White Folk

I was recently blocked by Joan Walsh on Twitter, something I was practically begging her to do after she wrote this piece. A friend of mine, as he is wont to do, promptly corrected my outrage at the piece and pointed out that Walsh was making an innocuous point about the need for Democrats to bring more of the White folk who did not vote for Obama in 2012 over to the Democrat or “progressive” side in coming cycles. He said I was reading things in the piece that weren’t there. His point resonated with me for a moment and I began to wonder if indeed my initial reaction to the piece had my blood up for unfair reasons, also possibly fueled by the Twitter uproar that ensued after Walsh posted the piece.

So I went back and re-read the piece a fourth and fifth time realized that my initial outrage was not completely without merit. The soft racism in the piece is so subtle and so, well, SOFT, so as to be hardly recognizable. Indeed, it is virtually innocuous. Walsh even pays lip service to “white privilege” in the 15th paragraph of …wait for it…the 15-paragraph piece. Ostensibly, Walsh states she is writing a piece specifically about “language”:

With President Obama embarked on his second term, and Democrats seeing their future in the alliance of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, college-educated women and young people he assembled, I sometimes find myself asking “What’s the matter with white people?” in a different way – as in, “don’t they have a place in this new multiracial coalition?” As whites become just one of several American minorities in the near future — brown babies already outnumber white babies in the nation’s nurseries – I’ve been thinking more about the ways language can ease our transition to a multiracial America.

There is so much baggage to unpack here it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with this gem “don’t [white people] have a place in this new multicultural coalition?” If you are reading this and you are a white person (particularly a male), I want you to utter those words out loud, and pretend that you are in a room full of Black folk, Latino folk, Asian folk, young women of every color and background, and think about how you feel. Are you embarrassed? Hint: YOU SHOULD BE.

As I said in one of my tweets to Walsh, only in this country could a white person write something like this so earnestly and forthrightly and expect a serious and well-reasoned response much less do so without fear of any kind of backlash or public shaming such as, say, losing their job.

How does one explain to someone with this mindset that every structural component of their life, from birth to death – before which Walsh will no doubt live to be ripe and old, thanks to better-than-average healthcare – has been specifically built for a person of your race to thrive, blossom, exceed and excel, and that, save her gender, there is a place for you everywhere you go? Furthermore, what kind of mindset must one have to feel the need to ask such a question, much less frame it as rhetoric around which a political party should strategize? Every political party has categorically targeted all of their language toward White voters from the outset of the republic! One or two election cycles, helmed by a Black then-candidate and then by our first Black president, and all of a sudden there is a crisis of identity for White liberals?

Walsh continues: “language can ease [alienated White voters’] transition to a multicultural America.”  Read it again. A “multicultural America.” You know, as opposed to the America that Walsh lives in and is most accustomed to, i.e., a “white-washed” America. Not one sullied by all of these “multiple cultures.” The person who wrote this isn’t even making attempts at hiding her sheltered and limited view of what America is or who Americans are. It is this kind of deep-seated, entrenched, learned-and-groomed view of privilege that blinds most white writers who dare put pen to paper about race. She goes on:

Let’s start with one term used occasionally for the Obama alliance: the “coalition of the ascendant,” as the National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein calls it. That’s fine for a journalist, but when used by Democrats it sounds like a snub to white voters: “We’re the future and you’re not.”

Since Walsh is doing the interpreting of language here – I’m not even going to bother googling “coalition of the ascendant” – I am going to take the same liberty and contrast mine with hers and say that if you are White and you interpret the term “coalition of the ascendant” as “We’re the future and you’re not” I’m afraid your view of this world may be warped beyond any rational attempts at getting you to see it another way.

