Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Hopes, Great, White Or Otherwise
I confess to feeling a bit of sympathy for Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.). She is currently being excoriated for her use of the phrase, "great, white hope." She claims to have been unaware of its origins and racial connotations.
For anyone who does not know, the expression comes from a situation in 1908 when a black boxer, Jack Johnson, had won the world championship match, and whites were eager to find a suitable white contender to take back the title.
I feel sympathy because I too once ignorantly used that phrase. I guess I had heard those words strung together before, possibly by someone else who had no idea-----after all, how many young people are aware of boxing trivia from the early 1900's? I assumed that the word 'white' in the phrase was meant to connote a shining purity, the bright gleamingness of the goal or hope ( like a beacon of hope). It simply never occurred to me that it was racist in origin. Just as when we refer to the "Black Death", or "our darkest hour" we don't stop to think whether or not black or dark have anything to do with racial politics. (They don't.)
I was lucky that I did not offend anybody, but I will certainly never use that expression again. I will also call spades shovels rather than spades even though that expression comes to us from ancient Greek literature, almost 2,500 years before anyone used the term 'spade' to refer to an African-American.
Jenkins has apologized and claimed ignorance. We should all give her the benefit of the doubt on this issue. Anyone who really wants to attack her character can surely find much better fodder than this.