Let’s be honest, white people don’t write or talk publicly about race unless it’s to condemn people for being racist. It’s easier that way. If we all create a universe where everyone and everything is either racist or not racist, then it’s about identifying your camp, you’re on one side or the other, either entirely racist or entirely not racist. There’s no room for nuance or awkward uncertainty.
The company line from most white people is this: Racism is bad and we’re not racist. In fact, most white people today fear being called racist more than just about anything in the world. How much so? Put it this way, if your average white person had to choose between getting arrested for a DUI or being publicly branded a racist, just about every single one of us would pick getting a DUI. That’s right, we’d rather put countless lives in danger, go to jail and face criminal charges than be called a racist in America today.
That’s how potent the charge of racism has become.
And you know who talks about race less than white people? White people involved in business. Aside from a generalized and glib stance in favor of affirmative action and diversity — buzz words that frequently translate to insubstantial action — most white executives would rather be waterboarded than asked for their personal views on race relations. I mean, sure, every CEO in America hates racism; we all know this, right? They abhor it deeply from the depths of their nearly all-white gated communities and the nearly all-white private schools they send their kids to and from the nearly all-white country clubs they play golf in. Why do you even have to ask? These people hate racists.
Which brings us to Mark Cuban.
God love Mark Cuban for being an NBA owner who didn’t see the ongoing Donald Sterling mushroom cloud and think, “You know what, maybe I’ll avoid talking about race today in a business interview. Maybe it’s not the right time to talk about who I cross the street to avoid. Maybe it’s not the right time to admit that I sometimes judge people based on what they look like.”
Nope, Mark Cuban saw all this controversy and thought, “Now’s the perfect time for me to talk about race in America today.”
Watch his comments here:
The result was an additional mushroom cloud.
Was Mark Cuban racist? Were his opinions fair? Was his evocation of the Trayvon Martin case’s hoodie too soon? How about those white guys with tattoos? ESPN turned Cuban’s comments into a lead story on its broadcasts. In all the rush to analyze his comments, no one even thought to ask, “When was the last time Mark Cuban walked anywhere in neighborhoods that weren’t filled with rich people?” (OK, we need to have at least one joke in here.)
But instead of his ambulatory habits, what I’d like to focus on is this Cuban line: “We’re all prejudiced in one way or another.”
It’s 100 percent true. Every single person of every race and ethnicity judges people all day long based on how they look, how they walk, their mannerisms, what they say or do on social media. We all do it. If you doubt me, go read the comments on Instagram or Twitter. Break down what’s being said to its root essence, and the vast majority of the time it’s a values judgment of one sort or another — we’re all tribal, seeking to classify people as either with us or against us.
It’s impossible to avoid judging people; we’re biologically wired to do so. But we’re also smart enough to be conscious of our thoughts and examine whether they’re legitimate.
That’s why the most interesting thing Cuban said came after he talked about prejudices, where he acknowledged that he attempts to rectify those initial opinions and allow them to become more nuanced, to judge people as individuals as opposed to the symbolic representations we attach to their physical appearance.
Cuban didn’t explicity say it, but he hinted around the periphery — that our conversations about prejudice frequently focus entirely on white and black relations in this country. That may make sense from a historical perspective, but it doesn’t make sense in our present reality. There are more Hispanics than blacks in this country, the Asian population is booming, immigration is surging thanks to the fact that we’re peeling off many of the most talented people of all races from across the world, stocking our country with intellectual first-round draft picks; our multirace population is surging, yet we’re still talking about American race relations like it’s 1965 in Selma.
News flash, it ain’t 1965 in Selma anymore.
The media and many people in this country want it to be 1965 because it was a simpler time. There’s nostalgia for a time when the line between hero and villain was easy to see.
Avowed racists carried fire hoses to nonviolent marches, blocked schoolhouse doors from integration, blew up churches and didn’t allow American citizens to vote. But most of us these days didn’t grow up in an era of readily apparent racism. I heard about it, studied it in history class, but it’s not my reality.
Our reality is more complicated, yet our handling of this modern-day reality lacks any recognition of this complexity. Sure, there are still a few old, grizzled, avowed racists, but their world is dying. In 10 years, the Donald Sterlings of the world will mostly be gone. For the rest of us — those who will be around for the next 50 years — it’s more complicated than it used to be, but we’re analyzing the present with the tools of the past.
And keeping quiet doesn’t make things better. It pushes everything underground. You want to know why so many white people stay quiet when issues of race arise today? You want to know why there are hardly any Mark Cubans, asking interesting questions in an age when nuance isn’t favored? It’s because the media’s still playing gotcha with racism, fighting the battles of 1965 without acknowledging the present-day realities of 2014.
It’s easier for everyone to create a false binary, keep quiet and pretend that you’re either racist or you’re not, even when pretty much anyone with a brain knows that reality doesn’t fit our present-day life. In a time when we need more complexity, more nuance and more thought, we consistently get less of all three.
Woe unto you, if you attempt to point out this fact.