29 September 2008
Can We All Just Get Along Already?
If you take a look at photographs from a year ago of just about any gathering of staunch Obama organizers or supporters around the country, before getting on the Obama bandwagon became fashionable, you will immediately notice, even in the urban areas, the significant number of middle aged white men and women who were smiling in the pictures, not because they were supposed to, but because they seemed to have finally been able to put into practice the philosophies they try to live by.
White people in America who have achieved a level of comity about race are a small but growing minority. They are the Peace Corp volunteers who go on a two year tour of duty and end up staying for ten years. They are people who care for the sick. They are the priests who serve in urban parishes. They are corporate executives who have avoided being indoctrinated into "meism". They are the scientists whose theoretical minds have reduced race to the trait that it is.
My own student council adviser back in high school was one of these people. She approached her council advisory duties with the intensity and zeal of a high school football coach. In a small town Southern high school where 90% of the student body was black, she tirelessly spent her time and effort to mentor and train my school's council members, inspiring us to participate in regional and national association meetings and leadership workshops.
We got to know each other pretty well by my senior year. One day she was upset about something another teacher had said to her about wasting her time with us, and needed to vent. I didn't realize until then that she had had to sacrifice a part of group identity in order to treat us the way she did. "There are some people in this town," she said that day, her mouth pursing in anticipation as she fumbled for her cigarettes, her eyes glittering, "who think I am wasting my time trying to work with you guys. It's because so many of you are black. They wonder, 'why does she do it?'"
"Why do you do it?" I asked her.
"Because somebody's got to do it," she said, her neck rearing back, her eyes still hot. "And I'm that somebody."
There are various studies that will tell you, with stupefying certainty, what percentage of the population falls into this group.
I don't believe them.
What I do know from my own life experience is these are the people who accepted racial reconciliation long ago, back when it wasn't fashionable, and in spite of the resistance of their relatives, their coworkers, their neighbors. It is as natural as breathing for them to be able to reach out their hands and their hearts to us.
They are avid practitioners of multi-dimensional conceptual thinking. They can hold positive and negative views of blacks simultaneously, and are able to acknowledge that having varied interests do not make black and white interests mutually exclusive.
But even progressive white people, as well meaning, as clear thinking and as open hearted as they are, often unwittingly replicate the structures and hierarchies of the status quo. An inability to conceive of or reproduce minority experiences first hand does not stop them from creating their own ideas of minorities from their own data or their own information gathering.
Because he doesn't acknowledge that he has much, if any, discernible capacity to discriminate by race, the white progressive feels that he no longer poses a threat to minorities, and in fact, may feel let down by those who contrive to accuse him of having any kind of racial bias.
If you are black, you have a good chance of knowing someone like this, no matter how you look, how much money you have, how much education you’ve got. They don’t pull any punches, and they don’t expect you to either. They often focus so intently on the human condition that in their presence the factor of race often recedes so much you forget, even if you are looking right at them, that they look different than you do.
The trait that distinguishes this small group from almost all other white people, in my opinion, is not their capacity for empathy, or their willingness to give you everything including the shirt on their back, but their belief in a universal subjectivity. My point of view is as valid as theirs is ALL the time, not when they feel like it, or because I am a recognized expert, or because I share the same social station, but because I am a human being.
The media has focused on the high percentage of black people who have voted for Obama, but these white people, even though they are only a small percentage of the population, still number in the millions. They are a large part of his real ideological base, and will have a huge impact over these next few weeks, above and beyond the number of raw votes they represent, on Obama's chances for victory.
Why are these people so important? Because without them, Barack Obama would have been back in the Senate months ago. It was people like these who gave Obama's campaign the time to attract enough skeptical blacks (like me) and ambivalent whites to give him the momentum he needed before the primaries. It is their experience as cultural translators that has enabled the diverse makeup of volunteers in this campaign to keep from being bogged down in petty misunderstandings.
Why am I saying this today?
Because somebody out here in this neck of the internet that attracts black bloggers and black blog readers needs to say it, and today, I'm that somebody.