. It’s one of the mossiest locutions in modern America.

Though often ridiculous and hackneyed, this isn’t necessarily a sinister or mercenary thing...

Less defensible is when calls for a national conversation amount to a trap. It’s a predictable pattern. Some poor dupe thinks people are serious about all this frank-dialogue talk. He sticks his head up to say something frank and quickly finds it separated from his shoulders.
What's fascinating to me is that anyone would think that a white person lecturing black people about race is a conversation. It's not. It's just another demonstration of white privilege.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been cynical about the ability of Americans to actually have a conversation about race for a long time now. And he's been on a roll lately about the Paisley song "Accidental Racist."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.

I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that "not knowing" is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible...

So we retreat to mushy, moist talk about "feelings," "intentions," "good people" and "loving fathers."

Paisley could have reached out and had a conversation with an artist who might actually challenge his worldview...

But acts would require a mind interested in something more than being told what it already knows. It would require an artist doing his job and exploring. It would require truly engaging a community, instead of haughtily lecturing it on how, precisely, it should react to great pain. It would require something more than mere reification. It would require something more than absolution. It would require talking to people who may not like you. It would require the rarest of things in this space where everyone wants to write, but no one wants to read--a truly curious mind.
The truth is that Paisley and Paul are trying to pull off the same thing most white people do when we talk about racism...ensure that we can do so without feeling any discomfort. Coates addressed this in a subsequent article.
I can't really remember the last time I saw a public figure do something racist and say, "Yes. I am racist. I am sorry and I intend to do something about it." Indeed virtually any "conversation" on race that would take place in this country must -- necessarily -- be premised on there not being any actual living racists, or any actual effects of racism.
This isn't about needing to feel guilty. Its about the fact that dealing with white privilege ultimately means challenging our world view. And we don't like to do that. It means accepting the reality that there are some things we've been wrong about. While we're struggling with that - its pretty damn uncomfortable.

I get why Coates is so pessimistic about that happening. But I'm an optimist by nature (something I know is fueled by my own privilege). The key is - as he said himself -  developing "a truly curious mind."

1 comment:

  1. I dont care for the topic "racism"! I much prefer the topic of "white priviledge" which get at all of the parts that are important to me!

    Racism shifts the blame, talk, discussion towards minorities but keeps the blame from flowing the other way.

    It is WHITE PRIVILEDGE" THAT IS THE ISSUE from schools, roads, food, politics, etc. etc.

    So thats the talk I want!



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