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COLUMN: The troubling way white Americans respond to accusations of racism


A few weeks ago,  Megyn Kelly was essentially fired for defending blackface.

She asked, “But what is racist (about blackface)?” and then said, “Back when I was a kid (blackface) was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.” She then went on with her show accusing people of being overly sensitive.

My dad is 53 years old. I asked him if when he was younger if any kids ever went out on Halloween in blackface. He sounded taken back by the question, almost angry I would ask a stupid question like that. He said, “No. What the hell is wrong with you. No one did. Who the hell do you know going out like that?”

Kelly is 47 years old. She should know better.

What was shocking is that I finally realized a disturbing way we, as white Americans, deal with discussions of race.

Most white Americans, when confronted with the reality that something might be racist or intolerant, our first instinct is to push back. Like Kelly, one of our default defenses is “appealing to tradition”. The idea that because at one point something was allowable, it's always been acceptable.

The problem here is that we no understanding of history. Through the faults of our education system or the community we grew up in we never learn the origins of these “traditions” or practices. 

Take blackface as the example.

Blackface was used in minstrel shows. These shows portrayed African-Americans as lazy, stupid, jolly and subservient to white people. They were used for entertaining white audiences by demeaning and creating disgusting stereotypes of African-Americans that served to reinforce the sub-human position African-Americans had in society at the time. 

We get the name Jim Crow, not from the segregated society of Southern states, but from an 1828 minstrel show called “Jump Jim Crow.” The show was created and performed by Thomas Rice, a white man, in blackface. 

These minstrel shows gave us the racist mammy, darky, dandy and mulatto caricatures of African Americans. These caricatures are not gone. They still exist in movies, TV shows and music. 

This is where blackface in America started and where its legacy is now.

To millions of Americans, it’s a reminder of an overtly racist past that was openly hostile to them.

This is what white Americans, like myself, struggle with. We don’t know the history of many of the most racist and bigoted aspects of our society, leaving us unable to trace those overtly racist problems into the present to confront them. Because we don’t understand the history, when we’re confronted, like Kelly was, about the racism of blackface, we step back and then push back. We might even argue that it’s just people being overly sensitive, like Kelly did.

We’ll blame political correctness or an overactive sensitivity. We don’t listen. We just try to come up with an excuse to shift the blame or absolve ourselves.

That’s the other problem. We'll listen, but only until we are confronted, then we try to dismiss the issue and nothing is accomplished. We don't try to learn why something is harmful, or bigoted.

What’s wrong with just shutting up and listening?

Are we, white Americans, really so sensitive to the truth of history that we won't at least try?

We don't always have to defend ourselves and get offended. We can try to understand another point of view.