I have to start by sincerely thanking commenter Leslie for causing me to reflect on these issues. Seriously. The last time I thanked her, I was being a smartass, but I actually mean it this time. It’s like fighting with my husband – he pisses me off, but he also makes me think things through more than I would’ve. I appreciate that.
I took this anti-bias work on knowing that I’d feel like I was banging my head against a wall a lot of the time. And honestly, I have to work very hard not to start basking in feelings of superiority regarding people who rail against my opinions and observations. I admit, I feel so confident that they don’t get it. They are so typical, so ignorant, so clueless and I’m so much more “with it.” It’s a kind of schadenfreude – feeling stronger in the face of another’s shortcomings.
Feeling superior helps nothing, advances nothing that I claim to be fighting for. It is a waste of my time, and there is more productive energy for me to harness elsewhere. It’s hard, though. Reading the angry comments on my blog, I think of dozens of snarky responses, little digs that I can use to insult, tease or frustrate the commenter. It takes an enormous effort not to say just one little thing in response – maturity is an ongoing process, I guess. I suppose I do this out of frustration, because I feel so powerless in the face of the multitudes of people who don’t think that prejudice is a huge problem, who attack the victims of oppression, and who accuse me and others of “playing the race card.” (Oh GOD that makes me mad!) But I have to remember how much I’ve learned in the past year, and how learning has changed my opinions. I would appreciate forgiveness or understanding for the prejudicial, stereotype-based, generally ignorant things I’ve certainly said and done (some more recent than others). So my challenge is to be gracious, and extend that forgiveness and understanding to others. My compromise is to address some issues that this discourse has brought up.
If you defend someone else’s humanity, is that the same as speaking for them? In standing up for those whose story you do not share, do you take something away from them?
I guess I have to start by saying I have a problem with the concept of “Every man for himself.” The idea that we must stand alone and “fight our own battles” is glorified in our stories (including what we refer to as “history”). We live in a highly individualist society. We’re taught that if we do for ourselves and make our own way, then we have succeeded. We have grown up. We have made it. On our own, we’ve truly made it.
By that logic, it would make sense that African Americans should not take a stand against injustice against other groups. After all, we’ve got enough of our own problems, right? We’ve got plenty to worry about without taking on other people’s issues, right?
But are the issues we refer to as “our own problems” really solely ours? Police brutality, job discrimination based on skin color or cultural affiliation and disregard, ridicule and misunderstanding in the educational system happen to all oppressed people, not just African Americans. These are everyone’s problems.
Racial justice is more than a black-white issue. It’s multifaceted, involving not only multiple races, but also power dynamics, which are informed by class, gender, ability and the shifting circumstances of bias and inclusion. To that reasoning, I cannot claim to agree that it’s a good idea to stand alone and fight “your own battles.” To some this may brand me as a baby or a coward, fearful and powerless. Such branding, is a very clever trick. It tricks us into doing the work of keeping ourselves and each other down, snatching crumbs from each other, instead of looking for the loaf, as it were.
If we stand alone, ruggedly individual, accepting no assistance, how many of us will actually succeed? A few. Precious few. And those few success stories often learn on their way up that they should guard what they’ve got, because goddammit, they’ve earned it, and no one else deserves it.
I think if we stand together, help each other and approach problems with each other in mind, we may go more slowly and we may not get to the same place if we’d been traveling alone. But I think more of us will have more success (instead of a small few of us having moderate-to-lots of success), and we’ll enjoy it more. Imagine if all of the people who suffered from police brutality stood together, in solidarity, and attacked the system that supports that kind of abusive behavior. Imagine what would happened if individuals stopped attacking individuals, and networks of people started attacking systems of oppression.
Which brings me to this point: If I see racial injustice being perpetrated against someone who does not share my ethnicity, culture, religion, skin color, etc., I’m going to do my best to say something against that behavior. Not because I think that others are incapable of speaking for themselves, or that I know something that the target group doesn’t know.
I just think that injustice for anyone is injustice for everyone. If something is wrong, it’s wrong whether it happens to me, my sister, my neighbor or my enemy. I can only speak for myself, and I personally find injustice worth speaking against in any situation. I think that if you justify silently watching (or participating in) others be mocked, abused, disregarded, etc. simply because it’s not happening to you, that is fear in action. Cowardice if you will. I’m trying to be stronger, to defeat the cowardice that lives in me that would stand by and say “Sorry, not my problem.”
I know my little blog is a drop in the bucket of millions of voices. As far as I know, I have more success sorting out my own mind than changing anyone else’s. This blog is a record of my personal process, and the work that I do to be a less-biased, more justice-centered human being. It is flawed and imperfect. I am doing this publicly, because my hope is that someone can look at my process, with its flaws and problems and occasional successes and possibly feel better about taking some step toward decreasing the injustice in the world, no matter how small and imperfect.
From Resist Racism: How does racism harm white people?
Some thoughtful responses, worth taking a look at.
Why I am a Critic of Bigoted Behavior (artistic though it may be): Wrapping up the tiny saga of correspondence with “Juliette and the Licks.”
Indeed, I aspire to the cool, even-handed kind of response that commenter leslie has demonstrated here. Thanks, leslie, for raising the bar, and not expressing any vitriol toward me in your responses. You’re right, I probably will continue to be a critic.
I am well aware that children have been dressing up as “indians” for generations, as well as dressing up as the cowboys that would shoot them. I am aware of the cartoon characters, and the sports team mascots, and the way that Americans toss around their interpretation of the image of “the indian” for their own entertainment without so much as a “Sorry about annihilating and devastating your cultures, families and ways of living!” I find that offensive. I find it upsetting that more people don’t find it offensive, or don’t speak up when they do. I know speaking up is incredibly hard for a lot of us (and I say us intentionally), so I feel good about doing it when I can.
For more on stereotyping of Native Americans, here’s a link to some information. It’s a resource designed for teachers.
There are a lot of behaviors that piss me off. Not every day, but often. You’ll find that most people of color (and women, and people of size, and people with disabilities and a host of other people who experience oppression) actually have plenty of legitimate opportunities to be pissed-off everyday, multiple times a day. Not because we’re oversensitive, or because we need to make some change in ourselves. But because this country treats us like crap. We are treated like crap for entertainment. We are treated like crap as a matter of public policy. We are treated like crap simply out of habit, because that’s how people learn to relate to these groups. As though they were less worthy. It’s woven into the fundamental fabric of our everyday lives, to treat these groups of people like crap – has been for generations. That’s why when people make sexist or size-ist or homophobic or racist jokes, it’s seldom that anyone actually says, “That’s not cool – I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff.” That’s why people will argue for hours that it’s been scientifically proven that black people are less intelligent that whites and we should just learn to be okay with that (Wired magazine online, in the wake of that Nobel prizewinner’s asshat comments).
For more on confronting bias and prejudice in everyday situations at work, home and school, check out ‘Responding to Everyday Bigotry’ on the Teaching Tolerance website.
I feel that as a person of faith, who believes very strongly in bringing my personal convictions into action, I am betraying myself spiritually, and neglecting my duties as a citizen if I don’t challenge things that I find to be morally and/or socially problematic. I have a right and a responsibility to respond to injustice and oppression in ways that match my convictions.
The whole purpose of this blog is reflection on bias, especially for the purpose of improving my own practices. This experience reminds me what strong and often intensely aversive reactions people have to this work, and more specifically, the ways that I may do this work that I feel is so clearly important. I struggle with finding a balance between representing myself honestly in my confrontations (which are often enacted on the fuel of emotion – often anger), and being gentle enough in my approach that people will listen and not write me off out of anger or defensiveness. I definitely need to improve in this area. I tried to do so in my original letter to Juliette and the Licks. I was very careful to address Juliette’s behavior, and not Juliette as a person. I was working to maintain a tone that was not insulting or preachy – I edited for a while… I’m not convinced from leslie’s analysis (as in-depth as it was) that I sounded that bad. I’m open to other comments, though. I’ll keep working on achieving that balance.
PS – This alternative critique of Ms. Lewis’ fashion decisions is awesome! I’m not good at this – using humor to get my point across. I really admire people who can do it. Love, -a-
So, they responded rather promptly – I appreciate that. This was my reply:
And then, their subsequent response was this:
Alas. I tried, right?
If she’s a warrior, why isn’t she wearing a helmet or a bullet-proof vest, or at least carrying some kind of weapon? Oh – wait, careless, oblivious ignorance is her weapon. And privilege is her bullet-proof vest. Right? Is that it? I don’t know…
More to come.
(Sent to the myspace account of Juliette and the Licks, in response to Ms. Lewis’ feathered-headdress-as-rock-and-roll-image.)
Hi Juliette (or if not Juliette, Hi Whomever Is Reading This Message),
Someone recently called to my attention how you use a feathered headdress as a part of your “Rock and roll warrior” image. I checked out your website and myspace – it seems like you’ve been using it pretty extensively, and how other people are imitating it at your concerts.
Heads up – the way that you are using of this symbol, which is a clear (and from the gist of what I read of your comments, intentional) reference to “native americans,” is careless and really pretty disrespectful.
I’m not writing this message to jump on your ass, or pretend like I’m some superior person. I have nothing to gain from that. And this has nothing to do with whether or not I like your work (from what I’ve heard, it sounds reasonably cool – kudos for following a different path).
I’m putting this out there because I can’t complain about anything anyone does if I’m not willing to back it up with some action that seeks to change things. And you should have a chance to learn about what people are saying, and change the behavior and (more importantly) the system that supports it, if you are so inclined.
You’re in a position to be heard by a lot of people, and the image you’re putting out there takes advantage of the painful history of native americans in this country without paying any respect to it. This is problematic in the extreme. (And I say ‘native americans’ specifically because your feathers refer to an idea and not any real tribe or nation, from what I can tell.)
Please check this out this myspace conversation on my friend’s blog for a much more elegant and passionate articulation about why:
Thanks for listening, and Peace
In the works: Commentary on the educator training phenomenon of Ruby Payne and her army of consultants. I’ll take a look at what her company is doing, why it’s so popular, and what it means for Payne’s lessons to be spread so far and wide.
|1.||a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.|
|2.||a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.|
|3.||hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.|
[Origin: 1865–70; racisme. See race2, -ism]
racist, noun, adjective
|Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
|rac·ism (rā’sĭz’əm) Pronunciation Keyn.
rac’ist adj. & n
|1.||the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races|
|2.||discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race|
The belief that some races are inherently superior (physically, intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them. In the United States, racism, particularly by whites against blacks, has created profound racial tension and conflict in virtually all aspects of American society. Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.
[Chapter:] American Politics
The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved
As time goes on, I am confronted with many issues of bias that I generally think are important topics for discussion. The main topic of this blog is to inform my personal practice of anti-bias advocacy, especially in regard to working with young children. I find this topic to be of particular significance because it speaks to the dynamics of engaging in discussions about racism, which are essential to developing effective anti-bias education and training for adults who are in positions to influence the lives of children.
I don’t know how much anyone is keeping up with the various controversies in race and culture these days, but there seem to be quite a lot of ‘blackface parties’ going on. A lot of white people dressing up and acting out stereotypes of black people (or other races), getting caught with pictures posted on the internet, and then maybe sort of apologizing. Apologies range from reasonably sincere “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong – I’m really sorry” to the indignant “I don’t see what the big deal is – we didn’t do anything wrong and we’re not racists, and why are you so offended, we’re just having fun, etc.”
And then there’s Shirley Q. Liquor. More on that later.
