I’m not white but I get mistaken for white by people that I meet all the time. I have nothing against white people, obviously, but I don’t have any particular connection to stereotypical “white” stuff, like pumpkin lattes and John Mayer (not Jack Johnson), or even to stuff that white Americans are more genuinely culturally connected to, like entrepreneurship and the American flag.  By our country’s infamous one-drop rule I suppose I’m yellow, though I can’t say I feel myself to be very Asian either. In any case anyone who knows me even a little realizes that I’m nonwhite.

But what a boon to the Zanzibari clove industry this stuff must be.

The only excuse for drinking this weird stuff is wanting to support the Zanzibari clove industry.

That’s the main reason I no longer post my “political” opinions on Facebook. They’re not reaching the ones for whom it might matter anyway – white people who, consciously or unconsciously, are upholding white supremacy in this country. I even think it was harming because it reinforces the perception that this is an us vs. them issue.  By the same token I stopped posting about gender issues years ago because no matter what specific issue I brought up, some idiot would remind me that “I” didn’t have it so bad. As if the fact that my husband doesn’t beat me invalidates me drawing attention to the pervasive, horrifying reality of domestic abuse that so many other women face.

I’ve lost all credibility to a white racist, you see, by virtue of being a liberal person of color myself.

Black academics, possibly the best qualified to bear witness to the social toll of racism on our society, are ironically the least likely to make an impact on so-called white “conservatives,” because academia is already considered with deep suspicion to begin with by certain someones – it’s not useful, productive work like plumbing or construction, it’s getting paid to sit in a chair and think about stuff. On top of that these cushy-life professional daydreamers are just championing their own racial self-interest over ours, damnit! The problem is, we (anyone interested in dismantling racism) have to reach out to white racists. This is a revolution that might see a few battles on the institutional front, but ultimately it’s a psychological one. The long-term failure of every movement to secure equality for black and white Americans in the past lies in that they all blissfully ignored racism and only tried to fix its symptoms – slavery, segregation, hiring discrimination, etc.

... but feel free to discriminate in your personal lives, folks.

… but feel free to discriminate in your personal lives, folks.

I mentioned that when I paid attention to Facebook posts in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s and the Charleston church shooting (and similar divisive events) I noticed people posting almost exclusively for the benefit of like-minded friends, and precious few actual conversations that sprung up about either topic. The only exception to this was provided by a small number of white Facebookers. One of them was my friend Vanessa, a libertarian and lifelong lover of the NRA, who called out anti-black bias in no subtle terms. I think perhaps people engaged her thinking that they could sway her into seeing that she’s wrong about racism existing in any significant way, but they underestimated her conviction and knowledge on the issue and, hopefully, came away with even an iota of a different perspective on the whole matter.

My friend Jackie also posted about it:

“White privilege is feeling more fear when walking alone at night and seeing a black man, though statistically the white man is more likely to cause you harm as a solitary white female. This fear has been conditioned by virtue of growing up in a particular culture and with a biased media. Black individuals do get treated differently. Shutting our eyes and plugging our ears in denial, or worse, defending the status quo and discounting the everyday reality of half of the population is not going to make it go away, nor will it make it any less real. Can we all just come to terms with the fact that one can be white, not feel so privileged at all and still live in a world where white privilege exists? Only when we look at the problem directly, without defensiveness or fear for the preservation of our egos, can we do something about it.”

And there were quite a few other examples. Admittedly, most of them were written by suspect “liberal” academics, but it was heartening all the same. I think this is the only way forward. It would make me happy beyond belief to see more white friends who might not on the outside seem like they should feel passionately about racism speak out and raise consciousness about this problem, not angrily or accusingly but with respect and a desire for dialogue. Because I have to say that most white racists aren’t consciously so. It’s so ingrained in all of us that we don’t even think of it. Even Jesse Jackson admitted, with great shame, that “there is nothing more painful to [him] … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Make no mistake. Race isn’t biological, but it’s very, very real. It’s been made real by our institutions, our media, our snowballing everyday prejudices, our actions, and our inactions. I am not white, as I said. I’m not rich and my parents were even born pretty poor, in other countries. None of my ancestors ever set foot on this continent before the 1970s. Still, I am responsible for American racism. I’ve benefited from it. I was silent about it. I’ve felt afraid of black men walking behind me on a street, as much as I hated myself for it.

