When you have an African-American president you are bound to have more discussions about race than not. That only increases when a well-known former world leader passes away. Nelson Mendala’s death spurred more discussion from every possible angle. In many ways, some are disappointed that President Obama hasn’t done more about this hot button issue, but in reality this issue is bigger than he is.
Political correctness has generally been a good thing, but this is one of those areas where it doesn’t serve us well. One of the great things about free speech and freedom of expression is that it allows us to see exactly where people are. Unfortunately, political correctness has rendered about half of the population unable to discuss the issue in polite company.
In particular, Leonard Pitts has been commenting a lot lately on race and his recent column about the “n word” was full of great fodder for discussion. Yet, this is where I have to tread lightly. As he pointed out, I can have no idea of what it feels like to be an African American in America. He’s absolutely right. However, he asserted that the “n word” was somehow different than the “b word” or other derogatory terms because the experience of slavery is far different than that of any other ethnic group.
We can agree on that much. However, that point can be played up a little too much. I am one-sixteenth Cherokee Indian. Everyone knows about the “Trail of Tears” from their history textbook, but what kind of honest connection can I expect to have with that? Tie in any other ethnic experience from my personal background and the answer is the same. I did not experience those things personally and in many cases neither did my parents. So, what kind of emotional connection do I have with the experience?
So, while I cannot understand the experience of being a slave, neither can the current generation of African-Americans growing up in this country. Additionally, their parents did not experience the institutional racism that their parents did growing up. So, let’s dispense with the histrionics about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes or asking our current generation to apologize for things we had no part of.
Of course, this doesn’t excuse slavery in the framework that it existed anymore than we can excuse the Holocaust because today’s Jewish children did not experience it themselves. We should teach all of the atrocities of the past to remind us of what people are capable of if left unchecked. Yet, to have a productive discussion on race, we must leave those things aside and move to where we are.
Dr. King dreamed that we would someday get to a point where we judge people on the contact of their character and not the color of their skin. I’d like to think I try to judge people based on their behavior. In that vain, there are things I see that disturb me and concern me. When I see African-American’s using the “n word” in reference to each other it bothers me. However, political correctness has rendered me powerless to say anything about it. After all, if you simply try to point out bad behavior you run the risk of being considered a racist. Once that bell is rung it really can’t be unrung.
To further Pitts’ point, I think a lot of that bad behavior comes from the fact that we are seeing the second generation of African Americans that didn’t grow up in the environment of institutional racism. Certainly, Pitts has a much different experience than they do. It is much the same when I watch Jersey Shore or one of its offspring. Just a five minute sample makes me cringe and makes me embarrassed to call myself an Italian American.
A lot of it is probably connected to the fact that we have grown past an age where Italians are commonly thought of to be mafia. So, I guess you can act like a jackass without worrying about demeaning your own people. Still, the stereotypes live on because they are allowed to live on. So, I supposed we can point to progress in that people are freed from overwhelming expectations from a direct cultural experience. On the other hand, that has to be replaced with something. It needs to be replaced with some kind of common decency that we can all adhere to.
There will always be racism and prejudice as long as humans walk the earth. The great thing about the American experience is that people can voice these prejudices and attitudes for everyone to hear. Yes, it is unpleasant and unsettling at times, but it also forces to acknowledge that they are there. As someone once said, light is the best disinfectant.