Thursday, April 1, 2010

From the vault: What it means to be friends (or lovers) with a racist

There is discussion going on over at Jezebel surrounding the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James controversy. Now that James' alleged predilection for Nazi memorabilia is being trumpeted by the rags (with photos!), some folks are wondering if "America's sweetheart" knew about all this stuff, what does it mean about her character. I got nothin' on Bullock and James. I couldn't care less about their private situation. I am; however, intrigued by the notion, advanced by some commenters, that you can choose to surround yourself with racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, etc.) people and still call yourself anti-racist, feminist, etc.

That to me (pardon my language, but it's been quite a week) is bullshit--bullshit born of privilege.

I commented on a related post to a reader with the position that Hey, sometimes your family and friends just believe stuff:
IMHO, a husband is different than random "family" (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins...people who are in your life by an accident of birth, and with whom you may or may not share values.). A spouse is someone who is in your life by CHOICE. Presumably, we choose people as our spouses, in part, BECAUSE we share important values...because we mesh.

Of course, all couples differ on some things...generally the things that aren't deal breakers. I would like to think that for people of conscience, racism is a deal breaker.

I certainly hope that Sandra Bullock was in the dark about her husband's alleged beliefs. If she was not, I would hold her accountable for abiding racism. She may not be a racist herself, but those that abide oppression and injustice are responsible for its existence, too.
The debate reminded me of this old post, prompted by a Cary Tennis column on Salon:


Racialicious provided a link to the latest column by Salon advice-giver Cary Tennis. In it, a New England liberal white woman and her husband learn that their new friend is a racist. "Should we keep him as a friend?" She asks. Read the entire letter and Cary's response here, but the gist is:
This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs -- to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.
Tennis' flowery moral relativism seems to imply that it is judgmental and arrogant to think that judging people on the content of their character is good and judging them based on the color of their skin is bad. Who knows, racism may be in vogue in another century? His advice: Keep the friend.

What is the right thing to do when you discover an acquaintance is racist?

I can tell you what I have done. I think racism is immoral. It is contrary to my values. When faced with an acquaintance that reveals his or her racism to me--I end the friendship. [Editor's note: And I'm not saying that is easy.] I don't hate that person. We are all human. We all have our failings. And this country is rife with prejudice. But I cannot call someone a friend, who has values I think are abhorrent. I also address racist comments when I hear them, making my displeasure clear. I'm willing to offer a little leeway to folks 70+, who may be products of their time.

Obviously, being a black woman, this issue is important to me. How nice for Tennis, a white man, to have the freedom to decide that racism is no big deal, a minor character quirk. I note that a lot of self-professed liberals are able to make this type bargain with their ideals. That the letter writer even had to ask what to do in this situation is interesting.

As for me, when I hear white acquaintances make prejudiced comments about Hispanics, Arabs or Asians, it triggers an alarm. The comments are offensive even if not directed at me. And Certainly a willingness to judge people based on race does not stop where my people are concerned. What are they saying about blacks when I'm not around? And I'll tell you this, my feelings about prejudice are no less strong when the perpetrators are black. And yes, black folks can be prejudiced, too.

Listening to hatred hurts my spirit. I have to assume that those who surround themselves with people who hate and who believe in the superiority of their own race, don't really think racism is that bad. A good liberal who can easily fraternize with a flaming racist probably needs to check her belief system.

What do you think?

P.S. One commenter on Salon posted the lyrics to a Dan Berg song called "The Fascist in Me" in response to this letter. I think the song is a powerful challenge to folks who say the right things, have the right bumper stickers, but who secretly hate:

The Facist In Me

When I vote, I vote democratic
And sometimes further left like peace and freedom,
Or even libertarian
I’m pro-choice, pro-environment
Against large corporations and the neutron bomb
But when I’m stuck on the freeway
And it's hot and someone cuts me off
I think they oughta fry that son of a bitch
It's the fascist in me

Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me
Get rid of that smell, go back where you came from
It's the fascist in me
You're a burden, you're a drain on the economy
It's the fascist in me
It's so distasteful going to the grocery store
For some Haagen Daaz on a Saturday night
When you have to pass this vermin
I've given to seven charities
I’ve played five different benefits
In the past month
My bumper stickers say:
Save the whales, visualize peace, NPR (KPFK)
But when someone's rude in a restaurant
I’d like to make them look at the barrel of a gun
And then we'll see how smug they are
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the power to seize your house
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the authority to take your tongue
It's the fascist in me
I’d run you naked through the middle of the town
It's the fascist in me
You'd live in fear knowing every creak of the floorboards,
Knock on the door, or cry in the dark of night, could be your last
Sometimes I just want to take half the world and decree that they all go away
Everyone's stupid and no one has anything very insightful to say
It's the price you have to pay
I’m tired of it today
I’d like another way
It's the fascist in me
Wear some normal clothes, don't have so many children,
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
Where'd you get that car?
Which drugs did you sell?
How'd you get that job?
Which quota did you fill?
I’d like plant my fist in your face
Don't talk so loud
Don't walk so slow
If you just disappeared, no one would care
No one would care if you just disappeared
Your mother oughta be down on her knees
Cleaning up my kitchen
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in na na na na
It's the fascist in me
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me


BroadSnark said...

I think there are some people completely beyond hope and it's best not to poison your life by being around them.

But I also think that racism permeates our society and that having a friend who is not racist, does not uphold the racist structures in any way (even unintentionally), is impossible.

Sometimes its hard to know who is hopeless and who is not. Sometimes people seem receptive to my objections to their ideas, but who knows if they just learn to edit themselves around me.

