The soft bigotry of white expectations

Illustration by Shannon Wright

August Wade
Staff Columnist

The elasticity of human perception is a glory that is underappreciated. Some five billion years from now, our Sun will eventually evolve into a red giant star, begin expanding into Earth’s orbit and extinguish all life on the planet, provided there’s life there and the Earth hasn’t spiraled outwards.

While that’s a gross oversimplification of the matter, and while it’ll happen a fantastic number of years from now, the evolution of a star into a red giant is a scientific reality and it can (and will) happen to our own.

Can you imagine that?

I can; even in the fantastical arena that is my imagination, it’s hard to conceive of, but I still can imagine it. That’s the beauty of humanity, we can imagine things, create fantastical scenarios and work with imaginative concepts with little effort. In our minds, nothing is impossible or out of reach.

Issues like racism, sexism and police brutality work the same.

It’s inaccurate to tell privileged people that “they can’t imagine” what something’s like because, with the elasticity of human imagination, they might be able to imagine what institutional suffering is like. But they don’t experience it in reality. The construct held in their imagination is so far removed from the actuality that the exercise is moot.

Consider how a vivid description of what Earth looks like from the Moon from one of the few people who’ve been into space is much more attractive and accurate than the layperson’s imagination of the same. While the exercise of imagining what another’s life is like is often intended to evoke empathy for the underprivileged person, a better method of evoking that empathy that behooves us all is to actually listen to what that experiencer’s reality is and believe what they say.

For black Americans, the fury of recent news stories regarding police brutality against black people isn’t new; in reality, it’s centuries old, dating back to runaway slave patrols (one of the first American police organizations).

From there, the institutional practice of criminalizing and brutalizing black people grew into the white supremacist organization known as the KKK, whose members entered into elected public office, law enforcement and other positions of power.

Though waning, the ethos of white supremacy is still active in America today and bares itself socially and politically in the soft bigotry of white expectations (to borrow a phrase from former President George W. Bush’s speechwriter, Michael Gerson).

A vocal portion of white Americans (whether they are a majority or a minority percentage can be freely debated, but is generally inconsequential to the point) operate under the soft bigotry of white expectations, believing that black people are at fault for this lot in life in three ways:

The first is interpreted as a lacking of personal responsibility (faulting us for being killed and brutalized by police officers). The second, a failing of community responsibility (faulting the inextricably linked, national black community for not routinely meeting to reign in the extremists in our ranks, disavow rap music and perform an annual seance for the return of Martin Luther King, Jr). The third is seen as a failure to unilaterally police ourselves in predominantly black areas, a failure that is both a fallacy and a framework that presupposes black criminality and ignores a century of socioeconomic damage perpetrated by discriminatory public policies instituted by governments by calling itself “black on black crime.”

It is simultaneously an exercise of imagination, a failure of the public education system and a subtle nod toward antipathy for white Americans to engage in the previously listed sophistry. The politics of respectability that outlines their expectations ignores socioeconomic unfairness and that one’s humanity need not be based on their appearance or behavior.

Disavowing respectability politics, allowing people to exist without undue encumbrances, treating human life as sacred and declaring people worthy of life, whether they’ve committed a crime or not, are the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests, spurred by the movement, occur in reaction to police brutality and the failure of various government and academic institutions to deliver justice to the victims of racism, discrimination and police brutality.

The soft bigotry of white expectation discounts the reality that black people know, face and daily articulate both to each other and the wider national community through a variety of channels (though the message is often taken to be solely comedic), in favor of the “official” evidence like, for example, the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson. As rightfully we chided Starbucks (itself a force of racial tension in communities for successfully aiding in and being the signal of gentrification) for their ill-conceived, inane “#racetogether” campaign, the company is trying to do what the majority of white Americans have perpetually procrastinated. At the same time, however, it is an example of how black issues and concerns are only taken seriously when articulated through a “white” medium.

The black experience is not seen as real and our suffering is not genuine for government institutions, authority and the general American populace until it is articulated through a medium that isn’t black.

The detractor community should disabuse themselves from the conception that those protesting and causing traffic disturbances are the problem or are doing so because they’re vain. The truth of these protests is that the participants do want attention, not for themselves, but for the victims whose names are chanted into the night sky and attention to the injustice and the failure of a system that seeks to defend constituents in name only.

Despite what anonymous detractors on YikYak or the comments section of an article say, the protests are only an annoyance for students and the wider community because their presence is repeatedly required and needed to reaffirm that our lives have worth and that our plight is real.

Their presence is a reaffirmation of our naturally endowed and inalienable rights, the truths held self-evident in the founding of this government. Their presence reminds us that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish any form of government that becomes destructive to those ends. Their presence is the nonviolent activism of a stigmatized community, empathic to the suffering of their compatriots and righteously indignant.

Do more than hear them. Listen.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply