The hidden racism in white America

Zach Wiita

“I just don’t agree with the way their music is being spread to us.”

It was the middle of my senior year in high school. I was at an after-school meeting of the Academic Decathlon team, talking to a fellow I’ll call Brandon, and, somehow, the topic of race and rap music had come up. “I just don’t like the way their culture is spreading through ours.”

I was completely taken aback. Who was this mysterious “they?” Who was “us?” Of course, the answer was obvious: He was referring to Americans of African ancestry. I asked him if he liked rock ‘n’ roll. Turns out that Brandon loved rock ‘n’ roll – even if he didn’t want to acknowledge the influence of African-American music and culture on the development of that form.

Brandon’s attitudes toward blacks continued to be an issue. While visiting the Great Lakes Science Center, Brandon and I found ourselves in a gift shop in a sea of middle school students from the area. Brandon left the gift shop rather quickly; when I caught up with him and asked him what was wrong, he explained, “I was just really uncomfortable being surrounded by all those black people.”

Horrified yet? That same year, in calculus class, I found myself in a discussion with one young lady who proclaimed, “Black people smell bad.” Or how about the time an older white lady, upon my answering what high school I went to, lowered her voice and asked, “That’s the school with all the black people, isn’t it?” Then there was the freshman last year who remarked to me that he felt fights were more likely to break out at Rosie’s Diner if the crowds were mostly black. Or the fellow…

For the life of me, I’ve never understood these kinds of attitudes. I’ll not claim to be a model of perfect racial consciousness. I have many more friends of European descent than I do of African descent; the social circles that I run in are predominantly white. I’ve never attended a Black United Students meeting or an NAACP meeting.

And I won’t claim that I don’t notice it when I’m the only white person in a room, because I do. But I always try to recognize my own ethnocentricities. And by the same token, I can say with all honesty that I was never raised to see African-Americans as being somehow fundamentally different, fundamentally “other,” than me or than other whites.

As I said to Brandon:

“Last time I checked, we’re all Americans.”

Maybe I’m naive, but I honestly believe that. When I was taught about American history as a child, I was taught about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence and the Mayflower and the Revolution and all that good stuff.

But I was also taught about Martin Luther King Jr., about the March On Washington and the history of racial oppression and slavery that has, sadly, stained America’s glory from the very beginning. To me, “I Have A Dream” was as likely to be cited as an example of great speech outlining American values as the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence, and King was right up there with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Fighting for American freedom was as likely to mean fighting racism as fighting the Redcoats or the Nazis.

So few things horrify me as much as the response that some white racists have made toward Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy. It’s frightening and sickening – everything from the dummy with the name “HUSSEIN” pinned on it hanging from a tree to the older fellow showing off a stuffed monkey with an Obama bumper sticker on it to the random white person claiming that blacks will riot if Obama wins.

So to all you closet racists out there, here’s a clue: Barack Obama is no less American than you are. African-Americans are no less American than you are. Your white skin color is meaningless, and, no, you’re not “pure.” You’re the product of the historical meldings of several different ethnic groups that were just as convinced of their own superiority over other ethnicities as you are and would just as quickly call you an inferior half-breed as you would those you target.

Being an American is not about having the right ancestry. If you’re obsessed with ancestry, move to Europe. The United States of America, however imperfectly it may have lived up to its founding principles, is built on the values of universal liberty, equality and justice. That’s why the Tony Salvadoris and Jimmy O’Donnells and Tinecia Joneses and Amjad al-Farquis and Ming-Na Wongs and any other person of any other heritage you can think of will always be just as legitimately American as the John James Smiths of the world: Americanism is ideological, not biological.

In other words, to the closet racists of our country: Barack Hussein Obama II is more legitimately American than you will ever be.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies

major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].