slammerkinbabe: (shades of gray)
You know, I've been following this story about Obama's pastor in only the most cursory of ways. I saw a bleeped-out clip of part of it on TV, and thought a.) that he had said "God fuck America" (who bleeps out "damn"?), b.) that that was inappropriate, and c.) that he was talking primarily about the war in Iraq. (I should note that even though I thought it was an inappropriate and un-nuanced thing to say, I was figuring that he had said more nuanced things in the rest of the speech that had been eliminated from the sound byte.) When I became aware that he had said "God damn America" and that he was talking primarily about race relations here in America, my opinion that it was inappropriate slipped quite a few notches. And now I don't really know what to think.

I appreciate Obama's remarks on the subject: his repeated assertion that you can respect someone and consider them an important part of your life without agreeing with everything they have to say; his remark that the problem with the reverend's remarks was not that he talked about racism in America, but that he implied that it was a static situation, that there had been no progress and could be no progress. Because there has been a great deal of progress, and there is still a great deal more to be made, and you just can't discount either of those facts. You can't discount the first because it shows that progress is in fact possible. You can't discount the second because you can't give up.

But I am beginning to get very, very edgy with the responses to this. I'm getting very edgy that the minister (whose name I can't even remember right now, isn't that awful?) is becoming so demonized in the media. I'm getting very edgy that the general consensus that the media is portraying is that there was nothing redeeming about his speech, that Obama needs to distance himself entirely from it all, that the nation as a whole is reacting in horror to the ideas presented and that it needs to be rejected in toto.

Because I have been reading a whole lot of books about the history of race relations in America recently. I just finished reading Mildred D. Taylor's whole series of books about the Logan family -- apart from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I'd never read any of them -- which are astonishingly nuanced and well-written and thought-provoking and are all the more astonishing for presenting such complex matters in a way that works so well in the YA format. I spent some time rereading Octavia Butler's Kindred. Reading stuff by Walter White, longtime secretary of the NAACP from its inception through the civil rights era. Right now I'm reading Randall Kennedy's Nigger: A Short History of a Troublesome Word. (And facing the issue of, if I read this in public, how do I hold the cover to obscure the title? Should I hold the cover to obscure the title? I haven't felt able to brandish that word for the world to see, somehow.)

I've been reading so much of this stuff and I have had the privilege, as a white girl, never to have had it impact my life directly -- at least, not in any way I could perceive. I have had the privilege of believing that all that was in the past, that when slavery ended it was over and no longer affected our country, that lynching was over and done with so long ago it didn't matter anymore. I thought we could live in the present, in terms of racial relations, without having the past matter.

And as I've been reading, I just can't... I can't see it that way anymore. It rocks me to learn about the realities of lynching, to realize that there was a time in the lifetime of many people who are still alive today that a black person could be killed by whites, for no reason other than that they felt like it, and nothing would be done. The law did not exist for blacks. President Roosevelt called lynching "a states' rights issue": he equivocated on passing anti-lynching laws because, apparently, states had the right to determine on their own whether blacks could be murdered with impunity.

And there are people alive today who lived through those times, and I cannot see how we can tell them it's over -- not just because the last lynching in this country is not nearly as long ago as we like to think it was, and not just because racism is very much alive and well in contemporary society (a subject I'm not addressing in this post because on account of what I've been reading, my current musings are on the subject of how the past affects the present; see the comments for further elucidation of my POV here) -- but also because that is the sort of thing that just... it lives on long after its physical presence has passed. The memories, the emotions, the ingrained fear and mistrust. It lives on, I am sure, even in those who weren't alive through that time, those whose parents or grandparents were alive in that time, because we are shaped by our families and by our families' lives as well as our own experiences. My mother still consciously and vocally mistrusts Russians because she lived through the Cold War and because one of them got in a car accident with her and then defrauded her insurance company. How can she argue that blacks need to get over the past history of racism in this country when she still hasn't gotten over some Russian guy raising her insurance premiums for a couple of years?

I don't know. This post is lengthy and wandering off-topic and just not making that much sense. I think what I am trying to say is that it makes me feel very, very icky when I hear white people telling black people they need to be less angry about racism in this country. That's what I see happening in the media in response to Obama's pastor's speech, and that's what I wish would stop. I wish we could listen not just to the words, but to the history and the emotions behind the words.

I guess, in the end, I wish that a whole lot of white people in this country would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening on the subject of race. I wish it, I guess, from my own experience. I had the privilege for a lot of years of not having to listen. I thought, moreover, that I could speak loudly and confidently without first having listened. I'm ashamed of that now. Now that I'm trying to do more listening, I'm ashamed.
slammerkinbabe: (I blame the patriarchy)
It’s Blog Against Racism Week. I keep wanting to write a long entry about racism. I keep on getting hung up.

But I’ve been reading lots of really, really trainwrecky threads that have arisen this week. Threads that come up when someone makes a post to say “Hey, guys, have you ever considered [this] about racism and white privilege?” and the response is immediate and almost derangedly angry. [Note: I am not calling out anyone on my flist - the worst of this has happened off my flist entirely.] “NO I HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT THAT AND I WON’T BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE WHITE PRIVILEGE! I’M POOR AND I’M A WOMAN AND THOSE ARE NOT PRIVILEGED THINGS AND YOU’RE BEING RIDICULOUS BECAUSE THE WAY THIS SOCIETY IS IS JUST THE WAY THIS SOCIETY IS AND ANYWAY I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING SO JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”

I mean, people get really heated.

