It’s hard being a 72-year-old white guy in America. You grew up in a different time. You’re used to being accepted as the “norm” of your society. For decades you’ve had all the privilege that “whiteness” has provided in America—yet the country you know is changing. Ideas that were completely reasonable and normal are now given labels like “racist” or “sexist” or “assholic.” What are you to do?
Obviously write op-eds for the Washington Post.
Richard Cohen, a columnist with the newspaper, has been the target of a lot of anger as of late. And it probably seems completely unreasonable to Mr. Cohen. All he did was explain why he understood George Zimmerman’s suspicion of Trayvon Martin (Trayvon was wearing a “uniform” we all recognize); why twerking is to blame for the Steubenville, Ohio, rape horror; how he just found out that “slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.” And most recently he wanted to explain how the Tea Party mind works:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
See? All Cohen did was write a completely disconnected paragraph from the rest of his article explaining that it’s not racist if you find interracial marriage gag-inducing; that this particular segment of the GOP is simply troubled because parts of America don’t look the way they remembered it. That’s not racist. That’s just a fact of life! Right? Anybody?!
What Cohen doesn’t seem to realize is that just because you’re writing something that’s true doesn’t make it not racist, and it definitely doesn't make it right.
As a black man in an interracial relationship, I can testify that it’s not just portions of the Republican Party that have issues with interracial relationships. The most vocal commentary in opposition to my marriage has been from supposed liberals.
As ass-backward as Cohen’s commentary is (Seriously? Understanding the guy who killed the unarmed teenager?), he’s not lying. His commentary is problematic and completely out of touch, but he hasn’t lied. He does understand why Zimmerman was suspicious of Trayvon. (Hell, I had black people argue with me about wearing a hoodie.) He does blame twerking (a culturally black activity) on the breakdown of moral decency. (And yes, I’ve had black people argue that twerking is problematic/ratchet/why white people judge us!)
Cohen is making many of us uncomfortable and angry, but it’s not because he’s lying. The fact is, Richard Cohen’s commentary is a mirror in which many of us in America are uncomfortable seeing our own reflection.
Cohen, in all of his spectacularly ignorant thoughts, represents a portion of America that many of us would like to believe has gone the way of landline phones. We’re not like that anymore, right? It’s 2013! We’re America! We’re a nation of immigrants! (Well … except for those who were kidnapped and forced over on a boat to be property, or those who were already here and survived the genocide of their people.)
Cohen is the uncle many folks have but would prefer not to mention. He’s that cousin who makes you sigh whenever you see his name attached to a Facebook post. He’s the co-worker you’re still surprised hasn’t been fired for all of the dumb-s—ttery he spouts off.
Richard Cohen is that writer for a major news publication whose views are terribly uncomfortable because they remind you that the “America” brand doesn't represent what the commercials and spokespeople (i.e., politicians) say it does.
In the end, I find myself less outraged by Cohen and more surprised that everyone else is outraged. I’m not even mad at the Washington Post for publishing his ignorance. If Cohen were some extreme-fringe voice that represented only the supposed “crackpots,” I would attack the Post more. But right now?
Richard Cohen is the America we’d like to forget but desperately shouldn’t.
Elon James White is a writer and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 3 p.m. EST on TWIB.FM. Subscribe to the TWIB.FM Network on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at 1:30 p.m. EST at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME/LIVE. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.