It’s only the midweek, and I’ve had my fill of white people explaining racism to me. On Monday’s podcast, Jesse spoke with Jonathan Kay about what makes The Walrus so boring. This, following a previous conversations with Andrew Coyne about The National Post‘s editorial pages, resulted in the second echo chamber this year on the show, with two white guys trying to sort out why there is such little diversity in Canadian media. On the one hand, they understand the absence of diversity itself and recognize it is a problem, but there’s something deeper at work here and something more important than that.
In disussions like these it is all to common for the homogenous participants to recognize absence, but where their experience and understanding fails them is understanding the harms that are caused by the presence of absence. That is to say that giving limited, or no, voice to people of colour doesn’t just shut them out of the debate, it can subject them to harm – especially when our (not) representative voices in the media take on race and veer into dangerously harmful territory.
Given the comfort with which white journalists explain the experiences of people of colour back to them, leading to the bizarre and all-too-common occurrences like a panel where a group of white people absolve a white man of racism, it’s worth looking at how this happens. So let’s do a case study.
When Benedict Cumberbatch sat down for an interview with Tavis Smiley earlier this year, he screwed up. During a conversation about racism in the UK film industry, the actor said, “I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really difficult in the UK.” Cumberbatch’s intentions were clear, but his use of the word “coloured” was outdated and insulting. Cumberbatch apologized. He was genuine in his apology, and so the incident was flushed along with most minor celebrity sins down the collective memory hole, unlikely even to generate a “Controversies” section on his Wikipedia page.
A mistake happened. An honest apology followed. Everyone moved on.
Everyone except National Post columnist Robert Fulford, who inaugurated Black History Month with this classic:
Who was damaged? Is it really an offensive term? Or was somebody making a fuss about nothing? Why should “persons of colour” be correct but “coloured actors” wrong? Can anyone make sense of that distinction? The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is still in business, as it has been for decades, and this week will give NAACP Image Awards to Spike Lee, the film director, and Attorney-General Eric Holder.
Fulford, like the many other white, male writers engaged in perpetual war with their timeless enemy called “political correctness,” seems unable to fathom that conversations on racism are not meant to be simple and comfortable. They sometimes require painful dialogue that’s kept honest by good faith and a willingness to engage without harming (or, at least, doing as little harm as possible).
It’s not possible to look cool in a conversation on racism, especially if your point of view is informed by the privilege of not having to deal with social and institutional racism firsthand. This conversation is a process of continual self-examination, and rethinking perspectives that once seemed natural, or good. All of us — even those of us without that privilege — have to go through this.
From the point of view that casts political correctness as a danger, “racism” is not a fact of life, a social condition, or even a subject to be wrestled with. In a just world populated by good folk – where misunderstandings are common, but outward racial animosity is rare – racism is not a condition. It is a device. A siege engine driven by goblin hordes more than ready to smash through polite relations between respectable folk, and eager to poison the wells of dialogue with mock outrage. Cumberbatch’s self-admitted mistake was not a “mistake” at all, but the inevitable result of having any opinions in a world gone amok. A man earnestly putting in his two cents, only to be set upon by the PC horde and forced prostrate before the altar of sensitivity.
Incidents like this are a battle trumpet for the Fulfords, Coynes, and Murphys of the world, who only ever have time to weigh in on race when it seems that minorities are angry about… something. So it’s unsurprising that Fulford, well-acquainted with the pressing issues of our age (such as the existential burden of being rich or the banality of name-dropping in Anjelica Huston’s memoir) picked up the sword and strapped on the armour for this one. Conversations on black lives, appalling institutional treatment of Indigenous Canadians, and anti-immigrant campaigns against south Asians prove unable to roust Fulford from his book reviews and banal observations, but let a famous white actor catch a fade for using the wrong terminology, and he will be there. Armoured, on horseback, and carrying a mouthful of poorly- informed opinions.
Fulford draws out the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, as though the name of the organization is proof alone, as though he’s the first person ever to dredge up this point in the everlasting “Well what *are* we supposed to call you?” conversation, as though black people weren’t commonly addressed as niggers and coons when the NAACP was founded for the advocacy of black life and livelihood — not decades ago, but over a century ago. The name of the organization is itself the legacy of an America that regarded black people as somewhere between subhumans and field beasts. What Fulford is doing here isn’t in the service of creating an understanding, but dressing up the classic “If they can use it, why can’t we?” argument as a cudgel against the PC horde.
Cumberbatch, trying to promote the use of black actors, found himself in difficulty. That’s typical of this conflict. The more liberal the utterance, the more likely it will be examined for an unconscious insult.
His experience demonstrates once more that hysteria and silliness surround the terms that describe race and religion. But those who believe they know best, and feel justified in delivering self-aggrandizing lectures to others, often demonstrate only a shaky grip on the subject.
Stop for a moment and consider that Fulford, who has zero educational or lived experience in blackness, who feels justified in describing our objection to being called coloured as “hysteria and silliness,” who hasn’t had a mumbling word to say on the topic up until this moment, follows up with this murder-attempt on irony:
In the U.S., politicians, journalists and many others take care to use the term “African-American” instead of “black,” in the belief that its implication of historic culture makes it preferable. But the people involved don’t agree. A Gallup Poll recently discovered that 65% of American blacks say it doesn’t matter to them whether they are called “African-American” or “black.” The minority who do have a preference divide evenly between the two terms. This has been true for a long time. More than half the respondents in eight polls since 1991 said they don’t care which term is used.
Shaky grip, indeed. Put aside the fact that the poll cited by Fulford didn’t ask how anyone felt about the term “coloured.” There was a time that many black people didn’t care whether they were called “Negro” or “coloured,” because either choice is better than “nigger.” There was a time that many didn’t have a preference between “black” and “negro,” because “coloured” was rather out of date, and no one wanted to be a spook. There are many blacks, African-Americans, and Afrikans who do care about how they identify, and how others identify them. There are many others who are just fine with “black.” I don’t have an answer to this puzzle, but I’ll hazard a guess that it’s easy to be ambiguous about the way white people address you with humanizing terms, when, for most of the last half-millenium, every other name they had for you was meant to strip you of that humanity.
One of the difficulties in having honest conversations with the sworn enemies of political correctness is that they aren’t clear which master they serve. They believe they’re swimming against the social current, but are, in fact, choosing to tread it. The term “politically correct” itself, borne from of the Stalinist era, was coined to describe ways of thinking and interacting with others that demonstrate greater loyalty to the party than to human compassion. That lack of compassion is a common thread that stitches together the professed anti-PC crowd, who often declare this lack of compassion proudly and forcefully. Think of the last person you know who’s Had It Up To Here With This PC Bullshit, and you’re thinking of find someone who’s capped out the amount of compassion they’re willing to exercise.
Rather than the irritating pressure to understand or empathize, what they want is to stop having to try. To quit the endless cycle of self-examination, and the inculpatory guilt. What they want is for the world to once again contort itself to accommodate their comfort. To accept and once again become loyal to the myth that what we understand as “racism” is hardly more than a series of minor misunderstandings, blown out of proportion by shrill opportunists. They want this, along with our agreement to redraw the lines.
It’s no accident that conversations on diversity and racism are so often dominated by white men. At their heart, they’re not conversations at all – they’re recruiting tools. The political correctness of aggrieved white men exists, and they’re asking you to be a party member.