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…asked a young man of Tim Wise.  h/t Sociological Images and sister Tope for bringing this video to my attention.

**poster’s note:  For more on this subject, check out the sidebar of our Derailment Series or click on any number of the tags associated with the issues of privilege, guilt, and beginning as an anti-racist.

And because Nikki is a quick-draw on the commenting, here’s the transcript:

Questioner (off-camera): Um, as a white male, should I feel guilty for the sins of my fathers. I affirm that they exist, but should I feel guilty for them?

Tim Wise: No. You should feel angry. And you should feel committed to doing something to address that legacy. It’s like, for instance, with pollution, right? We think about the issue of pollution. Now none of us in this room, to my knowledge, are individually responsible for having belched any toxic waste into the air, or injecting toxic waste into the soil, or done any of the things… we didn’t put lead paint into the housing, you know?

Individually we’re innocent of that. But someone did that stuff, and we’re living with the legacy of it right now, or in this case might be dying with the legacy of it, getting ill, right?.

So it isn’t about feeling guilty about what someone did, even if you were the direct heir of the chemical company that did the pollution, but it is about saying, all of us in the society have to take responsibility for what we find in front of us. There’s a big difference between guilt and responsibility.

Guilt is what you feel for what you’ve done. Responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are, right? And so if I see a set of social conditions that have been handed to you, and which not only did wrong by othrs but elevated me and give me advantage that I did not earn, it’s not about beating myself up, I’m not responsible for that having happened, I’m not to blame for it, so guilt is totally unproductive

But in order to live an ethical life, to live ethically and responsibly, I have to take some responsibility for the unearned advantage, which means working to change the society that bestows that advantage. It’s not guilt, but it is responsiblity. It’s no different than looking at the issue of pollution or if you became the CFO of the company, you wouldn’t be able to come in and say, “I intend to use the assets of this company, and I insend to put them to greater use, and I intend to use the revenue stream we’ve got going, but that whole debt side of the ledger? No, I’m not paying any of that because I wasn’t here when the other person ran all that debt up. You should’ve gotten them to pay it before you gave me the job. Now I’m here, and I’m innocent.” We would realize that made no sense.

So isn’t about innocence and it isn’t about guilt, it’s about responsibility, that’s something we all have to take. White folks have to take it, people of color have to take it, uh, men and women have to take… everybody has got to take it, because we’re living with… if we don’t do it, no one does it, and it doesnt’ get done. We’re the only hope we have.

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I was planning on posting about my frustration over the response to Dr. Laura’s recent racist rant, but then I saw that Jamelle Boiue at The American Prospect had already said much of what I was thinking on the topic.

That said, of everything in that exchange, Dr. Laura’s use of the N-word was the least offensive — and least racist — element; quoting racial slurs isn’t cool — they’re still racial slurs, with all the historical baggage that includes — but you can imagine scenarios where quoting a racial slur is appropriate to the conversation.

In actuality, it’s the rest of her rant that drips with racial animus. To recap: Dr. Laura immediately dismisses her caller’s problems, uses a racist joke to prove her non-racism, insists that black people voted for Obama over nothing but racial solidarity (as if pre-Obama, African Americans never voted for Democrats), strongly resents the fact that “black guys” can use the N-word but she can’t, and declares that “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry outside of your race.” Dr. Laura isn’t known for her sensitivity, but this is an impressive display of raw racial resentment.

I don’t know how common a view this is, but I tend to think the pearl-clutching over people using the n-word is largely a distraction from meaningful and productive conversations about race.  Don’t get me wrong – I would be pissed as hell if a white person called me a nigger to my face (something I’m grateful to say I’ve never experienced).  I don’t think there’s any reason in the world for a non-black person to use the word unless they are quoting – and even then it can be highly questionable.

But there’s something about our response to a public figure saying the word that disturbs me.  It seems as though whether or not someone uses or has used “nigger” has become a lazy shorthand for whether or not someone is a racist, or has racist views, or would act on racist views.  I’m particularly concerned by the subtext of conversations on this topic that suggest that a person doesn’t have racist views so long as they never use “the n-word” or other racial slurs.

There’s no question that Dr. Laura’s use of the word was racist.  But I find everything ELSE she said in her rant much more problematic and offensive than her use of the word nigger – and much more disturbing because millions of Americans share these views about black people.  And I suspect that the national and media conversation will focus far more on the fact that Dr. Laura said nigger 11 times than on having an honest discussion of the implications of her comments.  We live in a world where the same people who act utterly aghast at hearing the word ‘nigger’ are completely comfortable discussing the idea, and even assuming, that the vast majority of black Americans who voted for President Obama did so only because he’s black.  We live in a world where non-black Americans who would never dream of using the word nigger are nevertheless comfortable telling their black coworkers, neighbors, and friends that their offense at racist jokes or questions is merely oversensitivity or lack of humor.

