Some time ago, I mentioned that when the right time arose, I would return to the Reading Words category. Friends, that time is now. Before you read any further, please take some time to carefully investigate the following: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/how-racist-was-flannery-oconnor.
Thanks for doing that. It’s critical to understanding what you’re about to read, something that after considerable thought, I cannot remain silent about. As with many things in life, we should all learn to listen and digest fully before we respond, but equally important as knowing when to “shush up” (as we say down south) is knowing when speaking out is the reasonable thing to do. Usually it’s in moments where there’s a truth that needs to be delivered and someone won’t be ready to hear it.
With that spirit in mind, I must confess that I am more than a little disappointed with The New Yorker and Paul Elie. And yes, I am disappointed with both, separately. That matters here, for folks who are newly entering these sorts of conversations (welcome, by the way!).
First, the undercurrent notion that we are ALL just now taken with the central idea they share suggests that for many, many, many years, many, many, many people have not been. Or at least presupposes it, which is almost worse. Perhaps in some areas, by some folks, this is true. Perhaps for Elie. Perhaps in New York or D.C. (Elie’s haunts). But if that is the case, why not just say so? Meanwhile, to oversimplify or otherwise obfuscate who racism is relevant to, EVEN AND ESPECIALLY using academic language, is to miss a point so large that the author might’ve been better off remaining silent.
Don’t worry, it gets worse.
Second, the article makes plainly clear another troubling but longstanding trend: Northeastern Bastion of Liberalism Giants telling the “uneducated masses” (many of whom already live and Do The Work in their daily lives) how it is that they should think, speak, and feel on the issues these Giants are only more recently starting to care (speak/act) about in any real, concrete, constructive way. Read that again, slowly. I know it’s a lot to digest. But it must be digested.
Sure, there’s been a lot of very public attempts to “understand” this issue, but like so many other troubling “studies,” rarely if ever are the voices of those who live this reality given an equal platform, compared to those who seek to distantly finger-wag whilst they hide every mirror in their homes from themselves.
Curious behavior? You bet.
And third, Elie’s limitations in his understanding of whiteness and critical race theory are so loud that they scream off the page. He doesn’t even have to say that much for the critically-aware reader to see it. Contrary to what Elie would have you believe, understanding the effects of racism on white culture (and vice versa) is absolutely, without a doubt, CENTRAL to dismantling racism. And understanding history and southern culture, whether or not Elie likes it, also matters a great deal.
The especially troubling takeaway here is Elie’s hubris. Not just in his refusal to award any merit to the previous points, but in his belief that attacking others’ attempts to address them somehow “counts” as him doing the work he needs to do. Writing about the work is not the work, Mr. Elie, Sir. Especially when you’re determined to take a deliberately half-informed view.
Is that an uncomfortable realization? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely. As a white man of considerable northeastern privilege, and as someone who has devoted his professional life (with much acclaim, I might add) to the study and publishing of Great American Literature, Elie is the last person who should be taking the easy way out, wagging his Ivory-Towered Finger at others’ attempts, as messy and complex as they are or aren’t.
Perhaps most damningly, the work he presented is just backstory to the work he should have written, that The New Yorker should have published, that we should have had the privilege of reading from someone whose voice is well-regarded and the holder of considerable power. But Ryan, I hear some of you asking, what should the work have been? Simple. A courageous look inward.
How Racist IS Paul Elie? How Racist IS The New Yorker? Hiding behind the article that got written is academically sloppy, personally lazy, and culturally tone-deaf beyond belief. I expect better. You should too. Instead, for now, we must settle for another pandering excuse of the one they’re willfully hiding behind. Ain’t it a damn shame … again.
P.S. Want a better example? See here.
TIME got it closer to right.
A long time ago at that.