Social Illiteracy Is What’s Plaguing America’s Race Relations

I never dismiss white people who use the “some of my best friends are black” line as disingenuous. I don’t think they’re hustling me, or clumsily using the sentence as a crutch to lean on anytime an assertion of racism is tossed about. So what if it is a lie? My life remains unmoved by their guilt-ridden delusion. Benefit of the doubt works fine in these types of scenarios. It’s not naiveté; it’s actually relatable. I’m living proof of that.

I have a couple of white friends, good friends actually, whose advice I’m willing take on several matters. I’d trust them in any number of scenarios. We discuss women and our careers and whatever else. If a fight broke out between one of them and a black dude, I’d step in and fight on their behalf. Yes, I’d shoot a fair one with a black guy for one of my white friends. I’m dead serious about that. It may sound like a black/white buddy movie, but it’s real life. These relationships work because my white friends have made a conscious effort to understand and involve themselves in the black experience. I don’t have to do a lot a handholding and give detailed explanations on matters that should be commonly understood. This is why I get so frustrated when I see examples of what happens when people don’t engage in other cultures. I’ve felt sorry for people in the past, but no more. Excuse time is officially over.

The other day, someone sent me a link to the cover story of the latest issue of Philadelphia Magazine. The title reads “Being White In Philly,” and to ignore it was my initial reflex since it felt like the article was an obvious troll. Similar to the Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover last week, which was blasted for its racist assertion that the busted housing bubble was somehow the singular fault of black homeowners. Said illustration is ripe for subjectivity, but even the most non-jaded mind can see remnants or at least the subtle reminders of the exaggerated illustrations used to demean black people in the past. You see these things and you are certain that someone did this for the specific purpose of eliciting a reaction. Selling periodicals is hard work in 2013; we shouldn’t put it past them, at all.

I checked it out in a brief moment of downtime, figuring it was a piece on the ever-evolving dynamics of racial co-existence and how in the 21st century that means something different than what it meant in the 20th century. I thought the piece would address that and bring forth solutions. Instead, it’s an article heavy on stereotypes, “woe is us” posturing and eyebrow raising anecdotes. The whole thing is a giant dog whistle to anyone out there that wants to shut down racial progress.

The headline of the story is fine and has just the right amount of sizzle to resonate with readers trained for reactionary living. It’s the deck (the smaller, lower line under the title) that really spells it out: “White, race, class and things that never get said.” In the piece the author goes on to frame it with this line:

“The problems seem intractable. In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist. And so white people are stuck, dishonest by default.”


What is it, exactly, that isn’t being said? How are you stuck? This notion isn’t a singular response, but one more in a continuum of ridiculous comments. What exactly is being held back from us when Trayvon Martin and the reaction to his death by the conservative media was basically a shoulder shrug, when a black camerawoman at last year’s Republican National Convention had food thrown at her and called an animal, when nine-year-old actresses have their names disrespected on national television because reporters don’t want to take the effort in learning how to correctly pronounce it?

Is this considered biting your tongue?

Is it holding back when swaths of white people are consistently asking why they can’t use the so-called N word? Newsflash: if you’re asking, the assumption is that you already say it and just want permission so as not to come home with a broken nose. What are people holding back that they can’t say? And, more so, why are they holding it back?

The laziness and monumental lack of accountability makes this piece even more disappointing. The basic premise is that white Philadelphians have quality of life concerns and that there is no safe avenue in existence that allows them to express this without being tagged with a mark of bigotry…that, really, they are victims in a circumference of racial hostility, where they keep going around and around with no solution. It’s bizarre, really. Because the solution that they so longingly hope for might actually exist if only reasonable effort was put forth in its discovery.

The term that fits here is social illiteracy. The idea that there are things outside of your vision that, because of fear or less obvious reasons, just aren’t worth a heavy intellectual investment. You may find that group of people unworthy of detailed concern and so you refuse to understand anything about them—even if it may be beneficial to you in the long run. 

One of the people interviewed in the piece is a parent and she speaks of feeling pressure to choose the “right school” amongst the two local choices. Both schools are solid educational centers; this isn’t an obvious case where one of the options is a “Lean on Me” school, where kids are getting accosted in the bathroom every other afternoon. No, both schools are respectable. It’s just that one is predominantly white and the other is predominately black.

