A long post on race that is not particularly original, and will probably get me in trouble

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I recently surprised the hell out of a male friend who considers himself fairly feminist by mentioning that I got catcalled an average of at least once a day. Like Ezra, he'd basically never seen it happen, and had assumed it wasn't really much of a problem.

It doesn't bother me as much as it bothers Catherine (and I was recently told by a middle aged woman that it will bother me even more when it stops.) But it's weird that this fairly common feature of my life is invisible to the men I know. And for the record--thank you gents, but I do not actually enjoy having random strangers remarking on the length of my legs, or what they would like to do with them. And there is a special place in hell reserved for men who grope women in crowded bars.

In a similar vein, I had no idea that black people get followed around retail establishments--even though I worked retail on the (then) very racially integrated Upper West Side. Then a friend mentioned, offhand, that it happened to her at least once on most shopping trips. I was shocked. She's the most uptight, upright person I know, and a skilled professional. I never thought of following anyone around, but if I had, I would never have imagined following someone like her around a store. But once she said it, I saw clerks do it to other minority women.

That's why I'm willing to cut Reverend Jeremiah Wright really quite a lot of slack: because my perception of the level of racism in America is considerably affected by the fact that it mostly doesn't happen around me. When my friend and I went into a store, she was protected by my halo of whiteness--she's with a white woman, so she's probably not a thief. In the company of white people, blacks aren't treated like they don't belong somewhere.

I don't mean to imply that I think we're still living under Jim Crow. And it's not necessarily even a function of dominance. A white friend mentioned going into a black gay bar where he was the only white man, and suddenly feeling . . . invisible. No one was rude, but no one looked at him either--it was as if he was a slightly out-of-place chair. "Imagine," said this fairly conservative gay man, "what it must be like to feel like that all the time."

I can't. But I'm guessing I'd be kind of resentful about it.

Watching the Obama/Wright fooforaw unfold, I was reminded of two things: a bad television show, and a good C.S. Lewis piece. The bad television show was something called Black. White. on FX. The show took two families, one black and one white, and made them up to look like members of the other race, then put them in various situations. The makeup jobs were not very convincing, since there's a lot more to ethnicity than skin tone. But I guess since you're not really expecting someone to dress up in blackface--or whiteface--it was good enough to pass.

There was one scene where the black father, Brian, took the white father, Bruno, to buy a car. Bruno was the lone holdout saying that racism just wasn't a problem, which made Brian pretty mad. So they went to buy a car so that Bruno could see what it was like to be treated like a black man in that situation.

Surprisingly, even Brian had to admit that it didn't go as badly as he expected; Bruno was treated better than Brian had ever been. The show didn't really explore this insight, but it seems really important: racism isn't a fact, it's a process. If people follow you around stores sometimes, you're tense and expecting bad treatment when you go in. People react to that by being tense and hostile themselves, and it escalates. The very fact that Bruno was wrong about racism probably got him better treatment: he wasn't expecting to be slighted, and that undoubtedly changed the way he dealt with the salesman. Or you can say that still having internalized the dominant paradigm, he treated the salesman as an "us" rather than a "then".

That's why I thought, too, of C. S. Lewis, and what he wrote about the commandment to "Love thy neighbor":

. . . we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself?


Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently "Love your neighbour" does not mean "feel fond of him" or "find him attractive". I ought to have seen that before, because, of course, you cannot feel fond of a person by trying. Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well I am afraid I sometimes do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty ones. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all of my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.

Things have gotten better, and continue to do so. But even though most blacks and whites do not consider themselves enemies, the two communities often do not consider each other as being part of the same "self". If a white clerk is rude to you, maybe it's racism; if a black clerk does it, she's just having a bad day. If a black kid sells drugs, he's a dangerous felon; if a middle class white kid does it, he's a good kid going through a phase.

I see the two communities looking suspiciously at each other and saying "Once you have perfected yourself, then I will love you as myself." But this will not work. The very act of watching the other, at a distance, for signs of change creates the problem we want to solve.

And I saw Obama's speech as trying to bridge that divide--to say, as someone who had one foot in each community, "This is why the way they do things you don't like--not because they're different, but because they're very much like you." To be sure, he did it in a hamfisted way. But the grandmother example was, I thought, less an attempt to throw Grandma under the bus then to say that "racism is not the same thing as being an evil person". I'd venture to say that most white people know at least one older person who is both an extremely good, moral and virtuous person, and a racist. When it is a grandmother, a beloved teacher, a longtime employer, or a friend's parent, we discount their unacceptable beliefs, because we have personal proof of their general goodness. Thus we come to understand that good people can have very bad ideas. I think it was perfectly fair of Obama to extend that same charity to Reverend Wright.

Part of the problem is that both communities were outraged, and neither seems to have very well understood that his speech had offended the other as deeply as it had offended them. Criticizing Wright, an elder in a community that deeply values respect and deference to your elders, was as big a deal as admitting that, yes, many of us have friends and relatives who say appalling things sometimes. The other problem is that Obama comes out of a very specific white community, the academic/professional elite. It's a community that prides itself on being less racist than the more benighted classes, and that couldn't help but come through. And the rest of the white community is profoundly sick of being lectured by us on morality, so being told that Obama thought they were all secret racists didn't go down very well.

The truth, which is hardly original to me, is that we are all racist, in that we still think of race as an important difference. Which of course, it is, if only by virtue of the fact that we all think so. But I don't think that Obama meant to be insulting, and I don't even think he is elitist in the way that his critics believed. The fact is that Obama does know more about race than most of us, because he actually knows what it's like to be inside, and outside, of both communities. That's worth listening to even if it doesn't always come out quite right.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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