There is no dispute that racism exists and, where it exists, should be condemned. But that banal statement doesn’t answer the question of what’s racist. More importantly, it fails to address the ubiquitous cries of racism at every ill, whether real and flagrant, imagined or perceived by the accuser even if unintended by the accused.
Charles Blow uses three rhetorical questions to make a point about racism. It’s putatively about Trump’s “go back” comments, and the dichotomy in America in appreciating the racist nature of the comments and labeling them so, but it goes much further.
When did we arrive at the point where applying the words racist and racism were more radioactive than actually doing and saying racist things and demonstrating oneself to be a racist?
How is it that America insists on knowledge of the unknowable — what lurks in the heart — in order to assign the appellation?
Why are so many Americans insisting that racism requires conscious, malicious intent in order for the title to be earned?
There are fairly straightforward answers to each of his well-crafted questions, and therein lies the problem: Blow can ask. Can anyone seriously answer in a fashion other than “you’re so right” without being called a racist? And even if they are called a racist, does the epithet sting anymore, or has it become so common that racist, like Hitler, is just another word to be blithely hurled as the easiest retort?
The real point of Blow’s rhetorical question isn’t to evoke a response, but to nudge the Overton Window of racism further away from discussion of what is racism to why white people won’t do racism when black people tell them to. Why are white people such reluctant allies? Why failure of white people to come to the aid of black people when they assert racism exists makes them racists too.
By refusing to add your white voices you gave the defining of racism a black face. You allowed people to believe that the telling of truth and bearing of witness by some, we black and brown few, has the appearance of being corrupted and compromised by ignoble motive.
Blow’s words are tricky. He speaks truth and honesty. You corrupt them by allowing them to be “compromised by ignoble motive” by your failure to accept Blow’s characterization, because he’s black and you’re not, and lend your voice in support. Do you have any doubts? So what? A good ally doesn’t question. A good ally is a soldier in the war against racism and stands ready to die at the command of his general. Blow is the general. He says die for him, and you must die or be racist.
I believe that too many of our white neighbors are choosing to be intentionally blind to the enormous breadth and scope of racism in this country, because to acknowledge it would be to condemn self, family, friends and community. It would be to recognize that much of their existence is privileged, and conversely blackness is oppressed.
Yet more rhetorical tricks, although not of Blow’s making. If your child, parent or neighbor was to say something you found to be racist, would you not challenge it, correct it, or even condemn it? Most of us would, and when it’s happened as it has for many of us, have done so. But the call isn’t to correct, even condemn, our “self, family, friends and community,” but to punish them, and punish them harshly for their racism.
This isn’t about just our intentional blindness, but that what we are to acknowledge is what we’re told to acknowledge. We aren’t expected to condemn our families for what we find offensive, but for what Blow, or any black person, tells us is offensive. If a black person point and shouts “racist” at our family, we’re to pull out the long blades and swing with all our might.
And then comes the last rhetorical trick in this one paragraph, the juxtaposition of white existence being privileged and blackness oppressed. This creates a false dichotomy, where the only options are privilege or oppression. It might be read as suggesting the sides should be flipped, with black people enjoying the privilege that critical theory ascribes to white people.
No one should ever be oppressed because of their race or skin color. And no one should ever enjoy a privilege because of it either.
But this comes from someone who spent his career fighting for equality, which was once, not too long ago, the goal. It no longer is. Not even the word is acceptable anymore, having been replaced with “equity,” which provides a level of vagueness that allows the fudged rhetoric Blow provides. Equality led us toward a color blind society, which is now unacceptable because it’s racist. Instead, we must now see race, see blackness, and to prove we’re not racists, acquiesce to its demands.
Years ago, I cheered for Charles Blow’s daughter when she won the Fencers Club High School Invitational girl’s foil championship. It was the same year my son won the boy’s epee championship at the same invitational, winning over Ayyub Ibrahim. Ayyub was a better fencer, but it was my son’s day. After the bout, we all hugged each other. The boys were brothers.
I watched Ayyub grow up, as a fencer and a person. I had been his surrogate father at North American Cup competitions, as I had for other young fencers whose fathers weren’t able to be there regardless of race, religion, gender, whatever. I saw racism. I got in the way, physically, to tell people they had to go through me to get to the kids, which was odd in that the kids were generally bigger and stronger than I was. But as a white adult, my physical presence made a difference, and I used it, willing to take a punch if it came to that. It never did, by the way, but I was ready for it.
Now I’m not allowed to have a say. Now, my answers to Blow’s questions would make me racist. I would have taken a punch for his daughter. I still would. But I will not be told that I can’t answer his rhetorical questions without being labeled racist because I’m a white guy.