I was reading a recent news story about a sweater Gucci recently stopped selling. The item was a turtleneck sweater that had a mouth-shaped hole in it, complete with red lips, such that when the wearer pulled the neck up over her mouth and nose, it looked like a funny face. Since this sweater was black, however, some shoppers thought the sweater evoked "blackface," and complained. Gucci pulled the sweater off its website and issued an apology.
I don't believe Gucci ever intended this sweater to be a "blackface" sweater. Still, out of deference to their customers and to avoid unnecessary controversy, they stopped selling the sweater, and I think this was the right decision. Better to avoid the appearance of offense than to stubbornly cling to one's innocence.
Beneath the news story, MSN was running a poll: Do you think it's OK for non-blacks to wear blackface costumes on Halloween? At the time of my participating in the survey, a plurality of respondents had answered "yes," meaning that they did think dressing up in blackface on Halloween was perfectly fine.
I'm stunned. Never in my whole life have I ever once considered the possibility that blackface might be "OK." The thought has never occurred to me, not even for a second. Blackface is obviously "not OK." Blackface is always and everywhere morally reprehensible. It's not that I don't think people can have good intentions, it's just that we live in a world in which blackface has a long and sordid history of being used to demean blacks. Unless you want to demean blacks, you should avoid blackface. Simple. And if you do want to demean blacks, you're a racist. Again, simple. This is cut-and-dry.
Recently, two Virginia politicians have had their past experiences with blackface revealed. This is unfortunate. They should step down. As civil servants in a position of influence and supposedly representing the interests of their constituents -- many of whom are black -- they ought to simply recognize that their past racism makes them poor stewards of the public interest. Even if they have changed their ways, they ought to do like Gucci did: Apologize, and step aside. This is the only reasonable way to proceed. Better to be decent than to finish out your term.
In the politicians' case, no one can argue that their blackface wasn't intended to be blackface. While Gucci probably did have a strong case for their innocence, they didn't make a point of minimizing the matter or defending themselves or claiming that it was a different time. They just owned up to the offense and apologized, exactly as people should do if they ever find themselves in a position where they have offended someone. Politicians, though, like to see how far they can push the envelope before yielding to pressure, and this ultimately shows them to have very poor character.
And then, there's the Liam Neeson controversy, in which Neeson admitted during an interview that he went a little nuts after he found out a friend or family member was raped by a black man, and spent a couple of weeks wandering the streets at night, looking for any random black man to appear so that he could beat him to death. Of course, Neeson didn't actually hurt anybody, thank heavens, and it's very likely that he really did go nuts. Learning that someone you love has been raped is a terrible traumatic experience; not one, I hasten to add, that is as bad as the rape itself, but certainly traumatic.
What makes Neeson's case a little different is that Neeson admitted this in order to make an example of himself. His point appears to have been that his actions were morally reprehensible and that he was coming to terms with his own culpable racist reaction to a very real trauma. Leeson, in my view, is to be lauded for having the courage to turn the magnifying glass on himself this way and admit that he had terrible and blameworthy thoughts. Part of reforming yourself means coming to terms with your past wrong thinking, taking responsibility for it, and trying to set it right. Neeson would be more of "a Gucci" in this context.
Contrast to this: Recently, Scott Sumner made the claim that, since Donald Trump polls surprisingly well among Latinos, this is evidence that Latinos simply prefer "strongman" politicians. When others, including myself, called him out on this, he doubled down. Maybe there is more nuance to Sumner's position than all of that. I certainly hope there is. But if there isn't, what could it mean?
It's sad, but it's true. Our biases are everywhere and infect our thinking when we expect it to or not. It's useful to bring them out into the open and to acknowledge them, then ask ourselves if we've been fair, or if we've let our biases incorrectly influence our thinking. David Henderson recently put it this way:
So the key is not whether we are prejudiced. We are. The relevant questions to ask yourself, given that fact, are threefold: (1) Do I recognize that I am prejudiced? (2) Do I seek new information when I can do so at low cost and when an immediate judgment is not necessary? (3) Do I adjust my judgments once I have found new information if such information would lead to different judgments?My answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes.
It's not perfect -- perfect would be no bias and no racism whatsoever -- but it's a pretty good start.
I don't know what's going on out there in the world lately, but it is startling and disappointing. The best we can do, I think, is practice David Henderson's strategy and hope that we don't make too many racist blunders along the way. And if we happen to offend or let our biases get in the way of better thinking? Apologize thoroughly and immediately! It's the decent thing to do.
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