Harry Reid’s Mistake

By now, anyone who follows politics has heard of the controversy surrounding Harry Reid’s remarks. According to a recently published book-length gossip column (or, to be kind, a tabloid), he is reported to have said that then-candidate Barack Obama speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

The GOP assault on Reid, with Michael Steele leading the indignant charge of the light brigade, is not surprising. What’s more surprising is the difficulty with which conversations about race continue to take place in this country. Specifically, I’m troubled by the relative ease with which attributions of malevolence, especially racism, are made.

Here’s my thinking. Imagine you have a favorite program on your computer, which you’ve relied on for years. You’ve heard over and over again about updates to your software, and even newer and better hardware to take advantage of it.

For whatever reasons, you’ve resisted, preferring to rely on the comfort of your current setup.

Then one day you’re forced to upgrade either your software or your computer. Someone sends you a very important attachment that your program can’t open. Your computer begins to take way too long to do the same thing it’s always done. You get a virus. Or you just like the new models. Whatever.

And then it happens. You were used to doing a task one way, and on your new setup it’s different. Your program crashes, or just refuses to do what you want it to do.

People may or may not notice. If they do, they may or may not look away. If they stay to watch, they may or may not point a collective finger at you and say, “look, everybody, this lady / guy still thinks s/he’s on version 1.1!”

They, of course, are up to date. And as we all know, this immediately makes them smarter, more sophisticated, as well as better people over all than the person who didn’t upgrade. Simply because they have an easier time with the relevant technology than others.

Harry Reid used an old version of the English language to convey a number of important points. The first of these is that there is a difference in the way people speak. Anyone who’s gone across their town, this country, or the world can attest to this.

In his comment, Harry accounted for that difference in terms of race. Pressed further, I’m sure he would have admitted that geography, class, ethnicity (not the same as race), level of formal education, gender, gender identity, sexuality, and yes, even age (gasp!) all play a role as well in shaping the way we talk.

But he used an outdated word to make another uncomfortable point. That is the fact that we judge people by the way they talk.

In my part of the country, it’s still quite fashionable to make fun of the way people talk in another part. The unspoken argument is that our fellow Americans who talk that way are by nature unsophisticated, uneducated, ignorant, or just plain dumb. And that we doing the judging-by-joking are so much better, simply because of where we live.

This is the phenomenon Sarah Palin has tapped into so well: the understandable outrage that many have over being judged by their wealthier cousins.

And before you say, “not me!” think of how common it is to judge a person’s intelligence from the way they write, spell, or form letters on a printed page.

A Very Rascally Aside

Very few of us are accustomed to saying, “while s/he really struggles to read, speak, write, or get things done in the most efficient manner, don’t underestimate their motivation, smarts, or savvy.”

Fewer still say, “well, in a culture like ours that values a certain kind of cognitive-behavioral efficiency (and passionlessness) at the expense of everything else, people like this are at high risk of bleeding self-esteem from a very young age.”

Translation: when you can’t finish the first grade as fast as everybody else, or you sense or feel things much more intensely than others, you’re often made to feel bad, like you failed. And sad thing is you might actually be pretty smart, if only people could see beneath the kinds of behaviors schools and workplaces typically (from my standpoint) overvalue.

Yes, we judge people. And for many, a very convenient cognitive shorthand for this process is race. For others, it’s gender. For others, it’s nationality. And so on.

I think Harry Reid was also trying to say is that for a substantial portion of the electorate, the notion of a black male occupying the White House is terrifying, and that Barack Obama’s way of talking works quite well to reassure people he’s not as threatening as they have been programmed to think.

For me, the controversy over Harry Reid’s remark highlights more than ever the need to cut each other some much-needed slack when having racial conversations.

Instead of taking immediate and permanent offense to what someone said, ask them what they meant first. And if you don’t like what you heard, say so without accusing the person of being a racist (because even if they are, this is very unlikely to cure the problem).

Instead, separate them from their words and direct your attention exclusively to the latter. If you like, show how easily and in what ways their choice of words can be “misunderstood” by someone with your experiences. Educate, if possible.

Most importantly, invoke the hermeneutic principle of charity. That is to say, when confronted with an alien text (book, speech, religious object, work of art) make these your first presumptions: 1) that it’s speaking sincerely, 2) that it’s meaningful, and 3) that no matter how much it’s failing in either of the above, it’s trying.

If you want to be fancy, keep in mind that the text you are attempting to decipher may not be meant for your ears but someone else’s.

If you want to be super fancy, keep in mind that sometimes texts play with their authors as much as their audiences, at times even without their knowledge or permission.

Yes, I know: it’s not your responsibility to educate your fellow American, especially when s/he upsets you so much. Sure.

That line of thinking works great when it’s not your house and these aren’t your chores. If we want to make this country ours, I suggest we all do our part to turn down the thermostat, rewind the videotape, and do the hard work of understanding.

We can always judge later, if the need arises. When it doesn’t, you’re home.

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