Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Comments On An Ugly Behavior: Racism

Get comfy for this one, kids, it’s going to be long.

I read a great blog today which got me thinking. Please read said blog before reading mine, as I use terms and refer to definitions explained by Robin F., a guest writer for Macon’s blog. It can be found here.

Did you read it? Come on, read it, it’s good… Okay, now that you’re back, here goes. Being among the race of people this blog was addressed to (that is to say, white), I was very interested to take what I had read, examine my life, and see if I had ever made any of these mistakes.

I do not remember ever asking any of my PoC friends to explain racism to me. I knew what racism was. Or at least I thought I did. I can remember the first time it struck me that racism really and truly existed.

Perhaps this realization came to me at a later age than it should have. I had grown up in a very diverse neighborhood and attended very diverse schools up until age ten, when I moved to a mostly white suburb of northern New Jersey. I was starting either the seventh or the eighth grade. There were very few black families living in the town, and thus very few black students who attended the town’s public schools. Over the summer, a black family had moved into town, into a neighborhood that was included along the same school bus route as mine. This family was richer than most in the town, as the father was a mildly famous NBA player (my father got a kick out of playing one-on-one basketball with him during the boring parts of my brother’s Little League game against the athlete’s daughter’s team).

The basketball player also had a son who was a grade behind me in school and rode the same bus as me. One day on the bus, I overheard other students making snide comments about this kid. Racist comments. I couldn’t believe it. The basketball player’s son was likeable, friendly, and had become popular in his new school. I had thought he was also friends with the very kids making these statements. I couldn’t understand why they would put him down, and further, why they would use racist remarks to do it. It was hard to realize that no matter how smart, good-looking, kind, or popular this young man was, there was always going to be an unmovable obstacle in his way.

Of course I cannot remember now what was said, but I do remember asking my mother about it later that day. Up until that point, I had thought the kids making the comments were reasonably likeable and had not had much of a problem with them. Until that moment, racism in my mind had been this ugly, amorphous cloud that had hung over the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and up until the 1960s, but had dissipated since and had not really existed at any point in my lifetime.

Well, you can imagine what happened next. After noticing it for the first time, I started to notice it everywhere. I’m sure you can attribute it to my white privilege that I did not notice it before. I’m sure that kid and his entire family had noticed it and had been dealing with it all of their lives. So what was there for me to do? And since I had previously thought the kids making racist remarks were good people, was I unknowingly guilty of any racist behavior or thoughts myself? Had I ever had a thought or repeated an idea that promoted racist patterns of thinking? Was thinking that Asians were generally very smart racist behavior? Was an innocuous preconception, for example that black people are often better dancers, in fact racist?

I can remember two examples of pervasive racist behavior that had been taught in social studies class. One example was thinking about what you would do if you were walking down a sidewalk by yourself and there was a black man walking down the same sidewalk in your direction. Would you cross the street to avoid passing him because you were nervous he would hurt you? I thought about this. I didn’t think I would, but when was the last time I had been walking alone on a sidewalk? The other example was: If you had to choose between getting on an elevator with a black man or a white man, which elevator would you choose? If you chose the white man, that was supposed to mean you were secretly a racist, or at least that was how my eleven-year-old mind understood the hypothetical scenario. I always thought that I would choose the elevator with the black man, because I had come to associate rapists and serial killers with white men. I was pretty sure my social studies teacher would assume we had all chosen the white man even before she explained what choosing the white man meant, so was I guilty of covering my “true” feelings? And if not, was I then guilty of lateral or reverse racism? (More on reverse racism later in this entry.)

As I’ve gotten older and learned more, I have given this topic much thought. I’ve realized that even small, stereotypical generalizations, like the ones I listed before, are racist patterns of thinking. Though the surface level of the thought or statement may be intended positively, they subtly mask negative thoughts, regardless of whether those who repeat them share the negative opinion. I’ve started to let the guilt (or the fear of secretly being guilty) fall away. I think there are many white people, myself and those I consider friends included, who are not secretly hosting racist opinions. Maybe that’s naïve of me, but that’s what I believe. As Robin wrote in the blog I referred you to, guilt helps no one if that guilt is unwarranted. I shouldn’t feel guilty that I was born white. I should accept that my skin color grants me privileges that others may not be granted. What I should feel guilty about is if I let myself forget this privilege, forget that I am lucky, and start to form perceptions of other people without this privilege in mind.

