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Point – Stop Being So Sensitive

A remarkable thing happened the other day in a LEAD class. We were discussing the Lyndon Twitchell and Jenny Kravitz incident. For 30 minutes “typical LEAD randomness” was the major content, and then the subject quickly moved on to race. Barely noticeably, but very suddenly, people became more reticent, less eager to put up their hands. Slowly, people began to speak, and the conversation crawled back into action. For the next 15 minutes the class heard very muted and stifled perspectives about race, all from Caucasians. All of whom referred to Lyndon Twitchell as an African-American. Then, an African-American raised his hand, and spoke very cogently and eloquently about the issue, but referred to Lyndon Twitchell – several times – as black. Equally sudden, a tension that nobody realized was even there vanished. The conversation lifted, people voiced opinions and the LEAD class was transformed from merely average to a very good one. In a single moment-the moment Lyndon Twitchell was referred to as black-people became alive, lighter from removing the baggage of worrying about causing offence when speaking.

Other Sections were not so lucky. The issue of race was not even touched upon. Upon walking out of their classrooms, many people were justifiably amazed: whilst the point of the class may have been about making assumptions without adequate information, in that case this was best exemplified by the race issue, which many people had chosen to ignore.

Another similar situation arose during the Martin Luther King case last year. Having spoken to two second years in different sections, both mentioned finding it amazing that for a significant period of time at the beginning of the class (in one case as long as 30 minutes) the only people that took part in the conversation were European. Now, most Europeans know nothing about Martin Luther King-for them, this should have been a time to let the teaching system kick in and begin learning from others that know more. Yet they did not-Americans did not want to speak; the topic was simply viewed as being far too emotive. So Europeans piled in, no doubt motivated by the easy point scoring that an empty class will allow.

In the above situations, honest discussions on topics that need to be addressed were prevented by the topic being perceived as “too inflammatory.” Now, for a school comprising many intelligent people, that is a bit stupid. At this point, before I begin on what could be perceived as quite an aggressive stance on the way this country handles race relations, let me say that there is a lot about the US that works: the economy may be perceived as being on slightly rocky territory, but it is still a robust economy in a nation where capitalism is prized. Furthermore, the American dream is alive and well-people really can make it big from humble origins. Moreover, there is peace, relatively speaking, and legally speaking, people are free to do whatever they want.

However, legal equality and social equality are two very different things and the US demonstrates this better than most. This is a country that will readily recognize that everybody is free and equal in the eyes of the law. However, culturally and socially, this is rarely the case. An RC friend that has spent significant amounts of time in the US describes an issue surrounding one of his friends, an American-Chinese divorcee with mixed race children. The children appeared “white enough,” and up until the time when their mother appeared at the school gates to meet them, received the usual number of invitations to various events held by other parents. Upon seeing the mother however, these parents were thrown into a mixture of disbelief and confusion. Following that, the number of invitations that the kids received to go places dropped noticeably. The children were perceived differently. This was not a racist view, nor was it a malicious one. Rather, it was an ignorant one where the kids were thought of as not being “our type.”

And political correctness is the mechanism that allows all this to happen-it enables people to consider themselves enlightened and worldly simply because they refer to and interact with other races using the least offensive phraseology possible. It is both the mechanism by which individuals can kid themselves into believing that that they are not ignorant and the mechanism by which different races can lead parallel lives: lives with roughly equal opportunities, but lives that rarely mix. In the same fashion that the constitution has proved to be a useful vehicle to preventing meaningful and useful gun legislation, political correctness and positive discrimination has been a useful vehicle to convince people that everything is A-OK with the race relations situation in this country. And so nothing is done. Another young American, a mother who lives locally, describes a situation at her kids’ school in downtown Boston: whilst the mix of ethnicities within the school is admirable, outside the school parents chat in huddles very much restricted to their own race. There is no hostility (in fact, there is the occasional pleasantry) to mothers of other origins; rather, there is a simple tendency for like to seek like. The message is simple for outsiders: “You can do whatever you want, just not on our turf.”

Furthermore, complete integration is being prevented because society is now so worried about causing offense by calling a spade a spade. African-Americans are black. They are. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that. I am brown-there is nothing wrong with that either. So why all these terms such as African-American, Latino-American? These people are citizens already-they do not need to be constantly remind of this whenever you speak to them. But it is much easier to safely say use those terms, and believe you have done your duty towards furthering racial harmony than actually make efforts to understand other cultures. Political correctness is not eradicating misjudged views, it is just making it easier for those views to be hidden.

