If you’re not reading “Yo, Is This Racist?“, you should be reading “Yo, Is This Racist?”. Hilarious, and surprisingly trenchant, answers to questions about whether certain things are racist.
This one caught my attention:
Anonymous asked: yo, some of my friends are having a 1950s themed party, so I told them I’d hang out outside to preserve historical accuracy. they said I was being a “wet blanket.” am I being whack or are they being racist?
DEAR RACISTS: PLEASE STOP BEING ALL SURPRISED WHEN PEOPLE GET OFFENDED WHEN YOU GLORIFY RACIST-ASS TIME PERIODS.
This takes me back instantly to Louis CK’s standup bit about white privilege – among other things, white people can use time machines, because there is no time in history they could visit and not still be privileged. “I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like ‘Hey, anything before 1980, no thank you, I don’t want to go!’.”
One of the most pervasive aspects of white privilege is the way in which its effect on others is completely invisible to those wielding it. Whiteness is not just a position of dominance, but a default expectation for almost every social phenomenon or event: in the same way that the word “man” is used to include, but really exclude, women, there is an unspoken label “White” on almost everything that happens in our society that defines part of that society as invisible. All that takes place in society is seen from the perspective of, interpreted through, and built around the white experience, which whites assume means the only experience. That there are others is simply not imagined; that the default perspective excludes part of what it takes in is not comprehensible.
This phenomenon is found everywhere, subtly and more obviously. From the all-white faces in advertising to whites’ confident assumption that there is no place they will not be welcome to the 90%-white membership of the GOP and the overt racism of its supremacist supporters like Pat Buchanan, whiteness as both chosen and assumed default is everywhere, and yet manages to go unnoticed and unremarked. Sometimes, ignoring the eyeball-stabbing obviousness of what is really going on requires a degree of bad faith that is hard to fathom. (Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are cases in point. Ethnic sports mascots are another. This list is not exhaustive.)
One of the most relentless programs of “white”washing that allows white people to remain smug about their own culture is the erasure of truth about race from every aspect of history. It is overt in textbooks and official propaganda, but it is an unacknowledged part of every reference to our past, in every context. The view of history taken as the default by white culture – and thus by US culture in all its official and “mainstream” guises – is virtually devoid of minorities, and entirely innocent of any suspicion that the history we all inherited was both (a) different and (b) worse for those minorities as they lived it. This view is not just false, it is manufactured – but it is taken as a natural phenomenon, “just true”, by those who benefit from it being true and have never been forced to imagine otherwise.
It’s a hard lesson to get, because it strikes right to the guilt and defensiveness that so often arises in response to progressive criticism of history or culture. Pointing out that things were bad for some people, and, worse, that others benefited from that, is immediately taken to be an accusation against people in the current generation (who often do continue to benefit from that legacy, but don’t want to think so). You get the standard denialist reactions: “Feminists just have no sense of humor!” “Well, I didn’t own any slaves!” Asking people to grapple consciously with both the fact of minority suffering and their own resultant privilege is threatening, because having unfair privilege seems to invoke guilt, and because acknowledging that you have it makes it impossible not to admit you should work against it.
Thus the bad faith about US history. White people can imagine that most of that history was enjoyable and beneficial, because for them it was, and because they have removed everyone else from the picture. Older white people love the 1950s, completely ignoring that it was a time of virulent, open, and legal racial discrimination and segregation, “massive resistance” to civil rights, the lynching of Emmet Till, virtual legal invisibility for women, and the pervasive exclusion of minorities and women from education and job opportunities. They hate the 1960s as a time of violence and unrest, ignoring the reasons for it and the changes it brought about, while still extolling the technological and economic boom that again left most minorities and women behind. Every time period in history gets the same treatment: whatever was good about it almost undoubtedly wasn’t good, or good in nearly equitable degree, for non-whites and women (to say nothing of ethnic and religious minorities, gays, and anyone else who didn’t conform to the default profile), but it’s the good parts that are taken as definitive of, and in fact constitutive of, those times, and the people who benefited from them (white men) as constitutive of the population living through them.
The good times weren’t that good. Let’s just take it as read that everything before the 13th Amendment is a complete write-off, race-wise. Segregation and Jim Crow persisted for close to another 100 years after that, while women had to fight piece by piece for basic legal rights, and didn’t reach anything like equity in education or the workforce until the closing years of the 20th Century. To be clear, I’m not saying that things didn’t get better for women and minorities; they certainly did, but even so, if some of your greatest cultural achievements as a nation are “finally ended slavery”, “finally ended segregation”, “fewer lynchings”, and “gave women the vote 140 years late”, you, as a nation, are fucked up.
