You’ve probably seen this video where Morgan Freeman has an oddly simply solution to racism: “stop talking about it”.
Confronted with the question of what he thinks of Black History Month, Freeman voices a strong opinion on the ongoing discussion on race relations in the United States. He neither wants a Black History Month, nor does he think it does any good, because it “relegates my history to a month”. The point being that a tactic that is intended to improve the position of minorities backfires by separating them even further.
Still relevant as ever, this short conversation raises the important question: when is it too much talking about racism?
Finding racism where it matters
It’d be ludicrous to pretend that racism would go away just by ignoring it. This is not the point. The silent treatment of “just stop talking about it” only works where emphasizing racial difference is itself the problem.
This problem appears to be growing. Before, racism was rather easy to identify, because when you saw football fans making monkey-noises at black players, or when you saw protesters from the extreme-right bring the Nazi salute, the situation was unambiguous. However, the hyper-attentiveness of people towards race relations has given rise to a wave of cultural critique that sees racism where it may not even exist. Racism isn’t just out in the open, it’s between the lines. No longer just in explicit words and actions, but is now more often in supposed intentions.
There is a new toolbox of scientific and pseudo-scientific buzzwords to be used: “latent”, “unconscious” and “implicit“ are the “Eurocentric biases” and “racist tendencies”. These claims have a devious brilliance, namely that they can never be proven false, even when they are. In other words, they fail the scientific standard of falsifiability. If the claim that a person is unconsciously racist actually is false, then there’s still no way of proving this.
Take the example of JRR Tolkien’s work. The Lord of the Rings and his other masterpieces have on occasion been criticized for only featuring white people. This fact is explained by stating that it was inspired by European Medieval history and written by a guy living in a country with very little cultural diversity. However, people can then claim that Tolkien’s books are actually wish-fulfillment for people who – unknown perhaps even to themselves – yearn for a world where everything revolves around white people.
Similar critique can be heard about movies, video games, music, language… This ‘racial psychoanalysis’ of popular culture and society is a problem for everyone, because the inevitable fruit of this way of debating is utter cynicism. People become cynical about racism when they are, as it happens now, continuously confronted with messages that contain the following two pieces of information:
- Race is incredibly important
- Race-relations are by definition problematic
Give people too much of this, and they’ll end up throwing up their hands and say: “Guess I’m a racist no matter what I do. Whatever.” Catch-phrases like “check your privilege” can do more harm than good, especially because it also contains the message that you can in fact tell something about a person based on his/her skin color. White people may feel personally attacked for achievements that actually took great effort, whereas colored people may feel patronized for being depicted as a victim in need of help.
And when the time comes to confront open and explicit racism, such as the shocking increase in racial abuse in Britain following Brexit, many people are already fed up. Morgan Freeman’s advice serves well to prevent this from happening. The less you talk about it when and where there is no need for it, the more it seems like, you know, it almost doesn’t matter what skin color a person has.
And now, finally, for some light-hearted national/racial humor…