These attitudes are racist and privileged, period.  But instead of having a candid discussion in which the views of African Americans on these much more subtle expressions of racism are taken seriously, we instead engage in this cyclic obsession with the latest blatant and outrageous manifestation of racism.  The  current offender is turned into a national scapegoat, someone who makes us feel good how we’re not racist like them, and whom we can loudly villify as a demonstration to ourselves and others that we abhor racism.  Frankly, it’s pathetic.

The obsession with “the n-word” disturbs me because it implies that the hard work of anti-racism – the painful process of examining one’s own privilege and prejudice, the difficult work of learning about and fighting institutional racism and rejecting privilege, can be reduced to whether we use a certain word or not.

I suppose it’s obvious from the above that I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to say “nigger.”  To be quite honest, using “the n-word” strikes me as arbitrary and a bit immature.  We all know what’s being said, but seem to think there’s some higher virtue in not saying that particular word (I’ve never understood why, say, slurs against Hispanics are fair game on television, but the word nigger is bleeped out or bowlderized).  There’s nothing particularly anti-racist about never using the word nigger.  And whether or not it’s wrong to use it, in my opinion, really depends on the context, the speaker, the purpose, and the consideration taken for how the use of the word will affect African Americans hearing it (Dr. Laura fails on at least the last two counts, if not all of them).

And personally, I think it would be a huge mistake to eradicate ‘nigger’ entirely from public use.  We need to remember how it was used to demean and dehumanize black people, how it was used in concert with staggering violence to terrorize black communities.  Calling it “the n-word,” to my mind, erases this history and allows people to pretend the word doesn’t have the force and the meaning it does.

So what do you guys think?  Is “the n-word” discussion a distraction?  Is it better to use “the n-word” or are there contexts where the use of “nigger” is appropriate or even necessary?

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I should add, “from our governor” to the title of this post.  For those of you who live outside Virginia, you may or may not have heard, in a grand example of what we Southerners call “back-sliding,” Governor Bob McDonnell hath declared April is now Confederate History Month.

Now, some journalists are calling this move “insensitive,” and some scholars are calling it “obnoxious.”  Conservative pro-life pundit Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on the Washington Post blog:

I very much doubt it was Gov. McDonnell’s intention to cause any offense, and the proclamation mostly consists of platitudes about the importance of studying history. But the failure to mention slavery was a moral and historical mistake…

But this is more than an “oops.”  It’s a direct attempt to appeal to people who believe there is something worthy in the “cause” of the Confederacy.  Comments on Ponnuru’s post attest to those fallacious beliefs:

Yes, slavery existed. Yes ending it was a difficult task for our country. Yes some people fought to sustain that wicked institution. Given all of that I still think that America needs to work toward healing EVERYBODY. Right now white southerns are being marginalized by the folks on the left. I see repeated slurs and slanders hurled in their general direction. It is just plain wrong. Will a confederate history month solve that? Not by itself but it is long past time that we cleansed the wounds, bound them up and began this final phase of healing. so what about the much maligned white people living in the south? Are they not worthy of such healing? We’ve got an out and out reparations advocate about to be confirmed to the ninth circuit.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

During Black History Month who is recognized besides blacks?

Let me again state on this blog, I am a white Southern woman.  I have, at times, harbored bitterness in my heart about the politics of our day.  I have felt left out, ignored by our leaders, and downright angry about decisions made by policymakers at all levels of our government.  At no point in those times, would a Confederate History Month have done anything to alleviate my grievances.  It would have done as it does now, it inflames my grievances.

I would like to tell my governor (a professed brother in Christ, mind you), do not presume to pander to me or my kin by establishing a month-long celebration of everything that has ever been wrong with humanity.  The painful, shameful, and still-nagging history of slavery cannot be swept aside by an acknowledgment that “Yes, slavery existed.”  It did not exist.  It was perpetrated.  It was propped up, established in law, and defended in war by generations of people who directly and indirectly benefited from a labor force created by trading in flesh.

