In the Blac(k)ademic discussion on Tawana Brawley (see my post on that if you didn't read it already), one interesting question came up. The rest of the discussion reminded me eerily of several others I've had on other matters. What is it that many anti-ID people, the
racists Kinists at Little Geneva, many radical leftists on race and gender, and some of the hyper-fundamentalists who comment at WorldMag have in common that leads to this same result?
Anyway, this post isn't about the unwillingness to treat your intellectual opposition respectfully and fairly. It's about an interesting question raised by one of the people on that thread. She wondered why it is that white men who marry black women get very upset when they're called racists and often mention that their wife is black in response to charges of racism. She says white women in interracial marriages never think to refer to their marriage as evidence that they're not racist. I have not idea if this generalization is true (though I do find it deeply ironic that I wasn't allowed to make any statements about any tendencies even about small groups of black people I've known -- see the exact statement below -- without being called racist, but she can make all sorts of generalizations about white men married to black women, not to mention all the references to white oppressors overall in that conversation). But suppose the generalization is true, and white men are more likely to say this sort of thing in response to the racism charge than white women would in similar circumstances. As I thought about it, I thought there might be an explanation for this fact if indeed she's correct (which I have no idea about) that it's a fact. At least I might have some explanation in my own case. What follows is a development of a part of a comment I left there.
I can say what motivates me to see my marriage as demonstrative of my not being a racist. I've always been concerned about race issues, and I've never thought there could possibly be anything wrong with interracial marriage. I think this is something true of most white men, particularly those in my generation. But having an attitude of acceptance toward interracial marriage as not immoral is a far cry from being willing to be in one yourself. Many people don't think there's anything wrong with eating dirt or participating in gay sex, but they wouldn't participate in it themselves. They don't think it's morally admirable. On the other end of the spectrum, many people think there's nothing wrong with sacrificing your life to save others. Indeed it's admirable. But it might be difficult to bring themselves to do it when the opportunity presents itself. Thinking there's nothing wrong with marrying interracially is consistent with not seeing anything good about it, and it's consistent with seeing it as good but not something one wants to do because of the difficulty. So thinking something is morally ok or even morally admirable is not the same thing as being willing to do it. The difference between not disapproving of interracial marriage and actually being willing to do it plays a big role in what follows, because I think there is something that makes it difficult for most white men, at least in the case of marrying a black woman. (I happen to think this is less true of marrying other groups, at least for many white men, and I think this is pretty much entirely due to evil forces in society, but those forces are there, and these forces affect people in ways that they're not largely responsible for.)
I've always had friends from different racial groups, but I didn't culturally connect with black people as easily. I don't really go for hip-hop, and I don't like sports, and those were the two biggest passions of most of my black acquaintances in college (but not all). So it rarely reached friendship. But that wasn't a result of any animosity toward them, and it wasn't even because I didn't want to connect with anyone who was black. I just didn't have anything in common with enough of the black people I knew that we never connected. I still had a great desire to pursue racial harmony. I just didn't have close friends who were black, and I personally have enough trouble moving from acquaintance to friend without a lot of time spent with someone, and that tends to happen less without a lot in common. So the psychological facts about my own limitations combined with what happened to be true about different interests and different circles of friends, and I didn't have a lot of black friends in college. But when I met Sam, and we did have several things in common that were very important to us, and we did have quite a few friends in common, we began to spend a lot of time together, first in groups and eventually by ourselves. We had a lot of friends in common, but we began to appreciate each other, as generally happens in romantic relationships.
But that doesn't mean there wasn't anything to struggle with. There was never a time when I didn't find my wife beautiful, but I've been inundated all my life with the standards of beauty that are promoted endlessly by the media in our day. I think most men have to overcome some of that to marry anyone who doesn't exacty fit those standards, completely apart from race. Race adds a few more wrinkles. Standards of beauty in our media-driven society do not treat my wife's skin color as ideal. It's not that whiteness is the standard. It's not, at least not anymore. The standard is now the spectrum between tanned or dark-skinned white women (or perhaps certain shades of Latino skin) and very light-skinned black or mixed race women (e.g. Halle Berry). I had to overcome some of that as it became clear to me that I wanted to marry a black woman. One particular sort of expectation that I had to overcome was an expectation (one that I was expected to assume by society that involuntarily takes hold unconsciously) that my wife would look more like me in terms of skin color and that my kids would also look like more like me than at the time I thought would be likely. I think most people have that desire, and in our case ironically it seems so far to have been more fulfilled in my case than Sam's, at least with respect to skin color. But that was a deep struggle I had to go through to seek to overcome conditioning that I didn't like in myself.
This is a fairly significant struggle, and I think a greater one in general for men than women given that men are more affected by advertizing about standards of women's beauty than women are about standards of male attractiveness. Given that, it seems to me that my being married to a black woman is very strong evidence that I'm not a racist. Given that virtually all white men who would consider marrying a black woman have this sort of thing to overcome, I'd be very surprised to find any white man married to a black woman who is a racist unless his motivations for getting married were nothing like the usual ones. The reason, I think, that it's so common from men is because men have more to overcome to get to that point. Only someone who has no idea what a white man has to move through to bring himself to marry a black woman could possibly suggest that being married to a black woman is not a sign of not being a racist. But then I don't expect anyone to be able to know this except a white man who is married to a black woman, in exactly the same way that I don't expect anyone could know what it's like to give birth except women who have given birth. Some kinds of knowlege can come only through having experienced something.
The commenter who asked me this question most certainly is in no position to know what it's like to overcome some of the residual effects of racism on white men in our society today. So I can't really hold her responsible for her ignorance. Her ignorance is something she can't overcome, and that's true by the very nature of things. But I do think I can hold her responsible for her unwillingness to consider that she's in a condition of ignorance about such things. At a feminist site, I'd expect people to be familiar with the recent feminist arguments that women are in a special position to know certain truths that men can never know. These philosophers will thus call women epistemically privileged, which means men are epistemically challenged with respect to those truths. The same point works in reverse.