Bill Clinton may be yet another 21st century casualty of American racism. Marc Ambinder writes in The Atlantic online that at least half the reason the former president has been absent from the Obama campaign trail is due to hurt feelings about being called racist.
I can identify. As a progressive American of European heritage who has devoted most of my adult life to promoting fairness and rooting out racism, I've been hurt when someone of color suggested my words or actions might have been racist. But no matter how many people of color we've hired, helped or befriended, neither Bill Clinton nor I get anywhere defending ourselves by citing our urban addresses or our records as promoters of diversity.
That's because we were both raised in an America that quietly taught us that our whiteness made us superior. This morally corrupt message of superiority may not have been as directly communicated as it was when first institutionalized by previous generations, but when we learned about American founders and heroes and read "great authors" in school, they were white. When we watched TV and movies, the good guys were white. When we were presented with images of beauty, they were almost always of white people. On the other hand, when we learned about Africa, we learned about its shortcomings and very little if anything about its greatness. While previous generations were not so subtle about their fallacious belief in white superiority, the subconscious job done on our generation was masterful.There's no denying that both President Clinton and I and just about every other American baby boomer "caught"- the message of white superiority, as Pastor Joseph Barndt puts it. And no matter how intellectually we reject racism; no matter how conscientiously we work to shake that identity, so far the complexities and subtleties of racism have proven to be quite resilient.
By no means should we stop trying though. The harder we try, the closer we have and will come to equity. We are blessed that the decades of hard work by civil rights organizations is now beginning to pay off in boardrooms, classrooms and on large and small screens. By the time my son gets to school, he will learn about the contributions of all ethnic groups. I am very encouraged that today he watches cartoons with diverse characters and voices that sound like the full range of his friends' voices.But as Professor Peggy McIntosh so artfully teaches, President Clinton and I were given a knapsack at birth called white privilege. And no matter how much we want to take it off, we can't. There are still privileges that come with being white in America. My ethnic background is an asset to me in most settings and I can still say that most people, including myself if I'm not careful, will assume I'm more qualified than someone of color of the same age, education and experience. So when a person of color does make it past those powerfully limiting assumptions and rises into a position of leadership, she or he is usually eminently qualified. If you could put a cup up to my head and listen, you'd know why I say that it would be foolish for me to let myself become arrogant about my work to eliminate racism. "Racist" is one of the last things I'd ever want to be called. But no matter how many things I've done to fight racism, billing myself as somehow having passed the anti-racist threshold is ineffective because the arrogance inherent in that claim is just a hop skip and a jump from the superiority I'm supposedly rejecting. Perhaps Ralph Nader may want to meditate on that thought.
But to go even deeper, it's also dishonest for me to claim racism immunity.That's because I still catch myself in unintentional thoughts and comments that belie my upbringing as a member of an allegedly superior race. I recently noticed myself thinking of my upbringing as "normal" when compared to someone of another background who I deemed "different". But in reality, we had two different upbringings, period. I have no special claim to normalcy.
So when someone of color questions a statement or action of mine, I try to take it as an opportunity to peel back another layer of unconscious racism that I hadn't yet discovered. It's easier said than done, but if my goal is to eliminate racism, I can't let my ego run the show.
Maybe there really was no intent on President Clinton's part to minimize Senator Barack Obama by calling his anti-war stance a fairy tale and comparing his South Carolina campaign to that of Reverend Jesse Jackson's. Some prominent African Americans gave the former president the benefit of the doubt. But others were so offended that they shifted their support to Senator Obama or requested that the former president "chill a bit"-.A record of working for fairness does not prevent one from saying or doing something racist, however unintentional it might be.
Diversity advocates like me are most effective when we come from a place of humility. So I hope Bill Clinton will find his soon and join his wife in campaigning for Barack Obama. The former president has a golden opportunity to prove that his commitment to diversity doesn't stop at cabinet level positions, but goes all the way to the top.