Monday, July 22, 2013

Attention African Americans: You Do Not Face Racism. You're Welcome, White Conservative Spokesmen

One of (far too many) such responses to President Obama's speech that showed up on my various feeds. This one is particularly poignant with its masterful implication that the behavior of some members of a group precludes opposite behavior by other members; that is, that in having white friends, you can never be treated badly by white people. Quite remarkably brilliant...

There's nothing like the sight of white conservative men salivating at the opportunity to tell black men that they don't know anything about racism. Nothing like watching white conservatives declare that the president's experiences are invalid or simply didn't happen. Nothing like the false equivalencies between the sort of snubbing everyone faces now and again and the profiling that African Americans are subjected to with startling frequency.

Apparently, as the Hannity-osphere would have us believe, racism is dead. Except people talking about racism, which is in and of itself racism. The only real racism that exists today. Otherwise, racism is a thing of the past. America doesn't lynch African Americans anymore, we don't have Jim Crow, and we have an African American president...therefore, there is no white on black racism. And all this harping on it is really, really racist, and white conservatives are tired of all the hate.

Which is, more or less, the equivalent of saying, “since murders and kidnappings are down, it's impossible for there to be crime anymore. And talking about crime is just inciting criminal activity, so shut up already!” Just because we've risen above the levels of violence and brutality that American racists “indulged” in previously does not mean that we have left racism behind, anymore than stomping out murder means that all other types of crime disappears. Don't let the Hannity crowd hear you say that, though. That just over half the voting country elected an African American president means that no one, anywhere, dislikes black people; and, hey, no school bombings or lynchings (yes, the people who did those things are still alive, and that thinking helped to shape vast swaths of people who still think that interracial marriage should be illegal...but you're overthinking this)! And if this doesn't do it for you, don't worry...the more sophisticated arguers have got more false equivalencies in the bag.

It goes like this: sometimes, white people are treated badly. Sometimes, women clutch their purses around white guys too. Sometimes, people don't like walking on the sidewalk at night with a larger stranger. Therefore, black people don't face discrimination.

Which is something like suggesting that because I sprained my ankle when I was a kid, my neighbor in the cast is just faking it -- or, at best, he probably just stubbed a toe. Seriously, it's that stupid. Being treated unfairly or viewed suspiciously every once in awhile happens to everyone. That does not negate it happening to other people, nor does it account for vast differences in the frequency with which these things happen to you versus other people. I have yet to hear an African American complain, “This one time, someone walked on the other side of the road instead of sharing the sidewalk. Therefore I know people still harbor racist ideas.” This is, however, the argument I hear from conservatives. “If it happened, ever, to me, it doesn't matter how many times it happens to them: they just need to get over it. Oh, and there's nothing racist about it. Because, see, it happened to me this time, and I'm white...”

It's bad logic, but worse than that. It's downright dishonest. It's comfortable, it's easy, it's reassuring to dismiss African American experiences with these false equivalencies, these complaints that any acknowledgment of racism is in fact racism. It's easier than confronting the truth. It's easier than challenging the privilege that lets you pass through life only rarely, if at all, feeling the sting of prejudice. It's a lot of things, but it sure as hell isn't honest.

Speaking as a white person, I've only rarely experienced this sort of prejudice. And, I've got to be honest, I didn't like it. Not at all. So much so that I can still clearly recall the first time I witnessed it, as a clear and distinct memory from my childhood. We were at the beach. Me, I look like my Italian ancestors but tan like my Scotts-Irish and Norwegian ones (burn and peel...); my little brother, though, tans dark. Very dark. He looks through and through the descendants of Sicilians when he spends any amount of time in the sun, from his jet black hair to his deep olive skin tone. When we were kids, the beach we frequented often was visited by a lot of Hmong families, whose skin tones and hair color matched my brother's rather well when he was tanned. Seriously, until you saw his face, my brother disappeared in the crowd. I remember all of this because, one hot summer day when we were down at the beach, my brother – two or three at the time – was playing with a little girl his own age, a cute, light-skinned little blonde kid. I remember because I saw the look of mortification from her father as he saw those two kids, laughing and having a grand old time building misshapen sandcastles together, right before he dragged her farther down the beach, to play with lighter children. I was probably nine or ten at the time, but I still remember how shocking that was to me, how mystified, hurt – and angry – I was that someone could look at my brother, my sweet-tempered, innocent little brother, and judge him as unworthy, unsafe, to play beside his daughter simply because of the tone of his skin.

It wasn't a nice feeling. It was such an unsettling thing that it left this permanent memory. And yet, it's nothing, a mere taste of life as someone else might know it. Now that is a deeply unsettling thought.

That is why the white conservative sphere tries so hard to brush the experiences of those who say “this is my life” away. Because it is so unpleasant a thought, a reality so at odds with our idea of racial progress in our country as to be damned disturbing.

But plugging up your ears and crying, “Lalalala, I'm not listening!is a child's reaction. Not a solution.

As a white person, I have enjoyed the privilege of going through life facing very few instances of personal discrimination. Most of what I have seen or experienced has been misplaced racism (as in the story above) or sexism. My brothers and sister have seen and experienced limited instances of profiling or discrimination. Most of the white people I know have seen or experienced limited instances of profiling or discrimination. A few have experienced none. But our reality is not everyone's reality, and no matter how disquieting it is to acknowledge that fact, it remains fact.

That President Obama was elected president, that he had white friends growing up; that the face of racism has changed in this country from overt to covert racism; that we have made considerable progress; does not change the reality many African Americans know. Denying it, decrying it as lies, declaring its mere acknowledgment to be racism, does not change that reality. It contributes to it, by making sure that we will never arrive at a solution.

Many white conservatives seem to have internalized some distorted version of the notion that the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging that you have that problem. Their thinking indicates that the first step to fixing a problem is to deny its existence. But, no matter how much they wish it, claiming that there is no racism doesn't make it so. The longer we bury our heads in the sand, the longer we cling to our own happy experiences as proof that there are no unhappy experiences, the longer we prolong the issue.

So no, conservative talking heads, bloggers and parrots: the president's remarks weren't “divisive” “race-baiting”. They were honest. What's divisive is the refusal to acknowledge the truth – because in doing so you deny and discount other people's experience, the realities that others have known. You “hush up” what should be fixed. You leave the wound to fester, when we need to apply a healing salve – no matter how much it stings.

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