Anyway, I have been reading blogs about these blackface parties, most recently involving two religious organizations – a christian school and a church. Riverdale Christian Academy hosted a graduation party for students with a Southern Plantation theme. Adult employees of the school put on a pageant of the antebellum era, painting themselves brown and dressing up as slaves. There was a skit during which a runaway slave was retrieved. At the church in North? Carolina, during a church fundraiser, a group of members got brown to celebrate some traditional black spirituals that they love so well.
That these things happen at all is disheartening to me. But I’ve become pretty accepting of (though not complacent in) the fact that there’s a lot of fucked-up stuff going on in this great country of ours (and the world at large).
What gets to me, though, is what goes on in the ‘comments’ sections whenever anyone reports or blogs about these things. Even knowing that blog commenters aren’t necessarily representative of the majority opinion (though I have no proof that they aren’t), I find it truly disturbing how many people are totally removed from the fact that this kind of behavior is offensive. And hurtful. And harmful. Here are some quotes from discussion of Riverdale’s party on Tate Hill’s blog, Urban Knowledge
“Who is hurt from what happened???? Nobody was hurt or offended unless they chose to be. Stop venting these vendettas against people of a different race. It has already been said, it’s not offensive for the roles to be reversed. Get over what happened. People do skits and depictions of bad things that have happened in history. There have been plays about the holocaust, no one would be offended. If anything, it would raise awareness of what happened, to act as a reminder. There are things that happen every day that could be “offensive” some just choose to not wear feelings on their sleeves. This is not Michael Richards screaming the “N” word in a crowded theatre. To my knowledge there is no accusation of inappropriate words or actions other than their faces painted black.
And….hasn’t this church already issued a statement saying that they are sorry if they offended ANYONE. That is a very blanket apology. Raise your hand if you want them to come visit your house and kiss your feet. Perhaps that would make you feel better.
By 5:28 PM “, at
One thing makes me really suspicious of these comments, though, is the fact that essentially, they’re all the same. Or rather, they’re mostly the same. There are about 7-10 variations on a theme going. Personally, I read that as people who are uncomfortable confronting their won discomfort falling back on slogans and ideas they’ve picked up over the years to justify or hide their prejudices, which they don’t know how to come to terms with. That example that actually features several of the variations, including
- ‘They chose to be offended,’
- ‘Get over it,’ (i.e. ‘This is uncomfortable, please stop talking about it’),
- ‘The “Role Reversal Theory” (i.e. ‘Why aren’t white people entitled to do the same things minorities do in exactly the same ways?’),
- and the very popular “Nobody said ‘n——‘… what’s the problem?”
This quote was also noteworthy, and segues well into my next point:
“I am so confused, I thought racism was saying or at least acting like you hate someone or something. I am missing the racism in what these people did. They depicted a time in the past and how it was reconciled. HOW WAS THAT RACIST????? Is there anyone on this blog that was a slave???? I don’t think so. You’re blaming these people for something that happened…what!??? not to you???Amazing. Taking on someone else’s burden, how…how.. Christian of you. While you’re at it, go for blood.
By 5:08 PM“, at
I had a friend in high school whose mother claimed that she herself couldn’t be a racist because she did not spit on black people. Which brings me to my next point – and back to the discussion of definitions and semantics: in these blog conversations about racism, it is clear that there are a few distinctly different ways of defining racism, and 2 particular ways emerge:
1) Racism is intentional acts of hate and discrimination. Racism is evil, and racist people are bad. People espousing this idea seem to believe that they must approve their own personal participation in racist behavior, and therefore if you didn’t try to or mean to hurt anyone, then you haven’t done anything racist. Conversely, racism is context-specific, so if it is not directed at you, then it does not affect you. This idea centers on intentionality, and fits nicely with the general American ideal of autonomy and the notion that the only person who can tell you who you are is YOU.