Just as Louis CK says, being any random white person at any random period in US history always put you well above vast groups of other people on the citizenship totem pole. (He overstates a bit: it wasn’t necessarily “awesome” – you could be, and at certain times were very likely to be, poor, downtrodden, and sickly – but it still beat the shit out of being black.) That means that blindly celebrating any period in US history, without at least acknowledging that it wasn’t all tailfins and goldfish swallowing, means celebrating the oppression of millions of citizens targeted only for who they were – or at the very least declaring that that fact isn’t a reason not to celebrate.
Whites don’t get that, either, and I have to admit that I understand that. Before I became enlightened, I didn’t get it – I had feminist friends who were always pointing out the women who had participated in historical events but were not mentioned when the stories were told, I heard blacks complaining about underrepresentation in every case and corner, I saw people marching for every imaginable cause (this was the 70s, in the San Francisco Bay Area), and I just thought of them as tedious and self-absorbed. (Because when you’re not a liberal, you’re an asshole like that.) It didn’t seem important to me to be constantly injecting all that peripheral stuff.
Everybody knew that Lewis and Clark were the real heroes of the Northwest expedition; who cares that a native woman showed them the way? Yeah, the Tuskegee Airmen were pretty cool, but why do you have to keep bringing up old stuff? Maybe it wasn’t fair that white men got to do all the good stuff, but they were the ones who did it; constantly insisting that tens of millions of non-whites, and the female majority, were actually part of all those events was some kind of revisionism. And harping on oppression was just pessimistic; it makes it sound like American history was actually bad for some people.
Fortunately, I got hipped at a young age and never looked back. But it was still not an easy process becoming comfortable with the idea that you could never be complacent – that whatever you were talking about, whatever event or time period was under discussion, there was somebody who was getting the short end of the stick and if you were a white middle-class male like me that somebody wasn’t you and whoever that somebody was was likely to be pissed about it and they had a point.
Knowing that makes it hard to view any part of history with equanimity. I understand now why those who were conscious before I became conscious were so constantly focused on filling in the gaps. For those who were female, or non-white, it is an act of self-preservation – an attempt to keep from becoming so invisible they sink back to having no place at all, again. For progressives of privilege but at least a dose of honesty, it is a necessary step in allying themselves with people and movements that demand acknowledgment. And it is tedious, and it is so infuriatingly pervasively necessary that you can never let it go.
Which makes things like 50s parties, Civil War re-enactments, and debutante balls a real challenge. It’s easy to grant that they are not intended maliciously, and perhaps in a (very dubious) way they celebrate parts of a given culture that are not themselves objectionable. But you can’t present them as neutral reflections of their times, as if it’s OK to pick out the parts of that time that were most congenial to the most privileged and simply ignore the rest. What is a black person going to do at a 50s party? Wear a letterman sweater and dance the Lindy? Blacks were excluded from virtually all colleges at that time, and a black man dancing with a white woman in public would be taking his life in his hands. Cotillion? Just think what the black women would have been doing in that ballroom. (Yes, there were black colleges and black debutantes, but they were a minority that only throws the larger scene into relief.) You can think of this as a chance for the excluded groups to get in on what they were previously denied, but they can only do that by pretending to be the dominant group – a farce of bad consciousness. (Hi, Condoleeza!)
Asking someone from an excluded group to play along with the circumstances of their exclusion just throws in their face how vile the thing is that you’re celebrating. Not understanding why they’re being a “wet blanket” about it just proves how much you don’t care. And for those whites who think it’s OK to go ahead and throw a party their black friends wouldn’t have been allowed to attend back in the day, because they don’t actually have any black friends, the fact that you’re not insulting someone to their face doesn’t absolve you of celebrating the insult to begin with.
So, yeah, there’s really no way to do this that isn’t offensive. Throwing a sock hop isn’t the same as staging a Klan rally, but they are both events that exist in, and largely because of, a deliberate oppressive exclusion that kept one group up and one group down, and which celebrate the group that was up. If you’re cool with that, well, you’re not cool.
UPDATE: Here’s another take on the time machine question.