Saturday, June 27, 2015

I, Racist: Mechanized Interpretation and Manufactured Discontent

In the spirit of several humble confessionals I’ve seen and heard over the last several days, I will begin by admitting to a few attitudes I’m not very proud of: 

I quietly judge Asian tourists for carrying around more equipment than professional photographers. I sometimes lock my car doors while driving through parts of West Philadelphia. I resent Italian-American men for being so handsome and successful with the whole “bad boy” image (I blame The Godfather and Jersey Shore). Around this time last year, I was getting fed up with restaurants in Puerto Rico for taking so long to prepare my food; I may or may not have drawn the conclusion that Puerto Ricans, much like Jamaicans, have no sense of time. And I’ve judged plenty of immigrants, not because I fear that they’re going to dilute white American culture (God, I hope they do), but because I’ve seen them actively reject their own beautiful cultural traditions. Assimilation saddens me, and although I know I should blame the circumstances that coerce the assimilation, I often blame the assimilators, instead.

Do these attitudes make me a racist or a xenophobe? Keep reading. I’ll try to answer that later.

I began with a far-from-comprehensive glimpse into my prejudices, not to express guilt — if “white guilt” is an actual thing, it is certainly not my motivation for anything I say and do with regard to race, (post-)colonialism, or injustice in general — but to remind myself and my reader that I am human. Despite the claims I will make with regard to how our opinions and behaviors are programmed into us, I do not believe that we are robots, nor do I believe that prejudice is an inevitable or incurable part of the human psyche, however difficult it may be to self-diagnose. Our biological and psychic constitution make us just as capable of self-awareness and adaptation as of empathy and forgiveness, and our individual and social health depend immensely on these capabilities.

Furthermore, if my opening admissions did, in fact, warrant a “racist” label, it would not be the worst thing that could happen to my reputation. I could be a rapist, a murderer, a cheater, a thief, an abusive husband and pet owner, a dishonest educator, or any number of identities earned by one or more criminal or unethical decisions. Fortunately, other than my very infrequent music piracy and some victimless criminal behavior (all in the past, of course), I have not done anything that has brought great shame to myself or my family. And while my family may be somewhat embarrassed by my crude sense of humor, my flatulence, and my financial shortcomings, I am quite confident that any shame brought upon them by my opening paragraph will quickly dissipate as they remember the many, many reasons why they love me. Whether or not they brush it off with a trite refrain of “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” they will not consider my “racism” to be in the same league as a lynch mob, a slave owner, a politician who knowingly supports legislation that negatively affects minorities, a business owner who refuses to serve people based on their ethnicity, a restaurant patron who tips some servers more than others because of race, or Donald Trump.

I wish more people understood this. Instead, when they sense that they are being accused of racism, many people respond as if their entire reputation and credibility are at stake. They refuse to hear anything else from their accusers, who may have some valid points to make, because they fear that to do so would be an admission of guilt and a permanent smear on their character. They then accuse their accusers of “playing the race card,” of oversensitivity to microaggressions, of fanatical political correctness, or of trying to win an argument with unfounded ad hominem slurs. Many of my conservative acquaintances tend toward this defensive posture when faced with charges of racism, and I often wonder if heated argument could become more constructive dialogue were these people to stop and ask themselves, “Is my opinion perhaps ever so slightly informed by racial biases?”

To be clear, these conservatives have never given me any reason to think that they are bad people. I may detest their political views, and in a few cases, I have no doubt in my mind that they unknowingly harbor some very racist beliefs. Despite my use of the word “very” to modify their racism, however, I do not believe that they are evil or dangerous people, and I wish that they would stop equating accusations of racism with utter condemnation of their souls.

Before I elaborate on some of my points of disagreement with these conservatives, I need to address some of the liberals in my life. 

Although we agree on many things, liberals, there are some tendencies you and I need to nip in the bud in order to be more effective in our struggle against racism. I hope you will find that these three efforts make a difference in your conversations with conservatives, not limited to discussions of race.

  • We need to stop equating conservatism with bigotry. While there may be quite a bit of overlap between racism, sexism, greed, and conservative politics, people often identify as conservatives for reasons you and I might embrace. The most obvious example might be the caution against government overreach; while conservative fear of the government seems to have increased in recent years (maybe or maybe not having anything to do with a black president), it is a reasonable concern, one that our country was born with. Our differences, many of which are vast, lie in the specific issues into which the government is overreaching. Many of us deeply feel that our elected leaders should make some extra effort to help communities that are still suffering from centuries of being treated like second-class citizens. When conservatives criticize such efforts, let’s stop assuming they don’t care about the minorities who we’re trying to help; even if they’re not suggesting alternative paths toward equality, maybe their condemnation of liberal policies contains some legitimate hesitations worth considering.