2) Racism is a system of oppression backed by institutional power. People behind this idea have generally heard it described in this specific way through some academic or social justice-based encounter. In this context, racism is described as a harmful social structure that must be ‘deconstructed.’ In this view, people of color cannot be considered racist, as their prejudices are not backed by institutional power. This definition often leaves people in the Notion 1 group baffled and alienated, thinking Notion 2 espousers to be irrational and unfair, as it seems to place all responsibility for racism squarely at the feet of white people and goes against the commonly held (and seemingly more comfortable) belief that “everyone’s a little racist,” as racism is seen more as emotive than socially constructed. Also, Notion 2 resembles the dictionary’s definition less than Notion 1, rendering it useless for many.
And of course there are gradations in-between. But these are the principle views that come out from what I’ve read. And I think this misunderstanding is a large part of the breakdown of conversations about racism and race relations – how meaning can make or break a conversation: is racism individual, intentional and context specific, or is it systemic and unavoidable – something you must try NOT to be a part of? These are dramatically different ideas, and if people are going to attempt to engage in any kind of dialog on racism, let alone work to stop, then the differences in their ideas about racism must be addressed and to some degree resolved. Otherwise, where one sees a problem, the other does not.
My opinion is that we’ve really got to stop raising children to believe that racism is evil, and that people who do racist things are necessarily bad people. Children who grow up thinking that only bad people participate in racism will become adults who are unable to recognize their own prejudices (that they are bound to have at some point) without having a crippling identity crisis that stops their potential for anti-racist development dead in it’s tracks. And they won’t be able to recognize racism in others constructively, without judgment and blaming, effectively closing the ears of the accused to any potential lesson. This happens again and again. And it’s more than unproductive – it is counterproductive. It is harmful. This system of meaning perpetuates a cycle of silence and misunderstanding.
In addition to paying particular attention to our meanings, we also need to examine our goals in conversations about racism and other forms of oppression. Why are we engaged in dialog? What outcome do we want? Is it to address problematic behaviors? Or is it to out someone as “a racist”? Are we making the effort to clarify someone’s position, or perhaps just reassert our own? Will we shame others into silence, or listen, and perhaps see their hearts revealed?
This might be a good time to bring up Shirey Q. Liquor. When I initially heard of this character (a white man portraying a black “welfare mother” in blackface) I was incensed and horrified. The more I read about it, the more convinced I was that this performer was on some serious bullshit. Than I brought it up with my husband, who is my biggest devil’s advocate. He got me to pay attention to the information I was reading, and then eventually watch some of the performances (thanks, YouTube), to develop a truly informed opinion.
Now I am certain that Shirley Q. Liquor is disrespectful, ill-informed, harmful, and extremely problematic. But because I listened to my husband and watched the performances, I know why I feel that way. Before it was based on a purely visceral reaction and I dismissed the act out of hand. Now I can articulate that the contrived “ebonics” accent and blackface makeup create a farce that does not reference itself, only the behavior it mimics. I can say that this performer might have created a character that creates empathy for single, black mothers in poverty if he had treated the character with more genuine respect, instead of mocking vulnerable women and their families for the sake of making money and garnering public attention.
Now I can see that initially, I wanted to assert my opinion about this performance without seeing it firsthand, and I wanted anyone I spoke with to assume that because it was me saying it, that my critically uninformed opinion would be enough.
My point is, that not only do we have to clarify and articulate our own meanings, but we also have to find out where other people are coming from, and make sure they are saying what we think they are saying. In fact, the act of listening will help us explain our own thoughts more clearly and relevantly.
The universe gives me so much to write about – I’ll try not to get overwhelmed and post again soon.
I’ve been reading a particular conversation online about racism and ‘reverse racism’ and the denial of white privilege. It’s got me thinking about the definitions of words and how the general populace has no working definition, no reasonable common vernacular with which to discuss systems of oppression. So when we start arguing, we’re not really ever arguing about the same things.
Of course, now that I think of it, this is true with most systems of meaning. We skim the surface with each other, taking connotations for granted and not examining the roots of the language we use, sharing little in regard to the subtleties and deeper meanings of the words and phrases we toss around.
