The nerve some upper-middle class mothers have. Blaming foreign kids and affirmative action policies for her son’s nonexistence Ivy League acceptance letter is brain-racking. Or at least, you would hope. She cannot fathom how privileged her son is to apply to Ivy Leagues, and the one that got away was in fact not the only option, but her son’s top pick.
Now, mother might have a hard time recognizing the privilege of her three-story, gated community life in one of the US’s top three richest counties, but she definitely will not accept the inherent racism of her blame-games. Her son’s entrance into the upper echelons of what will ultimately be a “proud parents of an Ivy Leaguer” bumper sticker — and bragging privileges to be used as a cudgel against other equally proud parents living through their children’s successes — has little to fear from poor black kids who got in because of their “skin color” (as mother always says). So why the focus? Why must mother always point a manicured finger to every kid who just wants a chance to have an education?
I would offer up this instance, and others, as facets of a cultural change in American racism. American racism is no longer just about segregation, although that still plays a big part. Racism, like classism and misogyny, adapts as needed to constantly reinforce capitalism and colonialist structures. Superiority is out, replaced with a twisted combo of homogeneity and hyper-individualism. Contrived phrases like “If you live in America, you should speak English,” “Illegal Immigrants are taking our jobs,” and “They refuse to assimilate into American culture,” are the vanguard of the new American racist.
Thanks to a common American ignorance of their own malicious history, they have chosen to remember two major events in US history. Both pat Americans on the back, and paint a rosy narrative of American justice and freedom. “We fought a war for freedom, for God’s sake!” they cry; a civil war some still believe was fought over state’s rights, and others still identify with and fly the flags of the insurrectionists. Then there’s the Civil Rights Movement. Today, most white Americans think the Civil Rights Movement was this socially approved peaceful march against a handful of bigoted Americans and KKK members. Martin Luther King Jr. is worshiped, white-washed into this memorial of American goodness. Like apple pie and the Fourth of July, MLK has been inducted into the American Symbolism Hall of Fame, forever used to stroke American self-righteousness. Both events go hand in hand with building up what is, in the minds of white Americans, an American post-racial society.
Conveniently, this post-racial society can only imagine one form of racism: the old racism of segregation and superiority. Easily distinguishable, yet conveniently nonexistent; old racism is a historical relic recent enough to still occupy a space in their minds, yet distant enough to not be a routine inconvenience on their conscience. Racism to most Americans is in your face, it is abrasive, it is openly bellicose and malicious.
Thanks to this outdated definition of racism, coupled with a cherry-picked historical account, many white Americans have crafted an image of themselves as the poster child for American colorblind do-good neighbors. Racism has been so narrowly defined as to allow white Americans an easy mental out to never ponder whether their petty middle class musings are racist.
Colorblindness has been disproven. Ignorance is not bliss, nor helpful for minorities trying to raise awareness of their societal otherness. Middle to upper-middle class white Americans definitely do not help race relations with their self-serving colorblind attitudes.
But here’s the dilemma at hand: breaching the barriers of racial discourse has become an infringement on American identities. Their perception of their own racial neutrality — a neutrality based in privilege, i.e. racial isolation — has hampered their understanding. The confident analysis of societal prejudice and mistreatment by social justice advocates comes across as a full frontal assault on the personas white Americans have judicially assembled over the course of several decades. To critique their racial awareness is to lay siege to who they see themselves as a person. They have black friends, Hispanic neighbors, and Asian coworkers; how exactly are they racist again? Defensively referring to every minority in your life is a common tactic to disprove accusations of racism. Unfortunately for the accused it is highlights how shallow their view of the racism and interracial communication is. The inability to interact with minorities is not a requirement to be a racist.
Tokenism is a hilarious attempt at saving one’s racial neutrality. It is the equivalent of some poor fucker throwing every god-damned kitchen utensil and appliance at their killer-to-be. It is a last ditched effort to save themselves from a surefire grisly end. Tokenism is the white man’s version of a human shield. In a last ditch effort to deny their below-average brand-name variety of racism, they throw the body of their so-called comrade on the altar of white innocence; a sacrifice in vain. This ritualistic sacrifice for the benefit of white redemption is ironically a sign of the white man’s own remoteness toward the colored men and women they call comrade. Friendship is merely a guise for the eventually defense of their innocence.
This proves their undoing. Every tactic, every strategy, every pathetic grasp at straws is merely another dossier toward their guilt. Tokenism is harmful, not only because it isolates the individual from the community, thereby freeing you from having to deal with a unified front; but, it highlights just how much you care about diversity. For those who employ tokens, diversity is merely a shield against the unenviable accusation of bigotry, or workplace harassment. For the colorblind white American who has solidified their sense of goodness with their racial awareness (or lack thereof), tokenism is not a self-serving service. They honestly believe they care.
