AN OPEN LETTER TO MISS MANNERS (Judith Martin)
Dear Miss Manners,
Please let me preface this letter by saying I am a longtime fan of your column, as I am distressed by the lack of courtesy in today’s society and always appreciate your witty replies. You may or may not be aware that I have even affectionately parodied your column with “Miss Mannerly,” here on this very website. That said, here is the original, very thoughtful letter you received and your answer ("Clarifying racism for a white man") that has prompted my missive to you:
I do agree with you that talking about what racism is (or is not) is a semantic discussion. We currently have two “working” definitions of racism being used simultaneously, and we also have many people far too willing to throw around the “r-word.” Under one (the “classic”) definition, anyone of any race can be racist; it means the notion that people of another race are inferior to you and don’t deserve the same treatment as people of your own race. Under the other (the “evolved”) definition, only a white person can be racist, and, in part because he has lived his entire life with racial privilege by virtue of being white, he cannot be considered the victim of racism, either. Add nuance to taste, and stir.
The man who wrote to you, a self-described white male, told you he’d been informed that he would be viewed as racist for bringing up examples of how he personally was abused, targeted with racial epithets, and even lightly hit by a car while living in a mostly non-white country where he was in a racial minority.
The man was obviously trying to show empathy for others who have been treated badly because of their race. But because he is white, his view was considered unwelcome. They told him that the treatment he received was not out of racism, but “rather out of resentment for white people’s history of cruelty and injustice towards others.”
In your answer, you essentially agreed with his friends, saying that even though the treatment he had experienced had been “horrid and unfair,” it was not the same as “the experience of most marginalized groups” because it never took away his basic rights and equality. (Not having been in whatever country this was and experienced what he went through, I don’t know if that is necessarily true. As a woman, I could easily name countries that would take away MY basic rights and equality.)
You made what you called the "key" distinction between “retaliatory” bias and “inherent” bias. With all due respect, being on the receiving end of “retaliatory” bias for something one’s ancestors, as opposed to oneself, did is, to me, as unacceptable as any other kind of bias. I would make the case that it is also extremely racist.
You said his argument makes this gentleman look naive. I am hardly naive, and I agree with him.
If the treatment this man received was “...out of resentment for white people’s history of cruelty and injustice towards others,” I’m sorry, but that was still racism. The man himself had done nothing to anyone; he was being judged –- judged –- by the color of his skin. The argument being used to defend that, which you helped further, is a rationalization for racist behavior. One may agree with that rationalization or disagree as I do, but a rationalization it is.
One problem we have right now is that we’re all encouraged to be having “conversations” about race, but these “conversations” all have to be very carefully articulated in certain ways in order to avoid charges of racism. The man who wrote you obviously is not a racist, but he must speak in exactly the "right" way in order to avoid a minefield. The slightest deviation is heresy. I’m sorry, but that is not real conversation, Miss Manners. It is control. A real conversation is a two-way street, with give and take, and people try to understand each other. I don’t see that happening with this subject. To create a “safe space” for others --- even his own partner --- this person’s thoughtful view is being shut down.
Thank you, Miss Manners, for your attention. Though you are correct in saying this gentleman risks alienating some people –- that they might challenge his point and perhaps call him naive and even racist –- simply telling him to “stop” is to inhibit honest, heartfelt conversation. I, for one, am willing to (very politely) have that conversation, and if someone wants to wrongly accuse me of racism, that is the person who needs to learn some common courtesy –- and some common sense.