Those Using The ‘What About’ Argument Are Part Of The Problem
Racism in America usually takes two forms — direct and indirect. To be honest, I have helped perpetuate indirect, but unintentional, racism by enabling it through a lifetime of “white privilege”. I have stood on the sidelines and cheered on the racial justice movement, but did not really join the “team” to fight racial injustice directly. As a younger person I was more active in “peace and justice” issues, but along came children and the comforts of “white privilege” consumed me for many years, but no longer.
Direct racism is fairly clear when we read and hear about the “white supremacy movement” and so much of the hateful words and actions committed against Blacks, other people of color and other ethnic minorities. Media reports bring video and audio of direct racism front and center; we can’t miss it.
Then there is a subtle form of apparent intentional racism — I call it a “whataboutism”. Examples of “whataboutisms” appear in Tom Morgan’s column on June 29 in which he discussed “our”, or the American “original sin” of slavery. The tactic of “whataboutism” is an attempt to deflect criticism away from a specific problem or issue by bringing up “well, what about” similar instances, or totally different issues. Morgan’s column included both forms of “whataboutisms”.
Morgan’s first “whataboutism” claims there is “hatred” OF America by Americans and suggests it is a reaction to the “sins” of how women, Native Americans, and slaves were treated. The reality is that there is some “hatred” IN America, but it is expressed by extreme sides of the political and moral spectrum, both the “right” and “left”. Morgan injects a very divisive, one-sided, false suggestion that “hate” occurs only on a one-way, “left”-only street, in spite of the fact that, especially in recent polling, most Americans understand and want to somehow atone for America’s “sins”; to see positive change in America. Morgan avoids mentioning the fact that “hate” crimes have been established in America because of various forms of hate towards, and inflicted upon, Blacks, other people of color and other ethnic minorities – not the other way around. The “whataboutism” wants us to blame “hate” on the victims instead of the perpetrators.
The second “whataboutism” comes from the title and the main body of Morgan’s comments, namely, that America did not introduce slavery into the world, even though he clearly calls slavery America’s “original sin”. With his acknowledgement, his follow-up should have been, but is nowhere to be found, that if slavery had not been accepted in America, we would never have committed that “sin” and the racism that followed.
Added to that “whataboutism”, Morgan states that “the US was one of the smaller players”, but clearly admits America was a “player” nonetheless. I believe we can’t overlook America’s role in slavery because of its “smaller” amount of playing time. The economic impact was huge – it led to the US Civil War. (“Player” is also an interesting choice of word in that America covets “players” in most endeavors, thus Morgan appears to raise engagement in slavery to a highly desirable level.)
The final “whataboutism” is Morgan’s choice to add paragraph upon paragraph of educational overkill about which societies, and when, also engaged in slavery as if saying the same thing over and over proves his point or, in this case, justifies or should make American slavery palatable as less of, or not a “sin”. I ask you – was slavery not a “sin”; is racism palatable? The point of pursuing racial justice, and the demonstrations in support of racial justice, is to put the “sin” of racism IN AMERICA, not other places in the world, front and center. Americans need to seriously ask themselves – what should “OUR” response be to make things better?
Americans are not called upon to solve racism around the world, even if it would be a worthy goal, as we haven’t come to grips with the extent of American racism and acted on what we must do as a country to end systemic racism. Morgan fails to make a single statement, not even an inference, that slavery in America was wrong, that racism is wrong and that “white supremacy” is wrong. Morgan simply cannot offer any atonement for, or any suggestion toward positive change in support of racial justice because he refuses to confront American racism face-to-face.
Offering “whataboutisms” about the “sin” of slavery and racism, I believe, means those who do it are part of the problem and not part of the solution. People who offer a “whataboutism” appear to be intentionally defending the status quo through a subtle deflection tactic. Unfortunately, the use of “whataboutisms” are common and distract us from the desirable goal of ending American systemic racism and seeking racial justice.
Paul L. Demler is a Jamestown resident.