Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What is it like to be white?

I have literally wanted to post the video below for YEARS. But I could never find it online. Then I was in a group on facebook that deals with race, clicked 'like' on another video and then this video popped up as a suggestion. Just like this time, the Universe was working for me--you just gotta pay attention.

I saw this skit when it first appeared on Saturday Night Live. I was about 6 or 7. I probably shouldn't have been watching SNL at that age, mom. ;) . However I will say, I didn't get most of the jokes. But I do remember this skit where John Belushi held up a puppet and said, "Happy birthday, Shiela!" Does anyone else remember that?

Ok, watch the video:

Arrrrrgh, I can't get it to embed, so you're going to have to click here to watch it.

Couple things:

Did you catch the part where he says in order to become white he read Hallmark cards? I feel like that is part of the race problem that doesn't have a whole lot to do with white people. This idea that certain things (that I would consider positive,) are quintessentially white. Like, giving someone a card with a sweet sentiment is not something that a person of color should feel like they can't do if they want to maintain an authentic racial identity. Being interested in school and speaking the King's English would be two more examples. So, if there are any black people reading that put these kinds of limitations on other black people--please stop. If you don't want to stop; please tell me why in the comments so I can understand better where you're coming from.

So, I am pretty sure that this is not what happens when there are no people of color around. But you'll notice I didn't say I'm positive...cuz I'm not. Because logically, everywhere I am, a black person is--so I could always be influencing what is happening. Also, we got to where we are now by white people giving each other preferential treatment for at least 200 years--so it's not like this skit is coming completely out of nowhere.

And that's where you come in, white readers. I don't think you give each other free stuff or have parties on the bus--but how frequently do you hear racist/racish comments from other white people when there are no people of color around? What percentage of white people are actually scarily racist and just savvy enough to control themselves in public? An estimate for both of these answers is fine. Last question: any tips on spotting these people?

That's all for now. And if you're a new reader who got here after my mention on the country's best morning show--Welcome! I'm glad you're here.

And if that's not how you got here--I'm glad you're here too.

Feel free to answer the questions I posed, your reactions to the skit, or just share about anything else that's on your mind in the comments.

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  1. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Well, I have this to say: Eddie .. ok here is where you realize that you're talking to a middle-aged menopausal woman, when I admit that I HAVE FORGOTTEN THE MAN'S LAST NAME .... anyway, y'all know who I mean when I say Eddy was a genius, along the lines of Chris Rock and Richard Pryor. I think you're missing the point with the Hallmark cards reference. Hallmark cards are written by idiots for idiots. My brothers and I used to relentlessly mock their treacly sentiments. I've been following your blog for a while, and, yes, I am white. As to your question, what kinds of comments about black people do I hear when there are no black people around to hear them? I am finding that that really depends on what part of the country in which I am located. I spend half the year in Massachusetts (Boston, Cambridge, wealthy North Shore towns) and half the year in Chester, Va. Rarely if ever hear comments about black people when I am in unmixed company in Massachusetts, but I do hear constant undercurrent of disapproval while I am in Va. Lots more suspicion and outright dislike and disapproval of black people in Va than in Mass.

  2. Anonymous8:24 PM

    Also, re Eddie Murphy being a genius ... we don't have bus parties, but the scene that took place in the bank was eerily prescient, in light of the recent mortgage scandals that have come to light where POC were directed to really poor mortgage plans. Although the skit would have been making reference to redlining scams of the 1970s and 80s.

  3. Shannonigans11:15 AM

    This blog is awesome, first of all. And I love getting your updates through FB. I'm always reading but rarely commenting. On this one I just had a thought. I wonder if you could change the title to "What is it like t be part of the majority?" I know of course that you're talking about race relations in America so you definitely have the right title. I've lived all over the country and I've noticed that in most conversations people don't realize we're making a racist comment until someone points it out! Also, the people who are "scarily racist" are easy to point out because they're generally angry. Because like Yoda says "fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to" complete absorption in out our own prejudices.

