by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
In the days since he was accused of shooting nine African-Americans to death, we have heard repeatedly that the mind of Dylann Roof is “unfathomable,” that his motivation is “unexplainable,” that the question for which we all desperately seek an answer is, “Why?”
There is no need for this anguished searching. It should be pretty plain. Roof is a known white supremacist. He is reported to have clearly expressed his motivation by proclaiming, “You’re taking over!” What was his motivation? Why can we not just accept his word about it?
Journalist Clarence Page pointed out nearly 20 years ago that “the real P.C.” is the Politeness Conspiracy, by which he meant that people are afraid to seriously discuss the issue of race in America. It’s considered a subject too delicate to discuss lest someone become uncomfortable. Thus the topic is usually left to basement, backyard, and barroom discussions among people of like minds who do not so much confront and examine the issue as reinforce one another’s existing opinions. Not much progress is made that way.
Why is it so difficult for most of us to entertain any new ideas about race, ethnicity, or culture, or to accept differences?
The answer, I’m afraid, is fear. The nature of this fear is occasionally expressed in public by politicians and social commentators, and it goes like this: “We are in danger of losing America.” It’s heard from pundits on Fox News’s political talk shows. It’s heard from Pat Buchanan on PBS’s “McLaughlin Group.” It’s found in print in opinion columns from the Wall Street Journal to USA Today. It’s heard from presidential hopefuls, members of Congress, and other office-holders and candidates.
We are in danger of losing America. I must ask, then, “To whom?” To whom are we in danger of losing America? If the answer is “African-Americans who now have a hold on the Presidency,” or “Mexicans sneaking into our country and then not even speaking English,” or “Jews who control the banks and news media,” then we are close to putting our finger on that elusive source of our fear.
There’s an even more basic question: Who is this “we”? And how did “we” get to be the “owners” of America? The answer can be elucidated in this manner: “We” means the people who have always dominated American life, the people who believe that we are the only true representatives, practitioners, and arbiters of American culture.
We white, straight, Christian, Anglo males think that what we believe and the way we behave are true Americanism and everything else is a variant or a distortion. We believe – consciously or unconsciously – that our stuff is just “stuff” and everybody else’s stuff is “special stuff.”
Actually, the things we do all day, every day, are “white straight guy stuff.” We’re just so used to doing it and encountering it everywhere that we don’t recognize it as anything but “normal” stuff when it is actually normal only to us. Our accent is not an accent; our way of speaking is normal and everybody else’s is an accent. Our music is music, and everybody else’s is “ethnic music.” For example, until about 1960, African-American popular music was called “race music.” Then it became “soul music.” Today it is called “urban music.” The music of white Anglos has never had a modifier. It’s just “music.”
Our food is “American fare,” while everybody else’s is Chinese, Mexican, Indian, etc. When we encounter a name such as Sha’quanda, Alfredo, or Walid, our immediate response is “Why don’t they give their kids normal names?” By this is meant “the names common in white Anglo culture.” Because in our minds our customs, manners, language, etc., are normal and everyone else’s is a variant.
But it’s not enough that they adopt our ways and our customs. “Them” having “their” stuff is ipso facto threatening. It is generally considered that you can’t be a “Real American” unless you give up any distinguishing features of your own culture as you adopt those of white Anglos. And even then, you may not be a “Real American” unless you are white and of British descent – or at least live, act, and believe as they do.
I once listened to a conversation among three or four college-educated professionals at my place of employment. One man was complaining that there were too many ethnic minorities and people of foreign descent warping American tradition and culture. As he got on a roll, he let slip, “And they’re not even Americans.”
“What do you mean?” asked a colleague. The man stopped and stammered a little. “Well,” he finally said, “you know – they’re not white.” Another colleague, married to an ethnic Chinese, asked, “You mean my children aren’t Americans?” After an embarrassed – and embarrassing – pause, the conversation disintegrated and the participants drifted away. The Politeness Conspiracy.
Image credit: http://www.123rf.com
So what’s the deal? What’s the underlying conviction that provokes our obsession with the purity and stability of “American” culture?
In the 2006 movie The Good Shepherd, Joseph Palmi, a mob-connected character played by Joe Pesci, has a conversation with Matt Damon’s character, Edward Wilson, a CIA analyst. That conversation includes this exchange:
Joseph Palmi – “Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”
Edward Wilson – “We have The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”
“Just visiting.” As if American culture were something that sprang full-blown as soon as the first Englishman stepped onto the North American continent. As if the indigenous inhabitants were not already here. As if Spain had not founded cities in America nearly a hundred years before Jamestown. As if Spanish were not spoken in Los Angeles or Santa Fe until Mexicans started sneaking across the border a few decades ago.
This nation is not a pure, changeless, uninfluenced culture now defending itself against dilution. Neither is America a melting pot. It is more like a casserole, with differing flavors blended so that each is more savory because it is with all the rest. Each culture has brought something to America and America is the richer for it. It is long past time that we cease to view The Other as a threat to us and recognize the benefits of difference, diversity, and the communal joy of embracing them.