Some White People Will Never ‘Get It’

The limit on how deeply we "feel" each other is why so many conversations about race fail. But so what?

Scenes from Imitation of Life, 1959; The Help, 2011
Scenes from Imitation of Life, 1959; The Help, 2011

Plus, it was hardly a Strom Thurmond moment. Wilson would have been just fine if Herman Cain had been making the speech. Wilson didn’t “get” that he would likely not have shouted like that at a white president. But we can’t fix him, and life went on.

The same goes for the question as to whether racism plays “some role” in Tea Partiers’ fervor. Some, one can think — but on a subtle level, again, of a sort none of the protesters themselves is likely to be aware of or face up to. It’s a kind of racism beyond constructive address, it would seem. Bill Clinton was hated quite vigorously, after all, and who can say there’d be no Tea Party if John Edwards were president?

Ultimately, I’m just not sure I care about this shade of racism — i.e., the kind that probably shouldn’t even fall under that term. I do care when white teenagers in Mississippi run down a black man with one of them shouting, “White power!” I do care when Chicago club owner Anthony Anton is “outed” for actively keeping down the number of black people at his establishments (and I salute the white employee who blew the whistle — she seems like the type who does “get it”!).

But when we get to instances in which whites come up short on the subtler aspects of the race thing, I’m not sure what the point of all the noise is — for the simple reason that it seems that it will always be with us. Tribalism is inherent to human psychology. An America where no one perceived — or misperceived — race would not be a society of human beings.

Some may call this a conservative position, but it would seem that quite a few liberals, readily saying that racism is eternal, would agree with me. For example, among psychologists, there is a certain “microaggression” paradigm (an article in American Psychologist in 2007 got some attention), according to which people of color undergo an ongoing barrage of mini-abuses.

We hear that America is a melting pot — which supposedly denies us our separate identities. People say, “When I look at you, I don’t see color” — same problem. We attend colleges with buildings named after white men. Even the term “color-blind” is an insult because it denies diversity.

Many find this perspective compelling, and thus presumably admit that it means that microaggression — people “not getting it” — is a permanent state of affairs. Under what logical conception could a society exist in which microaggressions of this definition did not exist? And if all whites attended to all people of colors in the proper way, then it would be time to decry the new microaggression of “stereotyping.”

And even if you find the microaggression notion a little overwrought, the question is: How do you propose to eliminate even the subtler forms of racist bias from human minds? It’s one thing to describe it, or to decry it — but to eliminate it? Highly unlikely at our current state of knowledge.

As such, to me, someone’s anger at me for considering Imitation of Life a poor prospect for a remake and Sen. Tom Coburn’s comments about Obama and affirmative action are in the same box. It’s people who don’t get it.

But I don’t expect them to, any more than I “get” everything about the experiences of others. The outlawing of segregation, and the social opprobrium subsequently attached to social racism, were enough, as far as I’m concerned. More to the point, I’m not sure how much further it would be possible to go.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

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