John McWhorter: Liberals tend to focus on political correctness that affects people of color
President-elect Trump won the votes of many whites who felt they were being stereotyped, he writes
Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “Words on the Move.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
We wonder what the election of Donald Trump means for America. I suggest one thing it means is that educated Americans need to do a reset on what we mean by “politically correct.” We need a new PC.
The simple fact is that a core constituency of white people just aren’t going to “get it” the way the left wants them to. This is the case, for example, on race.
The left wants white America to see itself as profoundly culpable, as the bad guy in the drama. For many black people, for instance, the very definition of black identity is enduring racist dismissal from whites. To claim that any other particular trait is “black” is considered stereotyping, as we are to see black people as endlessly diverse.
The one thing that doesn’t count as a stereotype, which is thought to unite us all, is experiencing racism. Moreover, it is considered key to intellectual and moral engagement to be in eternal battle against the stain of racism in the American fabric.
That is understandable in itself. But naturally it can be hard to be white under this analysis. (Note: anyone who thinks this editorial is a defense of racism will likely feel differently if they read to the end.) One likely tires of being endlessly assailed as complicit in sin.
Indeed, many white people figure that they have gotten the message that they shouldn’t stereotype, that black people have a lousy history, that a lot of people aren’t free of racist bias. But white people feel like they aren’t bad people, and are sick of being told that they are, no matter what they do. The idea that they are bearers of a “white privilege” for which they must endlessly apologize, no matter what they do or think, likely rankles especially. They feel damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
“Good, that’s the way they should feel!” many will insist, white as well as black. But here is where November 8th comes in. There is so often a difference between what should be and what is, or ever will be.
Namely, some whites are so resistant to conceiving of themselves as defined by bigotry that they are sticking up a middle finger at the whole business and cherishing their “white identity.” Others are less confrontational than this, but folks, let’s face it – their vote for Trump shows that his bigotry and sexism was not a deal-breaker for them.
It’s surely relevant that many such people, as Arlie Hochschild has documented, feel as if the national conversation “privileges” people of color over them despite their not having the easiest time in their own lives.
Now, whether these people are “right” is a complex issue, but more important is a simple question: can anyone change their minds? On the left, a healthy strain now wonders how we might “reach” such people such that they wouldn’t vote for someone like Trump again. But just how, beyond our gauzy hopes, were we hoping that might happen?
It’s time to admit and grapple with the fact that all of America will never be, as it were, PC in the sense cherished in liberal college towns. All of America will never see the present through the lens of the past, and will never entirely shed a tendency to stereotype.
The left is seeking a vision of human empathy, historical awareness, and even concentration, that would be achievable only via submitting all citizens to a rigorous mental training akin to what we all recall from “The Karate Kid” – or even “1984.” The time comes when it’s time to admit that it ain’t gonna happen.
That time came the morning of November 9th, and it’s time for a new conception of what is politically correct, that we can reasonably expect all people, of all levels, to get on board with.
The idea is not to cease battling racism, but to do it in a way that we can reasonably expect a populace of human beings to understand. Herewith, a new PC – or, in current parlance, what it is to be “woke.”
It is “woke” to understand that Trayvon Martin and so many other black people would be alive if they had been white.
It is “woke” to revile Republicans’ attempt to disenfranchise as many black people as possible on the basis of a fallacious concern with virtually non-existent voter fraud.
It is “woke” to despise and prosecute whites who act out on their frustration with being called racists by becoming racists themselves and propagating hate crimes against minorities, as has been repugnantly common since Trump’s election.
Those who don’t “get” these simple truths must be treated as requiring education, and we should stick at it. However, there are things it’s time to stop calling “woke.”
In an America we can actually expect healing in, it will not be “woke” to assail a white man wearing dreadlocks, or a gay white man adopting some slang expressions and gestures of black women, as committing the sin of cultural appropriation.
It will not be “woke” to call for reparations for abuses of black people committed eons ago, hoping that whites will cherish black Americans as human history’s only people whose legacy permanently cripples them in the present.
It will not be “woke” for the media to treat the video of a white man nearly killed by black men as any less of a racially charged incident in the wake of Trump’s victory, as if black people carry some kind of immunity to censure because of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining.
It will not be “woke” to pillory people as racists for passingly infelicitous gestures, such as referring to black people as “colored people” (like Good Morning America’s Amy Robach did last summer), or photoshopping themselves riding on the back of a black athlete in praise of their accomplishment (Ellen DeGeneres and Usain Bolt), or showing blonde, white Khaleesi embraced by brown-skinned Dothrakis on Game of Thrones.
I know the objections – “Don’t you understand that America was founded on racial hierarchy and even today remains predicated upon structural racism!!?”– and I do understand.
But we cannot make more than a hyper-educated sliver of white Americans see those facts as justifying a contemptuous view of themselves, or as justifying submitting black people to different standards of morality and expectation. How do I know? Donald Trump is our next president. We need new tactics.