I try to be precise in my use of language – often failing, but usually trying. I get lazy like everyone, I fall back on “You know what I mean.” You know what I mean. You know what I mean? I pause and wonder ‘Will they get what I’m trying to say?’ and ideally I’ll slow down, clarify, ask questions. Less-than-ideally, I’ll plow forward, hoping that they’ll figure it out.
Feminism and racism are explosive kinds of words. Loaded. These words are rarely able to sneak into a conversation, especially when converted into their related noun and adjective forms: eyebrows raise, blood pressure begins to rise, and the way is laid for explanations, arguments, defenses, accusations, denials, subject changes and uncomfortable silences. I wonder, though, how often do we use these words (and others like them) and really try to make sure our partners in conversation know what me mean. You cannot be responsible for another person’s understanding, but you can at least work hard to be clear about what you mean. For example, when I refer to feminism, I seldom say “…meaning the struggle against sexist oppression.” Such a description might be helpful toward keeping the conversation going, as many people begin to search for a way out of a conversation where the concept of feminism is introduced, because for them it signifies irrational, angry women on a mad rampage (among other things).
I should probably be explaining myself better. I should be asking more questions, like “What do you know about feminism?” or “What does ‘feminism’ mean to you?”
I should probably be talking less in general. I am one of those people who can talk themselves into a downward-spiraling vortex if I don’t watch myself.
So, anyway, I’ve been reading this heated blog conversation about racism and as usual, the participants and commenters each appear to have a different understanding of what the word ‘racism’ means, and what the difference is between racism and prejudice. In regard to ‘reverse racism’ participant, a highly intellegent and reflective woman named Kali made this point:
“The bottom line is that your argument about “reverse racism” is unsupportable. It’s been ably refuted in the literature on race relations by everyone from Omi & Winant, to Patricia Williams, to bell hooks, to Derrick Bell, to Beverley Daniels — historians, legal scholars, humanities scholars and psychologists. No one with any credibility in the field of race relations believes in it. It’s the racial equivalent of men crying out they’re being oppressed by “feminazis.” As a diversity trainer, you should know better than to repeat that sort of nonsense.”
In response to that, someone made this valid point:
“And surely you are not saying that simply because past and present “historians, legal scholars, humanities scholars and psychologists” have refuted what DG said, that we should all just say, ‘Hey, everything that can be said about this has been said…no need to talk any further on the subject…dead topic…’ “
So, who gets to define what these words mean – in this case, ‘racism’? Obviously there are dictionary definitions. But American english as we speak it has its own forms of oppressiveness, and any dictionary that defines racism will more than likely be doing so through the cloudy lens of racism. American Heritage actually has a Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which I was hopeful about, until I read within their definition of racism that
“…Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.”
The problem here is that this definition suggests that the civil rights movement emliminated the institutionalization of white domination over black people. This is inaccurate. Dictionaries are viewed as documents of high authority, often deemed as the height of accuracy. So when the dictionary tells people that white domination is no longer institutionalized due to the civil rights movement, what does that mean? It means it is a source that we cannot trust to define these terms.
As Kali referenced, there are many great minds who have put forth functional definitions of terms in the lexicon of race relations, but while those are valid and useful for some of us, how do we convince others that such definitions could be valid and useful for them, too? Can we have a conversation using common terms? Is it even possible?
There is much more to be said, but we’ve got places to go and I’ve kept my child waiting long enough. To be continued…
When I first realized that I was not being noticed because I was essentially invisible to a group of people, it was quite painful. My ego could barely stand such a notion – surely not I? I admit to being something of a megalomaniac, so the idea of my goddess self going unnoticed by mere mortals was a hard blow to take.
Beyond all of that, as people we just generally have a lot invested in being. Existing. When that gets challenged, a struggle ensues.