I never thought of myself as a racist until I spent a year working in a department store in Upstate New York. Most of my coworkers were black women. Hanging out with them, I finally understood. It was crazy how much differently people looked at me when we walked together. It was crazy in the most horrific way possible what some of them dealt with in their daily lives. At the time, I was feeling sorry for myself because I had been suspended from college for marijuana possession, but my friends knew plenty of people who had gone to jail for the same. One of the women was very visibly pregnant and working her ass off to move into a suitable apartment and take care of her child. She took the bus to work in a town that had, to put it mildly, a puny public transportation system. Our managers always gave her shit for getting to work ten minutes late, even though they knew that her commute would’ve been two hours long instead of one if she tried to catch the earlier bus. I was so embarrassed that I’d ever complained about getting the ten-year-old family beater to drive when I turned sixteen. I was even more embarrassed when she actually got fired for chronic tardiness, literally a week after I (truthfully) called in sick from work for being too hungover. Then there was the time I sat in the back seat of a car being driven by another woman’s (also black) boyfriend while we were being followed by a police car forever. Anyone who thinks black men saying that they are “afraid of cops” is hyperbole should know that it’s not, even in the slightest, and with good reason.

Now that there are videos and white allies, more white people are finally starting to pay attention to the outrageous violence with which black men are treated, even while fleeing, but black people have been trying to get their attention about police brutality for years.

Fact: If Feiden Santana had witnessed Walter Scott's killing with only his eyes and not his cellphone, we wouldn't heard about it.

Imagine if Feiden Santana had witnessed Walter Scott’s killing with only his eyes and not his cellphone.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Working in the department store was what made racism real to me. I thank God for that. Studying our country’s history, deciding to go to grad school and write about historic race relations – that all happened after I realized how deep the wound was, not before. My personal bad experiences aside I would’ve gladly endured grad school to the bitter end if I thought getting my PhD would’ve in any way allowed me to change the hearts of other unconscious racists, who don’t have the blessing of getting suspended from college and coming face to face with their privilege. But the ivory tower is large and hollow, and its walls are thick.

Shouting it out, in person or on social media, isn’t going to make much of a difference, either. Not if I’m doing it. There are more and more people who definitely are raising those scary first doubts, though, even in the midst of an otherwise depressing mess of vitriol from all sides and deliberately incendiary commentary that seemingly gets worse day by day. That’s not necessarily promising, is it? But it’s something, and maybe the first step of our collective recovery is admitting that we have a problem.

Part one here! Part three coming up!

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America, do something about your ethnic strife or please shut up about intervening in other dysfunctional countries forever.

I’ve been meaning to write about how sad I am about the current state of mere coexistence in this country for a while now but have been putting it off, mostly because I’ve been busy with work, but also because sadness isn’t very inspiring. It’s not like anger. I can rant all day, ask anyone. Ranting is good because it might spur the change you want to see.  Our country’s fissures, though, seem every day further removed from the possibility of healing.

Charleston AME

Coexisting because you have no other choice isn’t much of an aspiration.

It was clearly evident after Freddie Gray died on April 12, 2015. My previous post was a reaction to the ensuing Facebook shit show, with one (predominantly white) segment “standing with the police,” trolling about black-on-black violence, and even posting the absolutely horrific sentiment that Gray deserved to be killed for his previous record. On the other side, the (predominantly black and/or grad student) segment likened the police presence to slavery and called for people of color to “fight back.” It was absolutely disheartening to see so many people completely talking past one another. I bet many of them went to town on Facebook’s unfollow option, which only increased the shrillness and vitriol because then there wasn’t even the one sane moderate humbly critiquing your hateful posts, only the thirty members of the choir you’re preaching to showering you with likes and hell yeahs.

For the record, I find it almost impossible to imagine that Gray died from any other way than excessive force by the police. Whether or not the officers’ actions were motivated by race is another matter. It’s a matter that might affect the legal details of the case but happens to be irrelevant to the bigger picture that we Americans are still ridiculously motivated by race.

I don’t mean just whites. I mean all of us. We cling to racial identity as if it actually means something, we insist on ascribing characteristics to races in a way that would’ve made Louis Aggasiz blush. Aggasiz, using that sophisticated measuring-the-volume-of-sand-in-skulls method in the years leading up to the Civil War, only argued that blacks are stupid. In 2015 I witnessed Facebookers call blacks stupid, lazy, dishonest, violent, and (in the case of Freddie Gray) deserving death for breaking society’s rules.

What a mistake it is to assume that these are the ramblings of fringe white supremacists intent on safeguarding their privilege, though. There are so many people who truly believe those things, and they live in fear. These are people honestly can’t imagine why black families are worried about their sons encountering police because it’s so far removed from their own experiences of cops directing traffic or giving them a friendly wave at the doughnut shop. They don’t consider how humiliating it is to constantly see pedestrians cross to the other side of the street, let alone have chubby security guards subtly trail you through the Walgreens. They aren’t even bad people, only people who don’t know.

