“The savage is feeble, and has small organs of generation; he has neither hair nor beard, and no ardor whatever for his female; although swifter than the European because he is better accustomed to running, he is, on the other hand, less strong in body; he is also less sensitive, and yet more timid and cowardly; he has no vivacity, no activity of mind; the activity of his body, is less an exercise, a voluntary motion…” –Thomas Jefferson, On Indians and Negroes
This is a quote from an essay by Thomas Jefferson that I had to read for my humanities class. Reading it broke my heart so profoundly that I could not actually finish the reading; I skimmed it, my eyes latching on to words like the ones in this passage: savage, animal, inhuman, immoral… It is very disconcerting for me to hear about Thomas Jefferson as this incredible emblem of the Enlightenment period and despite that he is still unable to see people of a darker skin color as his equal. It would seem to me that someone who is as intelligent and multifarious as he is would be able to recognize the false nature of biological race. In a way it is endearing to have this narrow mindedness juxtaposed against his intelligence because it humanizes him. But on the other hand, it is extremely frightening to see Jefferson as a hero of American rights, freedom of religion, speech, equality and the like, when his exploration of race in this piece is representative of anything but these aforementioned qualities.
What scares me the most about this mentality is how alive it still is today. Biological race is still very much real, and for some, especially those living in the Bay Area, this is shocking because people like to believe that we are past racism, that we are “above” this narrow-mindedness. This is so far from the truth that it scares me to hear people speak this way. In an essay by Peggy McIntosh entitled White Privilege, she lists forty six privileges that she has as a white person that someone of color would not have. Some of the privileges were that she can be almost guaranteed that her children’s teachers would be the same skin color as her own. She does not have to worry about where she chooses to live and based on whatever decision she makes, she still doesn’t have to worry about her neighbors being mean to her on account of her skin color. She doesn’t have to be the one asked to speak for people of color. When she is told about the history of America, she is shown faces of people of the same skin color as her. People like Jefferson.
Therefore, I would like to offer two points of contention: this white privilege should not be considered privilege: it should be commonplace for all people in America, regardless of creed or skin color or any other physical marker, to have full access to the security McIntosh describes for herself. The fact that it is not proves that racism is anything but dead. I would even argue that it is more alive now because of its sublimity. The second point is that this representation of white people as the heroes and saviors of this country denounces the contributions of those of different skin colors. Even today, media representations of people of color are typically caricatures based on well-known stereotypes. It seems all too obvious to me that this narrow-mindedness in Jefferson’s On Indians and Negroes is still alive today but so many are in denial. Even politicians govern as if race is an issue in a vacuum, as if access to affordable housing, to a sustainable job, to affordable healthcare, are not to an extent dependent on skin color. The colorblind mentality that politicians take detracts from the reality of the experiences based on skin color across the States. Even though I can count the number of times I’ve been a victim of blatant racism on one hand, I still worry for my future children, for my dad, and for my mother, who can’t walk anywhere without receiving imploring, unnecessary stares. This is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, not because it disgusts me to see “where we used to be” but because I still think we are there.