You may have noticed “the look,” that flash of discomfort on white faces anytime a conversation turns toward race. Not long after the look, you may hear “I’m not a racist, but,” or the great white classic, “I have a lot of black friends…” as a prelude to some fantastic expression of bigotry. In general, white people would rather talk about their bowel movements than engage in an honest conversation about race.
A post at Forbes today explores this evasion in the context of recent protests over police brutality and Confederate monuments. Here’s the anchor for that piece:
White people with the best of intentions still struggle to engage on racial issues thanks to two fears. First, an honest assessment of our racial history threatens to tarnish cherished national icons, a danger often expressed as an attack on our “heritage.” Perhaps even more powerful is the looming fear of a kind of open-ended liability, the “white guilt” so spitefully derided by cynics. Even a superficial exploration of race stirs in white Americans a sickening dread, the sensation of a chasm opening beneath their feet which they are willing to avoid at almost any moral price.
Both factors are on display in the debate over Confederate monuments. Deep in the barely conscious corners of white culture lies a lingering terror. General Lee may be dead, but his brass figure rides on, a continuing bulwark against a long-overdue reckoning. To many white minds, any honest assessment of what Lee did, and what our great-grandparents, and grandparents and our fathers did, or what our friends or family members serving as police may be doing tonight, threatens to unleash an endless settling of accounts. Beyond our fear of that reckoning sits the most frightening prospect of all, a glimpse inward into our own contemporary privileges and choices.
Nice people don’t talk about race. It’s a white cultural convention that rendered Republicans impotent against an onslaught of racist rhetoric from figures like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. It’s a idea that has to die before it kills us.