The New York Times just released an Op-Doc called ‘A Conversation With White People on Race’ and before I get into this conversation, watch what people had to say in that conversation.
Now, where should I begin? “White privilege” and “Institutionalized racism” are relatively new terms for what is as old as humanity itself, human nature. The old adage, “birds of a feather flock together” is not just a clever turn of phrase, but an accurate description of the human condition. We all struggle to express our individuality, but conformity is where we find comfort.
Just think back to high school, remember the kids who just didn’t quite fit in? I do, I was one of them. Those kids who were not part of the social norm developed their own identities, Goth, Punk, Saggy Pants, whatever the case may be. They established their difference from the norm and in so doing found others who would be “different” the same way they did, they conformed to a new “normal” and found comfort in conforming to their “different normal.”
The same is true in society at large, the majority defines “normal” in a society and if the society is majority white, then the majority of people are going to be most comfortable with those “birds of a feather” that look like them. Just as people are generally more comfortable around family members and in the past families became clans and tribes and bloodlines became important not solely out of a sense of pride or power, but because bloodlines produced familiar and similar faces and characteristics that were “comfortable,” but also bred a distrust of those who were different.
It’s not overt racism, it’s not even subconscious racism, it is literally human nature. “White privilege” implies that there is some inherent gift, advantage or bias that benefits whites over other races and although it is not by design or generally acted upon consciously, in fact there is some benefit to being the majority race. Just as there is an inherent benefit to being a part of any majority, be it a religion, political party, etc. People are naturally drawn to those that they have something in common with, simply because it is easy and comfortable.
The same is true for “institutionalized racism,” not that it is instituted with the express desire to oppress, but merely as a function of majority, conformity and comfort. Is it fair to minorities? No, not at all, but I challenge anyone to name anything in this life that is fair. Fair or not, there is a way to bypass the inherent privilege of the majority and it’s happening every day all around us either without notice or if noticed it is ridiculed.
What is this societal majority hack? Brace yourself, because it goes against everything that is preached today about individuality, self-identity, self-image and even your own pride.
The key to overcoming “white privilege” and “institutionalized racism” is…
That does not mean giving up your individual identity, but we all have a public persona and a private persona. Minority status does not hurt all minorities equally. Those that try the hardest to “fit in” do so better than those who try to make society conform to them. It is not as if the black race is uniformly disadvantaged in America. If that was the case, we would not have President Obama, Justice Clarence Thomas, Senator Tom Scott, Condolezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey and the list goes on and on. The one thing they all have in common is that they became successful by playing by the rules of society, offsetting their different skin color by conforming to society standards in other ways such as how they speak or how they dress, at least in public, and they became successful, accepted and in many cases adored by millions of “white people.”
To tell a minority that their future is in their hands and all they have to do is “act right” is deemed racist. To tell someone else that they must conform, act like you, dress like you or speak like you in order to get ahead is uncomfortable and sounds presumptuous. It is presumptuous, but it is not racist, it is reality. It is not a racial black/white/red/brown/yellow/green/purple issue, it is a majority/minority issue and yes the majority does have an easier time overall conforming or fitting in and yes the minorities do have to work a little harder, but that is just a fact of life being a minority.
I am quite white, I do not have a “racial identity,” I don’t think of myself as a white man, I’m just a man. Now, if I lived in South Africa or Jamaica or Haiti, that might be different. Then I would have to work a little harder to fit in, learn the language, then learn to speak it well. I would have to pay attention to the cultural norms of the majority, the acceptable dress codes of the majority and other aspects of the majority society. To the best of my knowledge I am French-Dutch-Irish-English-German-American, or of European descent, but I don’t identify as European-American or the much longer lineage designation, why? Because I’m just an American.
All of my ancestry is part of the American culture, as is African, Mexican, Asian, Indian, etc. All are a part of the melting pot that is American culture. Not only do I get to experience the culture of my ancestors, but everyone else’s ancestors as well, so I have no need or desire to keep my individual culture alive, it is alive and well in all of the countries that my ancestors came from as well as mixed into the culture I embrace as an American. Is it any wonder that the “hyphenated Americans” are the ones that have the most trouble assimilating into American society? Yes, they find comfort in their sub-cultures just the same way that the Goths and Punks and Nerds did in high school, but they are still outsiders, minorities within the majority of society at large.
We are uncomfortable talking about race, because we don’t want to be divided by race. We want to accept all people, but we are faced with the conflict of comfort and the discomfort of forcing conformity on others. We don’t want to tell people that the way they act or talk or dress makes us uncomfortable, but that is the heart of the issue. Society is a construct of common standards and practices. It is invariably driven by the majority, consciously or unconsciously, based solely on the comfort level of the majority. Being a minority is a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one. The majority has come along way in our society in regards to racism and outright hatred based on differences in skin color, but the majority can only go so far before reverting back to their comfort zone. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, minorities of all types must make the effort to conform, at least publicly, if we are to ever achieve any further progress.
Is that an honest enough conversation for you New York Times?