The R-Word

Michael Tunison, The Root, July 22, 2008

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As a white person with a number of lifelong friends who are black, I can say I don’t feel that awkwardness in my personal relationships with them, but I know that these relationships retain an oddly-charged, often convoluted quality among some whites.

Granted, it’s not rare for white people of my generation to have friends who are minorities. In fact, those who don’t associate with people outside their race have long been the exception in most areas of the country. But that doesn’t mean that mixed-race friendships are any less sensitive of an issue today. Now, instead of having mixed-race relationships that cause controversy, it’s the absence of such relationships that draws the raised eyebrows. White people now feel pressure to overtly demonstrate their lack of racism to each other and to minorities by making a big deal of their minority friends or by embracing cultural symbols and behaviors associated with other races.

Today, being called a racist is the most contemptible label for a white person. {snip} This is certainly preferable to a time when racism was tolerated or even encouraged. But one of the sad upshots is that it has also fostered a sense of paranoia that stems from the inability or unwillingness to distinguish between actual hate-fueled racism and ignorance.

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Association with minorities has become a mark of authenticity for many whites, an indicator to themselves and others that they are not racist. The familiarity with minority cultures becomes worthy of bragging rights. Among young people, knowledge of some obscure slang or cultural wrinkle is held up as evidence that the person is accepted by that authentic minority culture.

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The racism label gets even more muddled in conversations among whites. In some parts of the country, where there are higher concentrations of minorities, young people often mock areas that are more uniformly white as backward and sometimes inherently racist. While the dearth of minorities in some of these areas may be the result of past racism, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the current residents harbor any animosity toward people of other races.

It’s no secret that white kids have a history of emulating black culture to the point that mainstream standards of coolness are almost entirely defined by those appropriated cultural elements. Mainstream youth culture has co-opted so many aspects of black culture that white kids may feel a familiarity with blacks without really associating with any of them.

At the same time, as hip-hop is considered the music of a generation, many white kids feel pressure not to be associated with seemingly benign pop-culture elements that are considered to be white. Take, for example, hockey or country music. Many white people of my generation avoid these activities in part because they are marked by an absence of minorities.

While mixed-race friendships and relationships have become commonplace, there remains enough underlying, authentic tension mixed with the paranoia of appearing racist that the subject of race can be considered an irrelevant one.

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