On the other hand, there are also people who genuinely consider today’s cops to be analogous to plantation overseers. Because of that they too live in fear and calling for violence to end violence seems to be the only option left. They call whites greedy, dishonest, violent, and deserving death for gaming the system to their perpetual advantage. It hasn’t occurred to them that white people don’t think of themselves as descendants of slaveholders because to them honoring the experience of the enslaved is still very salient. They can’t imagine what it’s like barely being to make ends meet for your family yet being told to “check your privilege.” Again, though, they aren’t bad people.

So we need to talk. Better yet, we need to think. At this point I can’t imagine it getting better unless we consciously stop using race as a category of difference. It’s a shameful historical relic that never did serve any purpose other than demarcating us vs. them, and if you’re sure you’re the good guy it’s difficult to see that the other guy might be good too. To quote the poet Kai Zen: “The truth is, there is no race but the human race. But we want there to be race, otherwise how would we know who wins?”

Asian doctor writing in medical record

If you’re concerned about what rejecting race categorization as dumb and offensive might look like, ask the Orientals, the members of the yellow race, how it worked out for them.

Case in point: Last night nine congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston were killed by a gunman who allegedly screamed “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country!” as he reloaded five times. Three times as many people died in Charleston compared to the Boston Marathon, but we’re in so deep that even this very fucking blatant act of terrorism is somehow controversial. Somehow, the same War on Terror zealots who went apeshit over the Tsarneav brothers can’t muster the outrage to say one word about this shooter. Somehow, “rednecks” and their “white supremacist culture” need to be dragged into the fray. This is what I mean by our current state of mere coexistence. We coexist, barely, because we have to, but the dysfunction is submerged only just below the surface.

This is the first part of a series of three posts! 

“I saw a really racist post on Facebook the other day, with really idiotic commentary. Even though all the news sources I consider trustworthy reported exactly the opposite, I decided not to unfollow this time and read everything with an open mind. It really opened my eyes! Even though I still don’t agree with what was said, I understand now that people different from me are just as worried and scared as I am, just for different reasons. So now I listen calmly to people whose perspectives used to really piss me off. Hopefully they in turn will listen calmly to me, so that we can one day finally have that long-overdue conversation about what it’ll take for all of us Americans to feel safe.”

– no one ever

I nearly changed my mind about how awesome Facebook is this past week :-/ Then my inner optimist made its triumphant return! More tomorrow though. I just finished a last-minute push with grant writing assignments due by the end of the month, and I’d like to take the rest of the day to unwind.

funsies

Unwind = Dig through more ridiculous photos of this sexy meat-head I used to date. Before I married him.

On some level I really mistrust nonprofits. In part that’s because so many of them arrogantly presume to provide “cultural enrichment” to “at-risk youth.” I’m sure I’ve bitched about it enough before but I find it incredibly myopic and condescending to assume that material poverty equals cultural poverty. The greatest contribution the U.S. has ever made to world culture may well be jazz – and you know Louis Armstrong wasn’t born with no silver spoon between those sweet lips of his.

Armstrong Park, view from my old place.

Armstrong Park, view from my old place.

And “at risk” for what, exactly, are poor young minorities as a group? Someday trying to take outside of the system what’s being systematically denied them inside it? If you ask me a person is statistically at far greater risk of becoming a war criminal if they’re born into privilege – especially in this country. If only some nonprofit had sent Dick Cheney to free after-school violin lessons!

dick-cheney

Violins is not the answer.

We should all hope that in the future there will be more American parks and monuments dedicated to our creative geniuses and fewer to our remorseless psychos. In the meantime, I wrote a blog post for Wild Fundraising about some of the irreplaceable and pretty badass services that only nonprofits can render – especially in the areas of historical preservation and memory, which are super close to my heart.

Please check it out!

The whole furor over the Clippers owner (click here to hear the phone conversation that brought him down) isn’t about racism. It isn’t even about free speech, but seems to be just an effort to work damage control and salvage the team’s profitability.

I don’t think I’m being cynical in seeing an ulterior motive in Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban and ritualized public shaming. From every corner now one can hear the “bravo, NBA!” chants. The players who protested by throwing off their Clippers jerseys during practice and the fans who threatened to never again set foot in the Staples Center have been pacified. Not that racism isn’t a lazy and hateful way to organize the world and not that haters don’t deserve to be called out for it, but sometimes I think we’re watching NBA commissioner Adam Silver mime a hollow and holier-than-thou parody of ourselves out for us.

 

Free speech too: Players protested by taking off their jerseys…

 

… and fans weren’t happy either.

 

What should have happened: Clippers players protest (maybe even ask to be traded), fans stop buying tickets to the game. Maybe the infamous phone conversation with V. Stiviano eventually encourages an honest discussion of some of our collective issues. For instance, it struck me that Sterling repeatedly said that although there’s nothing wrong with him associating with black people, it was simply not something that a “delicate” and proper lady did. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising given that ever since the first Portuguese traders set foot on the western African coast in the fifteenth century, Europeans (and later European-Americans) have characterized African (and later African-American) women as irredeemably unfeminine. Supposedly they did not feel labor pain, they had voracious sexual appetites, and, most damningly, they did the ultimate unfeminine deed of associating with other Africans.

