If we’re paying attention, white people are mostly quite frank about race. One time in high school, at a cookout, a white girl told me an earnest story about the way her grandmother still refers to black people as “colored.” Another time, a group of white kids sat about a foot from me and openly discussed the racial epithets they’d sometimes think (or say) whenever they’d been cut-off by black drivers in traffic. A few years ago, a white woman in a religious studies class raised her hand and reluctantly admitted to associating all Muslim people with terrorism. At my last job, the white manager warned employees to watch Asian women in the store to ensure they didn’t shoplift. “I’m sorry if this sounds racist” she’d said “but it’s always those tiny Asian ones who steal”
They’d all been, for what’s it worth, “well-intentioned” whitefolk. Some of them were friends, others were wide-eyed liberals on the “right side” of The Fight and eager to Learn. All of them had fashioned themselves as just having been honest.
But incidentally, none of this mattered much to me at the time. Their honesty hadn’t managed to soften the subsequent blows of their words. I hadn’t felt relieved or appreciative of their willingness to be transparent, nor did we join hands in the sudden emergence of post-racial America. Racism did what racism always does: evoked shame, humiliation, and anger; silenced me, objectified me, broke me, victimized me in an act of violence.
Mark Cuban’s honesty, we decided, was somehow different. In a interview with Inc. Magazine, Cuban discussed race on the heels of the Donald Sterling controversy, saying:
“In this day and age, this country has really come a long way putting any type of bigotry behind us, regardless of who it’s toward,” Cuban said Wednesday. “We’ve come a long way, and with that progress comes a price. We’re a lot more vigilant and we’re a lot less tolerant of different views, and it’s not necessarily easy for everybody to adapt or evolve.
I mean, we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. So in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.
I’ll try to give them a chance to improve themselves, because I think that helping people improve their lives, helping people engage with people they may fear or may not understand, and helping people realize that while we all may have our prejudices and bigotries we have to learn that it’s an issue that we have to control, that it’s part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it, not just to kick the problem down the road,” Cuban said. “Because it does my company no good, it does my customers no good, it does society no good if my response to somebody and their racism and bigotry is to say, ‘It’s not right for you to be here. Go take your attitude somewhere else.'”
Reactions to his comments were peculiar but not surprising. Black and white liberals gushed about his “courage”, hailing him as being a “giant step ahead of most of America.” They’d said his comments, unlike Sterling, contained introspection that he “shouldn’t be punished for.” That he deserved “credit” for speaking openly. And anyone who took issue with his statement was hindering the “progress” of an “honest conversation about race.”
But let’s look at the context of Cuban’s interview. He evokes the undeniable image of Trayvon Martin without acknowledgement of system of white supremacy that conditions him to fear “a black kid in a hoodie.” Nor is the racial imagery attached to an understanding of the white privilege from which he benefits; never having experienced racial microaggressions himself. No critique of the racist mythology of black deviance that sanctions the criminalization and murder of people of color. No mention, in fact, of whiteness at all.
He contextualized blackness only within the safe backdrop of race-neutral “biases”; throwing in a tattooed white guy for good measure. The implication of racism existed in an ahistorical vacuum, floating somewhere between white guilt and colorblindness; unweighed by anything that would illicit blame or interrogation, a collective racism with no real oppressors and no real victims.
Mark Cuban’s statement was confessional, seemingly genuine and introspective. It wasn’t dripping with Sterlimg’s maliciousness, nor mentioned racial epithets or even thinly-veiled code words. It failed to evoke the familiarity of cliché racism, so we didn’t read it as such.
Part of this is due to the lack of cultural understanding of what racism actually is. “Post-racial” liberalism continuously conflates racism (the institutional oppression and racial stratification of people of color via white supremacy) with individual prejudices (preconceived notions of another group/person on a social, micro level.) The former requires the presence of power and privilege (of whiteness) to be realized; the latter amounts to hurt feelings at best.
This lack of understanding gives way to misguided conversations about race that often use “prejudice” and “bias” in lieu of words that acknowledge systematic ties to racism. Mark Cuban said “attitude” when he meant “oppression”; he said “entrepreneur” when he should’ve said “white people.”
It’s the same type of willful ignorance around the cultural idea that “everyone is a little racist”, which laughably implies that “all of us” somehow perpetuate and experience racism interchangeably. That racism is an inexplicable colorless disease from which we all suffer, rather than what it is; the social ailment of people of color to which whites are indefinitely immune.
In all the praise of Cuban’s “honesty”, we seem to forget that as obstinate to progress as ignoring racism is, equally counterproductive is white refusal to confront it in any way that requires social, economic, or political sacrifice on their part. What good is an honest conversation if not also an effective one? What’s the value of transparency if it’s the wrong window entirely?
Colorblind post-racialism is exhaustively preoccupied with the discourse around racism, and completely disinterested with racism itself. It perpetually diminishes racial oppression to interpersonal relationships so the presence of white “niceness” and associations with people of color (“my best friend is black”) makes any claims of racism seemingly ridiculous. It couches the “racist” in an inflexible identity instead of behavior; so it becomes about who “is”/is not racist. As if it something you were born, rather than something you can embody at any given time. It laboriously deciphers the delivery and tone and circumstances of racist language and determines it’s merit by arbitrary standards. And as the list of arbitrary standards grow, so does the list of dis-qualifiers for racial offense. It sets a ceaseless cultural trap wherein racism exists but virtually no one or nothing can ever be racist.
We don’t need a running inventory of every racist internal monologue from white people like Cuban. When we said we wanted to have an honest conversation about race, we meant white relinquishment as facilitators and beneficiaries of the racialized structural power that imprisons people of color on a global level and become responsible for actively destroying it. But I guess we should’ve been more specific.
And in this supposed quest for more “honest” conversations about race, why is the open disclosure concept of post-racial progress never applicable to people of color? Why aren’t we applauded whenever we are forthcoming with the ways racism informs our lived experiences, only to have them invalidated, ignored or silenced? Where is our “credit” for our centuries of honesty we have since paid for with our wallets, our freedoms, our blood?
Because white people are almost never actually concerned about racism, but only controlling the ways that people of color are allowed to combat it. They police the means by which we can discuss it (“stop playing the race card”) legitimize it (“I don’t see color”) hold it accountable (“not ALL white people”) and now acknowledge its existence (through uncritical white voices). It’s a way of recognizing racism only as an abstract concept while actively disguising its inception and obstructing the trajectory to its demise.
Mark Cuban did not have a conversation about race in any of the radical ways deserving of praise or recognition. He semantically maneuvered around the very system that allows him to profit from the performance of black bodies; even as he irrationally fears them. He screamed “progress” without abdicating the lofty throne of privilege. And there is absolutely nothing honest about that.