Feb 15, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the unbearable whiteness of journalism

Here's the great man riffing off the latest racism directed at Jeremy Lin (people claiming he only gets attention because he's of Asian descent):
I would bet that part of the attention that Neil Degresse Tyson gets has to do with people geeking out on a black astrophysicist who can make science interesting. If were not black he probably would be somewhat less interesting. But if he weren't a good communicator, he would not be interesting at all.
I consider myself a writer of some merit and talent, who says some interesting things from time to time. That's all very nice. But I understand that if I were in my exact same job, and happened to be just another white dude from an Ivy, I'd attract less interest. Race, as lived by individuals, is biography and people are always interested in biography when it differs from the norm in any field. I have no idea why it should be any different with Lin.
Coates is right on this score, and his forthrightness is as always impressive. I always think about this sort of thing in the context of journalism, which is (as Coates has said before) surely one of the white-malest professions out there. At the Monthly, all of the editorial staff are white men (save the new intern, who is a Chinese woman, and an amazingly good fact-checker, I might add). Of the Atlantic bloggers, seven out of nine are white men. Now, I should note that I don't think there is much in the way of conscious racism on the part of most publications in journalism, certainly not on the part of the Monthly. But something has developed which has fenced out most minorities and women in some way.

That is bad for a lot of reasons, most of them well-trodden. But one which comes up unbidden in my own mind is selfish irritation about being lost in the crowd. No wonder I can't get a job—I'm just another mid-twenties balding white guy in a profession (and city) that has them like a plague of locusts. But I really do have an interesting background, pleads the whining child in my head. I didn't go to an Ivy school! I grew up working-class, in an absurdly small town in an interesting and beautiful state! My parents met in Grand Canyon! My dad builds awesome tables out of stone! I lived in South Africa for two years!

It's hard to imagine anything more preposterous than a decently accommodated white man whinging about his lot. And yet, I have these thoughts. No point pretending I don't, except to make like I'm better than I really am. What interests me is that this is just one more example of the harm that oppression inevitably inflicts upon its perpetrators as well as its victims, how it erases our personhood into the various categories. In that video above, it's telling that Folds' parody band is composed of a bunch of copies of himself.

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