The silent “white” in America
On a recent broadcast of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” viewers witnessed a classic example of the decoupling of people of color from notions of America.
The program’s white host, Chuck Todd, had as his guest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to talk about conservatives’ latest manufactured bogeyman, critical race theory.
In framing a question, Todd stated in part, “…[P]arents are saying, ‘Hey, don’t make my kid feel guilty,’” and then said, “And I know a parent of color is going, ‘What are you talking about? You know, I’ve got to teach reality.’”
Hannah-Jones was quick to pick up the host’s skewed mindset and brought it to his attention.
“Well, I think you should think just a little bit about your framing … You said ‘parents’ and then you said ‘parents of color.’ So, the ‘white’ is silent,” she told him.
She pointed out, “As a matter of fact, white parents are representing fewer than half of all public school parents … And yet, they have an outsized voice in this debate.”
Todd made a feeble attempt to walk back his comment, but it was clear that his personal frame of reference “othered” parents of color and centered whiteness.
In language, when an element is silent, we do not pronounce it, but it is there just the same. In the normative concept of America, whiteness is always there, even when it is not pronounced.
American race discourse is often framed in a way that erases Black folk from the concept of society. This makes “white” the normative. To many white Americans, “white” is a given.
No election cycle goes by without pundit comments on the voting patterns of “suburban moms,” although those patterns may be the exact opposite of those of Black mothers in the suburbs. “Suburban moms” erases the presence of Black voters.
When someone gives an outsized voice to — or aggrandizes — whiteness, they may simply be responding to centuries of intergenerational social conditioning without giving critical thought to how they are processing their thoughts.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a 2010 interview on National Public Radio, recounted how he had once, as a conditioned reflex, questioned the competence of the two Black pilots of the airliner in which he was traveling when the weather got rough. His moment of doubt was caused by a lifetime of being subjected to notions of white superiority and Black incompetence. In white-dominated societies, the “white” was silent in “airline pilots.”
If Archbishop Tutu was not immune to racist stereotyping, it is easy to understand how Todd could fall short. But we need to critically explore where the silent “white” comes from and its impact on America today.
The type of logical disconnect that gives us the silent “white” in “white suburban moms” can be better understood by considering the silent “p” in the word “pterodactyl.”
Pterodactyl comes from two Greek words, “pteron” meaning wing and “daktulos” meaning finger. This is an apt description of the prehistoric flying reptile with fingers on its wings.
The sound that begins the word pterodactyl in Greek does not occur in English, so we pronounce it differently to conform it to the English tongue. But if you remove the “p,” the remaining word is nonsensical and disconnected.
Just as the Greek “pt” in pterodactyl is a trace of the word’s historical origins, “white suburban moms” evidences the origins of the current term “suburban moms.” But just as pterodactyl without the “p” is a logical disconnect, so is white suburban moms without the “white.”
We now have the ubiquitous silent “white” because the white supremacists who set many of the norms under which we struggle today clearly articulated a preference for whites to reap the lion’s share of what this world had to offer. Over time, with the rise of new nations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, whites had to tamp down their arrogance to enjoy the benefits of a new global economy. “White” had to become an unspoken, unwritten inference.
Pundits don’t say “white suburban moms,” and Todd did not say “white parents” that Sunday morning. But its presence is loud and clear.
We must listen critically to what is being said and understand what is meant by the silent “white.” And we must let this understanding inform our actions.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.