Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dear America: A few things this black woman would like you to know about race


It is normal to be prejudiced.

...and in a country like America that was born and raised on the notion of white supremacy (See manifest destiny, slavery, Jim Crow, internment of Japanese citizens...), it is normal to be prejudiced against black people. So ingrained is the idea that white culture is right, or at least the benchmark for all other cultures, that even most black Americans devalue blackness (See "the doll test" as one example. See black hack comedians and their "black people are always late, broke, triflin'..." schtick as another.) So white America, modern prejudice is not all your fault.

Now that I have said that, now that I have absolved you of personal guilt, can we have the conversation about race that everyone keeps referring to? I mean a REAL conversation, not the one that has played out over the last month on talk radio and cable news and political blogs and Web sites, where black people attempt to shed some light on the ways race affects our daily lives and white people get defensive and angry and insist that race is no longer an issue.

Witness the reaction to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statements about race.


"Black Americans were a founding population," Rice said. "Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That's not a very pretty reality of our founding."

As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times,
"descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that."

"That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today," she said. SOURCE
What to me seemed like a reasoned statement that acknowledges the reality of our country's past and present, made Lou Dobbs clutch his pearls in horror.

"There is no country on the face of the Earth as progressive, as racially and ethnically diverse as our own," Dobbs wailed. "It's something we should be proud of." SOURCE
Why is the very mention of our country's racist past and its lingering prejudices anathema to some? Why does discussing racism so often result in defensive bravado? It's as if pointing out racial challenges negates the progress the country has made and condemns every member of the mainstream as an irredeemable racist. That is not the case.

If you are willing to listen, here are some other things that this black woman would like the mainstream to know about racism and the relationship between black and white Americans:

Racism and prejudice aren't about white sheets and Jim Crow anymore. Black Americans know that. Only an idiot would claim that our nation has not made tremendous gains in racial equality.It is just that we know that racism and prejudice still exist, because we live with it every day. Unlike the naked racism faced by our grandparents and ancestors, the bias most of us face today is covert or institutionalized.

For those who listened to the Women's History Month panel discussion, you may remember Shecodes, a black woman, sharing a story about a job interview with a Wall Street firm. The company was eager to recruit Shecodes after reviewing her resume and talking to her on the phone, but when she arrived for her interview, things changed. Shecodes waited nearly an hour before asking if the interview was going to happen. What followed was a discussion with a brusque interviewer who would not make eye contact and quickly dismissed her. Nearly every black professional I know can tell at least one story like this--a job interview where a potential employer is excited by stellar credentials and a race-neutral name and voice, but immediately turned off at the sight of a black candidate.

Now Shecodes eventually got a job on Wall Street and indeed ended up having the very office once occupied by her rude interviewer. Did she triumph? Yes! Is this occurrence as bad as being held in bondage or legally denied the vote? Maybe not. But it is still racism.

Modern racism is like a dull ache:

Being able to only rise so high in the company despite excellent credentials and performance ...a dull ache.

Having your natural kinky hair stared at and pawed by strangers...a dull ache.

Being followed around department stores by security officers...a dull ache.

Worrying about young male loved ones often stopped by police for "driving while black"...a dull ache.

Seeing how quick Americans were to believe erroneous tales of raping and pillaging among Hurricane Katrina victims at the Superdome...a dull ache.

Watching missing young white women and children garner national coverage while black women and children are ignored...a dull ache.

Living in the Midwest and knowing that there are still some towns that you dare not visit alone...a dull ache.

Wondering if the poor service and stares you received at that great new restaurant were based on your race...a dull ache.

A dull ache is far better than what my ancestors suffered (At 38, I am just one generation removed from Jim Crow.). I have only rarely been the victim of overt racism, but a dull ache is still depressing and stressful in its persistence. And covert racism keeps the playing field imbalanced just as overt racism does. I should also mention that I am the educated, middle class child of an educated, middle class family. For many black people, caught in a cycle of poverty, racism is less a dull ache than chronic torment.

Black people don't expect you to know about all of these things. How could you? How can Lou Dobbs, a wealthy, white man, unequivocally proclaim how "progressive" America is about race? How the hell would he know?

We just need you to admit that you don't know. And then we need you to listen.