I also want to write a bit about the idea of reverse racism. As I have now learned (courtesy of Robin F. via Macon), there are two definitions of racism. I am embarrassed, but willing, to admit that I did not know this before. Again, I will direct you to Robin’s post to get a full description of the two definitions. From this point on, I will assume you have read and understand the definitions. Up until this point, I would have spouted off the first definition. Again, chalk that up to my ignorance. However, as I have now read, this is not the accepted definition by many sociologists. This idea strikes me, as I now have a reason for the nagging voice in the back of my head whenever I hear someone bring up reverse racism. In her entry, Robin writes that, “racism is prejudice plus power.” If operating under the assumption that this definition is correct, which I will be, reverse racism cannot exist.

I’ve never been able to put into words why groups like the NAACP and UNCF do not bother me in the slightest, and yet I find the idea of a white counterpart abhorrent (though it does not deal with issues of race, I plan to write one day on my differing opinions of the Bohemian Club and the Belizean Grove). That’s because there can be no counterpart. These groups are reactionary groups. They exist due to the oppression and exclusion PoC experience by a group that holds institutional power. White people who feel offended by such groups should take a moment to think about why there does not need to be a white counterpart. What privileges have you (if you are white) been afforded because of your skin color? Do you really need a group to give you more? Likewise, I can’t imagine being offended if I was called honky or cracker (I never have been). Would you be offended? If so, why? These words have never been associated with years of oppression and suppression of a group of people, as other words have been, so what weight do they carry?

So now I’m going to take this into politics, as I am always wont to do, it seems. Recently, through watching the news, I have heard and seen much racist behavior. Who is this racist behavior directed toward? Why, President Obama, of course. “What?!” I hear you cry. “But you said racism cannot be directed at those who hold institutional power! Isn’t POTUS the most institutionally powerful position there is?” Well, I would have to say that it is. But! I would also say that the election of one black President does not erase centuries of oppression, and that racism cannot be turned on its ugly head over the course of a few months.

President Obama said himself that he was black before the election. He is not new to dealing with issues of race or hate speech that is filled with prejudiced rhetoric. Even as President he is not immune. Though small, there is a very vocal group of people claiming that the President is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and therefore ineligible to serve as her President (including Congressmen! Watch this video). I ask you, would anyone have dared to question any of the previous 43 President’s birthplaces? Especially after documentation was made public? I find it hard to believe that these accusations stem only from the fact that his father was not a citizen. It seems to me that his father being Kenyan and black might be a clearer explanation for these people refusing to accept the facts.

Another example, which sickens me, is that it seems to have become common practice for people to bring firearms to events at which Obama is speaking. Okay, maybe common practice is a bit of an overstatement, but it’s happened more than once recently. Yes, it is absolutely our (as Americans, if you are an American) Constitutional right to own firearms, and to carry and conceal these firearms where that is also allowed. This does not help me sleep at night, but so it goes. What is the point in taking guns to these events? Really?

The only conclusion I can glean from this behavior is that these (white) people are attempting to assert their presumed power and superiority over another group of people by carrying Even-If-You-Are-The-President-You’d-Better-Not-Mess-With-Me-And-My-White-Privilege guns. Hm, I wonder what models those come in. These people are flexing their muscles, as they are threatened by PoC assuming positions of authority. They are essentially saying that they have no intention of allowing PoC to ever overcome years of racism, and that anyone who is going to try would do well to realize that people like them are out there and ready to stop them. I have absolutely no evidence to support this opinion and understand that not everyone agrees with me on this, but I have yet to see examples of this behavior directed at any other President, Democrat or Republican. Maybe I'm showing the level of my paranoia with this opinion, but there it is, and these people scare me. I dread the day one of these gun-toters extends the boundary of our Constitutional right with one of these firearms.

As Robin F. writes, what is there (for white people) to do about all of this? For the millionth time I will refer you to her post that includes her suggestions, as well as Macon’s other entries. I am attempting one of the mentioned tactics, which is to think about your own patterns of thought and behavior and spread these ideas among other white people.

This concludes my entry and I thank Robin F. and Macon for making me think and re-evaluate my own ideas. I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post, but hope you enjoyed reading anyway! Leave me your comments, if you please!

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, and thanks for the link. I'm inspired by your efforts to keep your eyes open, especially to the power that whiteness confers on its bearers. (And, I didn't think this post was disjointed.) Good luck with your new blog!