The Others

Writing on the Washington Post editorial page, Eugene Robinson looks at cable news coverage and correctly diagnoses a sociological ailment. He writes:

This country has made undeniable progress against racism in my lifetime, but the Damsels [In Distress] coverage suggests to me that on some visceral level people of color are still seen as The Other. It suggests that for some reason, many Americans can become emotionally involved with the travails of a distraught family that happens to be white, but not a family of color.

Robinson does not prescribe a cure to this ailment; I will.

In redressing the litany of grievances piled up by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil, America developed a habit of placing the onus of action on whites. This was a good habit: white America, after all, held virtually all power in the country, and most of the grievances had to be addressed in or through positions of power, whether legal, political, educational, journalistic, or cultural. The phenomenon described by Robinson, however, is one that is driven by consumer preferences, not power, and must be addressed in a different manner.

Let me back up. Robinson begins his article by looking at a cultural artifact: daytime cable news. Apparently, FOX and others have been obsessing about missing white women - his Damsels In Distress - and their viewers are lapping it up (for the record, Robinson does not include Michael Jackson on his list of white women; also for the record, I am not aware of Robinson's race). He correctly blames consumers, rather than anchors, for this trend, and fingers lack of primary group identification as the root cause of the Damsel In Distress color gap.

The implication, of course, is that whites should broaden their primary group identification to include blacks, Hispanics, and others. A worthy goal, but this is not as simple as it sounds. After all, the purpose of group identification is to differentiate between those who are like you and those who are not, and for any such identification to endure it must be reciprocal. When the reciprocity falls apart (as in the generational revolution of the 1960's), great upheaval and realignment can follow.

As a white, I am happy to identify with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and any others, and members of many races exist in my primary social groups. However, I must admit that I do view the black or Hispanic "man on the street" as The Other. This does not mean a lack of respect, just a perception of difference. Curiously, though, I find myself lumping Asians in with whites as "those who are like me". I asked myself why this is.

What is the root of the difference in my mind between blacks and Asians? After all, I know more blacks, and had black friends from infancy, but only met Asians as I grew up. It's not related to educational status: I felt profoundly uncomfortable entering the African-American Student Center at my old campus, but right at home gabbing with the Philippino and Vietnamese student groups whose offices were next to mine in the regular student center. Why did blacks and Hispanics have their own student centers anyway? The not-so-subtle message is, "We're different." Seperate but equal, perhaps?

I conclude, then, that the difference is not solely in my mind, but in theirs - "them" being others of all races. Those who buy into their membership in America's great immigrant melting pot are "like me" - after all, I'm only half "white" in the narrowest sense - while those who identify themselves as different are, by their own self-identification, The Other.

This phenomenon is clearly strongest with black Americans. As a child in a black church, I had no idea that those with darker skin than me were otherwise different. But at every level of education and throughout the culture I was bombarded with a clear message: "We blacks have a different history, a different heritage, and a different culture. We're proud of it, and we're equal to you, but we're different." And more insidiously: "You whites can't relate to what we've gone through." My response is like that of millions of whites. I say, "OK, have it your way: you're different."

We could close the discussion here. After all, no Americans have been harmed in the making of this primary group identification divide. But that's not the America I want to live in. As an American, I want to believe in the racial universality of the American experience. I want to identify not only with my black co-workers and my Hispanic church buddies, but also with their cousins whom I may see on the street. But I can't do this alone.

The first steps in building reciprocal identification have to come from within each community. The black community needs to recognize that while non-blacks may not have lived in their shoes, they can still hear the stories and empathize - and identify. Blacks who run with white friends should not be accused of "acting white": if we are all Americans, can't we let someone choose their friends without making him give up his heritage? This may sound like a straw man, but I know that my closest black friends often feel torn between two worlds. They shouldn't have to feel that way.

The Hispanic community is much less mired in its own feelings of uniqueness; its principal barrier to Americanization is language. This is not only a matter of bilingualism, but of primary language. It is virtually impossible to speak one language among family and friends but then fully identify with a much larger group. To someone who speaks primarily Spanish, the rest of us are as much "Los Otros" as he is The Other to us. Giving up one's generational language is a great price to pay, but so is leaving one's homeland, and virtually all American families have done the latter.

Whites, of course, are not free from duty. This is, after all, a reciprocal project. Whites must continue to dismantle any exclusive power arrangements that remain. Whites should be gracious to those forced to live in two worlds, and invite elements of other cultures to mix with our own. Finally, when a minority is eager to identify with us, we should be as eager to identify with them. Bill Clinton was "the first black president" because he felt their pain.

Lastly, all of us Americans should remember that our culture is by no means some aging European monolith that we expect others to learn and join. More Americans today pretend they've read Maya Angelou than pretend they've read Walt Whitman. An evening of spaghetti (Italian), jazz (black), and lacrosse (native american) may seem as American as apple pie today, but eighty years ago those things would have been utterly foreign to polite white society. America is a new culture and is in love with novelty. We also have a short memory and an optimistic nature. Let's put these sociocultural assets to work and build an America that includes everyone.

Posted by Chops at August 12, 2005 2:53 AM