Being in the majority

>> Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Here's the problem: some things seem like they should be talked about even when the subject isn't exactly worth the effort. Take, for instance, the recent statement made by stand-up comic and TV/radio talking head Glenn Beck that:

[President] Obama has exposed himself as a person with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

This is the sort of thing that, on the one hand, just seems to ask for a rebuttal or critique while, on the other hand, seems a waste of effort. After all, Glenn Beck appears, from what I've seen, to be an idiot with mannerisms and quirks suggestive of mental illness. I confess I'm not a listener or viewer or regular reader of his shtick, so maybe what I've seen online misrepresents the man, although an earnest attempt on my part to listen to Mr. Beck's response to the furor over his racism accusation ended in laughter a mere three minutes into his whatever-you'd-like-to-call-it. Hell, for all I know his entire shtick is shtick, "Glenn Beck" being a role he plays in public for the rubes.

So, anyway, I came across articles and outrage over Mr. Beck's statements when I was reading the news, and a funny thing happened.

See, my first thought when I read Mr. Beck's line was to laugh at the idea of "white culture," because, frankly, I just have no idea what that even is. Seriously. I mean, I'm aware that there are ethnic subcultures in the United States, based on history or geography or religion or whatever, and there are surely differences between what an African-American in the Deep South and an Italian-American in New York might consider "home cooking," to cite a ready example, but "white culture"? What the hell is "white culture"? Being a white dude, I'd sort of be curious to know what I'm missing or taking for granted or whatever. Is there a Dummies book for me? Records I ought to own? Do we have 'zines for this like there used to be for the alt scene when I was in high school and college?

And that's the line of thought that led to the funny thing. Because while I was thinking about that, I gradually came to wonder, "What if Glenn Beck was right?" I don't mean that I think he is--I think the notion's actually a bit improbable considering that Mr. Obama's mother is white, his grandparents who pretty much raised him were white--I mean, put it that way and Mr. Obama is practically the nation's not-first white guy lawyer President; no, Mr. Beck's assertions are as paranoid and implausible as most of what dribbles from his mouth. But hypothetically what if Beck were right, I wondered, and Mr. Obama was a racist who hated white people and "white culture" (let's pretend, for the moment, that "white culture" makes sense, too)? I wondered this, and I tried to imagine how, exactly, it would change my life in any way, shape or form.

And I couldn't think of one.

This, it occurred to me, is another example of what it means to live in the majority (and what, in contrast, it means to live in the minority). A majority leader who hates a minority has the backing of majority lawmakers and majority law enforcement and majority courts--he has a lot of potential options when it comes to hurting the minority in all sorts of areas of their lives. Indeed, if his minority-hating values are shared by a majority within the majority, his power to discriminate against and harm the minority is almost boundless. Hell, active hatred isn't even required, the majority leader can do all sorts of damage simply through ignorance, coming up with and enforcing laws and rules that don't affect anyone he knows but are to the detriment of a smaller group he doesn't even think about.

And the minority leader who hates the majority? What is he going to do about it, exactly? Supposing for the sake of a discussion about race that Barack Obama really does hate white people, hates them with a passionate vengeance, obsesses over them during every waking hour and rolls with terrifying nightmares of them during his restless sleep? What is he going to do? Get the mostly-white Congress to shut down white businesses? Send the mostly-white Army out to kick in white people's doors and roust them from their beds? Have the mostly-white judges in the mostly-white courts seize whites' real estate? Order the mostly-white police to arrest any white person on sight if the white doesn't produce travel papers or isn't wearing some identifying article of clothing or is out past curfew on the streets of mostly-white neighborhoods?

The fact is that President Obama could be filled to the brim with a fierce hatred of whites--he isn't, but if he was--and he still wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it, not even with all the power of the Presidency Of The United States behind him. And that's part of what it means to be in the majority. And it's also why minorities are frankly justified to mistrust the majority; majorities have power that cannot be taken away while they remain a majority, and there's power in numbers that a minority, by definition, cannot have.

This is not something for minorities to understand--it's something that can be sensed by instinct the first time someone from the majority acts despicably towards a minority or even the first time a member of the majority takes his inherent immunity and privilege for granted. No, it's a lesson for white people.

It raises an obvious question, you know: what the hell are bigots like Beck and like-minded fools frightened of? Their thoughtless fears are manifestations of a particularly ignorant paranoia. If it didn't have such potential for ugly consequences it would almost be laughable: "Yes, black socialists are going to kick in your doors, take away your guns and then make you wait in line to see a doctor." Only almost: it's hard not to read the gun as a Freudian symbol for potency and the real fear as being those entwined bugbears of the racist mind--miscegenation and rape.

We aren't as bad, as a culture, as we were a hundred years ago, or even fifty. In time I hope that one majority will emerge, a realization that we are a single species; in the meanwhile, if race is, scientifically-speaking, a spurious distinction we continue to make out of history of bad habits and the tribalism of European colonialists, we can at least address the obliviousness of the majority that doesn't recognize its status and the idiocy of fools like the frothing Mr. Beck.


Janiece Murphy Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 5:11:00 PM EDT  

Dude, seriously.

You write something like this and then you wonder why the Trollops want you to be our pool-boy? Seriously?


Jim Wright Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 6:23:00 PM EDT  

Excellent post, Eric. Brilliant even.

