By Keith Wilson
Facebook is a strange game because by design, you are generally preaching to the choir. If I wax politic on Michele Bachmann, my quips will go unheard by anyone on the far-right because I don’t have many friends who are radically opposed to my opinions. It is perhaps difficult to keep those kinds of friends. Any time one goes on a political rant, changes their profile photo to support a cause, or post a Huffington Post article elucidating our latest endeavor into inhumane darkness, it falls on ears already attuned to those notions and unaffected in the radical sets of action one hopes to elicit.
I do, however, have a lot of friends who are white. So there is yet a bastion for consistent political debate.
To the point: there is a deep-rooted scar within the American psyche as it pertains to what is good and fair. There are far too many who think that to avoid doing bad is to be good, and that to actively (intend to) treat one another with equality is to be fair.
It is a frightening notion to think that doing nothing might be bad (especially if you have spent a lifetime doing it) and even worse for a so-called liberal mind to suddenly realize that its good intentions, as they exist, might be powerless to the system it benefits from. What I mean to say is this: White people on Facebook hate it when you talk about white people on Facebook.
Recently, a friend who is of as ambiguous a racial background as I (call it exotic? Please.) posted how much he hates it when white folks (it is ALWAYS white folks) ask him “What are you?” There was some shock; many could not believe anyone really asks it in quite this way. I chimed in and assured them that yes, people really ask it that way. Other ways:
Where are you from?
Where are your parents from?
Are you Mexican?
You look like a friend of mine who is Puerto Rican.
You have a very interesting look.
Ad nauseum if you work in a grocery store, for instance, where a person has the privilege (oh privilege!) of saying what they want without you having the privilege of being able to say whatever it is YOU want to say.
And what got me about this conversation was the sudden outrage by a few voices (the same I have heard in beginner sociology classes, and in casual conversations at restaurants or movie theatres) that we might say that this was perpetuated by “white people” instead of stating, perhaps, that we hate it when any human being does it. They seem to miss, first, that these are categories that are made important in American culture as a whole, yes, but with which they can only benefit and we can only suffer from.
When unloading trucks during college, I heard a coworker refer to me, to my boss, as “that Egyptian kid.” I had to wonder what that term could possibly mean to the positive. Working part-time in the deli, during high school, when someone jokingly referred to me as Muhammad, was it ever with reverence? And honestly, it becomes hard to even talk about the subject with a white person—one who has taken such offense—when I think about all the times I have been called Mexican, and the way it was always said. To hear it for so many years as an epithet, it is impossible for me now not to cringe a little when I hear the word. Mexican. Someone from Mexico, a country. Like Negro, it is a word that has its own connotation of hate which someone might not even mean anything by even as they fuel it with meaning.
So what, then, is fairness? White America seems to believe fairness is hundreds of years of going to work without pay, and then suddenly being paid, at first, a few cents a day for the same job, and all of it followed by the cheerful exclamation “Better get running, so you can catch up!” That is to say, it only seems fair to treat two individuals the same, even if you ignore institutional racism entirely, because the fairness is so short-lived. And not even always consistent.
When I hear someone get up at arms about my even having mentioned how insulting it is to be guessed at (but they didn’t even mean anything by it!), I cannot help but think that what is really fair is for the world to stop watching White-American movies, reading White-American books. Nobel Prizes, and Pulitzers and Olympic medals should be withheld from anyone of European ancestry. Every white poet alive today should have to struggle at small presses and find themselves in the strange position of hoping that a people not interested in their work become, suddenly, interested. They should strive to transcend their race (be white Will Smiths). And this should go on for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Is that fair? It certainly doesn’t feel fair. But the beginning of what is fair is to understand that as nice as one’s intentions are, they are not necessarily good. If that is not your fault, it certainly is not mine. Or beyond even this: to first, without preconceived arguments and perceived injustices bubbling up before an actual sentence has been formed, take part in a single selfless act: Just listen.