White People and Appropriation


When Bill Mayer Called himself a “House *****” on his HBO show a couple of months back he faced swift backlash, and while at first he seemed a bit confused and then contrite before he ultimately pushed back on the controversy as a bit unfair, something very important came out of the whole incident.

Whether it was fair or not is not what I want to focus on, what I think is prevalent through the entire affair and ultimately convinced Maher himself of the extent of his insensitivity, was when on the very next show Maher had Michael Eric Dyson as a guest, largely, obviously, to offer some cover for Mr. Maher and temper the criticism he was receiving.

What I found most interesting about this meeting was at one point during the interview, when Mr. Maher was trying to offer an explanation as to what his INTENT was while using the word, Mr. Dyson quickly stopped him and explained to Mr. Maher that the word had been used for centuries to control, denigrate and weaken (click here) African Americans and it took a long time for them to assimilate the word into their culture and ultimately, own it, as a way of gaining power over the word and those who would use it to injure; and that by constant use, to destroy it’s power; but ONLY for the race to whom the word has been used as a shackle and cudgel and “White People could not have it back”. I thought this was an incredibly powerful sentiment.

I was reminded of this then I heard about the Josh Allen incident today. The issue is not what Mr. Allen’s intent was when he used this language, I would not at all be surprised to learn that he had very little personal knowledge of the plight of minorities in the history of this country. The easy observation would be to assign this as another example of White Privilege, and while I agree that it definitely had something to do with it, I think his casual use, unfortunately had more to do with ignorance then vitriol.

I remember talking with a friend of mine before the last Presidential Election and while the topic was often about policy, and vulgarity, my feeling was if Trump were to be elected, it would tell us one very important truth, this country is still way more racist then it would like to acknowledge. Americans love to pat themselves on the back for exceptionalism, and in some cases this is earned. The Innovation and industry of the last century in the building of this nation is among one of the greatest success stories in world history, unfortunately, it exist hand and hand with America having an absolutely despicable history on race. Not bad, not troubling, not……..well…. other countries are worse, no, despicable.

One excuse I sometimes hear is that “I never had slaves” (I have seriously heard this said) or of course “the black friends” thing or “I studied African American history in college, I can’t be racist”, or “it was a long time ago get over it”, “its not like that now” or that affirmative action is by definition a racist program. Some of these things may well be true, but the point that is missed is a nation can not decide to absolve itself from its own history and while the racism in this country is less overt in some respects then decades past, the insidiousness that still exist can be far more dangerous.

One important point I think is often overlooked is that, if this is simply a case of Mr. Allen displaying appropriationism in his racists tweets, and not some larger, wicked motive, then this suggest a failure of environment. We focus so much on the individual, that we miss the larger issue; are we doing such a poor job of acclimating the young people of this country to continue on a road to racial blindness and can insensitivity be explained away as simply ignorance? In 2018?

Unfortunately, racial tension seems to be getting worse, if that’s possible, not better. Incidents like this are important to continue the dialog if nothing else (if something positive could be gleaned from the constant disappointment of generation after generation).

What I came away with from listening to Mr. Dyson’s explanation, was that while nobody can see into someone else’s heart and how they may mean one thing and people take it another, a nation can not decide how its history is interpreted; one individual can not tell another how to feel about something.

White people have lost the power to be insensitive with impunity.

We are all complicit in the history of our country. We can either try everyday to make our country better, more tolerant, more kind, more sensitive or we can continue to perpetuate, even tacitly, the sins of our past.

There is no middle.

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