On a recent Sunday broadcast of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” viewers witnessed a classic example of the decoupling of people of color from notions of America.
The program’s white host, Chuck Todd, had as his guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, to talk about conservatives’ latest manufactured bogeyman, critical race theory.
In framing a question to his guest, Todd stated in part, “…[P]arents are saying, ‘Hey, don’t make my kid feel guilty,’” and then said, “And I know a parent of color is going, ‘What are you talking about? You know, I’ve got to teach reality.’”
Ms. Hannah-Jones was quick to pick up the skewed mindset of the host and brought it to his attention.
“Well, I think you should think just a little bit about your framing…You said ‘parents,’ and then you said, ‘parents of color.’ So, the ‘white’ is silent,” she told him.
Continuing, she pointed out, “As a matter of fact, white parents are representing fewer than half of all public school parents… And yet, they have an outsized voice in this debate.”
Chuck Todd made a feeble attempt to walk back his racially tone-deaf comment, but it was clear that his personal frame of reference “othred” parents of color and centered whiteness in the American narrative.
It seemed clear that to Todd, like to so many other white Americans, “American” means “white American” and the “white” is silent.
In our use of language, when an element is silent, we do not pronounce it, but it is there just the same. And in the normative concept of America, whiteness is always there, even when it is not pronounced.
Thought leaders in this country need to ask why, when whiteness is almost always present in so many American conflicts, it is silent in the related conversations?
The American discourse about race is often framed in a way that erases Black folk from the concept of society. This makes “white” the normative and the acknowledgment of everyone else an accommodation. Because of this, to many white Americans, “white” is a given.
Never does an election cycle go by without political pundits commenting on the voting patterns of “suburban moms,” although those patterns may be the exact opposite of the voting patterns of Black mothers living in the suburbs. “Suburban moms” is a term used in a way that erases the presence of Black voters and centers the focus on whiteness.
I want to make it clear that I do not believe Chuck Todd was knowingly engaged in trying to “other” or intentionally diminish the status of parents of color with his misstep. But Todd, like asymptomatic COVID carriers, can wreak havoc on a community without even knowing that they are spreading a deadly disease.
When someone gives an outsized voice to – or aggrandizes – whiteness, they may simply be responding to centuries of intergenerational social conditioning without giving any critical thought to how they are processing their thoughts.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a 2010 interview on National Public Radio, recounted how he had once, as a conditioned reflex, questioned the competence of the two Black pilots of the airliner in which he was traveling when the weather got rough. The archbishop acknowledged that his moment of doubt was caused by a lifetime of being subjected to notions of white superiority and Black incompetence. For years, in white dominated societies, the “white” was silent in “airline pilots.” If Archbishop Tutu was not immune to racist stereotyping, it is easy to understand how Chuck Todd could fall short in his reasoning. But in this day and age, we need to critically explore where the silent “white” comes from and its impact on America today.
The type of logical disconnect that gives us the silent “white” in “white suburban moms” can be better understood by considering the silent “p” in the word “pterodactyl.”
Pterodactyl comes from two Greek words, “pteron” meaning wing and “daktulos” meaning finger. This is an apt description of the prehistoric flying reptile with fingers on its wings.
But the sound that begins the word pterodactyl in Greek does not occur in English, so rather than create a new word, we pronounce the Greek word differently to conform it to the English tongue. But when you remove the “p,” the remaining word is nonsensical and disconnected from logic.
There are many long theses explaining why silent letters persist in the English language, but to be brief, they resulted from the introduction of the printing press. Originally, English was totally phonetic and English speakers pronounced every letter in a word. But over the centuries, loanwords were introduced from around the world. These loanwords were printed as they were received from foreign tongues. But as the pronunciation of these words yielded to social forces and were altered into anglicized versions, their spelling remained fixed by the literate segment of the society. Letters without phonic utility remained on the printed page as traces of history but disappeared from the spoken word.
Just as the logical Greek “pt” in pterodactyl is a trace of the historical origins of that word, “white suburban moms” evidences the origins of the current political term “suburban moms.” But just as pterodactyl without the “p” is a logical disconnect, so is white suburban moms without the “white.”
We now have the ubiquitous silent “white” because in years past, the white supremacists who set many of the norms under which we struggle today, clearly articulated a preference for whites to reap the lion’s share of what this world had to offer. There was no necessity for them to dissemble on this point because Black folk and other people of color had no rights the white man was bound to recognize, according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision. But over the course of time, with the rise of new nations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, whites had to tamp down their hubris and arrogance in order to enjoy the benefits of a new global economy. “White” had to become an unspoken and unwritten inference.
But while “white” had to become silent due to social pressure, the logic of the silent “white” underpinning the expressions remained written in the continuing effects of white supremacy. And therein lies the root of the logical disconnect.
Pundits don’t say “white suburban moms,” and Chuck Todd did not say “white parents” that Sunday morning. But its presence is loud and clear.
We must listen critically to what is being said with the understanding of what is meant by the silent “white” in statements. And we must let this understanding inform our actions.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia. His earlier commentaries may be found at https://oblayton1.medium.com/