Whiter Shade of Pale

(Thanks, Procol Harem)

Quick note the first: Loving the congressman from Nevada who took umbrage at the comparison between Wall Street and the casinos, saying it was an insult to the casinos.

Quick note the second: That cover on Laura Bush’s book looks like she’s part of the Twilight series.

Quick note the third: Many “real” journalists seem to agree that Jason Chen is a journalist. Bloggasm did its homework on this issue.

Now to the main topic. Until recently I thought “Stuff White People Like” was a joke (See “Black Blogs,” November 12, 2009). It’s written by a white guy, a Canadian no less, mocking stuff other white people like but the rest of us (and many white people) think is slightly nuts – like camping (sorry, Nancy). Some of the stuff was a bit outrageous. I mean, he put coffee first on his list. Where did coffee originate? Africa. Oh, well.

But things have gone from funny to scary. Glen Beck said President Obama hates “white culture” and refused to define “white culture” because he was sure he’d be accused of the same racism he sees in Obama. Paranoid, are we?

These observations came at the beginning of a terrific review of two books in the April 12 issue of The New Yorker. I had intended to blog about that column alone but was further inspired because of an essay by a history professor who urged white people to change the subject when the subject is race. Andrew M. Manis writes eloquently and well. But the ad hominem, racist comments that followed merely proved his point. People who disagree but can’t express themselves without resorting to name-calling should be banned from the Web. Yes, I know that’s contrary to my generally blanket support for free speech rights, but hate speech has always been an exception to the rule.

So to walk through the topic. Kelefa Sanneh’s review is more a commentary on the state of race relations in the country than a mere critique of the books. The report is that things are not so good and may be deteriorating. He observes that whiteness is a false construct that won’t go away. He builds his argument first around Searching for Whitopia, a black man’s experiences in some of the whitest places in the country. It seems the divide has worsened since Rich Benjamin completed his research in the late years of the Bush administration.

The thesis for the review is that whiteness is an artificial construct, a point that Nell Irvin Painter makes in her History of White People, the second book in Sanneh’s review. She takes the worldwide view – beginning in ancient Greece, traveling through the Caucasus, and so forth to present-day America, where she seems to think that whiteness has changed its spots (sorry for the pun) by becoming less of a marker than class or economic status. If that’s the case, people wouldn’t be so angry about Manis’s “When Are WE Going to Get Over It?” I’m not making any comment on the substance of his argument that white people in America need to truly change their attitudes about race. (I’m as qualified to comment on this subject as the pope is to comment on marriage. It may not stop him but it will stop me.) What I’m upset about is that the untutored told him to get plastic surgery and dye his skin, said he wasn’t a true white man, and so forth. They proved the overall point that less has changed in the 400 years since the first boatload of Africans arrived in Virginia than the rest of us optimists like to believe.

The comments reflect the ignorance and racism (read fear) of many of Manis’s readers. Telling him to get cosmetic surgery and calling him coward does nothing to advance the argument. I was pleased to see that his defenders were far more literate than his detractors. They wrote in complete sentences without howling grammatical errors, always an indicator of some credibility.

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