Anger at the system is not the same as anger at individual white people. Many black people are frustrated and angered by racial inequities inherent in "the system," but that doesn't mean that we are angry with you the individual. During the Women's History Month broadcast, Shecodes clearly stated that her experience with the racist Wall Street interviewer did not make her dislike white people. Only that woman can bear the guilt for what she did. Most black people I know feel the same way. Most of us have white friends and neighbors. Some of us have white husbands and wives. Our anger isn't about hatred; it is about a desire for equality.

Good people can be prejudiced. Where did everyone get the idea that prejudiced people were mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains? The idea keeps everyday people from honestly evaluating their biases, because "only bad people are prejudiced."

As I said in the first paragraph of this essay, white supremacy is ingrained in American culture and we are all affected by that. I don't mean the "white power" sort of supremacy, just the idea that the dominant culture, which is white/European, is the benchmark. So, it is no surprise that blond hair and blue eyes are celebrated, that a black preacher's fiery sermons would strike many Americans as odd, and that a black accent is perceived as less desirable than a white one.

The sin is not that we are biased in this way--and we are ALL biased. The sin is that we pretend that we aren't biased and fail to address the inequities that our prejudice creates.

There is more I could add, like: There are no official black leaders so please stop thinking Al Sharpton is the black Messiah. But the points above are ones that have been swirling in my head as public discourse has more and more turned to the topic of race.

Look, all this black woman wants is equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My experience tells me that despite great strides, we aren't there yet. And we won't get there as long as the majority of Americans think the job is already done. Unfortunately, recent conversations about race have led me to believe this is exactly what the majority of Americans think.

It is way past time to have a real conversation about race. But America, are you willing to listen as well as speak?

Agree with me? Disagree? Let me hear from you.

UPDATE: Latoya Peterson at Racialicious holds forth on the Rice/Dobbs controversy here.

28 comments:

Ferocious Kitty said...

AGREE! Well said, as always, Tami. Every black person should laminate this post and just hand it to people who hold the misconceptions you so wonderfully de-mythologized.

LoserPoet said...

I happened across the post by accident and I very much agree with all you say. I'm a white, middle class man who lives in the MidWest and I see small examples of racism every day directed at my black friends, co-workers, and neighbors. What's even more amazing in this day and age is there's still an us against them mentality. I know I've been in situations at my previous job where I've said something positive about a black co-worker to a white one and gotten a very chilly reaction, like I'm taking sides. Strange stuff. Then there's my wife's best friend's husband, a baseball fan like myself, who wishes the manager our our favorite team would play more white players. One of my buddies at my previous job has been busted numerous times for 'driving while black'. It's pathetic to see that this still goes on. We've made strides to be sure, but like you say, we've got a long way to go. we can't get there without acknowledging what's happened in the past. So many people want to sweep history under the rug and pretend it didn't happen or that it's not happening now. Here's hoping it at least gets better in our generation and for all of our children.

Tami said...

Thanks, Ferocious Kitty!

Welcome, Loser Poet! I think part of the problem is that none of us knows each other well enough. Too many of us don't have friends of different races, so it is easy to demonize the "other." Someone who has no black friends may not have racism on their radar. Someone who does not have white friends may not understand that most white people are well meaning.

hollyannewilliams said...

That was awesome! So many of the things you just said have been floating around in my head, and I just didn't know how to articulate them. Now I will just refer people to your post. Thanks.

Nicole said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly, but how do we get the dialogue started when so many are afraid to say the wrong thing, come across as angry, or be labeled a racist or antagonizer?

Danette said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing on Kos as well.

You should post a tip jar out there as you are getting much feedback and love from the community there.

Please continue to share in the Kos community. We always welcome a thoughtful commentary

Dayna said...

Thank you so much for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Where did everyone get the idea that prejudiced people were mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains? The idea keeps everyday people from honestly evaluating their biases, because "only bad people are prejudiced."


I think the answer to this is political correctness. Lots of people -- particularly in the media where our public debates are held -- have lost jobs or had careers shortened because they made a comment that was perceived as racist with the most recent example being Imus.

Rev. Sharpton did not go to Imus and say, as you have so reasonably done, hey it's normal to be prejudiced, but let me give you some things to think about. He demanded his job and got it.

That's a story that's been played out again and again so that any white in the media avoids the race question at all costs for fear that he might say something that gets him fired.

The other thing that gets in the way of the discussion in my mind is the conflation of race issues with Leftist politics. Just read this TPM Cafe post where the author says that being black somehow inherently means you support the Palestinians against Israel.

http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/
2008/03/31/losing_the_narrative/


I'm white, but it seems to me that race in America is a difficult enough issue without entangling it with an even more difficult issue from thousands of miles away.