Gov. McDonnell wants to remember the Confederacy, but ignore slavery.  This is especially dangerous in an environment where discussions about slavery fall into the old trap of, “can’t we just let bygones be bygones.” We want to toss aside the atrocities of the period, but celebrate the romance of war, from the perspective of the people who rightly lost that war.  We want to leave slavery in the past, but declare the [old] South has risen again.

There is an insidious root to this week’s proclamation.  Some of my white brothers and sisters earnestly believe that they have been marginalized by some sort of  “reverse racism.”  They feel they have been robbed of dignity and respect.  And on that point, I would agree; they have been robbed.  Holding tightly to a moral evil will steal your civility.  It can hold your children hostage and ransom their righteous inheritance.  Honoring hatred and grasping for power will make you a slave to all manner of unholiness.

So tonight, I ask our readers and friends to consider taking two actions:

  1. Pray for our leaders.  In the midst of the tug-of-war between politics and ethics, many times our leaders fail.  While it’s particularly troubling when those leaders espouse our shared faith, I am reminded of the importance of prayer on their behalf.  The Holy Spirit has a more personal and more constant influence than I can have over a fellow believer, so I’m going to pull a Julia Sugarbaker and offer something like this up:

    One of the things that I pray for, Mr. Brickett, is that people with power will get good sense, and that people with good sense will get power… and that the rest of us will be blessed with the patience and the strength to survive the people like you in the meantime!

  2. Communicate with the governor’s office.  Let him know, politely and firmly, that this is a mistake and then encourage him to rescind the proclamation with a dignified apology to those who have been hurt by it.  (This may seem like a long shot, but if we all commit to both praying and confronting, who knows!)

***Update: Gov. McDonnell has issued this press release today in response to public opposition to his initial proclamation.  Judge for yourselves if this new addition goes far enough (I, personally don’t).  Resources for communicating with the governor’s office follow:

Statement of Governor Bob McDonnell

RICHMOND – Governor Bob McDonnell issued the following statement today regarding the proclamation of Confederate History Month in the Commonwealth:

“The proclamation issued by this Office designating April as Confederate History Month contained a major omission. The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed. The abomination of slavery divided our nation, deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and led to the Civil War. Slavery was an evil, vicious and inhumane practice which degraded human beings to property, and it has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation. In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of “profound regret” for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery, which was the right thing to do.

When I signed the Proclamation designating February as Black History Month, and as I look out my window at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, I am reminded that, even 150 years later, Virginia’s past is inextricably part of our present. The Confederate History Month proclamation issued was solely intended to promote the study of our history, encourage tourism in our state in advance of the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and recognize Virginia’s unique role in the story of America. The Virginia General Assembly unanimously approved the establishment of a Sesquicentennial American Civil War Commission to prepare for and commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the War, in order to promote history and create recognition programs and activities.

As Virginians we carry with us both the burdens and the blessings of our history. Virginia history undeniably includes the fact that we were the Capitol of the Confederacy, the site of more battlefields than any other state, and the home of the signing of the peace agreement at Appomattox. Our history is perhaps best encapsulated in a fact I noted in my Inaugural Address in January: The state that served as the Capitol of the Confederacy was also the first in the nation to elect an African-American governor, my friend, L. Douglas Wilder. America’s history has been written in Virginia. We cannot avoid our past; instead we must demand that it be discussed with civility and responsibility. During the commemoration of the Civil War over the next four years, I intend to lead an effort to promote greater understanding and harmony in our state among our citizens.”

In addition the Governor announced that the following language will be added to the Proclamation:

WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history…

**This section will be added between the 3rd and 4th Sections**

# # #

Office of the Governor

Mailing address:
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, Virginia 23218

Street address:
Office of the Governor
Patrick Henry Building, 3rd Floor
1111 East Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219

Phone Numbers:
(804) 786-2211
Fax: (804) 371-6351
TTY/TDD (For the Hearing Impaired):
1-800-828-1120, or 711

Email form

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It’s always embarrassing when your hometown makes the news for back-asswardness, but it’s all the more shameful when the bad news is localized to a 5 mile radius surrounding your high school alma mater.  As I return home this Christmas, I’ll be saying a little prayer for the city of Charlotte—a famously “New South” town that just this fall heralded the grand opening of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture, and is now embroiled in a battle over whether or not “whites only” language of yore should remain in the property deeds of homes in one of its most celebrated neighborhoods:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I guess if they couldn’t have legalized “segregation today,” they’ll settle for titular “segregation forever.”

