What's Up With All Those White People Asking Stupid Questions?

Dorit Rabinovitch

Living in Detroit, and having black friends who cared enough to speak candidly to me, I learned a long time ago that all white people of a certain age are racist. That includes me. It includes Steve Blow. Growing up white in a racist society distorts your perception down to a neurological level. It’s deep. It affects what you are able to see when you look into a black face versus what you see in a white face, for example. That’s why the best thing we white folks can do with our feelings about race is keep our mouths shut and try to get smarter, mainly by living and working in racially diverse settings.

A black community leader in Dallas told me once about a program in the 1960s in which white churches met with black churches for open-ended dialogues about race. She said all the black people always went home furious and finally decided not to do it any more. The kinds of things that white people said -- “Why aren’t you more like us?” “What’s with that mumbo-jumbo?” -- really invited only one answer: “Why are you whites such goddamned idiots?” And you couldn’t say that in church.

Racism is a kind of spiritual astigmatism. It distorts everything. You can’t argue with it, because the person suffering the distortion can’t understand what you say. So, anyway, that’s why I decided a long time ago that people need to keep their mouths shut unless they were talking about specific tasks or chores or challenges -- something concrete that needs to get done -- entirely outside the realm of race.

In making this argument, my Exhibit No. 1 would be the so-called dialogue between Steve Blow and James Ragland in The Dallas Morning news and on the paper's Web site. I feel really sorry for Ragland having to deal with this shit. Blow opens things up in the first Web video by asking Ragland why black people give their children such such funky names, like Shaniqua and Deleterious, instead of the “power names” that Blow says white people give their kids.

He doesn’t provide any examples of white power names, but I assume he means names like Preston and Forest -- the reason so many suburban white kids today sound like they were named after shopping centers. In Dallas, they probably were: “I would like you to meet my son, NorthPark, and my daughter, Galleria."

Obviously it is beyond Blow that the white names he thinks convey power really only convey the upwardly mobile yearnings of Beverly hillbillies. It doesn’t occur to him that black people may not think those names are cool. He doesn’t even begin to understand how important it may be to black people not look or talk or act anything like Steve Blow.

But here is what bothers me much more than any of that: If Blow’s kids had gone to high school in the city with a lot of black and Latino kids, then he might have gotten to know brilliant gorgeous college-bound girls named Shaniqua, and if he had gotten to know those kids at a personal level, it would never occur to him to sneer at their names in public. In fact, he might associate the name Shaniqua with all of those positive traits possessed by the kid he got to know when his kid went to school with her, and that name would fall like music on his ears forever more.

The even larger lesson, of course, would be never to sneer at any child’s name for any reason -- children being the miracle of life that somehow compensates the universe for the rot at the other end of the age scale.

That’s what I mean about the neurological level of racism. And it’s what I mean when I say Idon’t think talking about it does as much good as it does harm most of the time. So he thinks the names of black children sound funny. That’s a marker. That’s a big clue for all the other gut-level feelings he has about blackness. Do we really benefit from hearing it all out loud?

Like I say, I don’t put myself in a class apart from Blow. I’m white. I’m old. I grew up in Whitesville. I just happen to think that Blow and I could do the universe a big favor by taking a lot of the bias we grew up with, clutching it close to our bellies and taking it down with us into the grave where it belongs. Our kids, meanwhile -- his and mine -- will do much better. --Jim Schutze

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky