Wednesday, February 19, 2014

So Is That What White People Say to Each Other When Black People Aren't Around?

Now that I have your attention, let me begin by saying that the title of this post is not a rhetorical question. I'm being partly sarcastic and partly tongue-in-cheek, referring to a recent post about the things white gay men say about gay men of color when they're talking amongst themselves.

I certainly don't believe that white people sit around all day making disparaging comments about people of color. Even on 19th-century U.S. slave plantations, the white masters must have had plenty of other things to talk about, and if they had something racist to say, I suspect they wouldn't have had a problem spilling it to a captive (literally) black audience.

In 2014, racism, even when it burns just as intensely as it did 150 years ago (and believe me, for many people, it still does), is less likely to be flaunted vocally in certain company. Political correctness rules, and as the phrase suggests, it's more about show than it is about sincerity. There are some conversations that are simply less likely to happen when a person of color is within earshot.

Like the one Rob told me about at dinner last night. As terribly disturbing stories go, it would have to be No. 1 with a bullet among all of the ones I've heard in the last few years. The last time I cringed so hard when hearing about something that had happened to someone else was when Rob told me what his ex-girlfriend, who was white, said when he broke up with her: "I should have known this would happen if I dated a nigger."

That one still gets a "Wow!" from me.

What could possibly be as bad as that? Or what could possibly even begin to approach its vicinity of heinousness? Frankly, a lot of things, including what happened the night a female friend of Rob's was talking to a guy in London with a hard-to-place accent.

I've been that guy, the one whose geographical origin nobody can quite figure out. "So where are you from?" people ask me all the time as they struggle to place the slight Caribbean accent that I never lost completely, not even 40 years after leaving the Virgin Islands at age 4 and moving with my family to Florida.

"I'm from the Virgin Islands," I always answer, having outgrown my old impulse to come up with some unexpected place, like Sweden, just to mess with their heads. If only the leading man in Rob's story had just stated his home country and left it at that. Instead...

"Let's put it this way: I hate black people."

"Things a South African would say???!!!"

Oh, wait. This isn't Dick Clark's $10,000 Pyramid -- though the sentiment sounds about as antiquated as that 1973 cash prize!

Now this is the part of the story where I was so shocked, nearly chocking on my lamb burger, that I didn't get all of the extraneous details that any decent journalist would have demanded. Did the woman he was talking to guess South Africa? Was it her first choice? Her second? Her third? What other countries did she offer?

Or did he just follow his very inflammatory and offensive comment with the right answer because even he knew that it wasn't as obvious as he was making it out to be. After living in South Africa for more than three months and witnessing the complicated racial politics here firsthand, that would not have necessarily been my first response. While I listened to Rob's story, I must admit the first thing that popped into my head -- Was he from Alabama? -- had nothing to do with my own reality, as I have never spent any significant time in Alabama. Frankly, that silly guy could have been from anywhere.

Once I'd gotten over the shock of such brutal honesty -- in this day and politically correct age, it's rare to find anyone so willing to proudly own his racism -- I started thinking about the implications. I wasn't sure which was worse: his suggestion that white South Africans are inclined to hate black people, or his suggestion that it should be a given around the world that South Africans hate black people.

Or maybe he was being ironic, like Eminem, using a politically incorrect statement to underscore the political incorrectness of others. Irony is a tricky thing, very hard to get right when the subject is race or sexual orientation. But even if I were willing to extend the benefit of a doubt to someone who would dare say, "I hate black people," by accepting the irony card, who gave him the right to speak for an entire country of white people? Despite South Africa's relatively recent political history, to suggest that all white South Africans hate black people would be as lazy as saying that all black people are lazy.

Once I lost interest in trying to figure out this person's motivation (which I gathered from Rob's description of him, couldn't have been positive anyway), I wondered why he would choose to live in London, a city with a not insignificant black population, when he could go to some Scandinavian country and live out his days unsullied by the presence of black people. I imagined that he must have left South Africa to get away from them, after all.

I'm not going to take what he said as being indicative of where white South Africans stand on the subject of black people any more than I'd would want someone to apply the misdeeds of one black person to the entire race. But if nothing else, a statement like this, so casually offered by an average guy not unlike the one in the cubicle or office next to yours (plus or minus the spectacularly racists streak), should tell you just how much we have yet to overcome, here (in South Africa), there (in London) and everywhere. That guy who hates black people may not have been speaking for all South Africans, but he was speaking for more people in more countries than most of us even realize.
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