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Blog Against Racism

tempest with fan
This is similar to what I put up on the Angry Black Blog, which you're all tired of hearing about, I'm sure. I'm just on a roll lately and enjoying it. But this entry contains some extra special material.

I blog against racism every week. Or, at least, every week I post. It seems strange for me to have a BAR post yet equally strange for me not to acknowledge BAR.

I've decided to make a contribution in the form of an anecdote. A story from my life.

Several years ago I worked for a small IT company that had four employees, including myself. I worked with three white men of varying Euro-backgrounds all between the ages of 35 and 55. At least one of these men was born into substantial financial privilege and none of them ever suffered economic hardship as far as I was able to glean from our conversations. They were each college-educated, informed, affable men. And they were all of them racist.

Not to say that they were your KKK cross-burning types. In fact, they considered themselves progressive and inclusive. They often used my employment as proof that they had nothing against black people. After all, if they were prejudiced, would they have hired me?

Would they?

Of course they would have. Despite my angry blackness, I am often considered one of the 'safe' black people moderate whites feel pretty comfortable with. I 'talk white' (i.e. proper) and I'm light-skinned and I don't generally give off a vibe of overt 'blackness'. White people rarely have a problem with me at first because they don't associate me with 'radical' blackness.

Thus, their hiring me was not so much proof of inclusiveness as it was proof that I'm able to make white people comfortable enough to want to be around me/hire me. Even with my education, experience, and qualification, it is doubtful that my employment would have been a slam dunk if I'd arrived with my hair in dreds or a kinte cloth wrap or even with a darker shade of skin.

But, as I said, my co-workers were not closet Klansmen, they were the type of white folks that Dr. King talks about in this passage from his Letter from a Birmingham jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is... the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I remember one of the first discussions on race I had with G, the vice-president, was about why more blacks than whites were in jail. He said that this was due to more black people committing crimes and being more prone to crime. I said that it was due to a justice system tilted unfairly in deference to whites. That white people often got lesser sentences for similar and identical crimes and that whites were more often never even charged or tried for offences black people spend years in jail over. This isn't even to mention the vast number of wrongly accused black people. No, G said, white people don't get an unfair advantage. Maybe sometimes that happens, but not often. Not enough to matter.

Things got worse from there.

My boss told me that I should have been afraid to live in my neighborhood (Inwood, specifically) because there was a lot of gang activity there. I had not witnessed any such thing. He informed me that of course Inwood was rife with gang activity because it is a Dominican neighborhood, and all Dominican neighborhoods have terrible gang problems.

Our accountant once started a conversation with me thusly: "So, ABW, D tells me that you're black." Why was this a revelation? "I thought you were Puerto Rican." D's reaction? "No, if she were Puerto Rican she'd have 3 inch long nails and talk like this-" D proceeded to imitate his version of what a stupid Puerto Rican woman would sound like.

I'll spare you the rest of the conversation - needless to say sexism was involved as well.

It's situations like this that plague race relations in America today. It's people like these that make it so hard for minorities to look upon this country as a shining example of a racism-free environment. This is the kind of thing we should be fighting against, but it is too often allowed because it isn't on the same level as whites only water fountains and lynchings. It is a more insidious racism because it is sort of invisible. It takes place behind closed doors and between individuals, not between large groups. Not overtly.

It's still wrong.

What's most interesting about this (to me) is the guys' reaction to my feelings in this arena. I think they sometimes looked upon me the way they would look on a pet they saved from a shelter. S, the boss, often made reference to how he 'saved' me by giving me a job. As if, without him, I'd be destitude in the street or something. So I suppose it was a bit of a shock for them to read on my old blog a couple of years ago that I thought of that workplace as 'horrid'. How could the dog we saved from a life on the streets turn and bite us like that? Did we not feed her, give her money, and scratch her behind the ears while remarking that she would have been much better if her fur wasn't so dark? We never held it against her! We liked her despite her unfortunate fur!