And when race gets tied up with a particular political ideology, it then becomes difficult to separate out whether the source of divisions is racial or ideological.

In fact, I suspect much of the defensiveness you observe at the mention of our sad racial history is that whites do believe that blacks are saying that the progress we've made counts for nothing and that America is essentially an evil country from birth because that's what they perceive Leftist like Noam Chomsky to be saying and the rhetoric coming out of Pastor Wright and the man I've linked to above seem to be in the same vein.

Not to long ago, I listened to a black historian being interviewed on the radio talk about our Constitution as a "violent" document. Now I suppose that maybe he also sees the great value in the principles that were enshrined within it and how revolutionary they were in many ways at the time, but nothing he said indicates that to me. So I'm left wondering if he just hates America, and like many Leftists seem to, thinks the world would be a better place without this country.

kathy said...

Tami,
Thanks so much for writing this. I followed the link from the Daily Kos. I didn't read all the comments over there, but it seems to me that there was mostly a disconnect with what you wrote, I even thought I was reading comments from another article, or am I just imagining that?

I love this post and hope to read more like it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tami. A very eloquent and well-reasoned post. I followed your link here from Daily Kos, as I didn't wish my praise to be lost in the deluge of comments. My name over there is aravir. I hope you will grace us there with more of your insights. If not, I will keep my eye on you here.
Best wishes.

B12love said...

Great post. I've spent years trying to write clearly on complex topics, but I have never produced anything as clear, earnest and open as you have here. Thanks for sharing.

My answer to your question is that discussing racism and race simply isn't in our natural comfort zones, so people avoid it.

You write that you're 38...can you give me examples of complex issues that have been responsibly discussed/debated at a national level over the course of your adult life? I can't think of one...we don't do complex, it's too hard and lacks the sensationalism that sells media.

Which is just one more reason we need a great leader who can allow us to grow and learn as a nation. Go Obama!

ProdigalBanker said...

Tami,

I read this first over at DK. I absolutely love the ferocious matter of factness with which you articulate your argument. I look forward to reading more of your work.

Jennifer said...

THANK YOU-THANK YOU-THANK You for this post Tami. It's so eloquent and direct and TRUE.

I really appreciate you starting from the position that America, in its founding, at its core, has had a problem with race and prejudice (and, of course, racial prejudice). Like with all types of illnesses and addictions, acknowledgement is the first step towards the healing process.

Will this reach everyone? No. I mean, that's my own frustration about trying to initiate honest dialogue about race--the people I think I really want to be talking to wouldn't be caught dead going to my blog, or probably would just feel frustration and anger (I'm, of course, guessing, because very few conservative folks seem to leave comments on my blog--probably due to the comment moderation I have going on).

At any rate, sorry for rambling, but I'm just so impressed by this post and wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your thoughts/sentiments/observations.

Ceci said...

Wow. Just wow.

"Black people don't expect you to know about all of these things. How could you? How can Lou Dobbs, a wealthy, white man, unequivocally proclaim how "progressive" America is about race? How the hell would he know?"

Tami, you are graciously letting white people off the hook here. I can understand why you would. But I don't have to do that.

Listen up, fellow white people: In this day and age, you really have no excuse for not having a better understanding of this. Visit black blogs. The Google is really good for that. Listen to "The Power" -- 169 on your XM radio. And read, REALLY read, posts like this one.

And Lou Dobbs? You're a journalist for chrise-sake. What's your excuse for not being better informed?

Out-f'ing-standing essay. :)

Jennifer said...

Hi Tami--this is Jennifer again--because I just re-read my comment and realized it was incomplete! So sorry! That's what I get for checking email before going to bed.

Anyway, what I was going to say is that unfortunately your post won't reach those, I think, I'd personally like to see do the racial conversion perspective--Lou Dobbs, Pat Robertson, the entire Republican power base--but what I meant to say (and thought I did) was that I DO think that writing your post, as you did, as a way to let white people (and others--I mean Michele Malkin, a Filipino American right-wing pundit clearly needs a lesson in Racism 101 and people like her are DANGEROUS because it allows white people to point and invoke the model minority myth/conservative spokesperson of color) into the conversation.

