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30 May 98

The National Interior Monologue on Race

The National Interior Monologue on Race

My own educated whiteboy prejudice comes through aesthetics; I'm a racist materialist. I discovered it the other day when I saw a Mercedes with gold trim. I thought to myself:

"What a tacky piece of shit."

Somewhere below that, I thought: "why do Black people have to be so tasteless?"

You can trade the word "Black" for "Latino," "Asian," or "poor." "Why do Latino men need those cars that bounce? Why do poor black women need that sunshine clock on the wall? Why that Rent-a-center couch, with the shiny ceramic leopard standing on the right?"

After applying myself to the problem, I realized I'd dug out a tiny piece of institutionalized racism. There is nothing aesthetically offensive about a gold-trimmed, expensive car. The gold is no worse, or chemically different, than the standard chrome.

Somewhere, I've learned that gold trim on cars is tacky. There a lot of things that I associate with Black people--like certain foods, or purple dresses, or shiny hats on church days--that I also see as tacky. And I'm wrong. They're not tacky; they're cultural. Snobbery is a safe kind of racism, one where you can enjoy your superiority and not hurt anyone, so I've had no problem indulging in it.

It's another personality flaw upon which to work. Materialist racism is an occasional, wee, mocking humonculus on my shoulder that whispers, "aren't you glad you have more taste than those people?" It doesn't mean I wouldn't help someone from a car crash or use cruel words, or deny anyone their rights. But it's still wrong, and pervasive.

Despite this, I refuse to accept leopard skin seat covers, no matter what color person installed them.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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