The Trouble with “White People”

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Media Outlet: The New Yorker

It is, as they say, a teachable moment. Yet it’s hard to imagine where this conversation—where the promise of empathy or the silver lining of shame—could possibly go. This isn’t to fault an hour-long MTV documentary for failing to heal America’s racial divide. But the show, emblematic of one version of our “conversation on race,” presumes that the solution is conversational. The problem with dwelling on the sullen vibes or narcissistic guilt spirals of white people is that feelings can change with relative ease. The scenes of American injustice that we see on a regular basis are not failures of people being insufficiently nice to one another. They are about the legacies and structures that hem in our choices, that define the circumference of our imaginations, that trigger our personal gut reaction to the very word “dream.” They are about those whom the truth cannot set free. We can control and harness our feelings. I have no idea how to destroy and rebuild our institutions.

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Hua Hsu is a New America fellow, working on a study of immigrant culture and American ideas around diversity. He is an associate professor at Vassar College, a contributor to the New Yorker, and an executive board member of the Asian American Writers Workshop.