Beck and ilk like him are exactly that, small minded simpletons, bigots of the worst stripe. Beck thinks that just because he doesn't call a black man n___r to his face, that he's not a bigot - but his use of the phrase "white culture" betrays him, betrays his fear, and betrays his indignation. Beck is the kind of bigot who talks about equality, but a particular kind of equality, the 1950's Leave it to Beaver equality, the one where white people are the real Americans and minorities know their place and stick to the right side of the tracks. I know people exactly like Beck, deathly afraid that Obama is going to take "their America" away from them - desperately afraid that they'll be forced to acknowledge that they are indeed bigots. These are the folks who constant cry that America is going to hell with Obama's election. These are the people who say things like "I'm not a racist, I don't hate blacks, I just don't think one should be President," or "Now that one is President, all the blacks are swaggering around like they own the country!" I've heard both statements, several times in recent weeks - these people are completely incapable of putting themselves inside a black person's skin, of understanding the shear joy of finally, finally, being equal partners, of seeing someone with their skin color in the White House, of finally feeling like they beyond.

One of the most common search hits I get is still "Michelle Obama's Posture." I've got comments on my site from some women in the Midwest who feels that Michelle Obama is embarrassing the US and she needs to "go to finishing school." Seriously, you can't tell me that's not driven by racism. The other hit I get is "Why McCain should have won." And most telling I think are those who refer to Obama as a "Usurper" - that word implies so many things, like the divine right of only whites to be President, and that Obama must be an impostor or that he stole the election because he's black and that's what black people do. (seriously, despite the chicanery of the Florida vote count during the Bush election, you never heard people call him a "usurper" even if they thought the Reps stole the election).

Again, your thoughts mirror my own. this is an excellent post.

Nathan Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 7:14:00 PM EDT  

The only instances I can recall of hearing the phrase "white culture" were by KKK or Aryan Nation members. They like to say things like "We aren't anti anybody; we're just defending white culture."

Fuck you Mr. Beck.

MWT Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 7:19:00 PM EDT  

White culture includes things like proms and homecoming, the sentiments typically expressed in country-western music, the concept of picking out a dish set and matching towels when you get married. It's in how you interact with other people and what you make jokes about. It's what you eat and how you cook it, the making of jams and the baking of apple pies. It's in how you decorate your houses, yards and lawns. It's in how you shop and what you value. It's in all the things you take for granted that "this is just the way things are done."

And yeah, unless you were brought up differently, it's invisible.

Eric Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 8:18:00 PM EDT  

MWT, while I understand your sentiment, and while I think there are subcultures with less overlap than others, I don't think there's anything as monolithic as Beck (or, as Nathan points out, white supremacists) implies. Even in a place as small as Charlotte (where I grew up) there were cultural overlaps and distinctions in the kinds of things you describe that weren't simply matters of skin color--i.e. areas in which Southern white protestants and Southern black protestants shared common cultural elements and areas in which, for instance, in which white Baptists and white Jews could have been coming from different worlds.

That having been said, skin color frequently was and frequently remains a hard divide in the South (as it does in much of the country), and being a member of a majority means one is potentially unaware of certain injustices while being a minority means injustices are a fact of life. I've never had the experience some friends have had over the years of being ignored in a restaurant or followed through a department store; I will never forget an awful story I was told nearly twenty years ago by a friend (we've since lost contact) who had an awful time trying to buy an engagement ring from a white clerk who appeared to assume my friend was at best poor and at worst a thief.

I guess the point I'm clumsily trying to get at is this: on the one hand, there is a difference between the way whites (who currently comprise a majority in America) are treated compared to non-whites, and this is clearly an injustice. But that having been said, there's no such thing as "white culture." White bigots who use that phrase are the same sort whose forebears also cursed white Italians, white Irish, and white Poles, not to mention white Catholics and white Jews from various corners of the globe. "White culture" isn't any more real than, say, a supposed "Asian culture" that somehow lumps together the disparate cultures of Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.

Jim Wright Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 8:37:00 PM EDT  

MWT, I understand exactly what you're saying.

But, as a white male allow me to say this: There's a big difference between what a person of color calls "White Culture" (your definition)and what a white racist calls "White Culture." And as a white male I'm on the inside of the later and I know bigotry when I see it because I've been in rooms with "just us white guys" and heard it first hand, from woman in combat roles to people of color in command positions to having a black president. When a WASP male speaks of protecting White Culture he's a fucking bigot. And, in fact, most of the whites I've heard use that term have none of the things you define as white culture and wouldn't know what to do with it if they did. They're poor, ignorant, rednecks, uneducated or some combination of the same and the only thing they've got going for them is their skin color and they know it. In America skin color is power - THAT'S what they mean by White Culture.

neurondoc Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 10:18:00 PM EDT  

I'm with Janiece. Just sayin'. Makes me think.

Wendy Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:12:00 AM EDT  

Dang my habit of working during the day. Nathan beat me.

I was going to ask when Beck's white robes could be picked up at the cleaners...


Janiece Murphy Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:23:00 PM EDT  

Does my jam-maker to the UCF status now make me a pillar of "white culture?" I may vomit.


Seriously, I think for people of color, there is such a thing as "mainstream culture," which includes attributes of the majority and may feel exclusionary. For white people, it's just "normal." Jim hit it right on the head - when you have to call out your unearned privilege as "white culture," that's a huge, clanging warning bell.

Eric Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:43:00 PM EDT  

Seriously, I think for people of color, there is such a thing as "mainstream culture," which includes attributes of the majority and may feel exclusionary. For white people, it's just "normal." Jim hit it right on the head - when you have to call out your unearned privilege as "white culture," that's a huge, clanging warning bell.

I think that's an excellent way to put it, and wish I'd written that myself. Thank you, Janiece.

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