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Apparently, some local officials are concerned that New Orleans, of all places, is a little too black.  Builders in St. Bernard Parish have been blocked from renovating existing and building new rental properties because of fears that crime will increase if the area continues to attract renters.  Coincidentally, the increase in renting has accompanied a drop in the white population of the parish (down to 77 percent from 84 percent, pre-Katrina). Thankfully, federal court Judge Helen Berrigan has overruled these local decisions identifying them as “camouflaged racial expressions.”

But, St. Bernard Parish councilman Wayne Landry says:

‘I’m absolutely sick and tired of being called a racist!’  Landry admits that in the rush to rebuild, mistakes were made, especially with the blood-relative ordinance. But he says the intent was not racist—it was to bring back the people who lived there before the storm.

‘We had a bedroom community. Everybody knew everybody. Houses got passed down from generation to generation. They were trying to preserve that. Nothing wrong with that,’ he says…

…’We should have the God-given and government-given right to govern this parish to protect the property values and the people for their life, and for all of the values of their community,’ he says. ‘It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the economic stability of the people of this parish.’

Gotta love it when “protecting our values” means keeping it all-white.  One resident so eloquently states:

‘It’s not discrimination,” Buras says. “It’s called self-preservation.’ Buras says he doesn’t want the kind of crime problems that have plagued housing projects in New Orleans. ‘You see what’s going on in those,’ he says, ‘not just in the black community. I mean, there’s good and bad. Some of them could be Nobel Peace prizewinners. With any low income, you have bad element: You got your prostitution moves in, you got your drug gangs come in.’

Self-preservation?  Hmm.  I wonder what kind of “threat” you’re facing there, bud.  Nobel Peace prizewinners?  Like, ahem, a certain sitting U.S. President?  I guess we’ve narrowed our stereotypes down to two options now.  Black folks can be criminals or they can be president.  Either way, they wouldn’t be allowed to rent a house in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans.

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Lou Dobbs has resigned from CNN.

“Lou Dobbs, more than any other media personality, is responsible for spreading myths and misinformation about immigrants and Latinos.”

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In our state, ’tis the season for political mailers and at our house, we’ve been bombarded.  We’re getting it from both sides, and almost all of it immediately hits the trash, but today, this ad sponsored by the Republican Party of Virginia caught my full attention:

I <3 Caputo

In case your eyesight is about like mine, I’ll highlight some of the salient points.  This ad is an attack on Virginia Delegate Chuck Caputo.  The ad’s headline reads:

Chuck Caputo wants to use our tax dollars to pay for illegal aliens to attend Virginia’s colleges and universities even though there’s not enough space for our own students.

So, we begin with the Republican Party telling us that not only is space in the Virginia public university system rare (a fact that, in my opinion, greatly exaggerates the impenetrability of schools’ admissions criteria), but illegal aliens are taking our tax money and taking our spots at universities.  Gasp!

The point is reinforced by language like:

Chuck voted for illegal aliens and against our deserving students…

This statement presumes that the “illegal aliens” had no qualifications and just walked right into class without any proof that they were competent.  They were certainly less deserving than our students.  Then, next to the sad white girl holding her rejection letter we read in bold green caps:

IT’S JUST NOT RIGHT.

I guess the expected response is, “You’re dang tootin’.”  We are then told that despite the popular wisdom of the Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia House, Caputo remained steadfast in his support of illegal aliens in a 3 to 1 vote against his position.  So now, Caputo’s fate has been sealed as an outsider, an extremist who wants to give away your money to people who broke into this country to learn.

I am consistently amazed at the lengths political operatives will go to in an effort to foster an already racist “us vs. them” mentality.  We all know politics is dirty, but to create hatred toward the children of people who broke the (probably immoral and certainly un-American) law is shameful.

Several years ago, NPR featured a story on two different bills that would help undocumented students go on to college and follow a path to full-fledged citizenship.  Many of these kids were brought into the U.S. by adults when they were children and had no say in whether or not they would enter this country.  Imagine what life would be like for you if because of mistakes your parents made, you were barred from going to college, regardless of the work you had done academically or in your community to merit admission and affordable access to higher education.

About a week ago, some kid with a clipboard asked me (as I was trying to load wriggly children into my car) if I was voting for Mr. Caputo.  I told the guy I didn’t know yet.  I think I know now.  I may also be keeping an eye on C-SPAN Friday to see if they cover the House and Senate briefings on the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors).  It’s one of the stalled bills that the NPR report above was talking about…5 years ago.

We have to move forward here with compassion and hospitality.  The vitriol and racist rhetoric in our discussions about immigration has to stop.  It’s just not right.

I <3 Caputo2

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