In the wake of this whole Paula Deen mess, I recently heard a group of white people my own age (I am 30) discussing whether or not they could get away with saying the n-word based on what county they live in. The general consensus was that, as a white person, if you live in certain places you will “get shot or stabbed”, and other places you can use the word with impunity. There’s a whole lot I could say about that, but for now I’ll just say I found it…troubling. I do diversity work because racism is still a thing, people. People in my parents’ generation and older have told me before that we are “color-blind” now and that’s not how it used to be. First of all, not everyone in my generation is “color-blind” (see above). Second of all, I think that becoming ‘color-blind’ is not the way to fix this problem. Some of us deciding to pretend that ethnicity doesn’t exist and people aren’t at all different from us is not going to create lasting change in our culture. Because people are going to notice differences between themselves and other people, and if we don’t find ways to actively and positively engage people around our differences, we leave an empty space that can be filled with all kinds of fear and ignorance. We can do better. We need to do better.
This Paula Deen hullaballoo is not about persecuting a poor old rich white lady, although unfortunately in their anger some people have taken it to that place. It’s about setting a precedent for how we, as a culture, are going to refer to our fellow human beings. Racism is still a thing (and whatever we might wish, it does not belong solely to days gone by when Ms. Deen and many of our grandparents regularly made those types of comments), and that’s one reason this is a big deal. My wise, wise friend K. (who I respect very much and may someday convince to write a guest post for me) says, “What I’m always afraid of though, is what lies behind the facade. People say all kinds of things, in public and in private. But honestly, what concerns me more is what people say behind closed doors. It’s one thing to say something in public — at least I know where you stand, you know? But it’s those things that people say & think that they KNOW are wrong, racist, judgmental, and offensive. They say them in quiet then turn around and smile in your face. They work beside you, and serve you coffee — yet all the while they are harboring these destructive and hurtful beliefs. Like Paula Deen — except now she got caught. It’s those quiet minds that, in a sense, give us the most to worry about.”
In that same overheard conversation, someone said, “I wouldn’t use that word, because I respect all races.” I suppose that is a good start, although I think it might be even better to acknowledge that we are not in fact many races. My other wise, wise friend C. says that we are all the same human race. Saying that you respect all “races” creates a false sense of difference between humans and keeps us from connecting. Saying that you are “color-blind” (sorry for all the quotes, you guys…I’m using words that I don’t typically use and it’s kind of uncomfortable for me) attempts to cover up differences because we know that certain differences are not ok to notice in certain ways (like skin color, accent, etc.). So we pretend that everyone is all completely the same. K. also had this to say, and I thought it was worth passing along: “There’s nothing inherently wrong about noticing those things. It’s a fact that people come in all shades. It’s a fact that we all speak different languages and have different hair or cultural ways of being. That’s what makes this world a beautiful and interesting place. But when those things are assigned or labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘less than’ or ‘other,’ that’s when it becomes problematic.” We have noticed and focused entirely on the differences for so long, and not at all on the commonalities. As a result, we as a culture are now very clumsy about noticing difference. I have been working for several years at this point to create ways to notice that people are different from me without passing judgment on them for it. One thing I found out very quickly: making that choice means you will be swimming against some very strong currents. But as is often the case with swimming against the current, the rewards are tangible and great. I do that work because I have real hope that someday, my daughter and my son won’t have to listen to people dismissing the humanity of others with such ease. And if they do, at least they’ll have heard me say that it’s wrong.