And, essentially, I thought your post really did that--it was strong and forceful and direct. It spoke your truth, which is also the truth for many people. And I think there are people who just don't know better--who aren't malicious--they just grew up with white privilege and in an atmosphere of white supremacy (and see, even when I use these terms, I know that invoking white supremacy for most people means conjuring images of people in sheets, but it's NOT that, or not just that--it's so much MORE than that, and much more subtle).

Anyway, I'm rambling again because now I just woke up and haven't had my coffee (your part my my morning blog check-in!). I'll just end by saying, again, thank you for your words.

Laura said...

Tami, thank you for this post, I definitely agree with what you express about how white people need to stop denying that racism is alive and just be willing to listen. I am a 25 year old white woman living and working is Washington, DC. My boyfriend recently ended our relationship because of racial differences. He told me that he was raised to think that whites are content with keeping blacks in check and holding them back. He said that he feels as though he cannot express everything about himself since I am white and will never understand or relate to what he goes through as a black man. He is the only one holding himself back and I don’t understand how anyone can speak about how they wish racism was dead and then turnaround and be racist toward me. Two wrongs do not make a right and will get us nowhere as a human race. This is an educated man who graduated from Georgetown University. I feel as though the first thing he saw when he looked at me was the color of my skin (as a downfall), but when I looked at him I saw all of the amazing qualities that he possessed (including his skin) that made me care about him. Because of his upbringing he was conditioned to feel as though he cannot be his true self around all different colors and cultures. How is anyone supposed to understand or relate to another human being or racial group if they are never given the chance to understand through the candid sharing of thoughts, opinions, feelings, and experiences? I fear that this is hindering individuals from fulfilling their full potential when it comes to business, friendships and intimate relationships. I think the only way to grow as a society is to step out of our comfort zone and risk being temporarily uncomfortable and share opinions and struggles openly so that we can learn from each other and grow. I believe it’s one thing to understand the root of racial thinking and where it comes from, and never forget the past, but my fear is that if people’s actions today do nothing to change that thinking, then race relations will never improve. I was willing to listen, but he wasnt willing to speak...

Anonymous said...

Tami-thank you for this post, I agree with what you said about how whites need to stop denying that racism is still around and just be willing to listen. I am a 25 year old white woman living and working is Washington, DC. My boyfriend recently ended our relationship because of racial differences. He told me that he was raised to think that whites are content with keeping blacks in check and holding them back. He said that he feels as though he cannot express everything about himself since I am white and will never understand or relate to what he goes through as a black man. He is the only one holding himself back and I don’t understand how anyone can speak about how they wish racism was dead and then turnaround and be racist toward me. Two wrongs do not make a right and will get us nowhere as a human race. This is an educated man who graduated from Georgetown University. I feel as though the first thing he saw when he looked at me was the color of my skin (as a downfall), but when I looked at him I saw all of the amazing qualities that he possessed (including his skin) that made me care about him. Because of his upbringing he was conditioned to feel as though he cannot be his true self around all different colors and cultures. How is anyone supposed to understand or relate to another human being or racial group if they are never given the chance to understand through the candid sharing of thoughts, opinions, feelings, and experiences? I fear that this is hindering individuals from fulfilling their full potential when it comes to business, friendships and intimate relationships. I think the only way to grow as a society is to step out of our comfort zone and risk being temporarily uncomfortable and share opinions and struggles openly so that we can learn from each other and grow. I believe it’s one thing to understand the root of racial thinking and where it comes from, and never forget the past, but my fear is that if people’s (both blacks and whites) actions today do nothing to change that thinking, then race relations will never improve. I was willing to listen, but he wasnt willing to speak...

Tami said...

Anon,

I'm sorry to hear about your relationship.

Y'know, I think that your ex did not see just your color. Obviously he connected with something special about you, because you were together. But intimate relationships--friendships or romances--between people of different cultures can be tricky, can't they? From the black point of view, which is the only one I know, it can get tiring having to explain all those "dull aches" to someone who will never truly understand. You want to think that your friends and significant others "get" you, but if you are a black person and your mate is not, it can be hard. It can be hard to be constantly forced into the role of teacher, having to explain yourself and your culture. At the same time, if you are in a relationship, it's not really fair not to try to share with your mate. It is certainly not your fault that you are part of the majority culture and he is a minority. It's all so complicated.

I'm not saying that interracial relationships don't work. They do. It's just work, like any other relationship, but with a little extra because you have to reach across the cultural breach.

Pfeng said...

I really enjoyed your essay.