“There’s a very good elementary school in Rittenhouse: Greenfield. And that’s the school the parents in Fairmount—the white, middle-class parents, which is Fairmount—shoot for if they’re going public. Jen took a look at Bache-Martin, the public school four blocks from her house and 74 percent black: Teachers engaged. Kids well behaved. Small classes. Plus a gym and an auditorium and a cafeteria, a garden, a computer lab. She enrolled her kids there.”

Jen was not in the majority. Other mothers told her, “There is a lot of Greenfield pressure.” That pressure is from fellow Fairmounters: pressure to send their kids, collectively, to the right school. Greenfield test scores are a bit higher. It’s also not nearly so black.

There are frequent stories and books about the changing culture of America, where there are pockets of resistance, led by whites who feel as though they are losing their grip on the socio-economic/culture resonance ladder.”

The woman in the article speaks of the subtle push of tribalism that exists in her middle class enclave. She wants to be fair, but you know, peer pressure is a MF. It’s written in a way that intends for us to feel sorry for the woman. We know she means well, but it’s beyond her control; that’s the desired takeaway. I actually don’t even mind her choice of going to the white school. People don’t like to speak about this in mixed company, but self-segregation happens all the time. People generally want to be around other people who share their same values, who understand similar nuances, who remind them of themselves. And it goes both ways. 

Surely, you’ve read of the many gentrification moments that have happened over the last decade or so, where upper-middle class suburbanites, tired of long commutes and staid culture options, decide to move back in the hustle and bustle of big city metropolis. Their arrival often triggers a property hike with raised rents and freshly constructed condos. The longtime residents, often black, bemoan the changes and outwardly reject these new neighbors.

So I understand the pressure and even the desire to send her kids to the white majority school. The problem is, without intimate relationships built between students in class and parents conversing at PTA meeting, the “other” will remain the “other” and it becomes hard to find a middle ground. You cannot remain so insular, and then, on the other hand, complain about the perceived inadequacies of black people. How are you going to understand black people if you never talk to them, spend time around or understand their values? You can’t make assumptions if you don’t have enough information to form a proper argument.

This is why black people get upset about things like white people brazenly touching their hair, discussions about race-based admission policies without referencing how legacy admissions are comparable, saying that blacks are naturally more athletic or comically assessing the relevance of Black History Month. The sense is: how do they not understand these concepts? Why must we keep having these “water is wet” discussions over and over again?

And then, when problems arise as they invariably do, there’s no reasonable discourse. So all that’s left is complaining that you can’t discuss any topics with, to or about black people. There is no country for this level of inept thinking; you cannot eat off of this plate anymore. These attitudes exist because the average white person is fine with not knowing the truth. I understand that this is sometimes a two-way street and the race-pimps that believe they speak for all black people in this country never give credit for the advances that have been made. I think that’s a fair criticism because honestly, they are also part of the problem. The truth remains, however, that this is an issue that falls harder on one side. It’s indisputable that White America needs to do better.

If it were just a trend, like men wearing turquoise denim, then most people would excuse it or ignore it altogether. But it’s been percolating for years, this idea that somehow white people are getting the shaft. That their reign’s abrupt end has left them beaten and battered. That they’ve been left defenseless as they watch the color of the flag turn into red, black and green (bold). This is the biggest con job ever. Absolutely Madoff-ian in its greasy multi-layered slickness.

At this point, it’s not about just meeting halfway. Black people have spent several decades doing that, and, apparently, there’s still uneasiness on the other side. For the constituency of whites who feel however they feel about black people: please let it be known and then let’s have a sit-down. A real one. Because the festering scab that is ignorance can’t even begin to heal unless that happens. You want to know who we are, what we want and what we think of you? Ask and you’ll get an answer. It’s 2013, after all. What the hell are you guys waiting for? The only other option is to keep pointing fingers and complaining, and really, that’s not going to get you anywhere you want to be. All that will happen is each side will keep digging in and we’ll do this again and again. And we’ll all discover the downside of doing things the hard way.



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