white people who assume that their way of thinking and doing things is what’s normal and right, and everything else is a deviation and wrong.
i know that this is not a mindset that all white people have — the ones i hang out with are generally not like this — but it’s still pervasive in our society, as evidenced by the occurrences in last week’s confirmation hearings for supreme court nominee sonia sotomayor.
if you’ve read or heard anything about the hearings, you know that in terms of sotomayor herself, they were entirely uneventful. she didn’t say anything even remotely controversial, and we learned nothing new about her. we actually know very little about how she’ll judge, since, like all of the nominees before her, she took the safe route in all of her answers.
what was most striking about the hearings were the white male senators who grilled her, and the way they revealed that they are 1. complete a-holes and 2. completely out of touch with the realities of our multicultural society.
exhibit a: the overarching theme in their questions was whether her experience of a latina woman would influence the way that she presides. she, playing by the rules, said no — but for them to ask such a question indicates their inability to recognize that their experiences as white males influences they way that they do things. they assume that the way they do things, and the way that the white men before them have done things, is the right, normal, correct way; and she is the other who threatens their status quo.
i once met someone at fuller who told me that he didn’t think of himself as white; he thought of himself as clear. the statement was in no way malintended, but its naivete irked me. what i didn’t have the wherewithal to say in the moment was that a. he has the luxury of thinking of himself as clear, b/c he’s a member of the majority, and he is not reminded on a daily basis of his skin color the way that ethnic minorities are; and b. he could think of himself as clear, but the reality is that he is white, and that fact completely influences how he’s treated, his experiences, and his way of understanding the world.
this same ignorance was on full display at the hearings, in a setting with far more ramifications than my passing conversation. frank rich, in the new york times, articulated the absurdity of these senators much better than i could have. even though the hearings were boring, he wrote,
“the sotomayor show was still rich in historical significance. someday we may regard it as we do those final, frozen tableaus of pompeii. it offered a vivid snapshot of what washington looked like when clueless ancien-régime conservatives were feebly clinging to their last levers of power, blissfully oblivious to the new america that was crashing down on their heads and reducing their antics to a sideshow as ridiculous as it was obsolescent.
“the hearings were pure ‘alice in wonderland.’ reality was turned upside down. southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are america’s and that the country would find them riveting. instead the country yawned. the sotomayor questioners also assumed a hispanic woman, simply for being a hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. the senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.”
and then they went from merely ignorant to blatantly offensive. senator tom coburn of oklahoma had the gall to tell sotomayor that she would have “lots of ‘splainin’ to do,” as though this trademark line of ricky ricardo would somehow resonate with her or endear her to him because ricardo was also latino. but then again, coburn didn’t know what happened in the holocaust until 1997, so perhaps i shouldn’t be surprised.
all that to say that for all the progress in multicultural awareness that we’ve made in this country, we still have a hell of a long way to go; and often those who are most out of touch are the ones with the most power.