Confederate Flag, fantasy, Frederick Douglass, Game of Thrones, I Racist, I'm Not a Racist But..., J.R.R. Tolkien, John Metta, race, Tamir Rice, The Lord of the Rings, The Present Condition and Future Prospects of the Negro, White Priviledge
I, Racist is the essay everyone in America should be reading right now. I came across it when a friend of mine, a college professor that teaches Freshman composition, shared it on facebook. At first glance the essay seems like it’s just an opportunity for the author to discuss the new breed of racism that seems to be dominating our society (as well as my own generation of Millennials, we showed such promise), but once one actually gets into the essay it becomes clear that the author, John Metta, is sound mind and a gifted writer. The sentence that strikes me, and I hope becomes iconic in the coming years, again and again is his third paragraph:
You see, I don’t talk about race with White people. To illustrate why, I’ll tell a story:
Now anyone who’s been on facebook or twitter in the last few months knows this pain intimately. If you’re a person like me, a person who grew up with White privilege and you know what that word actually means, when you try to assert that it actually exists you will be bombarded mercilessly either by pathetic arguments, or arguments so complex you miss at first how flawed they truly are. I really wish I knew why white people like to paint themselves as victims, but lately it seems like that’s all that we can do in terms of intellectual responses. When someone accuses a white man of having privilege the immediate argument is that they aren’t economically superior than anyone else and that they have it just as bad as anyone. When a white man says something racist and someone calls them out on it, their response is the usual, “I’m not racist, but…” not realizing that the “but” immediately cancels out the first part of the sentence revealing that they are in fact racist.
Metta’s argument however is not about calling people out on such instances of racism, but is more interested in revealing how white privilege operates. Metta states:
Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.
What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.”
The difference between an “I” and a “we” is everything to a working, functioning individual. As a white man I can’t possibly conceive a real threat to the collective “we” of white culture because I’ve never actually experienced anything like that. It’s different growing up white because you’re typically divided in terms of your own self. I was always told to be myself and believe in myself, and the only real collective mentality I was instructed in was that I was from the South. That was supposed to mean something, but all it ever really meant was drinking beer, listening to rock music, and dating pretty girls in tank tops and shorts. It’s hard for me to even conceive that someone dying, who happens to be white, constitutes a threat against my own self.
This is the privilege of being white, you’re allowed to live free from such threats.
Reading this article reminded me of a speech given by Frederick Douglass titled, The Present Condition and Future Prospects of the Negro, and a just a short passage springs to mind:
Sir, I am a colored man, and this is a white audience. No colored man, with any nervous sensibility, can stand before an American audience without an intense and painful sense of the disadvantages imposed by his color. He feels little bourne up by that brotherly sympathy and generous enthusiasm, which give wings to the eloquence, and strength to the hearts of other men, who advocate other and more popular causes. The ground which a colored man occupies in this country is, every inch of it, sternly disputed. (251).
This passage rings true when we remember the argument over the confederate flag. Now I wrote before on that topic, making my own position clear, but one aspect I failed to note was how white people attempted to made the argument of Southern pride. There were plenty of interviews of men and women waving the flag and arguing that the Confederate flag represented Southern Culture, but the question I never heard pressed to these southerners was: whose culture did it represent? It’s important to remember that it was white people that succeeded from the south, it was white people that crafted Jim Crow laws, it was white people pasting the flag on the backs of trucks, on tattoos, on bikinis (hello again miss). The culture that was being defended was white culture, but was being referred to as “Southern culture.” What many of the Confederate Flag apologists failed to employ in their defense was the intricacies inherent to the Southern Latino experience, the Southern African American Experience, the southern oriental experience. Being white, and being from the South is not a unifying experience, and writers have been testifying to that for ages. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Mama Day, Beloved, Rolling Thunder Hear My Cry, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and numerous other works all testify to the fact that depending on your skin color your impression of Southern Culture, will be drastically different.
But let me return to the idea of privilege that Metta lays out. Why don’t we try Lord of the Rings?
But racism is even more subtle than that. It’s more nuanced. Racism is the fact that “White” means “normal” and that anything else is different. Racism is our acceptance of an all white Lord of the Rings cast because of “historical accuracy,” ignoring the fact that this is a world with an entirely fictionalized history.
Even when we make shit up, we want it to be white.
And racism is the fact that we all accept that it is white. Benedict Cumberbatch playing Kahn in Star Trek. Kahn, who is from India. Is there anyone Whiter than Benedict fucking Cumberbatch? What? They needed a “less racial” cast because they already had the Black Uhura character?
That is racism. Once you let yourself see it, it’s there all the time.
Now growing up I loved The Lord of the Rings, and despite this effective argument, I’m still going to love Lord of the Rings, but dammit now I can’t not see it. Play any fantasy game, watch any fantasy film, read just about any fantasy novel and the racial diversity is slim, beyond slim, it’s slimmer than jim (get it?). Look at Game of Thrones, just the television program. In the last four seasons there have been around two black characters, one was a pirate, the other was a slave trader. Now if I’m a young black man looking to identify with a character my options become either to want to be a pirate or a slave trader, meanwhile Jaime Lanister and Deanerys Targareon are both lily white. White people can expect to dominate even our fantasies. I’ll give you another example. In the sixth Harry Potter film there was a noted controversy because Lavender Brown, the girl that Ron dates through most of the film is white. This may not appear to be much of a problem, until you remember that before the sixth film the character was portrayed by a black girl. In Lord of the Rings the cast were all white except for orcs, Easterlings, and Haradrim. I can hear the objection already: it’s just fantasy it’s all made up.