And I just have this to say. “White privilege”, as a concept, is not limited to any one person, and a person’s possession of it is not an indictment of that person’s character. We live in a patriarchal society in which institutional racism has been the norm since its conception. Let me emphasize that. Institutional racism has been the norm in this society since its conception. It’s not the same as individual racism, and it’s something that started long before we were born.

But just because it started before we were born, we are not excused from the need to examine it. With an open mind. Thoughtfully. Not defensively.

It’s the defensive aspect that shuts down almost all discussions on this subject, or turns them into trainwrecks. People hear “white privilege” or “institutional racism” and they think “ZOMG THIS PERSON JUST CALLED ME A RACIST.” And, I mean, in that one word, there is a *lot* of negative baggage. Calling someone a racist, in a lot of people’s minds, is to put that person in the same category as the people who owned slaves, lynched blacks, and endorsed the construction of “separate but equal” laws and facilities. People get really pissed when they think they’re being told that they’re bad people in the same way that slave owners were bad people. And they get defensive, and they get angry, and that angry defensiveness completely shuts down all further discourse.

And people who don’t have that anger are accused of having “white guilt”. And you know what? It does feel guilty. It feels guilty to be a part of a race that has the kind of disgraceful history with respect to race relations that the whites here in America do. We get freaked out. We don’t want to acknowledge that not only is that part of our history, it’s part of our present. Slavery is gone, and we have taken a lot of steps forward; and we want so desperately to believe that the steps we’ve taken have been enough. It’s all right now, everything is equal, we can just forget about it. We’re not racist. We know who the racists are these days – they’re the people like the ones in the movie Crash, the ones who call black people n----rs and Thai people Chinamen and assume that any black with a job got there via affirmative action and that a Latino guy with tattoos got those tattoos in prison. But those people aren’t us – we would never call a black person a “n----r”!

Being a good person and being a person who benefits from institutional racism in ways s/he is unaware of are not mutually exclusive circumstances. In fact, most good people, if they are white, are also people who benefit from institutional racism in ways they are not aware of. What’s more, their benefiting is not a character flaw, and their unawareness is often due to lack of exposure to adequate information and knowledge.

But when someone tries to impart that knowledge, the defensiveness often rises up to crush the discussion; and at that point a line has been crossed, and a person who was innocently unaware becomes a person who is *deliberately* unaware. That still doesn’t make him or her a bad person. But it’s not an okay thing to do, either.

It being Blog Against Racism Week, these discussions are going to keep coming up. My request, a request I’m making of anyone who reads this entry, is this:

The next time a discussion on racism comes up, on LJ or anywhere else, think carefully about what you are saying and what the other person is saying. Try to remember that if you are white, the power structure in this country is in your favor. That’s not to say that if you are a woman there isn’t a different power structure working against you – there is – or that if you’re poor, that’s canceled out by the fact that you’re white – it’s not. All of these are different issues, and yes, the power structures in this country are weighted against women and poor people as well as against people of color. But they don’t negate the issue of race.

The next time a discussion comes up and you want to get defensive, don’t.

Remember that if someone is angry at you personally for being white, that anger is debatably understandable but unquestionably misdirected. (It’s also something that is often misinterpreted; people often hear anger where there is no anger, or they simplify the reasons for that anger and set up a straw man without realizing it.) It’s not your fault that you are white. It’s not your fault that you have privilege.

It IS your fault if you take that privilege and manipulate it. It is your fault if you shut down all discourse on the subject because it makes you feel guilty and scared and angry.

Just listen. Even if you think what someone is saying is wrong, listen to them. Listen and try not to get angry. Listen and try not to take it personally.

Listen. Think.

I’m not trying to say “all the whites reading this need to realize RIGHT NOW that they have privilege and it consists of exactly what I say it consists of and they need to acknowledge it and be clear on that from this moment on!” That sort of talk accomplishes precisely nothing. I can’t make you realize anything. No one can make you realize anything. I have my beliefs, and other people have theirs, and that’s the way the world goes. But it frustrates me when I see so much anger and defensiveness around this subject that people stop thinking deeply.

Think for yourself. Don’t let me, or anyone, tell you what the truth is; don’t accept it unquestioningly because someone else said it.

But listen. Listen to what people have to say. Think about it. Set everything else aside, all the baggage you’ve carried for all these years, and look at it from a different angle.

Listen. Think.

That’s the best start anyone can possibly make.

A note: I have a lot of work to do today and will not be answering comments very quickly or frequently. Please don't think that if I don't respond to your comment, I am uninterested in having a discussion. I'm sure I've said a million things in this entry that are debatable or problematic or just plain wrong, and if you call me out on one of those and I don't respond, it's not because I'm not considering your response, it's because I have work and may not be able to get to your comments until this evening. I will get to comments as soon as I can, because I'm really interested in discussing this.

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