So, I noticed a blog linked to this one and I went to investigate – it was lainad – one of my favorite blogher.org contributors. She’d written something in her own blog, Writing is Fighting (LOVE the title!) on this topic after reading Me and White Guys… Part 1, sharing an account of her own experience of invisibility-induced trauma. This, in turn, got me thinking about another incident, which I described in response to her post. I’ll share it here, for your reference:
I was at a Chicago Public Radio panel discussion on race relations with my husband and daughter (who was about 6 months old at the time). There was a meal served afterwards, and the radio personalities were mingling and chatting with everyone. I happened to be on the food line right in front of the event’s moderator (who’s name I can’t remember), who’s a moderately well-known radio personality in Chicago. And as I stood there, waiting for the line to progress, a man (a white man) walked excitedly up to the radio dude, and placed himself between us, literally pushing me (however nudgingly gently), as though I hadn’t been there. And there it was – the rage, the shame, the shock of invisibility and out-and-out rudeness. He was so eager to get in with the radio guy (who didn’t notice me either) that he was willing to negate my existence to do it.
Besides all of the typical reasons for being upset about this kind of thing, I was also feeling the exhaustion that comes from being a new parent. I was just glad to be out of the house, and for a few moments, not holding a baby. And it was ruined.
Incidentally, this guy who nudged me out of his way was also the same guy (that guy) who stood up during the panel discussion q&a and stated that he wasn’t a racist, and why don’t black people take back their communities, poverty is so sad, if you tried harder you’d be able to overcome, blah, blah, blah (sorry – hyperbolic paraphrasing in effect).
Anyway – after stewing about it, I happened to run into the guy again coming out of the bathroom. I couldn’t take it, I had to say something. Maybe because I was holding my daughter in my arms, and I couldn’t bear the idea of not standing up for myself when she was watching. So I did.
“Excuse me – earlier, waiting in line for the food, you pushed me out of the way so you could get to [Radio Dude], and I really didn’t appreciate that.”
(Smiling, fumbling over words)”Oh – I’m sorry – I didn’t mean anything by it.”
I don’t remember what I said after that. Nothing particularly dynamic or scathing. I remember thinking ‘That’s a fuckin’ weak apology – I don’t care what you meant by it, you’re an asshole.’ I remember feeling like he was less interested in expressing contrition and more interested in getting back to the party. I definitely remember still being pissed.
But I’ll tell ya, I did feel better than if I hadn’t said anything at all.
I hadn’t thought about this incident until I read Laina’s post, at which point it all came back to me in an instant. The internal struggle I’d had over being bumped out of this guys’ way was overwhelming in its intensity. And so much of my anger came from the fact that the situation had the power to effect me in such a way. Imagine how often people feel this kind of anger and shame everyday – how it is unleashed and left to fester or grow. These things don’t just dissipate – they continue to live inside us, and will eventually get out somehow.
I wonder what it must be like to be on the other side of this dynamic. I wonder how many white guys are wandering around the world, knocking women and people of color toward and over the margins, oblivious to the trail of wreckage they leave behind. I wonder how many actually notice that they’ve tripped over an actual human being, and as Laina submitted, don’t know what to do and solve their quandary by pretending not to see us. How much of this behavior is pretending and how much is oblivion due to complete self-absorption, induced by privilege?
I know I can’t effectively practice anti-bias and generalize about white guys. But I do recognize that these trends occur for a reason.
I’ve met white guys who are nearly desperate to give the impression of having shed their privilege. I can’t say I blame them – when you look closely at white male privilege, and how it has affected everyone else in the world, it’s pretty ugly. No one wants to be a part of something that most people in the world hate. So they distance themselves from it, or deny that it exists. There are some people who are actually making a real and sincere effort to overcome their racism and privilege by not only admitting that it exists, but attempting to actively lay it down when the opportunity arises and lay down their weapons of unbalanced power. This is, of course, rare (to say the least).