Well, white people, if it’s just imagination why is it so goddamned hard imagining a black character that actually has some role to play in the plot?
Now let me address the argument and point out real quick how it should have gone. The Lord of the Rings was written By J.R.R. Tolkien, a white Anglican that studied medieval English and Danish texts such as the Arthurian legends and Beowulf. These works inspired The Lord of the Rings, and they contain casts of white characters. The argument is weak because the people tried history when they should have said the books and films were rooted in a cultural reinterpretation of English lore, and it’s hard to incorporate Africans when there weren’t any in Beowulf.
Having said that, it’s still a hard sell.
Nobody’s asking for African or Latino characters to be shoved into stories just for the sake of racial diversity, but the attitude that it’s difficult to insert people of color into film says everything about the way audiences and directors and writers are thinking. A white person is guaranteed to be able to identify with someone in the plot, because they have the privileged of knowing their interests will be represented.
And now let’s talk about THE TALK. When a man and a woman love each other very much, but love their children more they:
Black children learn this when their parents give them “The Talk.” When they are sat down at the age of 5 or so and told that their best friend’s father is not sick, and not in a bad mood– he just doesn’t want his son playing with you. Black children grow up early to life in The Matrix. We’re not given a choice of the red or blue pill. Most white people, like my aunt, never have to choose. The system was made for White people, so White people don’t have to think about living in it.
One of my good friends is Hispanic and grew up, for lack of a better phrase, in the ghetto. One of the most amazing short stories I have ever read re-imagines a fight he had that, to this day, has left permanent bumps on his knuckles where the flesh has been torn away. To put this in perspective, I went to an almost all white school where the worst you really had to put up with is one of the kids would pick on you for missing a basket in gym. The Talk, is not just meme on the internet, this is a functioning reality for African and Latino parents because they know the system is stacked against them. My friend received the talk, his friends received it, and they know at some point they’ll have to give the talk to their children. I was never given this talk because there was never any fear that a police officer would gun me down or arrest me for no reason. This is privilege. The freedom to raise your children without that fear.
Metta’s essay is an important piece of writing, and I hope you take the time to read it. But before I end here I wanted to address one last quote that sees particularly relevant:
Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or– playing the race card. Or even worse, we’re told that we are being racist (Does any intelligent person actually believe a systematically oppressed demographic has the ability to oppress those in power?)
But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.
Ask any Black person and they’ll tell you the same thing. The reality of thousands of innocent people raped, shot, imprisoned, and systematically disenfranchised are less important than the suggestion that a single White person might be complicit in a racist system.
This is the country we live in. Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.
White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.
The White ego has become the most fragile gem in the Museum. Anyone who dares to criticize it, or suggest that it needs to be diminished is assaulting an institution built upon long lasting cultural paradigms.
What’s painful to me about Metta’s essay is it’s truth. This is not me simply agreeing because I don’t want to be perceived as racist, it is because I have seen privilege first hand. One day in art class a student came into the room, and in the middle of a conversation dropped the word “nigger.” The room was quiet, because at the other end of the room one of the two black students in my grade was sitting. There wasn’t a confrontation, but the two of them did talk, but that was it. No detention, no slap on the wrist, no retribution. Several years later I was sitting before my Intro to U.S. History class talking to an engineering student when a comment slipped past his lips. He said, “Yeah you know I don’t have a problem with black people, I just can’t stand niggers.”
And time and time and time again I have been forced to listen as white people try to protest that they don’t have privilege. It’s all bullshit people.
I am a white man that grew up with the privilege of not having to deal with this crap. This article will not stop people from having nasty fights on facebook and the comment section of a Daily Show video on YouTube, but if the reader is open and willing to observe how white privledge operates and then determine for themselves whether or not they truly believe they have it as bad as people of color, then it’s worth it. Metta closes his essay by stating:
White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?
The system has been kind to me, and I’m the person I am today because I have had the advantages that led to this place, but a system isn’t working if somebody is getting screwed at the expense of such success. The system is broken when 12 year olds are getting gunned down in parks for carrying a BB gun. The system is screwed when a woman is arrested after being beaten by the police and found dead in her cell the next morning. The system is screwed when people try to defend a symbol of treason after it’s been found to be the inspiration behind the murder of nine people in a church. The system is screwed, when white nerds try to defend the Lord of the Rings as being historically accurate.
I don’t want to be the “White Savior” that liberates black people from oppression, I just want to be the guy that’s able to say, “cut the shit, read a book, and learn what’s real for fuck’s sake.” I’m a sensitive guy, but my feelings aren’t worth spit if it means they’re being protected at the expense of calling out the fact that Mr. Cumberbatch shouldn’t have been cast as Kahn. Even if I like the movie, and even if I love Cumberbatch, it is a fair point to note that they could have gotten somebody else for the part.
And don’t even get me started on that Exodus movie….
I’ve included a link to the original essay I, Racist here in case the reader is interested in reading the original document.
You may have noticed several memes throughout this work. I’m sorry but as a writer language is everything to me(despite my numerous grammar errors), and the way people construct arguments is important. You can’t employ a double negative and then defend yourself with it, you’re only proving yourself to be either an unintentional bigot or an intentional moron.