White people were aware of non-white societies for centuries, and needed to a way to organize this knowledge in relation to themselves. One way white people have historically organized this knowledge was to assume that non-Western societies were inferior and Western societies were superior, and that non-white people were “savages” and white people were “civilized”. White people assumed that societies “progressed” from “savage” to “civilized”, from heathen to Christian, from non-Western to Western. White people believed that African cultures and Native American cultures were “primitive” and that given enough time, these cultures would “advance” to look very much like white, Western societies.
Most white people today still hold the same views implicitly, in that even most white liberals consider non-Western cultures “ancient” and “traditional”. The assumption behind this way of thinking is that non-Western cultures are stuck in the past, and that Western societies live in the present. When white people organize Western and non-Western cultures on a timeline by placing non-Western cultures in the past and Western society in the present, they are assuming that societies “progress” unilinearly from non-Western to Western. That is, to view non-Western cultures as “ancient” and “traditional” is to view Western society as the most culturally advanced and the most evolved. Most white people think that to “Westernize” is same as to “modernize” and improve.
In the 18th century, there were white people called Romanticists who believed that non-Western societies were morally superior to Western societies. However, the assumption behind this chain of reasoning was that non-white people were more innocent and childlike, more “natural” and uncorrupted by modern civilization, and therefore sinless. Although these white people had good intentions and stereotyped non-white people with feelings of admiration instead of hatred, these white people still considered non-white people “primitive”, less advanced, less adult, and more animal-like. The stereotype of non-white people as primitive, morally superior, and closer to nature is called the Noble Savage stereotype.
Unfortunately, many white people today still think of non-white people as Noble Savages. Many white people think that Asians have “ancient wisdom”, that indigenous North Americans are “in touch with the earth”, and that African Americans are more emotionally expressive Magical Negroes. Although most white liberals who have these beliefs about non-white people would deny that non-white people are more ancient, natural, or emotional because of genetics, they attribute these perceived differences between whites and non-whites as differences in “culture”. In other words, most white liberals believe implicitly that the less Westernized a person is, the more this person has Noble Savage characteristics (even if this person is white).
White antiracists are not immune to thinking of people of colour as stereotypes.
What is interesting is that even white people who self-identify as “antiracist” can continue to believe that white people and culture are more rational and more civilized, and that non-white people and culture are more emotional and less civilized. White “antiracist” author of the blog Stuff White People Do, Macon D, acknowledged that the Magical Negro is a stereotype and that the white people stereotype black people as being “closer to their emotions”. However, Macon D also wrote another post ostensibly about what whites do not understand about black people when they refuse to listen to black anger*:
As they do so, over these and other racial disagreements, these white people often say something like, “If you’re going to get emotional, then I can’t discuss this with you.” For white people, anger is a dangerous force that blows out the light of reason. They may not realize it (middle-class ones, especially), but white people often insist that discussions be conducted in their way, and not in someone else’s way. Their calm, rational way, that is, and not another group or culture’s more emotionally engaged way. (And guess who’s automatically at an advantage in calm, rational discussions?)
Amazingly, Macon D alleges that white people as a group and culture discuss things rationally, while non-white (read: black) people as a group and culture discuss things emotionally. Again, Macon D provides no reference or support for his assumption that black (or non-white) discussion styles are more emotional and less rational, relying on armchair anthropology or some other questionable methods of belief acquisition.
Now at this point, there may be some uncertainty about what Macon D means exactly by the terms “rational” and “emotional”. For example, when he claims that whites are more “rational”, he may mean that white people act in their best interests when discussing race; when he claims that non-whites (read: blacks) are more “emotional”, he may mean that they are more attentive when discussing race. However, Macon D clarifies what he means by “rational” and “emotional” in a response to a critical comment by jw, and neither of these charitable interpretations apply (jw’s words are in italics):
Already your claim of “civil discussions in a calm and rational way” you think would be typical for whites, indicates, that you didn’t have many talks with whites when it comes to race.
Oh but I have, middle-class whites especially, from the ones among that group willing to even discuss racism. “Civilized” and “rational” is the way they almost always want to talk about race–passion and hysterics are an exception to a general rule. […] Yes, I’ve seen individual whites get hysterical, but that’s been to the frowning consternation of the other whites in the room, who usually do all they can to calm that person down. I’m talking about a general white consensus for discussion of race; certainly individuals act as exceptions to the rule, as with any general rule or tendency.
(emphasis (bold) mine)
In other words, what Macon D meant in the original post by “rational” was “civilized”, and what he meant by “emotional” was “hysterical”. According to Macon D, white people discuss race in a “civilized” manner, and non-white (read: black) people discuss race in an uncivilized or less civilized manner. Moreover, according to Macon D, when non-white (read: black) people discuss race, they behave hysterically, and do so because of their culture.
Macon D has also added further clarifications, implying that when white people and black people discuss race, black people appear to be emotionally demonstrative and “shouting” on average, because most come from lower-class backgrounds (or because most black people are somehow culturally similar to lower-class whites):
Some white people are not at that advantage in calm, subdued, “rational” discussions because they come from lower-class backgrounds where getting emotionally demonstrative and shouting and so on are expected. So it’s a class thing as well as a race thing. The person at an advantage in a calm, rational discussion is one who’s been subtly and thoroughly trained to discuss things that way, be they white or black. So what the post is saying, though not in a way that’s quite fine-tuned enough, is that more white Americans are trained in that mode than are African Americans. […]
Once again, Macon D believes that he can objectively observe and comment on how most African Americans are “subtly and thoroughly trained” to discuss things. According to Macon D, in a discussion about race, if a black person appears to be emotionally demonstrative (read: angry or hysterical), it must be because of her culture or because she comes from a lower-class background.
Since Macon D begins with the unfounded and racist assumption that white people are generally more rational and civilized in discussions about race, he does not even consider the possible scenario that white people are less rational and more emotionally defensive when they participate in race discussions, and that he, as less-rational and more-emotionally-defensive white person, is in no position to judge who is rational and who is emotional. For some reason, Macon D believes that he has the magical ability to stand outside of his whiteness and judge white and non-white responses objectively.
White people don’t see the irony of perpetuating 18th-century beliefs.
It is ironic that most white people think of non-Western cultures as having the characteristic of “traditional”; when white people believe these centuries-old stereotypes, they are just perpetuating European cultural memes that originated during the 1700s or earlier. When a white person assumes that non-Western cultures are less civilized, perhaps it is a reflection of her own cultural backwardness.**
* Macon D updated his post refuse to listen to black anger sometime after October 20, 2008. The paragraph under discussion now reads:
As they do so, over these and other racial disagreements, these white people often say something like, “If you’re going to get emotional, then I can’t discuss this with you.” For white people in such discussions, anger tends to be a dangerous force that blows out the light of reason. They may not realize it (middle-class ones, especially), but white people often insist that such discussions be conducted in their way. Their calm, rational way, that is, and if they’re talking to someone raised to discuss “hot topics” in an more emotionally engaged way, they not that way. (And guess who’s automatically at an advantage in calm, rational discussions, if they’ve been raised to discuss controversial issues in a calm, rational way?)
** An additional irony is that I actually created the title and wrote most of this post before reading any of Turan’s comments. Only the last paragraph was new.