Sunday, January 6, 2008

What does it mean to be friends with a racist?

Racialicious provided a link to the latest column by Salon advice-giver Cary Tennis. In it, a New England liberal white woman and her husband learn that their new friend is a racist. "Should we keep him as a friend?" She asks. Read the entire letter and Cary's response here, but the gist is:
This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for
those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and
understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your
time to believe your own beliefs -- to believe your own beliefs are the only
ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress.
If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the
1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think
we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the
Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is
the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It
is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.

Tennis' flowery moral relativism seems to imply that it is judgmental and arrogant to think that judging people on the content of their character is good and judging them based on the color of their skin is bad. Who knows, racism may be in vogue in another century? His advice: Keep the friend.

What is the right thing to do when you discover an acquaintance is racist?

I can tell you what I have done. I think racism is immoral. It is contrary to my values. When faced with an acquaintance that reveals his or her racism to me, I pull away. I don't hate that person. We are all human. We all have our failings. And this country is rife with prejudice. But I cannot call someone a friend, who has values I think are abhorrent. I also address racist comments when I hear them, making my displeasure clear. I'm willing to offer a little leeway to folks 70+, who may be products of their time.

Obviously, being a black woman, this issue is important to me. How nice for Tennis, a white man, to have the freedom to decide that racism is no big deal, a minor character quirk. I note that a lot of self-professed liberals are able to make this type bargain with their ideals. That the letter writer even had to ask what to do in this situation is interesting.

As for me, when I hear white acquaintances make prejudiced comments about Hispanics, Arabs or Asians, it triggers an alarm. The comments are offensive even if not directed at me. And Certainly a willingness to judge people based on race does not stop where my people are concerned. What are they saying about blacks when I'm not around? And I'll tell you this, my feelings about prejudice are no less strong when the perpetrators are black. And yes, black folks can be prejudiced, too.

Listening to hatred hurts my spirit. I have to assume that those who surround themselves with people who hate and who believe in the superiority of their own race, don't really think racism is that bad. A good liberal who can easily fraternize with a flaming racist probably needs to check her belief system.

What do you think?

P.S. One commenter on Salon posted the lyrics to a Dan Berg song called "The Fascist in Me" in response to this letter. I think the song is a powerful challenge to folks who say the right things, have the right bumper stickers, but who secretly hate:

The Facist In Me

When I vote, I vote democratic
And sometimes further left like peace and
Or even libertarian
I’m pro-choice, pro-environment
Against large corporations and the neutron bomb
But when I’m stuck on the freeway
And it's hot and someone cuts me off
I think they oughta fry that son of a bitch
It's the fascist in me

Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me
Get rid of that smell, go back where you came from
It's the fascist in me
You're a burden, you're a drain on the economy
It's the fascist in me
It's so distasteful going to the grocery store
For some Haagen Daaz on a Saturday night
When you have to pass this vermin
I've given to seven charities
I’ve played five different benefits
In the past month
My bumper stickers say:
Save the whales, visualize peace, NPR (KPFK)
But when someone's rude in a restaurant
I’d like to make them look at the barrel of a gun
And then we'll see how smug they are
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the power to seize your house
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the authority to take your tongue
It's the fascist in me
I’d run you naked through the middle of the town
It's the fascist in me
You'd live in fear knowing every creak of the floorboards,
Knock on the door, or cry in the dark of night, could be your last
Sometimes I just want to take half the world and decree that they all go away
Everyone's stupid and no one has anything very insightful to say
It's the price you have to pay
I’m tired of it today
I’d like another way
It's the fascist in me
Wear some normal clothes, don't have so many children,
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
Where'd you get that car?
Which drugs did you sell?
How'd you get that job?
Which quota did you fill?
I’d like plant my fist in your face
Don't talk so loud
Don't walk so slow
If you just disappeared, no one would care
No one would care if you just disappeared
Your mother oughta be down on her knees
Cleaning up my kitchen
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in na na na na
It's the fascist in me
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me


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