I'm a white woman. I admit I am prejudiced, though I do my best to ignore the stupid voices in my head. I try really, really hard to be as nice to everybody as possible -- largely because I like everybody being as nice as possible to me, so it seems only fair.

One point: I feel like I was trained from a very young age to never, ever mention differences between people, even the incredibly obvious ones like skin color. While this works on some level (I treat everyone equally), it also backfires somewhat in that I have no way of asking for information.

One of my very good high school friends was black, another was Indian (another girl I knew was an albino African, which was even more interesting). They had interesting families, perspectives, cultural differences -- but I always felt like I couldn't ask them much about those differences in our lives. I wanted to tell my friend her cornrow braids were totally awesome and say how much I wished my hair could do that -- but it would be just pointing out how different she looked and I didn't want her to assume I was doing it because the difference was bad. My mother got seriously furious at me once when I mentioned how much I enjoyed the smell of my Indian friend's house. I thought the curry and cumin and cinnamon were delicious, and told my friend's mother something along the lines of "your house always smells so interesting!"... I was grounded for a week, since it was apparently inappropriate to mention that their home smelled different.

So, I admit: I don't know. And I desperately want to listen and learn.

I love reading blogs about racial, religious, or gay/lesbian discrimination issues because I can finally get answers to long-burning questions without the risk (or what I was taught to perceive as a risk) of looking arrogantly curious. It's kind of haphazard, but it's slowly working :)

(On another note, nothing excuses a stranger from touching your hair without asking. Nothing even really excuses them from WANTING to touch your hair. That's creepy and weird.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you. You described my last month to a T. Thank you, thank you.

aprilberardi said...

Great post.

America HAS come such a long way, and being a world traveler, I have seen that America IS in fact the leader in the world when it comes to equallity for it's people.

Having said that, America does have far to go, and the fact that we have come further than any other nation should only drive us to set higher standards for ourselves as a people. I witness racism daily that people aren't even aware of only because it's not blatant name-calling. People are afraid to confront topics like this.
I agree with the comment left earlier that if people had diverse circles of friends, peers and co-workers, they would not be so afraid of the subject. White suburbia has caused alot of white people to be afraid of situations simply because they are unfamiliar with different types of people.

Great Post...i will surely recommend to friends!

Mhari said...

As a clueless and inarticulate white girl trying to remedy the clueless part :> -- thanks for this.

NOLA radfem said...

Once again, thanks Tami.

My new goal in life is to make enough money so that I can afford to hand a copy of "White Like Me" to every white person I know - maybe even to strangers.

I'm only partially kidding.

Of course, those who need to read up on white privilege the most probably wouldn't read it even if I gave them the damn book for free...

beth said...

Good post. I hope you contribute more to this website because you make so much sense!

foreverloyal said...

I call it "hitting the wall" where someone shuts down and won't "hear" what you are trying to say. Some people's walls are further back than others'. But most people have them.

PureGracefulTree said...

Beautifully written, Tami.

I find it interesting that you use the word "dull ache" to describe covert racism. The metaphor that most aptly describes my experience, as an Asian American, is "death by a thousand cuts". There are indeed differences in how racism plays out among different races. I do believe that what blacks experience is more constant and pervasive, indeed like a dull ache. With the whole "model minority" business, I think Asian Americans such as myself who were raised in the U.S. and speak fluent, unaccented English, it is easy to slip into the delusion that we are fully accepted, with as much chance of success as a white person, when OW! like a paper cut, we are suddenly reminded of the reality. Of course the term may be associated with Asians because of the ancient torture technique, but I think it's an apt description.

M&B said...

Wonderful essay, thank you. It was only when I lived overseas that I first began to really think about race in America. Something about leaving home makes you see it clearer I guess. Before that, although I grew up in diverse areas with diverse friends, race was a taboo and sublimated subject which ultimately had the effect of making any discussion of race an excrutiating thing, and perpetuating unexamined schoolground and TV stereotypes.
Now I'm in a mixed-race marriage with a mixed-race man, and it has been an adventure over the years to navigate the issues of race and culture along with him. It's only been through the gradual constant exposure to racial issues as he sees them that I've been able to dismantle my own assumptions and discomfort.
Thank you for your great essay!

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I just read this for the first time, since you linked to it in your most recent post. Thank you again for a wonderful article. I think this sums up a good part of America's racial climate, esp. as pertains to black / white relations. Thank you again!

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