There’s been a spike in hullabaloo about racism the last short while. Donald Sterling. That Bundy asshole. Saying what they think, what lots of old moneyed white dudes think, and getting flack for their raw honesty. Sure, what they espouse is unequivocally vile: but at least it’s out in the open. Racism is insidious. It thrives in the shadows. Exposure threatens its very underpinnings.
Then there was Macklemore’s clueless costume choice at a recent EMP appearance. I believe him when he says he didn’t know that it looked like a Jewish caricature straight out of Der Stürmer (which it really did). He messed up, a lot of people got upset, and he apologized. Being ignorant of history is silly when you’re a major pop star, but it’s eminently forgivable. It was interesting to observe the outcry on both sides: on the one hand were people who were outraged and offended. On the other were folks who thought it was no big deal, that people were freaking out over nothing. The latter group jumped to Mack’s defense, citing his great track record of political correctness and self-awareness.
Macklemore made a dumb decision. I don’t believe that he’s an anti-Semite: he’s human, and humans make mistakes – all the time. Just because he made a song called “White Privilege” (reflecting on, you guessed it, white privilege) doesn’t mean that he’s perfect or exempt him from critique. At the same time, his very public fuck-up isn’t a reason to mercilessly excoriate him and indulge in shrill solipsistic huffiness. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of impeccable cultural sensitivity.
No one wants to think of themselves as racist. Even overtly racist people preface their malevolent spoutings with “I’m not racist, but…”. Fact is, though, that none of us are impervious to cultural imprinting, to the seething ugliness that runs through our species’ history and can rise up at any moment. Even those of us who are ideologically committed to equality, to the fight against prejudice and exclusion and systemic injustice, who like to consider ourselves open, ethical, and non-biased, are not immune.
But no one wants to admit it. It’s a whole lot easier to hide behind self-righteousness, to maintain, with smug certainty, that “I’m not racist!”
Following the comments on a few controversial Facebook posts on race, I’ve witnessed people (white people) vociferously objecting to charges of racism. The response usually goes something like this:
“I’ve traveled the world! My great grandfather was half Blackfoot! Of course I’m not racist, and I’m deeply offended that you would suggest that I am!”
Because most of us are pretty adept at concealing the unsightly and misshapen and wounded parts of ourselves, instead displaying glossy avatars of what we want to be, it’s easy to maintain denial. The truth of the matter is that all of us have, to one extent or another, internalized the discourses that swirl around Otherness in our culture. Everyone’s a little bit racist. Even me. Sometimes hideous, hateful words explode, unbidden, into my mind. Terrible words about race, gender, sexual identity, religion, age, size, ability – you name it. I identify as queer and Jewish, and still struggle with internalized misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism. Yep: the distorted stories about “Others” that suffuse what’s still, by and large, a patriarchal, white supremacist, appearance-obsessed society have left their mark on me.
I am the recipient of major privilege based on my phenotype. My dad is dark skinned and was admonished not to play in the sun, lest people mistake him for a schwartze. He was taunted and bullied for being a Jew, and as a kid, longed to have fair skin and straight hair like the “normal” kids. Sometimes I cling to this facet of my family history in order to feel connected with communities of color, to claim my own spot in the “oppression Olympics.” But the fact remains that I’m fair and straight-haired and got the dainty nose my dad prayed I would inherit from my mother. Like it or not, I’ve got layers upon layers of privilege; white privilege is just one.
I’ve wrestled with the implications of this privilege. I never asked for it. Sometimes it makes me feel like shit, and I think I don’t want it: as much as it’s benefited me and made my life easier in many ways, it can suck to look like the Oppressor. I’ve read widely, participated in activism, worked to expand my mind and to listen to a variety of voices, to become aware of the ways in which I’m ignorant and impaired. Awareness of my privilege hasn’t make it go away, though, and sometimes I mess up. This doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean that the prejudices that have seeped into me through cultural osmosis are at the heart of who I am, or that they circumscribe my fundamental value. What it does mean is that it’s important to stay humble, to acknowledge my mistakes and learn from them. As Macklemore seems to have done.
I’m done with trying to protect a precious image, to project a sanitized, prettied-up version of myself that maintains a prim distance from the complicated, messy, authentic dialogues that challenge our most cherished notions. I’m done with trying to inoculate myself against accusations of prejudice by flaunting my Otherness as a queer Jewish woman, because these identities don’t define me; nor do they obviate my privilege. And we all have some level of privilege. Responding to prejudice by clinging ever-tighter to our marginal identities, vying to see who’s struggling under greater oppression, is not freeing. It’s just another way of distancing ourselves from our fellow human beings, of perpetuating stories of Otherness that helps hatred to thrive.
Racism (any “ism,” for that matter) is an environmental contaminant: like it or not, there are traces of it in your system. It’s a disease. And, as with any disease, the first step in treating it is realizing you’re infected. Indignant denial doesn’t help you to grow, or to heal: rather, it shuts down dialogue and drowns out the voices of those who ask to be heard.
So: can we please drop the bullshit, admit we’re imperfect, be real, and actually listen to each other?