  4. I live in a predominanty white, upper middle class, Republican community, and yeah, there is subtle and not-so-subtle racism - and classism! - going on. I have friends who will make comments about "the apartment dwellers" and "the English language learners," and I think that they think they're being helpful or . . . I don't know, observant or something? It often makes me cringe. And I will admit that I'm a coward who cringes in silence for the most part :(

  5. Anonymous10:03 AM

    I'm from a south Chicagoland suburb, in an area that is considered more racially diverse. My high school was a majority black, like 98%. But I definitely grew up with some racism in my household or family members. It's the kind of racism that people don't always consider to be racist, I guess. But just this past year, my cousin (far older) was talking about how she called the cops because some people were trampling through her backyard late at night. She likely remains convinced that there is a drug house nearby and that someone will try to break in. But when she was describing who she called the cops on, she whispered, "Big black guys, in hoodies." Classic folk devil moral panic going on (read Richard Griffiths' work and others' for more information on that). But I just sat there like, "...What?" My mom stared at me like, "Mmmmm..." and I couldn't read her expression well. But the cops found literally nobody and I'm pretty sure it was just people taking a shortcut through the neighborhood. The thing about this city though is that it used to be a majority Italian Americans/American Italians, and now it's a majority Latinx and Black. My mom's family is Italian and American Italian, and they grew up in a different cultural context. For them, it probably feels like an invasion, and they don't understand why the crime rate has increased. It's not that people are inherently predisposed to crime, it's that the police started profiling heavily in that area and property values spiked and led to more poverty (because of white flight). I'm glad the cops didn't find anyone, because I fear what would have happened. Yea, it was probably trespassing, but again, not a huge deal. Just cutting through a backyard.

    From a very young age, my mom used to say to me, "A n***** is a n*****, that's what your aunt Lynette says. There's good and bad in all races." But ma, why did you keep using a racial slur? What's up with that? I haven't heard her say it in a long time, and I vaguely remember my dad telling her to stop maybe once (?) though he agreed on the latter sentiment. But my mom felt she had the right to say that phrase because Lynette, her friend and my unofficial aunt, said it. My mom also a couple years ago was struggling to understand evolution. I was explaining to her that we do not COME from monkeys, we share a common ancestor with them. She said, "Are you sure? Cuz black people kinda look like-" and I immediately started yelling "NO. NO NO NO NO. NO. NO. We are social primates, but that's not how it works." I was just so in shock that I kept yelling NO and she backed down with, "Okay, okay, sorry." I just did not want her to finish that sentence. (Part I).

  6. Anonymous10:06 AM

    My brother, years ago, used to go to bonfires and parties in different towns. Apparently, the kids from elite private schools (majority white) were calling our town "Dark Forest." My brother stopped going to those events after that. He came home really mad one time, saying they would say shit like that and chicks would talk about how far they've gone sexually, all sorts of other stuff. "It's like they have no respect for anyone. Not even themselves."

    My dad did teach me about integration and about white hypocrisy, though. He said prior to integration in the north, white kids in his grade would talk shit about other whites who were friends with black kids. But after integration, particularly in the 70s, it was "cool" to have a black friend. My dad said he'd always tell them off like, "What the hell is wrong with you? Do you not remember what happened?" When having a black friend in that decade (and the 80s) became cool, it was used as a ranking system among whites in a way, who prided themselves on being progressive.

    I have also seen comments from white people online related to the "Welfare Queen" denigration, but also, some white people say that black people "act like animals" when they "riot" in the streets. They're usually referring to civil protests about police brutality. Or they will overuse terms like "thug."

    A big part of it is media misrepresentation and what goes on in a household, combined with no education on equity and diversity. In order for someone to know what a microaggression is, they have to know what is offensive and why. If we don't teach people what is offensive or hurtful and why and that they can get past it, or prevent that from being in content consumed, it kind of just continues...but quietly? A graduate student yesterday at a workshop said a lot of initiatives designed to address these issues tend to be great, but...they may fail at changing long-term, ingrained perceptions. People might adjust their behavior or watch more closely what they say, but it might not necessarily stop them from being racist. I know racism has just taken new political forms, like prohibition, militarizing police, and over-policing neighborhoods with more people of color, as well as trying to cut (and cutting) social programs (that don't just help people of color!). But it's the illusion of superiority white rich people want to make others believe can be "attained." They use exclusive language when referring to social programs and the minimum wage because they want people to believe that X group is Lazy, rather than large population is being oppressed and mistreated and underpaid and that population is disproportionately people of color. I guess that's more explicit, but the thing is, white people hear that message and then they try to spew it back out, or they'll private message you to say, well, I think O'Reilley has a point, and then they try to make you, a fellow white person, believe what they believe when it's toxic. (Part II)