You think I'm exaggerating that metaphor. I am not.

otherdeb, yes, I am talking about them. Feel free to let Chris know.

My only reaction to their surprise at my declaration is: Isn't it just like a white man to be surprised that the dog he's beating is a biter?

Don't let anyone tell you different. This is racism. This is white privilege in action. This is America. This is what I'm against.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 22nd, 2006 12:02 am (UTC)
I know you are, and I can't say I know them well enough to agree ot disagree. They seem to think I'm totally invisible when I visit Chris there.

And yeah, racism stinks. As does any form of prejudice.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 01:05 am (UTC)
So how often does it need to happen before it matters? Sheesh.

I'm still working to eradicate some of the racist ideas and beliefs and assumptions I internalized growing up. I don't like it, but I don't pretend they're not there, either. It pisses me off when I realize I'm more anxious passing a large black man on the street than a large white man (though they can make me uncomfortable at times, too.)

I didn't spend time in Boy Scouts learning how to start crosses on fires, and we didn't have after-school Junior Klansmen meetings or anything like that. But you learn and absorb the crap nonetheless. It's subtle. Even the mere fact of growing up in an almost all-white neighborhood creates a sense of darker skin as other. I remember us first graders doing a singsong, "Fight, fight, nigger and the white." There was no fight or anything; it was just a song, a fun little rhyme. I didn't even know what the word meant at that age.

I suspect your former coworkers would say we were just kids, we didn't know what we were saying, and we didn't mean anything by it. Which is all true. But that doesn't mean it's okay, or it doesn't hurt people. It hurts any black kid who might have overheard us, and it hurt those of us who were singing it and learning that it's okay.

I'm not going to try to say that all white folks are racist. But I've found some of the nastiest shit coming from white people in the same breath as their sincere protests that they aren't racist at all, and how dare I suggest otherwise?

Of course, being a straight white male, I'm lucky enough to have the choice whether or not to acknowledge it all. And unfortunately, I forget that on occasion.

It shouldn't be your job to remind me or anyone else, but I appreciate it.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 03:19 pm (UTC)
I do see it as my job, actually. Like it or not, I and people like myself are the ones who must insist on change and progress. No one else is going to insist on it on our behalf. It's annoyingly unfair since black people don't have the kind of institutional power that whites have, thus we aren't able to affect change as quickly or as vastly, but we're the ones who want it.

What makes it worth it is talking to people like you who acknowledge your internalized racism (just as I must acknowledge my internalized prejudices) and are committed to changing that thought pattern. You're 20 steps ahead of most people. This is why you're my friend :)
Jul. 24th, 2006 12:30 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, there tends to be a huge gap between "should" and "is." Just like women shouldn't have to be the ones doing 99% of the anti-rape work. But when the choice seems to be between fixing someone else's screwed-up behaviors or simply letting it continue....

And part of what frustrates me so much about that is the folks who really need to listen are less likely to listen to another black person complaining about racism, or some chick talking about sexual harassment, or another queer complaining about discrimination, and so on. Put a straight white male into the situation, making the exact same arguments, and it's a bit harder for some of these folks to just blow it off. But to do that, you have to convince those SWMs there's a problem to begin with. What a lovely circle, huh?
Aug. 9th, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC)
It was after meeting you and sparkymonster and others at WisCon that I could look at myself in the mirror and admit (unhappily, uncomfortably) that I'm racist. I am not going to jump up and down screeching that I'm not. Why am I racist? 'Cause I grew up white. Boom. It's that easy. It is internalized racism, to be sure, but it's still there. The gifts I was given, though, were to be able to recognize it and seize my guilt by working on it every time it pops up--and to call other people on it when I see it.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 03:33 am (UTC)
Racism is insidious. Do white people have an unfair advantage in this country? Yep.

But it is so hard for people who live with privelege to see the other side.

Jul. 22nd, 2006 03:21 pm (UTC)
it is so hard for people who live with privelege to see the other side.

