Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is Talking about Racism for the Byrds?

If I may pick on Senator Byrd again. In March 2001 he created a controversy because he used the phrase "white nigger" on national TV. (Suggesting, perhaps, that he has some serious issues with either racism or age-related dementia).

But he also said "I think we talk about race too much." I've heard this attitude from several people in my lifetime. They were always people who were a) white and b) somewhat racist or, at least, very naive.

Here's why I think the "Byrd mentality" is so disturbing. The correct translation of the phrase "we talk about race too much" is, in fact, "it makes me uncomfortable when we talk about race." Because who really cares if their friends discuss things that are, in general, unimportant?

Growing up, I almost never thought about race. It was not a big factor in my life (I'm neither white nor black). I used to have the "Byrd mentality," in that I never talked about race unless someone else brought it up first. This isn't because I was more racist than average. It was because I was naive. At that point I hadn't lived in Chicago or St. Louis, and most of the people I knew were very affluent and demographically the same (Jewish or Asian).

When someone says (and I've heard this one too) "we talk about sports too much" what they really mean is "I think sports are silly and I don't see why we waste precious social resources on them." When they say "I think we care about fashion too much" what they mean is "I think there's something wrong with fashion." Because if you don't think something is worth talking about, why talk about it?

I first came across the "Byrd mentality" in high school. Every year our County elected representatives to the School Board, and these reps were always high-performing area students. One year, a white guy was running against a black guy for the position. During the televised debate, the interviewer asked several questions about "minority issues" and "the minority achievement gap." These questions were largely directed at the black guy, who fielded them with ease.

Afterwards, a white friend of mine said, "didn't that black guy kind of seem like he hated white people?" Her question introduced me to the hypocrisy of a certain type of tolerant white person: people who are happy to talk and associate with minorities so long as the same minorities are never so crass as to actually bring up the subject of race. Those who do bring it up will immediately be branded as "hating white people." In fact, these tolerant white people seem to harbor a secret fear that all minorities hate them, and it has in turn made them defensive and skittish.

Are the majority of people like this? Absolutely not. I would say they are a small but annoying minority (I'm not trying to be cute by using this word in this context.)

I think it's also a mentality that most people grow out of. My high school friend and I have both grown out of our respective "Byrd mentalities," which were the result of liberal upbringings where we were shielded from anything resembling real life.

This is America. If Obama's poll results in places like West Virginia demonstrate anything, it's that talking about race (especially in some parts of the country) is as important as ever.

No comments: