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Calling people "useless" isn't a useful way to discuss race

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Calling people "useless" isn't a useful way to discuss race

Stephen H. Provost

I’m not deplorable, but I guess I’m useless.

Aren’t I? Of course not.

Neither are you, and I don’t care about your skin, your political affiliation, what country you’re from, or what language you speak. You’re worthwhile. With a few notable exceptions (I’m thinking mass murderers, child molesters, serial abusers, people who torture animals), we all are. Flawed? Of course. Misunderstood? All too often. Selfish? Well, yeah, at times. But useless?

Who says?

Damon Young does, in the title of his article “The Most Useless Types of White People, Ranked.”

It’s a list.

Provocative headlines and the list format have been touted as ways to increase site visits (e.g., clicks), and the VSB site where Young is editor-in-chief does accept advertising. So, if I were a cynic, I could excuse the blatantly provocative headline as a ploy to increase site visits and, therefore, ad revenues. But that doesn’t explain the combative nature of the content itself.

Not only does Young consider certain types of white people useless, he ranks some as more useless than other. Forget the fact that this makes no sense (either something is useless or it’s not – if it has some use, any use at all, it’s not, by definition, useless). The real problem is that demeaning certain “types” of people belonging to a particular race is offensive. Pretend you’re playing Mad Libs. Just substitute any other group label for the term “white” in the headline, and you’ll see what I mean. Try Latino, Asian, Irish, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, obese people, redheads … whatever.

No matter what term you use, this headline is offensive.

Then there’s the content. Young isn’t listing 10 side-effects of a particular drug or 10 vegetable dishes that go well with roast beef. He’s put together a list of 10 insults, some of which he apparently means to be funny. They’re not.

This will really facilitate dialogue between people of different races. Right.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to respond to Young's article on each of its 10 points. What follows are his list of 10 “useless” types of white people (in italics) and my response to his comments on each:

10. The “I would have voted for Obama again” guy, which, since a three-term presidency is literally not possible right now, is like saying, “I totally would have killed a velociraptor, dude. Totally.”

So, expressing a willingness to vote for Barack Obama for a third term if given the chance makes someone “useless.” Maybe it would have been more useful to vote for Trump? Or equivocate on Charlottesville? Or defend Confederate monuments? But useless is useless, so I suppose all these things are equal, right? Second point: Expressing a desire to do something that’s beyond your power does not make you useless. More likely, it means you care, which is a lot better than apathy.

9. The “Why can’t we just forget about our differences and come together?” guy, who’s usually the exact-same guy as the “I don’t see color” guy and the “Why does everything have to be about race?” guy and the “I’ll have a Coke Zero, please” guy.

Forget about our differences? Nah. That wouldn’t be any fun. It would make us all a bunch of clones (kind of like Rush Limbaugh’s radio listeners) and render life ridiculously dull. I’m not a clone, which is kind of the point, because not all people listed here are useless. They’re all different, and it would be nice for Mr. Young to acknowledge as much rather than trying to categorize people based on overly simplistic click-bait lists.

Coming together? Seems to me that would be a good thing. This country is so badly fractured that the longer we take to find common ground, the harder it will be to heal. Finding common ground does not mean, “You do things my way and pretend to like it, or you’re fired” (the Trump approach). It means finding things people of different backgrounds can honestly agree on and building something together from there. Finding commonality also doesn’t mean ignoring diversity. But, on the other hand, affirming diversity doesn’t entail calling people useless.

(I'm not sure what Mr. Young has against Coke Zero, but I'm a Diet Pepsi drinker myself, so I guess I don't fit in this category.)

8. The “White people are so terrible. I hate us” guy.

I’m white. I’m not proud of it. I’m not ashamed of it. It doesn’t make my words any more or less credible. Hating people based on skin color is ignorant and destructive. So is labeling people you don’t even know as “useless.”

7. The “Let me write this 2,500-word column attempting to explain and empathize with racist white Trump voters without using the word ‘racist’ once in my 2,500 words” guy.

So, now it’s “useless” to try to explain people’s actions, too? Think about the most despicable person you know, the person who poses the biggest threat to you and your family. Don’t you want to understand what makes that guy tick? Wouldn’t it help you defend yourself if he decides to attack you? The thing is, I can’t imagine any of the people who fall into Young’s categories would consider themselves his sworn enemy. What’s so wrong about trying to understand each other? Point 2: I can’t empathize with white racist Trump voters. I don’t want to. But explaining someone’s actions and supporting them are two different things: like velociraptors and Coke Zero.

6. Bernie Sanders.

Putting universal health care in the spotlight is a bad thing? I suppose it is – to the insurance providers and Republicans who’ve spoken out most forcefully against it. I could always be wrong, but I’m assuming Mr. Young doesn’t fit into either of these categories. How about working toward a more affordable educational system? Is that bad? Since Mr. Young considers Sanders “useless,” I suppose he must think so. But congratulations, Mr. Young, you’re not alone in thinking these goals are “useless.” So does that Trump fellow you mentioned.

5. The “I just really enjoy making sex things with black people, and I hate when conversations about race complicate those things because I just want to make sex things!” guy.

I find it hard to believe that someone who would “just want to make sex things” with black people is even open to having an in-depth conversation about race, culture or human rights. Worse, the hypothetical person being quoted here is objectifying people. Remove the word “black” from Young’s first sentence, and you’ll get the equally offensive “I just really enjoy making sex things with people.” Note: White guys don’t have any kind of monopoly on this, and it’s offensive whoever does it.

4. The “Race issues are really just class issues” guy.

They’re not “just” class issues, but economics have been used as an excuse of establishing a race-based class system, and race has been used as an excuse to perpetuate that system. You can have racism without economic issues, and there are economic issues that have nothing to do with race. But narrowing the wealth gap for all Americans would benefit minority communities, just as ending ingrained racism would help address artificial class issues. Race issues obviously aren’t “just” class issues, but to suggest that race and class issues are entirely separate in this country would be even more inaccurate. I don’t think that’s what Young’s suggesting. At least, I hope not.

3. The “I want to have debates with you about racism because, to me, it’s a fun and lively and energizing thought exercise” guy.

Lively? Energizing? Not in the current climate. We’ve separated into camps, with absolutist true-believers/litmus-testers and rigid positions on both sides. Facts don’t matter; opinions and feelings are considered more important (which explains why Trump voters continue to support him). We use labels to ridicule and dismiss those who challenge or disagree with our assumptions, even to the slightest degree – labels such as, gosh, I don’t know, “useless.” For the record, I have no interest in “debating” Mr. Young. I’m simply stating my opinions – just as he stated his on his blog.

2. The “Let me unload this 18-minute-long tome on my feelings on race and racism and savory grits on you right now even though you’re just standing in line at Potbelly and you clearly just want to get a quick and cheap sandwich and not be my personal Pinterest board of white guilt” guy.

If someone invades your personal space while you’re standing in line, minding your own business, you have every right to tell the person to get lost, whether he’s going on about “white guilt,” mass shootings, the Golden State Warriors or the price of tea in China. Again, this isn’t a “white guy” problem, it’s a rudeness problem.

1. The “I did something nice for black people, like, 37 years ago, and I’m going to continue to bank on that one thing like there’s a ‘Did something nice for black people’ craps table and I already cashed out” guy.

Sure, it can be tedious to hear someone going on and on about having done “something nice” like it’s a badge of honor. But that’s still better than doing something mean. And it doesn’t make the person “useless.” As with No. 2, you don’t have to listen.

You don’t have to read this, either, Mr. Young. But if you do happen to come upon this response while surfing the Internet, I’d like you to know one thing: People aren’t useless just because they fit into one of your 10 categories. Maybe they are to you, but they might say the same thing about your list. And what does any of this accomplish? Further alienation, misunderstanding and animosity? So much fun.

People aren’t useless, and they don’t like being used, either, certainly not as straw men for top 10 lists compiled by people they’ve never met. And certainly not as pawns in culture wars where everyone ends up losing.