More Thoughts On Being PC

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When I was kid in Baltimore, it was common for me to refer to the corner store as the "chink store." It was common for me to use the word "faggy" to dis one of my friends. I don't really have much of a defense of any of that. In my neighborhood, it was just how my peers talked, and I accepted it without any questions. I had my share of preconceptions about people who were not black. I was kid with a voracious appetite for reading--but mostly I read about myself, and lacked any real sense of the world as being populated by people who were different than me, and still fully human. It was ugly, if necessary mix, of youth and inexperience.

I did not get my bachelor's degree from Howard University, I got it working at Vertigo Books in Dupont Circle, at Washington City Paper in Adam's Morgan. That was where I discovered, rather where I was forced to confront, the fact that the world not only wasn't like me, but that it did not revolve around me. I never went to grad school, but I got a Master's when I moved to New York, where the sort of people I derided as a child had to be engaged.

I didn't develop my multicultural sensibilities as theory, but as a practical way of coping with the world. I had to adjust my language and thinking, not out of politeness, not as a favor to people, but because I believed that language was thinking, that it said something about my own limits and boundaries. I couldn't bear the thought of being ignorant, and then swimming in my ignorance to boot. Even as I write this, I am shamed. I remember riding the train with a Jewish cat, who is now one of my best friends, and him disabusing of the notion that "black people need to be like the Jews." He looked and me and laughed. "Do you know what our family dinners look like?"

This is a post about Sonia Sotomayor, and an extension of my defense of political correctness. Last week, I got away from my main point, which was that liberal political correctness is not so much an inability to see real facts, but a collective phase in the long process of learning how to talk to, and talk about, people who you don't know. I am still stumbling through that phase (hence, "Well I'm not gay, but...") It's easy for people who aren't interested in that process, to deride it. The get to stand on the sidelines and laugh, while ignoring the weight of history, and how it presses on us all.

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But watching conservatives mock liberals for being PC, is like watching the morbidly obese mock Weight Watchers for its system of points. I thought about all of this last night, after Lindsey Graham made his remarks about Sonia Sotomayor:

"My criticism about her comment and the speech that she gave wasn't that I think this lady is a racist," Graham said, later continuing: "There is no evidence of that, but this statement is troubling and I did tell her this, 'If I said it, it would be over for me. No matter how well-intentioned I was and no matter how much I tried to put it in context, that would be it.' And you all know that."

He added, "being an average, every-day white guy ... that does not exactly make me feel good hearing a sitting judge say that."

This is the sort of logic that leads people to complain that there is no white history month. It's my great nightmare that I, or my son, ever sound like that--smug, self-satisfied, unreflective,  whiny and narcissistic. It's the sort of comment that betrays a man bereft of any deep interest in this country's history. But if you've never had to grapple with who you are in relation to other people, if you've never had to worry much about courting people who aren't like you, if you've never struggled with being politically correct, it's exactly the sort of thing you'd say.

It is, in a word, ignorance. I keep thinking about that Chris Rock joke about black people vs. niggers, but with a twist--Conservative love to not know: "Man, I don't be speaking no Spanish!!" or "Man I don't be knowing how to pronounce no Sotomayor! Call that Latin chick Sodameyer!!" or "Man I don't know nothing about that food she eats!! Tell her to get a cheeseburger--without mustard!"

I'm a liberal, not so much because I doubt the free market, not so much because I believe in universal health care, not so much because of the enviornment, but  because of politicial correctness. As awkward as it may be, it at least demonstrates an attempt to see the world through another lense. This is a daunting task, and failing at it is so much more honorable than not even trying. Maybe you never quite get there, but it holds out a hope for your children, that unreflective, false symetry does not. Conservatives got away with this game for years. The luxury of being the majority in a democracy is the right to act like other people don't exist. But the world is changing around them and Birnam Wood is on the march.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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