How to Cure White Blindness: Jonah Howell’s Obliviousness as a Case Study
by Shaun Terry
Congratulations, Jonah Howell. You’re this week’s winner of the Irony Award. I don’t know whether or not you did this on purpose, but I suspect that you weren’t being satirical. Then again, presumption seems to be part of why we’re in this mess, so who knows?
I should start by pointing out that I’m a heterosexual, cisgender, fully-abled man who presents as white. I’ve lived a life of relative privilege. I’m also a non-traditional student of 34 years, so it’s fair to point out that I’ve had time to recognize aspects of privilege and to consider what life might be like for those who aren’t as privileged. To some degree, I’m lucky. I know this well. As a person who experiences some of the same privilege that you do, I think it’s important that there be an equally forceful denunciation of what could be regarded as your hate speech.
First off, much of Mx. Harris’s article is about how the opinions of white people are: 1) irrelevant; 2) offensive. It’s as though you didn’t understand the article to which you were responding. Your points are: 1) irrelevant; 2) offensive. So my article is in direct response to the ridiculous points you clumsily attempt to make. Mx. Harris’s article seems to point out that white people’s behaviors seem to follow particular, offensive, delusional patterns, but I’m going to give my personal opinion on the matter: your article, Jonah, is reflective of many of the ways in which white supremacy is demonstrated and perpetuated in contemporary culture.
When I read your words, Jonah, I’m made to think of Mx. Harris’s statements about inaccuracy, defensive mythologies, and violent opinions in white people’s rhetoric. When you write that Mx. Harris’s writing is “a bit above [her] own understanding,” you do this from a position of privilege and the shallowest understanding of her situation and of her as a person. I’m making an assumption here: I’m assuming that you haven’t had conversations with Mx. Harris about these issues and that you probably haven’t done much research into the issues faced by Mx. Harris in their writing and maybe you haven’t come to a deep understanding of issues faced by African-Americans and women. At any rate, you, in a public forum and as a white man, basically just called Mx. Harris, a female Person of Color, stupid. Then, you go on to assert that Mx. Harris’s understanding of race, identity, and their “logical” consequences is lacking. That’s pretty bold and seemingly informed by your biased, self-serving opinions on race, identity, and their consequences.
Next, you point out that Mx. Harris addresses white people on a familiar basis, just after you’ve called Mx. Harris stupid and ignorant. Welp. Let’s be clear: those of us who weren’t gnashing our teeth as we consumed Mx. Harris’s cheeky, insightful article weren’t confused because they referred to us in second person. It was a fun way for them to have written the article and it was effective; oh, by effective, I mean that it’s funny and clear. I wouldn’t want you to be confused by my rhetoric.
When you ask who make up white people, that’d be perfectly fair and maybe even Mx. Harris would agree. You know why? We can’t figure out who black people are, but black people still get murdered by cops on a perpetual basis because their skin’s darker in some cases and they dress in a way that white people find threatening and because society tells us to fear blacks and that their lives aren’t as valuable as those of whites. It makes me uncomfortable to point this out, and it’s probably uncomfortable for anyone who reads it, much as I suspect it may have been uncomfortable for you to have read Mx. Harris’s article, but this seems to be the basic truth that has led to all this.
Is race a thing? Well, it is and it isn’t, right? Humans can’t tell the difference between people’s racial backgrounds without cultural identifiers, but we sure as hell keep denying people jobs, putting them on lower tracks in school, jailing them disproportionately, and following them around convenience stores for no particular reason other than their “race.” So fine; you win: race is only a socially-constructed thing, but why are you so defensive, then?
And on the issue of whose stories count as representative of some “race,” the fact is that People of Color in America face social realities that white people will never face. Is your point supposed to be that there may be a Person of Color in America who has never faced discrimination on the basis of their race? If that’s your point, let’s agree that the circumstances would have to be something difficult to imagine and that such a case would bear little relevance. But thanks for the pedantic pointless point.
Eschewing individuals’ responsibility for the perpetuation of institutional discrimination seems to fall short of conscientious understanding of socialization. We each play some role. Individuals, institutions, and society work together to form culture: each on its own as well as through its relationships with the others. It’s awfully convenient for a white man to throw up his hands and say “It’s not my fault; the institutions which benefit me are fully to blame for these injustices,” all while insulting and criticizing a Person of Color for pointing out problems caused by the kinds of behaviors that you engage in here.
When you make your argument about reparations, you point out that the sins of the father aren’t the sins of the son, but this belies all of the oppressions that People of Color have faced since slavery and continue to face today. In fact, the legacy of treatment of African-Americans draws a direct line to discriminations today. You also state that an argument for reparations is an outdated one, but with all due respect, I’d submit that contemporary figures like Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Noam Chomsky have all recently argued for reparations. You used the word “ahistorical” in making these arguments; I do not think it means what you think it means.
When you ask what percentage of white opinions are racist you seem to miss the point. Whites tend to be racist and have racist opinions. Are you arguing that some proportion of racist opinions to white opinions between 99% and 0 would be acceptable? Maybe you’re right and less than 99% of white opinions are racist. Hooray! Hyperbole can be a fun, effective rhetorical device, but that seems lost on you here, Jonah. At any rate, the interesting thing to see is your defense of some smaller proportion of racist opinions.
To state that Mx. Harris’s article silences whites is to be unaware of what culture in America is. Fighting against the status quo and its structural oppressions is the opposite of silencing. Writing a playful, albeit serious and thoughtful, article in a college newspaper won’t silence the overwhelming majority of what gets expressed in our society. Again, you keep using these words…
Your privilege runs so deep that you’re willing to resort to name-calling of a non-male Person of Color in a public forum before having asked a question for clarification, on the basis of your shallow, reflexive opinion that the person is unintelligent and biased, all while demonstrating that you don’t understand the article. If people like you were willing to be patient, listen, and consider the circumstances of people who were different from you, who were more vulnerable than you, then maybe we white people wouldn’t come across as so boring and violent.
With love, from one boring old white man to one boring young white man,