Monday, August 25, 2014

Racist, Post-Racist, Hyper-Racist, Why We Can't All Just Get Along?

Courtesy Gregg Richards, Flickr CC
First of all, we can all just get along.

But we often don't.

Whenever the topic of race comes up, most people take it very personally and get defensive and/or accusatory. I'm not a racist, you are. We are all the same race so stop it, there is no such thing as race. Please stop talking. Black people are racist too. Everybody is racist. This is not about race.

And so on.

All the defense mechanisms get trotted out and then the volume goes up and then the room goes silent or things get ugly.

It's not so much what we say as what we carefully don't say that builds tension.

Open your mouth and all the tension burbles up like sludge in an over-full septic tank.

I've thought for some time that racism is damaging because it is systematic and pervasive, because it touches everyone in some horrible, deforming way, because it ignites violence and stokes hate without ever really showing itself in a way everyone can agree on.

The reason we argue about race is because it is so ingrained in American culture, so big and so diffuse and integrated in how we all think and perceive, that we have trouble seeing it clearly, even when it is hurting everyone.

Most white people think that if they are not burning crosses or beating up people with dark skin or using the 'n' word (really, really dislike that phrase 'the n word'), that means they are not racist. Most white people and black people think that people who do use the 'n' word ARE racist.

None of that has anything to do with how racist any one person is or isn't IMO, and I would go so far as to say that I almost don't care about the degree of racism any one person exhibits. Who am I? God? No, I'm just a person living in the U.S., as skewed and infected as anyone else.

Also, I know that focusing on whether or not any single given person is racist is a trap. It starts a conversation that goes nowhere, pumps up tempers, and increases resentment.

But that doesn't mean we can't talk about racism.

We can talk about racism as an institution, a social construct that once justified slavery and now justifies lots of other horrible things, an American disease, and so forth.

The reason I am thinking all these thoughts is because after I wrote my last post about Mr. Anderson, I received some criticism for calling my brother a racist but not showing how he became one.

I realized a couple of things: 1) I did not show how my brother became a racist, I only hinted at where it all started, and 2) Nothing good ever happens after you call anybody a racist, even if that person is wearing a white hood and man-dress, even if that person is a violent psychopath seething with (barely) repressed hatred of anyone different from himself.

After this conversation and accurate yet uncomfortable critique of my blog post, I went to bed and had nonstop nightmares about my brother stabbing me, punching me, hurting me, and so on, and when I woke up the next day I was regretting my personal story-corp experiment.

But I'm not giving up.

The thing is, if you stand up to a bully, no matter what the situation, there will be consequences. Nightmares are the least of those consequences.

So seriously, truly, I 'get' why this country wants to avoid the topic of racism at all costs.

But sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. That's all I'm doing here.

I don't know where I'm going. But I'll know when I get there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mr. Anderson, Janitor Super-Negro

Courtesy Andres Musta Flickr CC
My brother is a little more than a year younger than me, but most people still think he is older because he is 6'4" and was a high school sports celebrity.

He's a big guy. He's my only brother.

He's a psychopath and a racist.

I say this, not out of bitterness or resentment, but as a simple statement of fact.

Oh sure, I've had my bitter, resentful spasms through the years. But that's a different essay.

Back in the early 1960s, while my brother was still a psychopath-in-training and had not yet become a full-fledged racist miscreant, he was just a scrawny kid who liked to jump out from behind things to scare his sister (me), and who drew the same Easter Bunny over and over again for way longer than was appropriate or necessary.

He drew my mother a bunny one Easter and she liked it and pinned it on the refrigerator. When neighbor women would stop by for coffee she'd point it out, and they'd make nice noises.

But then, he drew dozens more Easter Bunnies. He drew a Thanksgiving East Bunny, a Christmas Easter Bunny, a Valentine Easter Bunny, a Mother's Day Easter bunny, and so on and so forth... It got so it was beyond awkward. We all could see something was wrong, and my parents, already badly hobbled in the sanity department themselves, had no idea what to do about it.

Ignore it maybe. Smash it.

In my parents' defense I should mention that this happened way before child psychologists even existed, and lofty notions of instilling 'self-esteem' in children were so alien as to sound heretical. This happened back in the day, when children were supposed to keep quiet and mind their elders, and infractions brought a whipping "for your own good".

Spare the rod and pretty soon you have too damn many rods. Might as well beat your kids.

Not to judge that reality either way. It was what it was.

Anyway, one evening my father, my mother, my brother, and me were sitting at supper together, and my father, by way of making conversation, asked my brother what he wanted to be when he grew up. (He didn't ask me. I was a girl.)

My brother brightened and answered immediately,

"Mr. Anderson!"

I was surprised that my brother actually gave a credible answer instead of choosing, oh, Superman, Zorro, or the Easter Bunny, and I totally 'got' why he chose Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Anderson was one of only two male employees in the entire school. (The other was the science teacher, who wore a crewcut and was kind of scary.)

Whenever anything went wrong, Mr. Anderson came and quietly fixed it. If a kid puked, bled, or peed on the school linoleum, Mr. Anderson came with a coffee can filled with something that looked like eraser shavings, sprinkled it on the disgusting bodily fluid, then swept it up in a dustpan, like magic.

Mr. Anderson was quiet, kind, helpful, and always nearby. He said little and helped much. He showed kids that men are kind, responsible people who take care of messes no one else wants to touch. Men respect women, especially teachers, and help kids.