When combined with Positive Discrimination, the situation gets even worse. Whilst Positive Discrimination may have proved useful in the past as a means of addressing what was a very stark socio-economic imbalance between ethnicities, it has now gone too far. It has led to a status quo whereby people from different ethnicities are able to get jobs without having to interact with other groups, or even be very good at what they do. Like Political correctness, it is serving as a membrane by which people from different cultures can interact despite never truly mixing. The majority can fool themselves into believing that much is being done to improve the opportunities of those from ethnic backgrounds, and minorities can fool themselves into thinking that they have every possible opportunity for success in this country despite never really embracing it.

Now that we are talking about minorities, let me say this. Minority groups should shoulder at least half of the blame for the current state of affairs. They are far too sensitive to people using the wrong words and bad vocabulary, and will clamor from the rooftops to exclaim just how much their roots and dignity have been denigrated and insulted when this happens. If you are an immigrant (or of immigrant origins), it is fairly hypocritical to cluster together in groups and also to expect equal rights to land on your doorstep. You cannot have your cake and eat it too: do not expect to be taken seriously if you try and play the race card at every possible opportunity. It generates resentment from others-you just cannot see it because political correctness has covered it up. But do not delude yourself, it is there.

What is worse, some people from minorities are also pretty racist-the rather weak justification they convince themselves of is that past historical events (that did not happen to them directly) almost give them carte blanche to retain a thoroughly backward mindset. Frankly, this is odious. If you are a minority, and are offended by anythin
g in this article, or by being called “black” or “gay,” then it is highly likely that you are the type of person that will be the first to blame institutional intolerance for the reason why you did not get a job, as opposed to the real reason: someone was better qualified for the job than you.There is a phrase in German (by German task master Harald Schmidt): “Jede Minderheit hat das Recht darauf verarscht zu werden.” Loosely translated: “Every minority is entitled to be taken on a ride.” Basically, every minority group should also have the mickey taken out of it. And it is true-until minorities can see beyond their insecurities (which in today’s climate are essentially unfounded) and are more relaxed about making fun of themselves (like the majority-who does not enjoy making fun of someone that is constantly dressed in Chinos and starched shirts?), then little real progress can be made in race relations. And if Germany-a country that has not had the most publicity-friendly 60 years or so-can come up with that, then surely America can rid itself of its historical baggage as well and move forward without the worry of stepping on eggshells along the way?

As much as it pains me to say it, the French have got it right. The country has often been labeled as more racist than others, but that is just because you can see it. The French are not a politically correct bunch and have hardly any laws in this regard, and as a result you can very easily spot the racists and the intolerants. And if you can see a problem, it means you can tackle it more easily. It is better the devil you know than the devil you do not. In the long term (and yes, it will take time), this strategy will be more successful than letting political correctness and oversensitivity drive ignorance further underground where the problem cannot even be seen, let alone solved.

So, if political correctness and positive discrimination is not the answer, what is? This is a difficult question to answer, but education must surely be part of it. Overt racism is essentially the product of three forces: ignorance, malice, and pro-activity. Eradicate any one of these three components and it disappears. Now, I have no idea how to remove malice from society, and nobody sensible would want to stamp-out pro-activity from today’s TV-dinner generation, but ignorance is something that can be fought-education is its silver bullet. Society must be taught that people genuinely are equal to others, not taught a politically-correct mechanism for dealing with others that are different from themselves. It is only when you change mindsets, not methods, that dialogue is truly genuine and real progress can be made.

It will take decades, and it works both ways-the majority needs to stand firm, and take more risks in their approach and discussion on topics such as this. Minorities need to let their own persecution complexes wash away and take real pro-active steps to crossing bridges and removing cultural divides.

For now, let us all become much less sensitive and call a spade a spade. I am brown, I have some friends who are black. I also have some friends that are gay. Let us call them that. Only then can people stop worrying about causing offence and begin to have constructive, meaningful dialogue about improving homogenization in this country. And then, maybe, the US can truly become more than the sum of its parts.

Does affirmative action help us achieve true equality, or do you think political correctness has gone too far? Express your views in a letter to the Editor and email it to letters@harbus.org. Please state whether you would like your letter to be published anonymously.

October 30, 2006
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