By Doctor Comrade
Conservatives and reactionaries are easy to attack for being racist. They make overtly racist remarks, they denigrate entire groups of ethnic minorities for being “welfare queens” or “takers” or “thugs” or “rapists,” and they enact policies that systematically disenfranchise people of color (voter ID laws, cutbacks in education for inner-city youth, War on Drugs, War on Crime, etc.). But so-called progressives, who have flaunted their records on racial issues, have largely avoided being accused of racism in the mainstream media.
Just look at the coverage of the Black Lives Matter activists interrupting a Bernie Sanders event. Sites like Reddit were flooded by white knights coming to the rescue of everyone’s favorite progressive darling, who was “oppressed” by activists who only wanted attention for racial justice. It looks like Stormfront in the comment sections. Some posters compared Sanders’ event to the abuse faced by the Little Rock Nine in a twisted analogy that could never be analogous (sorry, everybody, a highly educated white man stepping aside so black women could speak is not oppressed like a teenage black girl being called every nasty epithet imaginable—and the fact that you think those things are equivalent is evidence of your own oppression obsession).
So this post is meant to address those white people (and especially white men) who have stealthily positioned themselves as paragons of the anti-racism movement. You are complicit in racism, regardless of how progressive you think you are.
I am a proudly biracial, middle-class raised, cis-gender man, and I pass as a white person. I acknowledge that I have probably benefited from unspoken racism and sexism my entire life. I understand that when I go to job interviews, or meet people for the first time, or act in a political capacity, I carry with me hundreds of years of historical baggage that grant me privileges that are foreclosed to people of color. For these reasons, I earnestly believe that racism, the ideological and cultural prejudice against people who are not white, is a white problem. I do not claim to speak for people of color on this issue. Instead, I wish to address the linguistic, cultural, and social structures that have been erected by whites for the protection and advancement of whites; structures which I have witnessed in my daily life, and therefore I believe that I have a legitimate perspective from which to criticize them.
Let’s start with the blight that masquerades as “political incorrectness.” I’ve already argued that political correctness (or as I like to call it “treating people with the respect they deserve”) has been fundamentally misconstrued by its critics as a way to censor white men. I argued that political correctness attempts to address structures of power that manifest in the quotidian aspects of social interactions between people who belong to different ethnic groups. Moreover, I also argued that liberalism-progressivism is the failed system that promised egalitarianism and has delivered a more subtle form of racism that has endowed white progressives with the misguided beliefs that racism will be cured when the benevolent white masses grant rights to oppressed peoples. This paternalistic view of progressivism perverts the political process and denies agency to racial justice groups outside of the white mainstream.
However, the mainstream (read: white) continues to privilege “political incorrectness,” the nearly universally white backlash against treating people of color with respect and sensitivity. This white backlash manifests in numerous ways and represents a pervasive view of white society (for example, check out the backlash against Target’s new gender-neutral toy guidelines). Legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld has also targeted political correctness as being oppressive towards comedians and comedy in general. One example he cites is how many “politically incorrect” comedians refuse to perform at colleges because the audiences treat them with hostility. Imagine that: concentrated groups of highly educated and diverse populations refuse to allow offensive comedy to be tolerated at their places of education.
I have an idea. Maybe those jokes aren’t funny anymore.
Eddie Murphy once spent several minutes of his infamous special Delirious (1987) discussing how afraid of homosexual men he was because of rape and AIDS (“One day [a woman] could be hanging out with a gay friend, and he give her a little kiss, and she goes home with AIDS on her lips… and then five years later [her husband] finds out, ‘Mr. Johnson, you have AIDS.’ ‘AIDS? But I’m not a homosexual.’ ‘Sure you’re not a homosexual.’”). Comedians are fully free to tell those kinds of jokes now. But you are a naïve asshole if you believe that you shouldn’t get hostile responses to them.
But I don’t see Jerry Seinfeld defending Eddie Murphy’s rights to call people gay slurs on stage, or to accuse gay men of wanting to rape him, or to accuse gay men of passing on AIDS through gullible women, or to associate homosexuality with AIDS. Why? Because that kind of material is inaccurate, dangerous, homophobic, and ignorant. I would say those things are now politically incorrect. That material was hilarious to the crowd during the filming of Delirious. Now, telling those jokes outside the most homophobic parts of the country will absolutely get you attacked by hecklers, internet commenters, journalists, and social critics.
Political correctness means that white people can no longer say the n-word in public without having to look over their shoulders. Political correctness means white people can no longer call transgender people “trannies” without being informed that that term is no longer acceptable. Political correctness means that white people can no longer insinuate that black people are lazy, or Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, or Asians are bad at driving, or Polish people are stupid, or Irish people are universally alcoholics, or Jewish people are insanely greedy. Society has evolved.
Political correctness bothers white people because it strips them of their racial power and privilege.
Louis CK has an excellent bit about the power of words and being white which I think demonstrates this point. “If you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole…. You can’t even hurt my feelings. What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? ‘Hey, cracker!’ ‘Oh, ruined my day. Brings me back to owning land and people.’” These white-privilege apologists do not understand the power that words and gestures and microaggressions have. White people have constructed vast structures of psychology, linguistics, and politics that establish whiteness as the default human subject. And when these so-called progressives attack political correctness as censorship, what they’re actually saying is that they are afraid of losing their psycho-historical linguistic power over people of color. They believe that they are being oppressed when other groups ask to be treated with respect.
It’s a lack of perspective that pervades white discourse about racism. White people in general do not understand how racism affects people of color and they are used to having all the power. So when some of that power is denied to them, when linguistic structures of power are challenged, white people believe that something essential to their existence is being taken away. That is why racism is a white problem.
This lack of perspective has led whites to accuse racial justice movements of being racist themselves! It’s a cruel twist of irony that white people assert that Black Lives Matter activists, affirmative action, and protests against police brutality are racist against white people. This head-scratching backwardness stems from the white belief that “all lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but whites have to realize the extent to which #alllivesmatter belittles the movement for racial justice. Black people have demanded increased attention from whites because society is still racist against black people! And when the dominant society rejects your politics, you have to break the rules.
And here is the fundamental flaw of progressivism-liberalism as they are defined in the US. Progressives have a misguided trust that institutions will remedy flaws in social interactions. When BLM activists interrupted a Sanders rally, they did so because the established institutions of American democracy—multi-billion dollar lobbying, winning elections, and court decisions— were currently unavailable to them. Like their forebears of the 1960s, they drew attention to themselves by staging protests in national venues. They broke the rules of accepted decorum. They violated the norms established by white society that protect white society. The only way the racial justice movements of the twenty-first century will gain widespread acceptance and support is by breaking the psychological, historical, and linguistic rules that foreclose opportunities from them.
White people have to realize that the rules they have established—psychological, historical, linguistic, social, cultural—will be broken by people of color as they strive for social justice. By steadfastly defending these rules, white apologists reify and reinforce racism.
White people can’t ask Black Lives Matter and other social activists to just sit down and shut up, to abide by our rules, to follow our norms, to conform to our institutions. That is the subtle racism which has made racial justice movements necessary for the liberation of people of color. Therefore, I ask white people to abandon their loyalty to the system that rejects the legitimate political discourse of non-conforming movements. Abandon the institutions that have failed our democracy. And most of all, abandon the rules you so steadfastly follow because adherence to these rules violates that anti-racist principles you claim to believe in.