Being a White Person Who Talks about Race


Justin Smith over at his website:

There is a deeply ingrained idea coming from what passes for the Left, and distracting the younger and more naive members of the Left, to their own detriment, according to which we can each only speak for our own group, and in relation to other groups the most we can hope to be is 'allies'.

A good example of this was in the reaction to the phrase that sprang up spontaneously as a call to rally against the verdict: I am Trayvon Martin. This was of course not new, but a recycling of a common reaction to galvanizing events, e.g., the banners around Paris that declared Nous sommes tous américains on September 12, 2001. (I say, with Whitman: I am everyone, I am each of you, at every moment.) By the next morning some bold white internauts had posted video clips of themselves declaring emphatically that they are not Trayvon Martin, that they could not possibly be Trayvon Martin, in view of the many privileges they have that keep them safe from Martin's fate. By nightfall of the same day white people were abuzz in social media about how other white people needed to stop trying to get attention by announcing how not-Trayvon Martin they were, that this was not about what they either were or were not.

Clearly, the white kids just don't know what to do with themselves.

A white South African friend of mine in social-media land, a journalist I admire very much who is also a former ANC activist, wrote recently about a limousine ride he took in New York with an unnamed American hip-hop star. The driver was a Palestinian socialist. All three got to talking about the fall of Apartheid, and apparently the American simply could not get it through his head that there were white, Jewish ANC members fighting against Apartheid right alongside Mandela. The Jewish South African and the Palestinian driver in turn were alarmed at the American rapper's black-and-white thinking (as it were): the ANC wasn't made up of black people plus their white 'allies'; it was made up of South Africans who hated Apartheid. Listen to the way Mandela talks about Joe Slovo, for example. Is there any hint that Mandela thinks the Lithuanian Jewish immigrant doesn't get, can't get, what's at stake in bringing down a racist totalitarian system? Of course not. That's not the way racism is defeated. And the distraction of identity politics, perpetuated by well-intentioned young people who take themselves to be on the Left, is, I'm sorry to say, helping to abet and sustain the racist system in the United States.

So what is my deal? Why did I decide to write about race?