The Limits Of Our Dialogue On Race And Beyond

"The New Girl" is the single best episode that I've seen of Mad Men. It follows Don Draper's descent into self-destruction, as he extends his affair with Bobbi Barrett, and ends up in a drunken car wreck. There are so many great lines in that one. Bobbi is querying a poker-faced Don, and trying to get him to reveal something. She asks him what he wants, and Don responds, The answer is huge. Not big, not enormous, not great--but huge. This is, to me, an incredibly precise use of the human language. That line says so much to me. One day I'll explain.

But for our purposes, the relevant scene takes place much later--after Peggy Olsen has rescued Don and Bobbi from the police station, and is in the midst of a cover-up. Don is an unrepentant sexist. He once almost refused to talk to a client, because she was a woman and spoke out of her place. But he has a special, almost father-daughter, connection with Peggy--one that stands in contrast with his tense relationship with Pete Campbell. You'd think Don would favor Pete, as a fellow member of the good-old-boys network. But then you'd be writing theory. You wouldn't be writing about people. You wouldn't be writing stories.

Throughout the episode Bobbi wonders why Peggy is covering for Don. She isn't in love with him. She's not his secretary. What is she getting out of it? We (but not Bobbi) are given the answer in flashback--Peggy ended last season in labor, having a baby, after not even knowing she was pregnant. She'd just been promoted and become the first woman copywriter at the agency since the War. In the flashback we see she's been committed, and it seems no one can reach her. Don, having done some detective work, tracks her to the hospital. He then pulls from his own tangled history, and heals her. He is not kind. He is not loving. He is not "good." He is as sarcastic and cold as ever. But he tells her the truth that she needs to hear:

Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.

This is not good advice for being a better person. But Peggy doesn't want to be a better person. She wants to be equal. Equality, for her, is the right to be as craven, as ambitious, and power-hungry as any man. In that business, forgetting is essential. Don is a sexist. But his sexism is not the end of his humanity. His humanity relates to Peggy, as someone on the come-up. His humanity allows him to dismiss women as a class, and yet respect Peggy's ambition, even become the primary agent of it. Consider that here you have a sexist, unwittingly striking a blow against sexism.

This is not unfamiliar to me. If you had to quantify how many men are actually sexist, no number would really shock me. I'd argue with 100 percent. But I'm a man who when passed by an attractive woman on the street has to consciously think, "Dude, don't leer at that chick's ass." It doesn't always work. I'd argue with 100 percent, but not with any real certainty.

If you had to quantify the number of heterosexuals who were homophobic, I'd argue against 100 percent, also. But I'm a man who had to learn my way out of the word "fag"--it took years, not months, to get right. I'd argue, but not with any real certainty.

If you told me that 100 percent of the Boule, the Links and Jack and Jill look down on lower-class black folks, indeed, believe that they deserve to be where they are, I'd argue. But I'm a man who still laughs at "Niggers vs. Black people. And Jack And Jill can spot my ghetto-ass a mile away. I'd argue, but not because I took offense.

When you're not on the business end of an -ism, it's always easy to underestimate the malice of its employers. When you're a part of that class of employers, it becomes even easier.

You know what this is. I've written repeatedly about how racism can be a problem in a society with seemingly no racists, how racism--out of all the isms--became the province of cannibals, ogres, people existing one rung above the rapist, and child molester. Some of this is our fault--dramatizing the depravity of Southern racists was a brilliant political strategy. But the unexpected upshot is that whites who know they'd never sic a dog on a kid for the crime of crossing a street, can sit at home and say "Well if that's racism, I know I'm not that." It'd be as if our thoughts of sexism revolved strictly around honor-killings and rape. Perhaps they do.

I took a lot of my white readers by surprise with the 35-40 percent figure. I think, in large measure, that's because we don't think about racism in the same way. I think a lot of my white readers think of white racism as a moral failing, not the accumulation of history and set of societal assumptions bearing down on us all. There is a perverse truth in the racist who protests "I have black friends!" We all laugh, but in point of fact, it may well be true. The racists, like the sexists, like the elitist, like the homophobe is very capable of seeing individuals, of seeing beyond their race, of even befriending them, and at the same time not challenging the history, the presumptions that the world has put on them.

It's worth talking, not to me, but to black people who were really raised as minorities, blacks who grew up in white neighborhoods, and went to white schools. It's not the "Nigger, I hate you" stories that you hear--though there's some of that. Instead you get their white friends telling them, "they're not really black." Or you get their white friends consistently trying to set them up with the only other black guy\girl in the school. (I'm sure some gay cats who've worked in offices, have similar stories.) But these people were their friends, they weren't awful people. And they weren't moral degenerates. A lot of em were the sort of friends you'd want in the trenches with you.

Black people who go out into the wider world don't have the luxury of thinking about racists strictly as societal outcasts, any more than women have the luxury of thinking about sexists strictly as rapists. The society is changing, no question. The world is a less racist place. But this is coming from a start of being an intensely, intrinsically racist place.

I don't know if it was right to cut off comments last week. A few of you didn't appreciate it. But I always shudder when I see people looking for me to talk them out of their racism. I'm always deeply suspicious because what attracts them is this kind of thread, not this kind. They're not so much interested in how we got here, and what it means, as they are in how quickly they can get out. They're tons of writers who are attacking the question from that angle. In the business of race, gender, class--really anything--let me never become one of them.