I am torn. I do not want to demonize white guys. I want accountability for damaging behavior. I want to be forgiving. But I find it nearly impossible to forgive people who are indifferent to my existence and ways they may have hurt me and others. Dr. Black Girl Pain at Blogs in the Key of Life, wrote something about black people and forgiveness that I relate to on many points, and find to be relevant to this issue:
“Isn’t there’s a better way we can handle white folks? One that doesn’t involve us spitting in their faces and going upside their heads everytime they pass, but doesn’t involve us forgetting what’s been done to us as a people and acting as if they’re our saviors?” Read more here…
So, yeah. I find it so difficult to be forgiving and express my understanding. But I have to find a way to do it somehow, because the way that I want to be, and the work that I do demands that I do so. It’s difficult, though.
That’s all for now.
In the aftermath of Michael Richards’ racist tirade, I’m thinking about the things he said and the reactions I’ve been reading in blogs. It has me wondering about people who do not hold claim to African American identity and history: how many of them have any idea of the effect these kinds of things have on us?
I wonder how many people consider the epoch of slavery, and the following years of socially sanctioned hatred and abuse against free blacks as a healed wound? For many, the very idea of slavery is hidden behind layers of ignorance. A short section in a few history classes, that no one was really asked to think about. Portrayals in movies, usually Alex Haley’s Roots, with little opportunity for engaging conversation on what such a history might mean to people today. Whatever exposure people have to this history, it is certainly not ongoing. It is compartmentalized, usually into Black History Month (I saw bell hooks give a lecture at Northwestern University and she called it ‘Negro Employment Month’ – I laughed so hard!).
So people are able to think about “The Past” (including, but not limited to slavery, lynchings, segregation, and the general systematic denial and/or obstruction of rights) as being over and done with. No longer an issue. I get the feeling that some people are thinking about these things as a single issue, and that the issue has been resolved. I’m wondering how many people are thinking along these lines. How many people do I walk by every day, how many people do I talk to, smile at, hold the elevator for – that really believe that lynching is something that happened in the past, and that there’s no connection to it now?
Some things will always be painful. What has happened in the history of this country that these wounds should be healed? The Emancipation Proclamation? No. Desegregation? Also no. Civil rights? Hardly. Every advance made by people of color in America has been through a hailstorm of hatred and contempt. Contempt is poisonous, and in this country, we get dosed with it every day. Like mercury in the water supply – we don’t even know that we’re drinking it, and that it’s making everybody crazy.
This is the metaphor I’ve come up with: Slavery was us being put in a meat grinder. That’s not happening anymore. But when we weren’t being put through the meat grinder anymore, we were still being shot at, trapped, vivisected and occasionally still “accidentally” getting knocked into the meat grinder. This went on for generations, then when the “Civil Rights Era” happened, it was clear that the meat grinder was no longer publicly sanctioned, and all other forms of hunting and trapping were strongly discouraged. But so many traps were set, that we still get caught in them. And the weapons have evolved, so a lot of people either don’t know they’re using them, or know full well that they’re using them, and that they won’t be held accountable.
In the meantime, we haven’t forgotten the meat grinder. Or any other stabbings, bludgeonings, shootings, etc. And we’re still bleeding and scared.
When people are cavalier about other people’s post-traumatic stress, they undo some of whatever healing may have happened. Then our minds and souls have to revisit our trauma and put energy into healing ourselves again, and this process is painful (this is why people should not make jokes about being raped, or use the word ‘rape’ lightly. You could really fuck up somebody’s day by ripping open the scars of their trauma).
So, when Michael Richards says (on stage, with a microphone) “Fifty years ago, you’d have been hanging from a tree with a fork up your ass!” He’s not just making a horrible, horrible, horrible faux pas. He is invoking something much bigger than he – a painful history of power, hatred, fear and terror. Yes, American terrorism. He’s unleashing that torrent on everyone who hears his words, and I believe that for the reasons that I’ve just explained, it will be particularly disturbing for any black Americans who experience it.
All this to say history is not just in the past. It is all around us, we experience it everyday because we carry it with us with every step, every action, every word. Take care with what you say and do, and don’t take “The Past” for granted. It can still hurt.