Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years and We Still Have So Far to Go

Yesterday’s post on crap email was perfect timing. This morning I decided to check it and delete the bajillions of forwards that I had no doubt gotten since the last time I logged in. Most of the time, I don’t even read them anymore, but for some reason, I just randomly picked one to read. And what I saw made me absolutely sick.

The subject was something about Barack Obama and I thought I’d take a look. I’m so sorry I did. It was a terribly racist joke. I won’t repeat it here, because knowing what it said serves no purpose. The fact that it even exists in this day and age is what is important. Especially today – the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. One would hope that the death of this incredible, peaceful, inspiring, loving man would have served to change this country. That in 40 years, we could be far enough ahead of the kind of thinking that creates and sends forth hateful, hurtful, racist messages. One would be wrong.

I got this email from someone I am close to, someone I love. This person would never intentionally hurt someone. This person would tell you (and believe it) that they are not a racist. Sadly this kind of quiet racism is everywhere. We all know about the overt racists. Everyone has seen photos and videos and news stories about the kl@n or the crazy, gun-toting, white-p0wer militants. We’ve all heard the stories of the black man being dragged by a truck, and we’ve all seen the videos of black men being beaten by police. We’ve seen shooting rampages targeting Asians, Indians & Muslims. We watched Reginald Denny get dragged from his truck and nearly killed. We’ve seen churches and synagogues and mosques looted and burned. We know about Matthew Shepard. The point is – we all know about these people. And most of us want to distance ourselves from that sort of hate.

But the other type of prejudice is just as dangerous (and prejudice comes in many forms, but I am using racism as an example in light if this email). They are the folks who would vehemently deny any sort of racism, and really believe that they are not racist, and yet, like this sweet, caring, loving persona that I know, perpetuate it by telling a racist joke or crossing the street because a black man walking towards them, or hiring someone else, or voting for someone else because they “just aren’t ready for a black manager/doctor/president”.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance told me they she would not be voting for Barack Obama. Her exact words were, “I am not a racist. Really, I’m not. But I don’t think I want a black president.” I hate to break it to you, pal, but you are a racist. It couldn’t be clearer to me. And really, if you feel the need to start your sentences with “I’m not a racist, but…” then it should be clear to you, too.

I have another friend who has done some of the things I have mentioned and yet goes out of her way to “not be racist”. She is very proud when she tells you that they are colorblind in their house. She gave me an example of trying to point out a person to her daughter and that she was using all these different adjectives to describe them, but never once did she say that the person was black. And her daughter had no freaking idea who she was talking about. She didn’t seem to understand that it’s OK to describe an African American person as such. She felt that since she didn’t refer tot neh person as black or African American, she must not be racist. And yet, she’ll laugh at a racist joke.

I can remember a day many years ago when I was with a relative in a restaurant and we were meeting my friend TD, who happened to be black. We were looking for her and my mom asked what she looked like. I said she’s black, about my height, long hair, etc And she cut me off at “black”, with a ssshhhhh and a slight head nod to the black man sitting nearby. I said, “it’s ok, he knows he’s black” (I knew him - he heard me and laughed), and she looked like she swallowed a cat. I told TD about it afterward and her thoughts on the subject were “White people are crazy.” I think she was right. Because I could never understand the need to be “visually” colorblind – you can’t be. Just like you can’t help but notice someone’s bright red hair, or their wheelchair, or my fat ass. You can’t not see it – it’s there. Who cares about “visual” colorblindness. It’s the internal, emotional, intellectual colorblindness that is important.

It’s OK to notice that someone is black or white or female or male or gay or Muslim or whatever. It’s OK to mention it, if it important to the story or situation. When you mention it when it isn’t, though, then maybe there’s something behind that. I was on a message board the other day and a woman was telling a story about how her husband tried to help a woman and child being abused by a man and how the man and a bystander turned on him. Sucks, right? But her story went like this: We saw an African American man yelling and manhandling a woman and child and he stepped in and the man turned and came at him and then another African American man was walking by and he started in on him, too.” See - it’s the same story, but she felt like she had to make the point of the participants’ races. My version still told you the same story – good Samaritan, man abusive to woman and child, bystander jumps in, Samaritan hurt. What does race add to that story? Not a thing that I can see except to make a point that the “bad guys” were black. Who care I they were black? I only care that they were bad. Guess what else appeared further along in this post? You guessed it “I’m not racist”.

These are just a few examples of many that come across all the time. Basically good people who really don’t believe they are doing anything wrong. Who don’t see the harm in making hurtful comments, or making judgments based on race (or sex or religion or whatever), or perpetuating hateful and incorrect stereotypes for the sake of being “funny”. They just don’t think they are doing anything wrong. But I am reminded that slave owners didn’t think they were doing anything wrong, either. Neither did Hitler.

It makes me sad that a man like Martin Luther King, Jr – an amazing, beautiful man - devoted his life to fixing this problem in America and died in vain. Sure, we have come a long way, but not long enough to say that we’ve fulfilled his dream. I’m sorry, Dr. King. Some of us are still dreaming.

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jen said...

oh sister. i like you so very, very much.

so much.

Swistle said...

Hello. I think I have a little crush on you.

I don't think he died in vain. I think that, to paraphrase the familiar phrase, "the stupid will always be with us." And it seems to me that on this issue, there is LESS stupid than there was before, even though there will always be some stupid remaining.