Tokenism and colorblindness both reinforce and are incentivized by a powerful environmental force few whites are aware of: racial isolation. America’s long oppressive history toward every minority imaginable, and its eventual assimilation of most minorities has solidified a perception of neutrality and normalcy inherently built around whiteness. European conquerors and colonialists were the civilized ones in a wake of unfamiliar and highly diverse set of Native American tribes, kingdoms, and empires. White land owners and workers represented the normal, the status quo; their dehumanized African slaves covering the realm of other. From White Man’s Burden, to justifications for slavery, or the forced reeducation of Native Americans the standard have always come from white America. Even outside of obvious color divides, white America has always held the banner of normalcy and therefore dominance. The horrible treatment of Irish immigrants is one of many less clear-cut examples. It is a conveniently brushed over aspect of American history, eerily reminiscent of the past two decades of immigration debate and fear-mongering. Laws were passed, populist movements formed, and even a president elected all in the name of battling the Irish-Catholic menace. The Irish were not the first or the last immigrant group to be dehumanized and belittled by American society, merely a chapter in the history of oppressive American normalcy and xenophobia.
The over-powering tools at society’s disposal to squash and conform new inductees at will is not easily observed. Yet, it is causes massive ripples throughout the organism. This unseen wave constantly shapes and influences our perceptions of acceptability and the status quo. One result of this is racial isolation. It is how you end up with white Americans believing racial relations were hunky-dory up until Black Lives Matter and Obama started stirring the pot. Only those living in a racial bubble would blame the first black president for racial discord. In their majority white neighborhoods and grocery stores; with their token black friends who will never broach the topic of race, much less be asked for their perspective; their worries of which Ivy League university Johnny will attend, or how long he sits on the bench during football games; it all adds up to hide the reality of their position.
The state of race-relations looks tranquil when you never have to deal with privilege, social justice, or accusations of racism. The status quo is sweet intelligent white kids getting into the colleges of their choice. Pick a major, hopefully in a field with the possibility of moving up the ladder and the income bracket. College is supposed to be another safe space for white parents to send their white kids, so they can eventually enter the white workplace, and make their parents proud. Coming back with questions or some progressive bullshit is a parent’s worst fear. Who cares if they party like wild animals and consume copious amounts of Adderall to combat the insanity that is the modern education system and all its anxiety? Just do not come home a progressive, social justice, t-shirt slogan wearing activist. Do not question the bubble you have been nurtured in.
What do you think happens when that bubble, that slick conveyer belt of white success, gets threatened? An ironic all-encompassing blame-game, the size of a modest pristine gated community with its own PGA certified gold course; and just enough token black neighbors to maintain a healthy appreciation of diversity without lowering house prices. The blame falls flat on legal and illegal immigrants, activists, professors, ideologies, ethnicities, gender, and many more. To question or attack the bubble is to threaten white racial goodness.
A crucial ingredient in racism is ignorance. Mom and dad never took five minutes to learn the ins and outs of affirmative action, like, that it has been losing influence in college policy for some time now. They have no solid connections into the education system, much less any insight into the lives of those who benefit from affirmative action. They are obviously ignorant of the vast complexities of racism, and of the motives of activists attempting to change the narrative.
Being guilty of racism washes away every good deed. Or at least, that is how it seems. To connect racial innocence with personal goodness, and perceive accusations of racism as the ultimate form of destruction is to construct massive bulwarks of defense against any and all allegations. Introspection is useless when it is your public image and reputation on the line. Live and learn is a joke against the all-consuming forces of the racial lynch mob.
Racism is a spectrum. Consequences exist regardless of where you end up. Racism is racism; it is all unhealthy, offensive, and destructive. But to effect real change in individuals and society at large you have to specialize the fix based on the issue. Punishment is not equal across the board for crimes, nor should it be for racial offensives. When dealing with white racial innocence there is a fine line between confronting them and pushing them deeper into their defensive infrastructure. I know though that for many of us, confronting is a big enough challenge. Unless you are a veteran activist, you most likely won’t defy the nonverbalized boundaries of family get-togethers to put your racist uncle in his place. It is uncomfortable. So is discussing your feelings with close friends. Both have to be done to maintain a healthy environment. Peer pressure exists for a reason. A community, no matter the size, is a powerful force in altering its members’ perceptions.
That mom complaining about foreign students snatching needed scholarship money and admission slots from her upstanding white son lives in a bubble. Not only is she ignorant of the reality of college admission processes, foreign students, and her own son’s class status, she also lives in a community unaware or unwilling to confront her. She has no one to point out her privileged opinions. No one is aware of how ignorant she sounds when she drowns on and on about affirmative action. Dad is not countered when his anti-immigrant drudgery kicks in.
Combating racism is a battle of a thousand cuts, prods, and nudges. It is a strategy necessary when facing self-righteous white people intent on their own racial blamelessness. Head on collisions with staunch moral self-perceptions around hot-button issues is just a bloody mess. It is a zero-sum game. No one wins those encounters.
We all think we are good inside for some reason or another. It is usually based on false perceptions and missing pieces in the puzzle. You have to lift that veil off slowly. Reality is a bright light that most of us have rarely experienced. Let your eyes adjust slowly.
“On White Racial Tranquility” was originally published on Medium