Very true. Whenever I get angry at people for not being able to see the other side of things, I remember that *I* am often not able to see the other side of things, myself. I have my own prejudices and my own knee-jerk reactions based on irrational feelings and thoughts. I don't always catch myself, either.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 09:42 am (UTC)
I'm glad you're posting! It must be very weird posting about race all the time and then seeing something like this come up... I really hope anti-racist bloggers like you haven't felt co-opted or denigrated in any way, although I wouldn't blame anyone if they did feel like that.

But more to the point: I wish I could kick your co-workers. And I agree with King; sometimes the most painful confrontations are the ones in which people so obviously mean well, and yet completely don't get it and end up hurting you then denying it.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 03:25 pm (UTC)
I really hope anti-racist bloggers like you haven't felt co-opted or denigrated in any way, although I wouldn't blame anyone if they did feel like that.

I personally do not, though I do understand why some black folk look at IBARW and shake their heads. I look at it positively because I hope that something really good will come of it. Even if it's only something small that turns into something big.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 03:28 pm (UTC)
oops, forgot:

But more to the point: I wish I could kick your co-workers.

I want to kick them, too, sometimes :) When I'm rich and famous I'll hire someone to go give them dirty looks all of the time.
Jul. 22nd, 2006 04:53 pm (UTC)
Great post.
Jul. 24th, 2006 03:28 am (UTC)
Thanks :)
Jul. 26th, 2006 07:13 am (UTC)
" I am often considered one of the 'safe' black people moderate whites feel pretty comfortable with. I 'talk white' (i.e. proper) and I'm light-skinned and I don't generally give off a vibe of overt 'blackness'. White people rarely have a problem with me at first because they don't associate me with 'radical' blackness. "

Oh boy... isn't that me all over. I'm darker than you, the average tone, Eddie-Murphy-choco("Dark" according to everyone else in North America), but that sums up my interactions with most. I think the fact that I'm 5 foot ten, slim, had model mugshots taken at one point and get, "So What University Did You Go To?" whenever I open my mouth, might mitigate somewhat the fact that I'm neither Vanessa Williams light, nor have mulatto-perfect ringlets. Being raised in Trinidad's also rendered me colour-blind by default, so it's taken me years to start seeing stuff others would, because I'd give people more than their average allotment of The Benefit Of The Doubt. Hindsight's sharper than 20-20 when you look back and go, "Oh yeah. Christ I was so new, I didn't see that at all for what it was."

I don't get the co-conspiratorial slips though. Spending some time walking around with Toby at Torcon was eye-opening, in a somewhat disturbing sort of way. People would assume he was white. You kind of start thinking about the scenes in Philadelphia where Tom Hanks would be priveleged to hear the sentiments against 'fags', when they didn't know he was one in their midst....
Jul. 26th, 2006 05:00 pm (UTC)
(expanded a bit from the comment I left at my journal)

I've been thinking about the degree to which my own usual conflict-aversion ends up feeding the beast. As I think about the quote from Martin Luther King in this post, the phrase "the white moderate [...] who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice" pops out particularly.

Now, there's positively supporting that negative peace and passively failing to challenge it, and I'd like to think that as far as I make that error I make it passively instead of arrogantly. What goes through my head, though, is that the most direct and personal advantage of privilege for me is that in general I have the luxury of being an accommodating and conflict-avoidant person and still not be walked on particularly hard -- there simply isn't a tradition of people out there with an itch (unconscious or rationalized or Just Plain Bigoted) to undermine me based on something they can make up their mind about just by looking at me.

In one of those classic what-ifs that can't be answered, I wonder how I would have coped if I didn't have that safety. What if I couldn't hide something that would draw prejudice? Something that fascinates me about your writing is how you refer to the Angry Black Woman as both an identity and as a persona you've constructed for a purpose. (Here's where a conclusion sentence would go, but I don't have one.)
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


tempest with fan
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