Monday, January 19, 2009

Do Your Best, Observe Carefully, Think Hard

Hilzoy has an excellent post on progress in race relations since the 1980s, and I thought I'd excerpt one of my favorite parts:
Conservatives often point out the various idiotic things that people say and do in the name of not being racist. I think they're right about some of the idiocy -- the 70s and 80s, in particular, had a lot of earnest white people walking up to unsuspecting African Americans and saying things like: Hey, brother, I'm down with your struggle. They're also right about some of the idiotic excesses of political correctness: my personal favorite example was a brouhaha about a poster that some student group had put up advertising an event that involved (iirc) "a lazy afternoon relaxing and eating burritos", which supposedly implied that Mexicans were lazy. The late 80s and early 90s were full of that stuff.

Where I differed with conservatives who made those arguments was that I thought: well, this is what happens when people come to realize that there is something very wrong with their habitual ways of thinking about, and behaving towards, people they often don't really know at all, and try to figure out how to change their ways. It's especially likely in the case of racism, in which a lot of problems are likely to involve unconscious habits of mind and behavior. (You might think you're not a racist, but wouldn't a racist think that too?)

In situations like that, people say and do stupid things. They second-guess their own motives, and they don't always get it right. They try to establish their anti-racist cred by constituting themselves as the Official Racism Police. They are in no position to distinguish blacks who have discovered the delightful possibilities of being able to make white people feel guilty about almost anything, and have decided to explore them, from blacks with genuine and serious complaints about their conduct. This is all to be expected. But it in no way implies that the attempt is not worth making, or that if we proceed with good will, we won't eventually do better.

If you're white, and you believe that racism is wrong and that you should try to avoid it, and you don't know a lot of black people, I thought, then a certain amount of idiocy is in your future. It just is. And a whole lot of white people of my acquaintance really didn't know a lot of blacks. That was, of course, part of the problem. But the solution to it was not, I thought, to sneer at the whole effort. It was to do your best, observe carefully, think hard, be generous, and accept the fact that you just were going to do a number of things that would, in retrospect, make you absolutely cringe. The idiocy was temporary, and born of ignorance. With time, I thought, it would fade to normal human levels of awkwardness and cluelessness.