Patterico’s Rules for Talking to White People About Race, Or, Why I’m Not Interested in a “National Conversation” About Race
So yesterday I saw this tweet from Slate‘s Will Saletan:
I went to the linked article, by Jenée Desmond-Harris of TheRoot.com, a black online magazine run in part by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with corporate ties to Slate and the Washington Post. It is a “nonexhaustive list of ground rules and reminders” for conducting our “national conversation on race.” Given the site where it appeared, you will probably not be surprised to learn that Ms. Desmond-Harris’s piece reads like a list of things white people had better not say to black people. Here are some examples:
1. Talking about race isn’t racist. Don’t say that. Vilifying people who discuss race and point out racism — making them the bad guys — is one of the ways racism is maintained. So is acting as if “blacks suffer from racism” and “whites suffer from reverse racism” are equally valid points of view.
. . . .
5. Black people shouldn’t have to fit your definition of what’s respectable to deserve equality or justice. It’s silly and unfounded to blame inequality caused by institutionalized racism on, say, sagging pants or rap music. If you want to celebrate black people who are educated and high-achieving and defy persistent stereotypes, great, but that can’t be a requirement for fair treatment. We got into trouble with this type of thinking when evidence that Trayvon Martin was a normal teenager messed up so many people’s impression of him as a sympathetic victim.
. . . .
7. Individual racism and systemic racism are two different things. We should care about all the structures that maintain racial inequality, not just individual actors. (This is why it’s not unreasonable to jump from George Zimmerman’s impression of Trayvon Martin to racial profiling by police.) That said, individual acts can provide strong reminders about larger attitudes and problems. Ahem, Paula Deen. Ahem.
Individual racism is irrelevant, apparently, unless we’re talking about a white racist, in which case it is super-meaningful and illustrative of whites’ attitudes in general. Got it. Al Sharpton’s racism? Just one guy. Paula Deen’s? That is representative of “larger attitudes”!
The other numbered points are more of the same: don’t cite blacks like Bill Cosby on race issues; don’t talk about black-on-black crime (with a link to a piece titled Exposing the Myth of Black-on-Black Crime); and so forth. They’re basically rules for white people on things not to say to blacks.
Desmond-Harris’s piece noted that Saletan had done his own piece on how to have a conversation on race. I looked at that piece and noted that, with a couple of perfunctory nods to even-handedness, it too was basically a compendium of rules for white people on how to talk to blacks about race (e.g. don’t freak out if someone calls you a racist because, hey, maybe you really are one!).
I wondered: are there any pieces on how to talk to white people about race? Or is that not an important topic? I decided to ask these two writers that question on Twitter:
So her rules are for everyone? I decided to challenge that by giving a couple of examples that seemed one-sided to me. Here they are, with her responses:
Turns out, she meant: the rules are for everyone, meaning: here are rules on how everyone should talk to blacks. They are rules for how whites should talk to blacks, and how blacks should talk to blacks. See? They’re for everyone!
So I decided to refine my question. Instead of asking: are there rules for black people, I asked: are there rules for talking to whites about race?
Just one problem with that:
Ms. Desmond-Harris thinks she has to deal with this the same way whites do:
But there’s one not-so-little difference:
I then went out on a limb and decided to give Patterico’s Rule for Talking to White People About Race. Can we have a drumroll, please?
I could add a couple of corollaries, like “don’t call us racists at the drop of a hat” and “act like you actually care what we think too.” But I’d be happy enough if we simply had the one rule: stop telling us what we can and can’t say.
I thought I detected a little sarcasm in Desmond-Harris’s next comment:
Actually, I had violated one of her rules. The end of Rule Number 2 contains this passage:
Please give up on the “But what if the races were reversed?” line of thinking. That type of analysis makes conversations simple, but it also makes them totally unhelpful.
Of course, that’s exactly what I was doing. I was saying: it’s fine for a black writer to say provocative things about race that might get them labeled a racist, but what if the races were reversed? For a white writer to say provocative things about race that might get them labeled a racist is often a career ender. That’s a true statement, but Ms. Desmond-Harris doesn’t want to hear true statements that violate her rules.
As a little side note, I found this amusing:
I went to timwise.org and it turned out to be a white guy who says that white-on-black racism is a horrible thing — i.e. a white guy who agrees with Ms. Desmond-Harris. I suppose I could have given her a “conversation on race from a black perspective” and linked her to Larry Elder’s site.
Anyway, it seemed like the conversation was coming to a close, and I wanted to hit my main theme:
Right on cue, I got an interloper in the conversation who summed it all up better than I ever could:
And now, for the icing on the cake. Today, Ms. Desmond-Harris got upset at Don Lemon for making statements about problems that exist in black society. Apparently, Ms. Desmond-Harris doesn’t agree with Lemon, but rather than take him on regarding his specific points, she said this:
It’s obviously a joke of sorts . . . but it’s born of a serious frustration she has with Lemon. Rather than debate him, her initial impulse — tongue in cheek as she may claim it to be — is to want to shut him up. I teased her about that:
And then . . .
. . . and then, Jenée Desmond-Harris blocked me:
THREE CHEERS FOR OUR NATIONAL CONVERSATION ON RACE!!!!!