I found one response to a piece on The Help that I wrote last week quite interesting. It was from a white man, a film-critic sort, somewhere past 50, who was annoyed at my asking why people are dismissing The Help as if it were a remake of Imitation of Life. Get this: What bothers him is that he thinks I'm dissing the film. And this puts me in mind of the eternity of racism, of all things — and how it applies to the president.
My point was intended to apply to either of the 1934 and 1959 Imitation of Life films. In both, a black woman raises a very light-skinned daughter while living in a white businesswoman's house. Her daughter, rejecting that her being black will bar her from the glamorous life that the white woman's daughter is enjoying, decides to "pass" for white, abandoning her mother to heartbreak and death.
Mr. Film Critic actually thinks that the 1959 one, in particular, is racially enlightened! He genuinely doesn't perceive that if the film were remade today, the black daughter's rejection of her race and black culture — i.e. contemptuously rejecting the idea of marrying the black men available to her because of their working-class occupations — would play as nauseating to modern black viewers.
Instead, my critic thinks that the film's depiction of racism as unfair gives it, alone, the stamp of approval as a black-positive movie. That is, despite having grown up in post-civil rights America and not remotely being a bigot, he cannot be said to "get it."
That there has been a seismic shift since 1959 in how black Americans feel about integration, black pride, classism and more has gone past him. He is not black and doesn't happen to be one of the nonblack people with a personal interest in black matters.
Here's the kicker: This guy is typical. As many of us know, quite a few white people do not "get it." Maybe most of them don't. It's why we think of race as a "complex" topic, of the sort where blacks are to speak and whites are largely to listen. This is what people really mean by America's needing to have a conversation about race, for example.
And I, for one, see no reason to think that many nonblack people ever will get it. For example, who can truly imagine a national conversation on race that would be considered a success? The sad fact is that beyond a certain point, there is a limit to how deeply we can "feel" each other, and that includes nonblack people and "the black thing."
So I assume there will be whites who think that Imitation of Life is tellin' it like it is. I am unsurprised when a white man suggests that Condoleezza Rice, speaking at an event I attend, might be a good match for me, as if any educated black man and woman constitute a potential couple. He didn't "get it," OK — but the evening remained memorable for me in that I enjoyed my lamb and I did get to shake Rice's hand.
And in the same way, I assume that there is a lot of "not getting it" in how Barack Obama is talked and joked about. Or talked at: Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst was, for example, likely colored to an extent by racial bias. But Wilson himself is probably unaware of it and would likely never be able to admit it.
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.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.