  • We need to stop talking down to conservatives as if they were stupid, backward-thinking sheeple. Okay, “sheeple” is a word I hear much more often from conservatives describing the supposed cult of Obama. But just because they constantly stoop to calling you kool-aid drinking libtards does not mean you are justified in being derogatory. No, I don’t care who called whom what first. Name-calling is just the surface of a much larger project of alienation, however. When we militant anti-racists talk about inequality, we often quote public intellectuals, past or present, like Angela Davis, Cornell West, Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. DuBois, Edward Said, Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, or Charles Mills. And why wouldn’t we? These scholars have penned brilliant challenges against cultural hegemony, spoken truth to power, and inspired many of us to dig deeper into the sad, daily realities of America’s impoverished Others. The problem arises when we start using our critical race theory and sociology syllabi, not as helpful guides for dialogue, but as credentials that somehow elevate our intellects above those of conservatives. Yes, it is unfortunate when conservative commentaries demean our years of study as meaningless at best, evidence of communist brainwashing at worst; still, we’re just as guilty of polluting the conversation when we demean people for not having the same titles on their bookshelves.

  • We need to stop demanding regret and apologies from those who exhibit racist attitudes. It’s easy to feel insulted, even disgusted, by the way some conservatives address black people. We bring up racially motivated violence against blacks, and they deflect: What about black-on-black violence? Why aren’t black people trying to fix their own communities instead of destroying them? Blacks kill whites all the time, and nobody ever complains about that! These are some relatively tame examples, I suppose, but they understandably invoke in many of us a righteous anger over the apparent implication that African Americans are culturally inferior and therefore have much to learn about how to behave in a civilized country. This very well may be the implication, and even when it is preceded by “Sorry if this sounds racist,” it can sound rather harsh; however, we must resist the urge to tell people that they need to feel sorry. Plead with them to change their minds. Respectfully educate them. Tell them their opinions bother you. Raise your tone of voice, if you must. But above all, do not attempt to inflict guilt upon them. Guilt is counterproductive. What we need are real, solid steps toward mutual respect, not dwelling on how horribly wrong we’ve been. Apologies must come freely and with full awareness of damage done, or not at all.

Now, to my conservative friends, if you’re still reading, I offer a few thoughts for your consideration. Each of these points are ideas I have struggled with over the years, from my childhood in Chester to my early reggae days when I began to realize a few things about intangible cultural heritage. None of these realizations came easily, but I do not mean by “realization” that I have arrived upon some profound discovery; rather, I have found it immensely productive to consider these points of view, which I have learned through African diaspora literature as well as meaningful discussion with black people in the US, the Caribbean, and West Africa.

  • The knowledge that your ancestors, one generation or ten generations removed, were enslaved, subjugated by imperialism, disenfranchised and alienated through segregation, and disadvantaged by various post-integration policies, all because of their physical features, can be paralyzing. Rather than expecting people to get over the past, consider that trauma, low self-esteem, anger, addiction, despair, and suspicion of the dominant cultural groups in society can all make it especially difficult to move in this world. America may have made significant strides toward racial equality, but minority identities have deep, complex histories that are difficult to ignore. Of course, this is not to say that there is a black cultural pathology (or “a tangle of pathologies”) that excuses African Americans from bad behavior or entitles them to reparations; but neither should we act as if any black individual can become the next Ben Carson or Barack Obama, if only they would just channel all of that angst into something positive.

  • Try giving black people the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re making claims that seem completely unrealistic to you. Maybe you find it difficult to believe that police throughout the country are constantly profiling, harassing, and using unnecessary force against black people. Maybe you’ve never met a business owner who would deny a black job applicant, treat black employees unfairly, or show favoritism to white clientele. But if black people tell you that they experience this sort of discrimination on a regular basis, even if they take on an accusatory tone, don’t dismiss what they have to say as an incoherent rant. Don’t assume it’s just their paranoia or reverse racism getting them all upset over an imagined oppression. Maybe the reason they “make everything a racial issue” is because they are often reminded of their racial identity, one that they didn’t choose for themselves.

  • #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that other lives don’t matter. Yes, we know that blue and white and Christian and Muslim and rainbow lives matter, too. And we know that #BlackLivesMatter even when black lives take other black lives. But please try to see this slogan as a rally cry against the forces in society that seem to be diminishing the value of black lives. When people are more eager to vilify dead black teenagers than to investigate the police who shot, strangled, or rattled them to death, black people might be somewhat justified in feeling like their lives don’t matter as much as white lives.

