Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples Shall weigh your gods and you.
The above is the sixth and second to last stanza of Kipling’s “The white Man’s Burden.” The poem was first published in 1899 and addresses the US’s occupation of the Philippines which America had won from Spain in the Spanish American War. It’s unabashedly pro-colonization. The poem has several different themes but one of them is the theme of patience with the ignorance of savages, that Western colonizers will have to tolerate and deal with the constant judgment and observation of a subjugated people. That Westerners will be watched for weakness. That’s one theme. I want to flip it. I want you to re-read the above stanza, bring it into 2014, and replace “White” with “Black.”
Black people are watched a lot by white people and, on the part of liberal whites, I’d argue that far too many words are written in the extremely odd and quasi-colonial attempt to understand them. By “understand them,” I mean understand black culture/neighborhoods/people. There’s far too much public-zoo-style analysis of black people that seeks to reduce them to data points but at the same time seeks to treat black people with kid gloves—as children. The best example of this was last year’s gun-control debates that arose from a combination of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. Self-declared progressive sites such as Huffington Post and Daily Kos bandied gun murder numbers around, using them to attack white gun-rights advocates (AKA Republicans). At the same time, conservatives rightly pointed out that the greatest concentration of gun murders is in the black inner cities and that almost none of the weapons used there were purchased legally. Conservatives were, of course, right about that, but to the left it appears that admitting as much was tantamount to racism. It’s something the media’s not allowed to say unless it’s said in a condescending way and presented as “the black community is full of violence.” Black communities plagued by violence aren’t allowed to be full of people, they’re simply players in a narrative and that narrative is “those poor minorities, we have to help them.” Minutes pass. “What’s on ESPN?” This is, of course, as opposed to the bigoted narrative that says, “Those niggers are dangerous. No, I don’t know any.”
There’s almost zero difference there except for the name-calling. Be honest: Would anyone want to be friends with either of these people? One friend infantilizes you, makes you an exotic or a kind of project. The other friend thinks you suck and doesn’t want to be around you. I’m not saying these are the only kind of white people that exist. I’m saying that a lot of the white people that exist fall into these two groups. At least the bigot is honest. You know where he stands. You can tell he has rage and bias and bile. The other is cloaked and hidden. He wants you as a friend, but only at a distance. You, black person, are behind the glass. You’re over there. You’re the other, something to be watched. “Do not break glass unless 10 points needed in the fourth quarter.” Yes, that racism is there and it’s insidious. It turns “I have a dream” into a tourist’s enterprise and it makes white people stupid about their own beliefs.
This week, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, who is gay, wrote an article about a documentary on Prop 8 in California. The focus of the documentary, entitled The New Black, is black involvement in passing Prop 8 banning gay marriage. (Spoiler alert: Black people, who are more religious than white people, were for it more than the rest of the voters by a 58%-52% margin). I haven’t seen the documentary. It’s probably interesting but more interesting at the time was Juzwiak’s thoughts after seeing the documentary.
My ideological allegiance with the pro-equality faction should be obvious. While the rhetoric of those on the anti-equality side never struck me as convincing or logical before, during, or after this movie, The New Black did help me see why people could take a stance against something that doesn’t seem to involve them.
Another way to understand why conservative religious people are against gay marriage would have been to literally listen to any white religious conservative about why they are against gay marriage. Does Juzwiak even know any black people? Any religious conservatives? I have no idea, but what this looks like is, “I didn’t understand their belief about how I’m less of a person until some black people told me their struggle.” Let’s shift this around and make up some analogous statements. Black person: “I didn’t understand why Alabama whites wanted me to sit on the back of the bus until I spoke to a Latino field hand who agreed with them.”
You are the other. You are the noble savage. You have lessons deep inside of you. You can reveal to me why I am less than you because of your struggles. It’s a fantasy. Juzwiak, as a white American, is literally surrounded by white religious conservatives (yes, they’re all over New York too, just in pseudo-hiding) who could have explained this to him, but he wouldn’t have listened to them because they’re white religious conservatives. But he immediately subscribes to a narrative that says, “Those Negroes can’t help being all religious and anti-gay because they’re black and can’t help it.” No, it’s not because they’re black, not at all.
Let’s do this by the numbers: 58% of voting blacks voted for Prop 8. That means 42% didn’t. 52% of everyone else voted for Prop 8. Those who voted for Prop 8 were mostly religiously conservative morals wise. That means that blacks are roughly 6% more religious than everyone else. That’s so close that it’s a distinction without a difference, and yet Juzwiak now understands “why people take a stance against something that doesn’t seem to involve them” as if he’s never taken such a stand in his whole life. This speaks of terrible isolation, not only racially but ideologically. We all know that we’ve taken stands on issues that didn’t involve us, right or wrong. A grown man should not be able to make such statements about the world but when you “other” things and people, you both increase and decrease aspects of their significance. They can never be themselves, only people who take stands on things that don’t involve them, because they’re always just something a bigoted white liberal is observing. I’ll come out and say it. The black community, religious and all, needs to be less bigoted against gay people. Fine, but this has everything to do with American conservative religiosity and zero to do with blackness.
And it’s not only black people. It’s all people. Whenever I read a travel journal about some man or woman’s wonderful trip to India I have to catch the vomit as it rises. There’s the “I learned so much.” There’s the “these people have so much to teach.” There are the photos we’re all familiar with of the white charitable helper holding the darker child. The cultural vacation is fine. It is. It’s even necessary to understand certain aspects of the world, but when one starts weighing a culture’s value in terms solely having to do with their ability to “reveal truths to me,” we have a major problem. Other cultures are screwed up and wrong, too.
Far more honest than the supposedly well-meaning individual looking insincerely to connect with the noble savage is the ignorant bigot. The ignorant bigot is well aware that he’s doing ill to someone. He knows that he is insulting them, that he thinks they are less. This sort of hate can be cured. All it takes is one positive experience and suddenly the tide will begin to turn. I’ve seen it many times. When I was in high school in a small Southeast Kentucky town a black student named Eric transferred to a nearby high school. He was the only black student at the school. For the first month I heard a lot of “nigger this, nigger that.” These people and their kids had no real experience being around any black people. Black people didn’t live there. Three months in, Eric had come into contact with enough people that the racist epithets disappeared. Eric was a good kid, a good student. You could feel the collective acceptance. “He’s one of us now.” Which isn’t to say these people weren’t racist, they were, but it is to say that their minds can be changed. With the well-meaning but self-assured racist white liberal you get no change because they believe their way of looking at the world is positive, that they’re contributing to something. They’re true believers. In what?
Who knows, but it sure sounds like a fetish to me.