Believe It or Not, I Like Some Things in Our Progressive Era

Whether you think of me as a contrarian, as I’m often labeled, or a cranky liberal, as I sometimes refer to myself, I do a lot of complaining about our supposedly brave new world: Cancel culture is real, and out of hand; wokeness frequently oversimplifies and infantilizes us; the term “woke” is broke. But believe it or not, there are things I like about our current era, including, as you know, cheering on “they” as a singular pronoun. So, after the Thanksgiving holiday seems a good time to point out some other things I appreciate about our times.

One of them is land acknowledgments. There is an increasingly common practice, especially in academic circles, of prefacing public presentations or events with a ritual acknowledgment that the land the event is taking place on was originally occupied and cared for by Native Americans, with a specification of the particular Indigenous nation of that land.

I’m glad this is happening, despite the opinion of some, such as the New York Post columnist Kyle Smith, who called land acknowledgments “the latest in meaningless self-scourging progressive fashion statements.” I’ve always found it quietly dismaying that the land that America occupies was wrested from people who had lived on it for millenniums before, and that today Native Americans represent such as small percentage of our body politic, and so much has been built up on the land, that there’s no realistic way, given the magnitude of the injustice, to reverse it or even adequately redress it. I’ve often thought, “Under this parking lot, right where that subdivision is, whole lives and societies existed that are now utterly lost.” The least we can do is to regularly — yes, ritually — mention this, especially if this least is the best we’re willing to do.

I like what I see on television. Particularly children’s television. I look over my daughters’ shoulders and see a heartening multiplicity of Black stars and characters on their favorite shows that just wasn’t there a few years ago. One that comes to mind: Netflix’s delightful baking show, “Nailed It!” is hosted to perfection by Nicole Byer, a young Black woman. No, I haven’t forgotten that the wonderfully diverse “Sesame Street” has been with us since 1969. But the sheer frequency with which today’s children’s shows (and not just the stuff of public television) are, yes, centering people of color, feels different. “Sesame Street” once felt like a televised utopia; today’s fare, especially animated, commercial programming, often presents diversity as something blissfully unremarkable.

The hit Nickelodeon series “The Loud House” follows a cartoon family in which the main character, a boy named Lincoln, lives with 10 sisters. They’re white, but the show makes an effort to depict a multihued world everywhere beyond the house: Lincoln’s best friend, Clyde, is Black (and over the course of several seasons, has been voiced by two Black actors), with nothing made of it beyond the simple fact. One of the sisters’ boyfriends is Latino (voiced by a Latino actor), and one of the supporting characters is of South Asian descent (voiced by a South Asian actress). The “Loud House” spinoff, “The Casagrandes,” is about the boyfriend’s Mexican American extended family. We’re a long way from “The Flintstones.”

Interestingly, the same thing is happening on popular animated shows for adults: On the long-running “Family Guy,” Blackness has often been played for comedy; but on a recent episode, the main character, Peter, gets a new boss, a Black guy, whose race is incidental. He stood out not for being Black but for trying to squeeze the fun out of at-work birthday parties — you know, like a stereotypical boss. A recent episode of the also long-running “Bob’s Burgers” introduced a character as the game master of a Dungeons & Dragons-style game who was nerdy, charmingly awkward and a Black woman — i.e. a full spectrum of a human being. The hit “Ted Lasso” portrays today’s United Kingdom, where whiteness is hardly default as Black and brown people are part of the warp and woof of all levels of society. A recent “Archer” episode even jokes about today’s Britain, when Lana (voiced, as it happens, by the Black actress Aisha Tyler, who had a recurring role as Ross’s girlfriend on “Friends” back when there was a mild uproar about that show’s lack of Black friends!) wrongly assumes a Black man will stand out in a London crowd.

No doubt, some of you will think these pop-cultural examples are superficial. But imagine a ’50s-era segregationist sitting down to watch TV now and realizing that these shows are there for the watching in just about every American home — they’d be apoplectic. That represents genuine change, reflecting transformations in attitude and perception, which younger people, especially, see not as “oh, wow!” but “of course!” — as it should be.

Another good thing about our moment is that we’re gradually shedding the idea that racism is about only individual feelings, nasty words and overt acts of bigotry. The idea of systemic racism — societal inequities rooted in racism of the past or present that represent barriers, in many instances, for people of color — is now common coin to a greater extent.

Sure, I have documented my issues with the way we are taught to think about systemic racism, and to say that opinions about how to address it differ is putting it mildly. The argument for reparations, for instance, is not the utterly settled question some suppose. And controversy will continue over whether the take on systemic racism originating in, and taking a cue from, critical race theory is a useful one.

However, I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism. Despite my alarm at the excesses of today’s progressive politics, I’ve never argued the simplistic notion that racism boils down to cross-burnings and white people saying the N-word. I recall sadly a conversation I had, when I was a grad student, with a white woman who was an undergraduate. She said, roughly: “So today, Black people can go anywhere they want, they can do anything they want — what’s the problem?” And she wasn’t terribly interested in an answer. Her question was more of a declaration, what she regarded as just facts, and she felt no civic impulse to even consider otherwise.

Of course, her perspective, then, is alive and well now. Yet an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids — upper-middle-class New Yorkers — casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept. I was hearing no such thing in my grad student days. Gallup polling asking “Are Black people in your community treated less fairly than White people?” in situations involving the workplace, shopping, dining out, interactions with police and access to health care, shows that from 1997 until 2021, white Americans and Americans overall became more aware of racial disparities.

A meaningful approach to getting past race — and that should be the goal — must acknowledge progress, which is evident in a variety of ways. We should also acknowledge the past, as long as we do so with a view toward improving the present. It’s OK to look back, as long as you don’t stare.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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