Whites Discussing Racial Matters: Some Debate

One of our blogger-readers (Sara Libby) has blogged recently on the question, “When Exactly ARE White People Allowed to Talk About Race?” She critically assesses another blog post by Elie Mystal, who recently wrote too under the title of “White People: If You’re Not Bill Maher, Please Shut Up About Race.” Mystal has a long and interesting post on whites trying to speak on racial matters, and among his points he makes these:

Over a year into the first presidency by a black man in the history of the United States, we’ve learned one thing about race in America: Bill Maher is the only white man in the country that can make a quality racial joke without sounding racist. I don’t know how we got here, maybe white people who listen to Rush Limbaugh honestly don’t know the difference between edgy commentary and racism Limbaugh spews on a daily basis? Maybe conservative media outlets have convinced white people that talking about race respectfully means the terrorists win? . . . . [Maher is] seemingly the only one that can find the humor in having a black President (the same way he saw the humor in having a retarded President) without actually offending people with a basic sense of humor. In fact, he’s the only white person that can find the humor of having black people and white people live together (as they do here and no where else on Earth) without offending people.

He continues:

But after watching general white people (talking heads, journalists, celebrities, average people on the street) stumble through racial humor for a year, I now live in fear that some untalented white comedian (think: Dane Cook) will try to get on the trail Maher blazed and inadvertently start a full scale race war.

He then suggests that Maher might well take on the task of teaching the racist white activists, our “best educated” young whites (as we have blogged about several times recently) about racist joking and racist framing, as well as hate crimes:

If Bill Maher had a “ghetto-themed” cookout, it’d be funny. I don’t know how exactly, maybe Chris Rock would show up asking for “just one rib,” Maher would go as a predatory lender, Cornell West would come to drop some knowledge, and everybody would leave high on what we all assume is Maher’s top notch horticultural products? Somehow, he’d would make it work. . . . Clearly, we need to educate white people on the difference between funny and offensive. I understand that the line must seem blurred to many white people — especially the ones that are themselves racist but think they are not because they don’t wear pointy hats. It must be hard for some of them to balance the desire to hide their personal racial animus with their desire to sound lively and interesting at cocktail parties.

Libby comments on this post with her own questions, thus:

Clearly, we need to educate white people on the difference between funny and offensive. I understand that the line must seem blurred to many white people — especially the ones that are themselves racist but think they are not because they don’t wear pointy hats.. I hesitated to write this post, lest it be seen merely as an attempt to have people pat me on the back and tell me that no, Elie couldn’t possibly have been talking about me! . . . Your insights are precisely the kind of dialogue we need to see more of from aspiring white-girl pundits. . . . There is something to be said, though, of the fact that condescending to people who truly try to understand, dissect and move the ball forward on racial discourse without having dark skin themselves will only assure that the people who do speak out about race are the ones who don’t care how offensive they’re being.

She continues with a bit from her own background:

I came from a lily-white community (and state), and was raised by conservative parents who sometimes make vaguely racist statements; and yet I’ve tried to eek out a career discussing race in a thoughtful and measured way, without having much of a personal stake in it . . . , other than wanting to live in a world where people are judged individually and by “the content of their character,” as Dr. King has said. … I care more passionately and deeply about racism than probably every other issue facing our society right now. . . . Have I personally experienced racism before? Hell no – I’ve got blond hair and blue eyes. But how else will we ever get to a point where we can have an honest and intelligent dialogue on race if people like me don’t at least try to grapple with it? … if non-black people are constantly being told that they shouldn’t even attempt to broach the issue, since they’ll inevitably reveal how racist they are, then progress is impossible. . . . Two of the incidents he addressed in his “Bill Maher” post – John Mayer and the “Compton Cookout” party at UC San Diego – are ones I’ve also tackled on my blog, and roundly critiqued for their racial insensitivity. . . . Perhaps I’m getting worked up over nothing, because … Elie and I basically agree about the racial issues we both end up covering – and YES, there is an enormous amount of offensive, derogatory, hateful, shameful stuff out there being spewed by white people. If there weren’t, my writing career would quickly grind to a halt. And I can’t imagine how horrible it feels to experience even the most subtle types of racial discrimination. But I can attest that being told you can’t possibly conjure a valuable contribution to a public discourse on race just because you’re white doesn’t feel great, either.

I think Sara may be, as she suggests, overreacting a bit to Mystal’s post. Apart from his flamboyant title, Mystal is really pressing for whites to develop at least the racial sensitivity of Maher if they are going to presume to converse seriously on racial matters, and especially if they plan to make humorous comments. He is clearly not saying whites who are grappling with and critically assessing the racist hierarchy and white racial frame should keep quiet. In my view such whites certainly need to continue with serious searches for antiracist understandings and actions, and speak out especially to other whites, even as they make mistakes in that process. IMHO, speaking out as critically as one can on the dominant white racism is the obligation of all ethical human beings. Why do you think?