Whatever Else You Do, Do NOT Think about Elephants!

Edith White, president of the Hampton Roads branch of the Urban League, says apology resolutions and expressions of regret for slavery, in Virginia and in other states, are a step in the right direction. According to the Associated Press, White hopes that the resolutions will “get more people talking about race.”

Yeah, that’s a big problem in our society today, isn’t it? Not enough talking about race.

Supposedly, it’s conservatives like me who are obsessed with race. In truth, people like Edith White — and, it appears, Associated Press reporter Kim O’Brien Root — are far more fixated on peoples’ racial identity than I’ll ever be.

In raising our son, now nine, my wife and I never used racial classifications. We never described our African-American neighbors as “black” as a way to distinguish between us and them. We never referred to athletes or entertainers on television as “black.” We never alluded to our fellow citizens as “black” or “negro” or “African American.” Race may be a political reality in our society, but we wanted to raise Jamie to be color blind.

I think we succeeded. By the time he was six or seven, Jamie did begin to observe and comment upon the fact that some people had darker skin tones than we did. It was a matter of curiosity, though, not one of substance. Lacking a vocabulary to describe “blacks,” he invented his own phrase, one we never used: “dark-skinned people.” To this day, I am proud to say, race has never been a factor in his interaction with friends, peers and teachers.

As old as I am, I find that it takes an act of will to ignore race. Our society is so obsessed with the issue that I’m reminded of the old joke, “Whatever else you do, don’t… repeat, do NOT… think about elephants!” The harder you try not to think about elephants (or race), the more you will think about them. My son is learning about the history of slavery and the mistreatment of African Americans in his school. As he gets older he, too, will get caught up in the U.S. obsession with race. But I am hopeful that as an adult, he will find all the fuss about skin color to be baffling. I hope that he not only will judge people by the content of their character but find the hue of a man’s skin to be as incidental as the color of his hair or his eyes.

So, I totally disagree with Edith White. I think we need to talk less about race. We need to talk more about the kind of personal values and public policies that will enable everyone, regardless of race, to participate fully in our society. The drum-beat of race, race, race around the clock only reinforces the invidious distinction that the Edith Whites of the world supposedly deplore.

Of course, that is not entirely accidental. The people who gain the most from the obsession with race are not the old-timey southern racists who want to “keep blacks in their place,” but those who gain politically from maintaining a sense of black grievance and alienation, and those who nurture a sense of moral superiority over those omni-present racists lurking in the shadows. I have no sympathy for those people whatsoever. They are leechers of blood and peddlers of snake oil, prolonging the very illness they seek to heal.

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3 responses to “Whatever Else You Do, Do NOT Think about Elephants!”

  1. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    For some folks its a job. If a racial designation is part of your job title or the word ‘minority’, then its a job.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Ever since you wrote this I can’t get pink elephants out of my mind.

  3. The problem is, there exist much more powerful forms of racism than mere individual prejudice. Racism still taints many institutions and systems in our country and understanding the race is essential to deconstructing those systems. Colorblindness encourages a present tense mindset instead of taking history as seriously as it begs we take it.

    Equally crucial, we all have an ethnic identity and would benefit from understanding our ethnicity and culture as well as those of others. Culture is a blessing, not a curse, and real cultural differences exist between ethnicities in the U.S. Colorblindness doesn’t allow us to celebrate these.

    Found this post on your blog through another blog and even though it’s 6 months late, thought I’d weigh in. :o)

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