  • The mainstream media (which is far from liberal, by the way) is not trying to start a race war. The struggle for racial equality has been going on in this country for quite some time, but social media — and yes, media sensationalism — is bringing this struggle to your newsfeed on a more regular basis. One of my non-black friends recently told me that the hype over race-related violence in our country has him worried that black people might retaliate against him. It’s true that some black people passionately hate white people, and I’ve heard a few of them speak out angrily against the “white devil.” But here’s the thing about all of the news of racial violence in the mainstream media: none of this is news to black people. This supposedly “race-baiting” news coverage is far less likely to make us the enemy than it is to provide ample opportunities for us to speak out against racism, let black people know that their lives matter, and deeply listen to what they’re saying.

  • Race is not a distraction from more dangerous things going on in the world. Yes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is most likely going to be a disaster, and it’s true that people are focusing more on the Confederate Flag and Dylann Roof than on the latest shady deals our politicians are dealing. But three things here: (1) To quote my friend Earl Grey Summers, “Well, how come you never brought up TPP BEFORE the flag became an issue? And in a two-day span… what realistic plan did YOU have to stop it? Signing an online petition?” In other words, is race really distracting you from what you’d rather be talking about, or would you just rather choose the less difficult discussion topic? (2) We spend a lot of time talking about TV shows, sports, and celebrities’ lifestyles, most of which are, unlike racism, entirely inconsequential to our lives. (3) I’m not entirely sure we can talk about the potentially oppressive repercussions of a trade deal (or a SCOTUS ruling, or the militarization of police, or the minimum wage, or net neutrality) without talking about the racial wounds that still fester across our cultural and political landscapes. All forms of oppression are connected, and speaking out against the ones that hit closer to home is not distracting — it’s practical. So if you see me bringing up race more than other issues that ultimately impact me, please remind me of those, but realize that my priorities are arranged according to the real lives I encounter on a regular basis, black lives whom I take seriously when they tell me they are still dealing with racism, both from individuals and institutions.

  • There is no black or urban cultural pathology that keeps black people trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime. While the sensationalist media prefers to air footage of black looters and rioters, there are in fact many black people working hard to improve their communities, protesting peacefully, and engaging in constructive dialogue about race. I have worked with black people in West Philadelphia who have looked deep into their cultural heritage for resources that have enabled them to grow their own food, rear healthy children, and organize life-changing artistic programs. So when I hear comments that seem to imply that blacks suffer from cultural shortcomings, or that there are no good black role models, I have to object. There is far too much positive black heritage, there are far too many engaged citizens in the black community for us to ignore. If only the media, Hollywood, and the record labels would promote these individuals and their valued traditions.

Over the last several months, I have found myself in the midst of heated arguments about race relations in America. I have said and written some things I regret, and I have heard and read many things that upset and worry me. I have addressed some of these problems here, but I’ll close with a brief thought about what may be the biggest obstacle to productive dialogue: our mechanized interpretation of social phenomena. It’s good that we more and more recognize systemic racism, and it is healthy to draw attention to how the media capitalizes on emotion to drive up ratings. However, many of us are stuck in our habits of understanding and responding to current events in terms of party lines and ideological loyalties. Rather than seeing where some of these identities might find some common ground, we react in ways that we think we are supposed to: blaming police or demonizing their victims, connecting specific injustices to political platforms or cultural pathologies, bandwagon hashtagging, returning insult for insult, or provoking others just because we woke up on the righteous side of the bed. While these reactions are often based in our deeply held beliefs and passions, they are also conditioned by social discourses which limit our ability to see the organic connections between communities, cultural heritage, psychology, behavior, identities, politics, economics, and our natural and social environments.

I am guilty of this tendency to simplify race issues rather than search for ways to nurture collaboration and reconciliation. What prompted me to write this was a recent series of facebook arguments in which my conservative and liberal friends tore into each other over racial issues in current events. While I think I succeeded in being more civil than I have in the past, many of the comments exchanged by my friends, all of whom I care about, were hurtful and unproductive. I found it pointless to return to these chaotic conversations, so I submit this post in hopes of laying a more sustainable foundation for discussions of injustice, racial or otherwise.

If you skipped to the end to see if I would answer the question, “Am I a racist?”, I’ll let you decide that for yourself. As for everyone else, I’m going to try my best to avoid calling anyone a racist from now on. Whatever racism manifests in our discussions, I’ll attribute it to ideological programming, human error, or a combination of the two. Both leave plenty of room for teachable moments and mutual interpretation of our overlapping worlds.

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