Racism: Still Not Over

By | June 1, 2009

Currently there’s a lot of interesting conversations happening around the Obama administration’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Those who oppose her have brought up some interesting objections, such as the inevitable references to her diabetes (because culture tells us not being in perfect health makes you morally suspect). Even before the nomination was announced, Sotomayor was being derided for her weight, since being fat apparently makes one less qualified for a mostly-sedentary job.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here, at least not just now. Instead, I want to talk about context.

Context, as always, is the key to understanding. Much has been made over the past couple days of a single sentence from Sotomayor’s 2001 speech for Berkeley’s Honorable Mario G. Olmos Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture, which is, as the name would imply, specifically meant to address cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity. (Evidently this lecture was also given as part of a larger conference on diversity in law, about which I’ve yet to find more concrete information. The original lecture is here; for the conversation on whether the comment was racist, go to CNN and take your pick of the commentary.) Certainly, as the Obama administration has admitted, the offending sentence could have been phrased better – and it might have been, if it were ever intended to be yanked from its surrounding train of thought – but in the broader context of the lecture, it’s clear Sotomayor’s intended point is that simply being a white male does not inherently bestow superior judging capabilities. And really now, that oughtn’t be an offensive notion for an intelligent individual, so matter their politics.

But even the criticisms that haven’t called Sotomayor racist (because for some, it seems that “racist” = “not colorblind”; or better yet, “racism” is any continued insistence on recognizing and respecting difference and/or resisting assimilation into the dominant – and white – culture) have bristled at her comment. See Lindsey Graham’s weak suggestion that Sotomayor apologize for her much-repeated “Wise Latina” comment; this is a particularly toothless request, since apologizing for something doesn’t make it not true. At the crux of things here is a quiet, seething outrage on the part of a lot of conservative (and not so much conservative, if we’re being honest) white males, something they can’t (save the Limbaughs and the Gingrichs with nothing to lose) put words to and they know it, a rage sparked by Sotomayor’s daring to be uppity. Heaven forfend that a person of color – much less a woman of color – even suggest for a moment that she might think herself on a level with a less experienced, less intelligent white man. Damn her to hell for going so far as to intimate that in some circumstances she might even be better suited for a task.

White folks are accustomed to having to deal directly with a dominant cultural discourse that tells us we are, in fact, better and smarter and more deserving than people of color, and that the road to success is to be as culturally-white as possible. Those of us with more conservative politics may quietly support this situation. Those of us who consider ourselves enlightened liberals argue vaguely and academically against it, often only amongst ourselves. A handful of radicals may actually try to do something about it, and by so doing instantly marginalize themselves and put their movement well outside the lines of mainstream society.

The point being that while white folks are used to arguing both for and against the supremacy of white culture with each other, we are less familiar with how it feels to hear a person of color in a position of relative authority argue against it. That is kind of scary, even threatening. It is one thing to recognize and attempt to manage one’s own privilege in a white-dominated world; it is another to hear an empowered minority point it out to us. All white folks who engage with race politics in mainstream American culture do so from the position of people to whom this culture speaks, and by whom it is controlled. It is a fucked-up, unjust, imperfect system, but it is OUR fucked-up, unjust, imperfect system, and we’ll fix it when we’re good and ready to do so.

Except it can’t and won’t be fixed without a new paradigm that erases whiteness as the dominating cultural force and starts everyone on a truly even keel. Ultimately, it can’t and won’t be fixed until we, white folks, are willing to let some of our power go, and this isn’t something that can be accomplished with a single act (electing a biracial man as President of the United States, for example); it’s a process, and a journey. And as with many journeys, often it’s only when you crest a hill that you can clearly see how much road you’ve got left in front of you.

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