In one of my favorite episodes of The Cracked Podcast, a parallel gets made between the subversive nature of racism in America, and the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” I’ve posted the link to their episode below but if you’re too busy to listen to it, I’ll summarize it for you, but before I do that, I have to lay down some groundwork for reasons that will become obvious in about a paragraph.
So racism is a very real thing happening right now all across the country. Nearly every aspect of America’s infrastructure was built to give a certain section of the population advantage over the rest. I know this is kind of an intense subject matter to start a website with, but it’s kind of important to talk about these things, even though a lot of people (myself included) are not very good at it.
In fact a lot of people go to great lengths to avoid talking about race. For many, if the question “Is this racist?” is ever asked, the response will be “Of course not! Racism is over!” It’s never stately that bluntly of course but that underlying message is still there. A lot of white people try to act as though we’ve transcended our races and are living in a colorblind world. That would be wonderful if it were true, but it only takes a quick google search to find out that’s not the world we live in.
But before you grab your torch and pitchfork and march to Benjamin Dixon’s house, I want to think about this for a second because I don’t think this invalidation of oppression is necessarily coming from a place of malice. Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think a lot of the colorblind attitude people have is coming from fear. Most people don’t want to see themselves as a bad person, so when they hear people talking about white privilege or institutionalized racism, their minds will do the easiest thing to avoid cognitive dissonance: deny it.
Now that I have all those thoughts out in the open, I can get back to the podcast. In it, Jack O’Brien, J.F. Sargent and Jason Pargin point out that the lyrics in the Billy Joel song almost perfectly mirror the justification white people make to deny the part they play in racism. “We didn’t start the fire” is what a lot of people think when they hear that white people have a privilege or advantage over non-white people and to a certain extent that is fair. There are many generations of white people who’ve never lived under Jim Crow laws and even more who’ve never partaken in slavery. It’s very easy for a young white person today to think “Sure our country has a history of racism, but that’s not my fault” and they can use that justification to avoid the self-scrutiny required to understand that they are still perpetuating those racist ideas of their forefathers subconsciously.
Once this justification is made, we start to see every argument to the contrary as a personal attack, as if the black live matter movement is blaming us for racism, and we shoot it down. Pargin argues that that mentality stems from people conflating the ideas behind the words blame and responsibility.
“The inability to tell the difference between [blame and responsibility] enrages people…for instance if it snows you’re responsible for shoveling your walk but you’re not to blame for it snowing.”
So when an argument is made that white people should be held more responsible to not hold up this skewed system, it can come across as though white people are being blamed for the system in the first place, and they get defensive. It seems kind of silly to say that a lot of the tension around racial dialogue comes from this, but this isn’t just something that happens when talking about race. You can see this conflation in debates about climate change, the crisis in Flint, Michigan, or even in personal relationships. I bet if you think about it, you can find one time where you mistook a friend asking you to take responsibility (“Hey could you help me clean up the apartment?”) with feeling like you’re being blamed (“I’m very clean! How dare you!?”).
When we let our insecurities and knee-jerk emotional reactions guide our behavior, we can end up standing in the way of real progress. We all have our personal load to bear in this life that sometimes even carrying a little bit more for the sake of progress seems outrageous but like it or not, progress is coming. So if you want to end up on the right side of history, you have to be prepared to take some some responsibility.
Thanks for reading! That episode of the Cracked podcast is just below this text and some additional articles about this subject are below that.