There was a bit of buzz earlier this month about Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly saying they’re scared to have black friends because they could say something wrong and get yelled at for it. I would normally not waste any breath or energy on these men, whose rhetoric I find utterly messed up and angering. But, what caught my attention was the reaction in the liberal circles that Beck’s and O’Reilly’s statements got.
I first learned of Beck’s quote on Sam Seder’s Air America show. A caller called in about it and Seder just dismissed the whole thing very quickly with one phrase “Oh, Beck is just a racist.” And then he moved on to something else. Many other liberals on blogs and such just smirked at this incident, arrogantly placing themselves on a high horse with that “I’m so much better than him” attitude.
But I thought to myself, as much as I hate admitting this, the Beck/O’Reilly combo is on to something here, though I’m not sure how sincere their comments were – and who cares if they weren’t since these men are pretty much just shock jocks in suits anyway, right? My gut feeling is that in this case, they speak for a lot of white people who are terrified to say the wrong thing in front of a black person. What are they scared of? They’re scared of making another person mad, they’re scared of being called racist, they’re horrified of being associated with the crimes committed against people of color in this country, afraid of being perceived as ignorant, or to be seen as bad people.
As I sit here writing this, I wonder if I am one of those white people. I remember one very significant time I said the “wrong thing” to a black person. And it was so bad and offensive that I made the person furious. Did I mean to? Of course not. I said it out of ignorance. In fact, I thought I was being friendly and funny. And yes, I it was a terrifying situation. But the crazy thing was that we stuck through it and talked and hugged and cried together and I learned something. I will never forget that moment. It was one of those breakthrough events in my life.
In friendships or conversations with people of color, as a white person I am inevitably going to say offensive things. I, like most other white people, have been conditioned to think racist thoughts. I may not always get challenged on these things and that’s fine, because hopefully I can get better at challenging my own thinking. I may not get any affirmation that I'm doing fine or better, but that's fine. I can learn to notice that myself. The trick is to not let the fear that we, white people, will make a mistake stop us from getting close to people. As anti-racist activist Paul Kivel says in his book on how to be a white ally to people of color, "Don't take it personally, . . . don’t be scared of my anger, (and) make mistakes.” So, persevere, I say. Get close and stay close, if you haven't yet. You know you want to. I know I do.