Recognizing the Imus in Us, and How to Let Him Go

If anything good can be said to have come from the Don Imus affair, it has at least forced America to own up to the sad fact that racial prejudice still runs rife through the fabric of our society. Much like the case of Civil Unions in New Jersey recently blogged by my friend RB, the legislation may have changed, but the attitudes are running, in the case of ethnicity, maybe about thirty years behind. It is still harder, to give you a very simple example, to hail a taxi cab in New York City if you are a young black male.

One problem is, for me at least, that if I force myself to confront the root causes of racial prejudice, namely the barbaric treatment of Africans by our white American forebears, then I become wracked with a colossal sense of Kollektivschuld. My mind immediately flees the problem for something more manageable: if I can demonstrate my liberality by supporting measures to oppose global warming or end the Iraq War, doesn’t that excuse me from thinking about race?

The corollary to this is of course the insurmountable hugeness of the issue. I’m a housewife, living in a predominantly white neighborhood in New Jersey. I feel helpless in the face of a problem that America has lived with now for hundreds of years. If I, personally, can’t do anything about it, why can’t I just ignore it and hope it goes away?

Ignoring it is also the safest option, after all. As soon as a white person approaches the subject of race, there are a thousand pitfalls to be negotiated. Isn’t it better to say nothing rather than attempt to say something, do so clumsily, and risk causing offence?

I think the Imus case has shown us all that we can’t afford to ignore something that continues to rot America from inside out. So, I’ve done some thinking, and I have come up with a list of things we can all do, ourselves, to help combat prejudice. (Please note: as I am white, this list is drawn up from that perspective.)

  1. Do not pretend that racism no longer exists. Every time you get on a train and make a conscious decision to sit near the group with the greatest number of people that look like you, you are practising a very minor form of racism. It may be minor, but it is not harmless.
  2. Where possible, do ACT like it doesn’t exist. Try and imagine you have color blinders on and treat people like people regardless of their ethnicity or any other signifiers. It may help to analyse the choices you make naturally for a few days before you do this. Why do you talk to the white suburban mom type in the checkout line, but ignore the black teenager? Who do you ask for directions if you are lost? Where do you sit in the bus/train/subway/movie theater and what influences your decision?
  3. Do not condone any form of racism. If an acquaintance tells a racist joke or perpetuates an ethnic stereotype, and you do not tell him or her politely that you find it inappropriate, then you are colluding in the racism.
  4. Do cultivate an interest in culture outside your own ethnic group. Ignorance generates fear which generates prejudice, so combat ignorance by reading. I recommend the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Thomas Sayers Ellis and Major Jackson. I thoroughly enjoy the fiction of Pearl Cleage. I currently also have Toi Derricotte’s Memoir The Black Notebooks on order. 
  5. Speaking of Toi Derricotte, okay, this is a tricky one: let your naivete go. What do I mean by that? I mean that the idealistic view is that eventually, thanks to intermarriage etc., ethnic signifiers and thus boundaries will magically dissolve. The story of Toi Derricotte (a black woman who physically resembles a tanned, white brunette) demonstrates that they won’t. The truth is, if you are a member of the privileged ethnic group (which is still white Anglo-Saxon, sorry) and you marry into a minority group, the chances are your offspring will identify with the minority group: there’s simply more cohesiveness there. This is invariably true if they resemble the group, but also true if they don’t: ask yourself how many blue eyed and/or blond Italian Americans you know? It is not a bad thing to have an ethnic heritage and/or identity–I’m proud to be a British woman, after all. So stop thinking of that as the problem.
  6. Talk about race with your children and encourage them to have friends of color. I would say try and make your own friendships with people from different ethnicities but I appreciate this is harder and the risk is it will seem forced, particularly since you may encounter resistance or confusion from the other side also. So begin with the children–if we bring them up right, maybe their generation will have gone at least a few more steps in the right direction.
  7. Don’t make race a taboo subject, either within gatherings of your own ethnic group or when you are in mixed company. Try and see things from the other point of view.
  8. Write poems about race. Okay, this one only works if you are a poet. If you aren’t then blog about race.
  9. Be brave: assume that you will be forgiven if, in trying to do something positive about the problem, you unwittingly embarrass yourself or fear you have offended. Simply apologize and keep trying.
  10. Forgive yourself. You did not begin the slave trade or own a Cotton Plantation, so try not to project guilt onto the people of color you meet today. If you do everything you can to combat racial prejudice wherever you meet it you should not reproach yourself personally for what happened hundreds of years ago, even if your own ancestors were indeed responsible. The less baggage we can all bring to the table, the better.

If anyone finds any part of this blog entry unintentionally offensive or just downright wrong, please talk to me. I truly believe words are the way through this.

Although not, of course, the ones Imus used.

3 Comments

  1. A, thanks for posting this. I know this is something we’ve been talking about on and off since Dodge, and it’s interesting to see how our conversations reflect what’s happening in the world at large. I’m beginning to think that there’s nothing wrong with making huge, bungling mistakes – so long as you’re prepared to own up to them, and then ask for (and receive when it’s offered) forgiveness for those mistakes.

  2. Interesting read. It brings to mind a comment I heard years ago but can’t credit to the author at the moment and it goes something like this;

    we rarely if ever, discriminate on the basis of eye colour; why then do we seem to manage it so easily on the basis of skin colour?

  3. Dogger Banks

    I read in a modern biology text that there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that there my be an inbuilt, initial aversion to peole that don’t belong to the same race as you. While this is depressing, the good news is that this breaks down quickly when you get to know the person. Social interaction overcomes the initial visual aversion (for want of a better word). I think it was in a book by Robert Sapolsky, a very well respected neurobiologist from Stanford niversity (and a very entertaining writer).
    I also think there may be some biological basis to the “they all look the same to me” claim. I was intrigued, when listening to the director’s commentary on the DVD of the Chinese film “House of Flying Daggers”, to hear Zhang Zimou say, without malice, how Chinese people have trouble telling Westerners apart. This was something that up until this point I felt was just biggoted Euro-centrism on our part. It seems there may be something in-built that makes it tougher for a different races to tell its individuals apart.

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