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Friday, August 13, 2010

Passive Aggressive Racism

by digby

It's always interesting when white celebrities lecture black people about being "hypersensitive" to racism by making a whole bunch of racist assumptions and defensively referencing the use of the word nigger. It's quite clarifying:

SCHLESSINGER: Jade, welcome to the program.

CALLER: Hi, Dr. Laura.


CALLER: I'm having an issue with my husband where I'm starting to grow very resentful of him. I'm black, and he's white. We've been around some of his friends and family members who start making racist comments as if I'm not there or if I'm not black. And my husband ignores those comments, and it hurts my feelings. And he acts like --

SCHLESSINGER: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? 'Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive. So tell me what's -- give me two good examples of racist comments.

CALLER: OK. Last night -- good example -- we had a neighbor come over, and this neighbor -- when every time he comes over, it's always a black comment. It's, "Oh, well, how do you black people like doing this?" And, "Do black people really like doing that?" And for a long time, I would ignore it. But last night, I got to the point where it --

SCHLESSINGER: I don't think that's racist.

CALLER: Well, the stereotype --

SCHLESSINGER: I don't think that's racist. No, I think that --

CALLER: [unintelligible]

SCHLESSINGER: No, no, no. I think that's -- well, listen, without giving much thought, a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply 'cause he was half-black. Didn't matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that. That's not a surprise. Not everything that somebody says -- we had friends over the other day; we got about 35 people here -- the guys who were gonna start playing basketball. I was going to go out and play basketball. My bodyguard and my dear friend is a black man. And I said, "White men can't jump; I want you on my team." That was racist? That was funny.

CALLER: How about the N-word? So, the N-word's been thrown around --

SCHLESSINGER: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger.

CALLER: That isn't --

SCHLESSINGER: I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing. Don't hang up, I want to talk to you some more. Don't go away.

I'm Dr. Laura Schlessinger. I'll be right back.

There's more and it's much worse worse, if you can believe that.

I think this is a perfect illustration of the current cultural roiling over race. The original assumption, which Schlesinger goes back to in the second part, is that this woman is wrong for being resentful at having to constantly answer questions from someone who asks her what "black people" think about things. To Schlessinger, this is perfectly normal. After all black people are very exotic, unknowable creatures, and so it's completely understandable that people might turn every conversation into a discussion of how these strange others look at the world. The caller finds that uncomfortable and annoying,which makes Dr laura very angry at her. The question is, why?

Now it's possible that every conversation this woman has with the man has an appropriate racial context, but I doubt it. Most likely, and I expect that this woman feels, that her race is brought into it to draw attention to her race, to single her out, to make her feel her otherness in a white group, as the wife of a white man. After all, this kind of questioning isn't normal. Unless the subject at hand is explicitly racial, I don't think most of us bring it up in everyday conversation. I certainly don't ask my African American friends whether black people like grilled eggplant or what black people think about "True Blood." In fact, it's a subject that rarely comes up at all unless we are talking politics and specifically race and politics.

As the conversation continues, it's clear that Schlessinger is carrying quite a bit of anger about how "the blacks" continue to believe racism exists even though we have a black president. Evidently, that was supposed to have been the end of all that unpleasantness, particularly since blacks allegedly voted for him simply because of his race, thus proving their own racism. (The fact that they voted nearly unanimously for John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton as well would seem to indicate an ideological rather than a racial bias, but I've heard so many white people point this out that it's clear that quite a few see African American support for Obama as proof of black racism.)Dr Laura finds their lack of gratitude for being allowed to exercise their racism this way deeply offensive and is appalled that she is still having to answer for white prejudice --- even though nobody asked her to.

The immediate defensiveness, before the women even got out her complaint, is the main hallmark of this attitude. I saw Andrew Breitbart in person explode into an angry, spittle flecked tirade at the mild suggestion that racism is playing a part in current discourse. (He really went crazy, interrupting and screaming "racist, racist, racist" at the top of his lungs over and over again.) This obviously hits a very raw nerve with some people and they get extremely upset at the person who brings it up. I'm no psychologist like Dr Laura, but I would guess that zero to 60 reaction doesn't come out of nowhere.

After all, this woman wasn't calling Dr Laura a racist. Indeed, she was asking for her advice, thinking she would be sympathetic. But Dr Laura immediately gets agitated and brings herself into it, relating that she has a close black associate who doesn't mind when she makes jokes about white people not being athletic.(???) She clearly related to this caller's unnamed neighbor and chose to state her solidarity with him.

The rest of the conversation just got worse, as I noted, with both sides getting angry and Dr Laura ending up saying that the woman shouldn't have married outside her race. (Evidently one should expect to be treated as a visitor from a foreign planet if they do.)

This is a perfect example of modern racism of the "what do you have to do, kill Medgar Evers?" variety. No, this neighbor isn't being overtly racist, he's being passive aggressively racist, which is all the more annoying since it's impossible to confront, like all passive aggression. Indeed, it's laid on to the receiver --- "you're being hypersensitive." And it's clear that the perpetrator knows exactly what he or she is doing since when confronted they always behave with furious defensiveness. When it escalates, the real hostility comes right to the surface as it did with Schlessinger yesterday.

Humans are sophisticated creatures when it comes to sniffing out aggression. And while I'm sure that there are African Americans who are "hypersensitive" I would guess that most are simply tuned into this kind of passive aggressive hostility as most of us are when it's aimed our way. It's a finely honed survival instinct. (I certainly felt this kind of passive aggressive hostility in the workplace for years, as most women my age did.) It's particularly pernicious because those who don't see it (or don't want to see it) are often far too willing to lay the blame on the receiver and basically tell them they are either liars or they are crazy, rather than dig more deeply into what's been said and why. It's very easy to sweep this kind of hostility under the rug.

But anyone who's been on the receiving end of it knows very well that they aren't crazy. Millions of years of evolution have taught humans how to spot someone who doesn't like them. When a black American says she can feel racism, I believe her. I suspect if I were in that room with her I could feel it too.

I guess a lot of us didn't realize just how thoroughly overt bigotry had morphed into this passive aggressive style until we saw a bunch of Americans behaving this way and then were told we were crazy for noticing. We're not crazy. It turns out that 200 years of racism in this country didn't just disappear in one generation after all --- it adapted. Who ever could have predicted that?