Something that I found interesting in my own research on nineteenth century New Orleans is that having a child with a white man back then did not, in itself, guarantee a black woman any social status among white elites. Those kids lived in many ways identical lives to their “unmixed” maternal siblings. What made a difference was public acknowledgement by the white father (more common than you’d think – most of these men were bachelors forbidden by law from marrying their long-term non-white partners). It was even better if the father had a family in the area who also acknowledged the children, or if they could score some respectable elite godparents, or if they could depend on the extended white social circle of either parent. In general even a child of two slaves with good connections was far better off than a free child of mixed descent with none.

To be clear, I totally disagree with historians who claim that “whitening” was the only type of social status that prevailed in slave societies. From what I’ve seen I’m positive that among the free and enslaved, whether one had European ancestors or not, most black New Orleanians cared more about what other black New Orleanians thought of them. Many continued naming their children after their enslaved ancestors, attended slave weddings, and otherwise clearly associated with slaves and people “blacker” than themselves in ways that don’t indicate shame in their heritage. The gens de coleur code of respectability centered on learning a skilled trade, serving in the military, offering patronage to those less fortunate, and working hard to succeed in business. Nevertheless, “whitening” was one route to improved social standing. And I do want to emphasize again that “whitening,” at least in New Orleans, had more to do with cultural “whitening” and acquiring the proper social circle than becoming lighter-skinned, even if the two tended to be related.

 

Enslaved kids with white fathers and grandfathers

Enslaved kids with white fathers and grandfathers

 

For a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with now, status improvement (along white standards) was historically more easily available to women than to men. Essentially black women could fill business niches more easily because there was less competition from white women and black men were perceived as more threatening and not as frequently freed by their masters, not to mention that self-purchase was more expensive for men. Although it did occur it wasn’t very common for black men to have children with white women compared to the other way around. Yet even for upwardly mobile black women there was a limit. In the nineteenth century some of the most egregiously unscientific studies you’ll ever hear of “proved” the biological inferiority of dark skin. Religiously-minded racists started to argue in earnest for polygenesis because they wanted all that silly Biblical jazz about brotherhood and Jesus dying for us to apply to whites only. The one-drop rule and Jim Crow legally instituted the spirit behind these ideas.

In reality of course race doesn’t even exist. Meaning, there aren’t nor have there ever been clear boundaries separating the human race into three or four distinct subgroups. It didn’t exist even as a concept in the fifteenth century, it became the preferred way to categorize in the colonial era because it helped justify and explain why some people who used to be fair game for enslaving (whites) would no longer be so, and what remains of the concept today is a vestigial feature of race-based slavery. One thing about race thinking is that it surely is not a historical constant; It’s already been remade many, many times to suit changing needs and circumstances.

Anyway, Sterling’s words to V. Stiviano, who describes herself as a “mixed” woman, aren’t just slogans to boo or cheer. They’re maybe the vestiges of the vestiges, so to speak: “I love black people, I love you, I hang out with black people, but you can’t. Stay classy.” Why? Because white women aren’t safe around black men? Because it makes Sterling appear like he’s doing a bad job guarding his girlfriend’s lady parts? To me, his words are insightful because they helped me understand those mysterious men in the New Orleans archives, such as one who proudly acknowledged his “mixed” grandchildren by two different sons, shared his illustrious connections with them and their mothers – but was dragged to court for one of the most gruesome slave-beating cases of that era.

It doesn’t mean anything to “have black friends.” It doesn’t matter that you treat your black employees well if you think that deep down they can’t be trusted to treat women decently. It doesn’t matter that you sleep with a woman of partial African descent if your respect for her depends on her being “delicate” and acting like a white “lady.”

It’s not enough to slap on an “Eracism” bumper sticker while refusing to even try to figure out why racism still exists.

And, Commissioner Silver, it really isn’t very impressive that you take your only stand against discrimination just when it happens to be publicity gold. I’ll take you seriously if you stay consistent and give any coach who makes an anti-gay comment or player who makes a sexist comment a lifetime ban, too. It’s easy to be on the side of the outraged.

It’s easy too to be on the side of free speech – as long as you’re the small fry. Personally I don’t think Donald Sterling should’ve faced NBA sanctions for exercising his First Amendment right. Now every conversation has to begin and end with the question of whether his punishment is fair. Meanwhile we’re missing the opportunity to understand how insidious racist thinking is and why it still makes sense to people like Sterling. We could be remaking the idea of race again, using history as a tool to help us move toward a more egalitarian future rather than remaining blindly imprisoned in it.