At six years of age, my brother responded to this, including and maybe especially the magic eraser shavings.

How my father was able to remember that Mr. Anderson was the black grade school janitor I can't imagine, but remember he did, and at hearing my brother's answer his face went three shades whiter, then bright red.

My mother ventured into the thick, charged silence as tentatively as a mouse sniffing about for a cat.

"You can be anything sweetie. You can be an astronaut, a fire fighter, even President!"

I think my father said something about my brother not understanding until he was older. I really don't remember what my father said in response. I do remember the tension, the fear. I saw a beating in my brother's immediate future, and since I was already waiting for that I lost my appetite. I knew the Easter Bunny production line would not shut down anytime soon.

Bad Dad Syndrome. Every working class white kid knows what it is.

Today we do have a black President. We also have black fire fighters, and probably even a black astronaut or two, and my brother no longer draws Easter Bunnies (at least to the best of my knowledge he doesn't--I haven't spoken to him for over twenty-five years).

Most of the janitors around here these days are Mexican.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racial Stories We Never Tell

Ms Parks courtesy Corbin-Benson@FlickrCC 
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, about how white America has all these stories we never tell, stories that are not in the public canon, human stories about race and relatedness and personal history.

Not all of these stories are unhappy, but many of them are.

Not all of them date back to slavery, but some do.

My belief is that as a culture we keep as many secrets about race as we keep about sex, maybe more. If we stopped doing that, it might open up a space for change.

Junio Diaz was once asked if he thought white people would ever be able to write these stories, and he said no, not in his lifetime. Maybe sometime far, far in the future.

I thought maybe I'd use this blog for awhile to tell some of my stories.

I have more of these stories than I really want to have, and I don't have a good place to put them. Many of them make people of all colors and backgrounds uncomfortable.

They are filed in my head right behind the folder entitled, "Pam You Are Freaking Worthless." I don't open that folder anymore if I can help it, and most of the time I forget about the file behind it.

I often wonder how many white-seeming people have such stories.

No one ever tells me theirs.

Here's a small one:

When I was a kid we used to ride the bus downtown all the time and just wander around, getting kicked out of stores occasionally and sometimes getting a soda. This was before malls, before shopping centers, during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

I grew up in the North, in an industrial city south of Detroit. But although my city was on the Underground Railroad, no blacks stopped and stayed until the big factories came in the 40s and 50s, along with a need for lots of factory workers.

I remember black ladies being escorted out of department stores if the tried on hats. Also, if they went in the dressing rooms to try something on, a white saleswoman would go in and ask them not to do that, as if they were somehow dirtier than everyone else.

One day I was riding home on the bus and an elderly white woman got on.

The bus was full, so a black woman seated across from me stood up and offered her seat.

The elderly white woman smiled and then fished around in her purse for a moment, producing one of those flowered cloth handkerchieves. Unfolding it, she daintily spread it across the seat the seat the black woman offered, and then sat down.

The black woman, seeing I had witnessed this sorry scene instead of looking away like the adults did, shook her head sadly. Our eyes met for that moment and I did... nothing.

I was a kid. I probably should have given her my seat, but I got off the bus shortly thereafter.

Now nobody rides the bus in my home city except black people and schizophrenics.

Come back if you want more.

I'll keep going until I run out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

American Apartheid

Not really having a conversation.
Why should white people care about racism?

Trust me, most white people never consciously ask themselves that question, because they already are pretty sure they personally are not oppressing anyone. They feel that if they personally are not racist, then racism is not their problem.

Whenever a racially charged incident occurs in the U.S., lots of pundits start talking about how we "really need to have a serious conversation about race in this country."

That's not what we need.

I've been present at many such discussions, and what usually happens is that five or six white people dressed in J.Crew khakis and polo shirts suck all the air out the room whining that they personally are not racist and they don't like feeling accused.

Usually some excruciatingly tactful and patient black professional takes the time at this point to carefully explain racism as an institution (not a personality trait), at which point the same white people just keep on whining about how no one is showing them any respect.

Right about there, I want to slap one or more them. Hard.

Understand, nothing has been done to me. I have nothing to complain about and I'm not insulted. I'm just embarrassed--no, mortified--that these assholes are the whites who are 'representing', and I begin to feel like it is my job to somehow blow them up so they will stop talking.

So enough of the talking about race nonsense. We talk too much as it is.

Instead, how about we agree, as a society, to fix some stuff.

For instance, because most white people don't think about racism outside stereotypes, ugly remarks, and their own raging narcissism, it has been possible to quietly corral all the poor people of color into huge urban deserts, where nothing is. No schools, no stores, and no cops most of the time.

Integration as a concept for peace has been largely abandoned in favor of something like "just keep it out of my face and out of my kids' school."

So basically we have de facto segregation in most of American society today. It may be a different kind of segregation and a different atmosphere than the Jim Crow days of the pre-Civil Rights Act South, but the effects are every bit as oppressive.

If the recent events in Ferguson have not laid to rest the idea that Americans live in a post-racial society just because Barack Obama is President, I don't know what will.

I keep thinking of the line from that song Crosby, Stills, and Nash song about the Ohio State Vietnam protests that goes, "...what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?"

We can't pretend like we don't know anymore. Some of us have known for a long time.

But now, even those J.Crew idiots need to STFU.

Enough talk.

Time to get to work.