There are hints of salient points in the article. Unfortunately, the route Walsh takes, and the degree to which she chooses to incorporate the supposed source material, is limited to a few select quotes (from the CAP piece on the Bobby Kennedy Project, both volumes of which are worth a read). She advises that White folk need to be spoken to with “care and respect” – as if this is some radical alteration from how they have historically been spoken to? She references a New York Times “Room For Debate” piece about Asian enrollment numbers at Ivy League schools to point out that “the term ‘white’ is used as a synonym for ‘wealthy’ when discussing the racial impact of legacy policies.” The piece itself only uses the word “white” twice and never in the context that Walsh suggests, so one assumes that she is referring to the more than 314 comments on the piece.

Again, she may have had a salient point here, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the comments section of a New York Times article is not be the best place to make it. The Democratic Party needs to learn to speak to White folk with “care and respect”? I am a White male and registered independent but have almost always voted Democratic and I can attest to never feeling like I was being condescended to by the Democratic Party. Ever. I’m open to the possibility that there may be real-life examples of said disrespect toward White voters, but combing through the comments sections of, well, any online article is not where I’m going to look for such an example.

Next, under the bolded heading “Don’t Assume That Whites Are Racists” Walsh writes “Just as social justice-minded people have learned not to generalize about African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, we’ll have to learn the same thing about whites.”

“Social justice-minded people”? Again, I am open to the possibility that that there is an example of a “social justice-minded person” who had to learn not to generalize about people of all races but I struggle to come up with one. So, again, to whom is Walsh referring? Or, is it possible that these offenses are made up in the mind of a sheltered and misguided – if otherwise well-meaning – White person? What kind of a “social justice-minded” person would need to learn that you don’t generalize about any race? Not much of one, f’yask me.

Again, Walsh draws on personal experience – which I respect – when she says “In my work over the years, I’ve heard “white” used, without a modifier, as a synonym for clueless, out of touch, even racist.” So, I am also going to draw on personal experience and say I have no idea what she is talking about. As a reader, I am left to assume that she is projecting, that she is relaying her own insecurities and self-doubt about being White, because I can’t for the life of me think why, in the course of normal conversation, someone would say “white teacher” and in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, social-cue kinda way, this would be interpreted to mean “racist teacher”.

With another hint of a  salient point, Walsh suggests that white voters who did not vote for Obama are routinely accused (no examples of this) of being racist instead of having sincere policy disagreements with him and Democrats. If it does happen, this is odious and wrong. But there is a fine line between this and recognizing the very real and deliberate dog whistles employed by Fox News and their ilk and acolytes and it would be an act of willful negligence to say that these dog whistles do not have real-world voting implications.

I strongly recommend reading the CAP mission statements on the Robert Kennedy initiative (linked above) – it is insightful and the work is important. The aim of the initiative is to be more inclusive of all voters with “a relentless focus on social opportunity for all people and an economic agenda that puts the interests of working- and middle-class families first” and while part two of the piece is the one that focuses on winning over larger numbers of the White voting bloc, it also concedes that “[i]t does not have to be a majority of these voters.”

Walsh attempts to channel this message, but she loads it down with so much baggage and irrational fear that White folks are facing an ominous “edging out” due to becoming a statistical minority, and language employed by some people in the comments sections of The New York Times articles, so as to render the message flaccid and ineffectual.

 On first reading, I hoped that the message was going to focus more on what folk of all color have in common who are on similar economic rungs because here I think there is an extremely urgent point to be made. Sadly, Walsh skewers vague statistics about wealth and income and, as Angus Johnston points out in his wonderful, must-read post about Walsh’s piece, ignores the economic differences between wealth and income, and again, the larger point is lost in the overall fearful tone of the piece.

While it may not be apparent, I do respect Walsh’s attempt to write about issues of race. She is right that it is not easy to do in this country and I think it is important for more White writers to attempt to do it. It is also important for White folk to speak directly to other White folk about their experiences – even those who blog as infrequently as I do (you can see how woefully neglected mine is). I chose to write about this piece because I refuse to keep quiet when writers like Walsh uses their wide-reaching perch to traffic in lazy, base assumptions and stock epithets of their trade about race and White folk.


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