But the person that you live with is different from your coworker or distant cousin or neighbor. The only way those kinds of relationships last is if you can agree on the things that are most important to you. So, if a person can put up with unabashed hatred for years...

Then again, there was a really fascinating article on Alternet a while back about the families of racists. There were usually other abusive issues involved there too. Interesting, if you haven't read it

Jessie Daniels said...

Thanks for this post, Tami. This is an important issue that doesn't get enough attention.
It's also a subject that is important to me, personally. Mab Segrest writes in her book, "Memoir of a Race Traitor," about coming to terms with and making peace with various racists in her family. It's something that I've struggled with and ultimately decided was impossible to do.
When I was finishing grad school and a dissertation on various white supremacist groups, I learned - quite by accident - that my paternal grandfather had been a member of the Klan. I was shocked, disturbed. My father, no hood-and-robe guy, but more of a suit-and-tie racist, dismissed this news as no big deal. I felt it was important, indeed crucial for the kind of work I wanted to do, to move away from my family of origin - both literally and symbolically. That's part of what prompted me to change my given name to what it is now - in honor of "Jessie Daniel Ames" a white woman from Texas who fought against lynching. It's a decision that cost me a great deal personally. When my father learned that I'd changed my name, he was furious - got a court order, had me locked up for 72 hours. I never spoke to him after that. He died 2 years later and we never reconciled.
All that to say this: I really believe that part of the way that racism gets passed down from one generation to the next is because white people accept it in their friends and family.
Needless to say, racism in a prospective friend is a deal-breaker for me.

Rosa said...

Thank you. A million times for this. Sometimes reading your words is such a relief that I feel like crying.

I am a Latina in a relationship with a white man and he never, ever seems to understand why I would (and do) drop someone who is openly racist or misogynistic. (Some of those people are, of course, his own friends, family, and coworkers.) He always thinks that I'm the one who's being unforgiving, uncompromising, unfair when I do this. It's hurt me more than once that he's willing to give a racist/misogynist a pass but in his eyes I don't deserve one.

I don't think anyone is beyond hope, but I've learned that it isn't my job to kindly nurture along those who would laugh behind my back at me or even spit in my face if given half the chance.

Karin said...

There are some blogposts that I wish everyone would read. This is one of them. Thank you.

Along with the bigger message, one of your side comments has stuck with me. I feel torn about the issue of whether or not to give the elderly white population more slack around racism. I realize it was more difficult for white people in the early-to-mid twentieth century to understand the impact of racism and to stand up to it, but it wasn't impossible to overcome those biases, either. My white, midwestern, protestant, 83-year old grandmother confronted her own bigoted leanings and made it an important part of her life...which left an indelible impression on me. Still, it is an issue that I would like to explore and understand.

roslynholcomb said...

I broke up with a guy once because he used anti-gay slurs. I'm not gay and as far as I know I have no close relatives that are, but to me people who hate don't have the type of spirit I want to be around. It was very important to me to find a man who had similar values and beliefs as I do. We don't agree on everything, but at our core we are very much the same. I can't imagine living with someone who was otherwise.

Moi said...

Hell yeah that ish is a deal-breaker!!! *looks appalled*

Racism is beyond immoral--its downright unnatural, irrefutably destructive to all parties involved, and people who openly and devoutly subscribe to its thinking should be avoided at all costs.

I've got racists in my family (mom talks smack about Arabs, meanwhile half her damn family's straight outta Saudi Arabia) and hell yes I call them out on ish the second they utter. It doesn't always end well...but oh well, it needs done regardless.

But what annoys me is when some WP claim to really, really, really, really, really want to be rid of racism so we can all hurry on to the post-racial happily-ever-after. And yet they don't want to do what is necessary right now because it's "hard" or it's "inconvenient".

Oh, boo-hoo.

theolderepublicke said...

It can be very easy to judge others. I know; I do it all the time. Accordingly, there are two things I like a lot about this post:

1. It drives home the fact that even though not all people are beyond hope, it is sometimes important to separate oneself from toxic environments if that feeds one's own racism. I am certainly not free of racism myself--not even the more obvious manifestations of racism--but at least I have discontinued some friendships with the more racist people I used to know. (I don't claim to deserve accolades.... but I do (sometimes) try to do the right thing.)

2. I had never heard, or seen the lyrics of, the song "Fascist in Me" before. It's definitely food for thought and a reminder to me--and, I hope, to others--that if any of us look closely enough into ourselves, we might see something very cruel and horrific. I guess this song is a reminder to me to take the log out of my eye before I try to extract the specks from others'.

Again, great post, and I agree with most of the comments here.

ObaaYaa said...

Thank you so much for writing this.
I agree with ending the relationship if the person shows no sign of redemption. Does this person REALLY not know better or is he just a jerk?

I'm dealing with a situation like this where my boyfriend's (who is white) friends and family have often said things that have made me so uncomfortable. His immediate family has since changed a great deal, but his friends are another story. I am one of the only two people of color in the group of his friends, and we're both women. One of his friends recently, on facebook, starting ranting against Muslims,and that was it for me. My boyfriend is more patient, saying "we have to challenge him and help him broaden his mind", but dealing with that crap is very emotionally draining. I don't know why i should be forced to be cordial with his friends. i am not interested in being around, and teaching people who do not challenge themselves and only surround themselves with people who egg their ignorance on. I want them far far away from me and mine.

i think we as people of color have to deal with enough BS in school, work, going to the store, going to the bank. Our friends and families are our haven at times, and having someone who holds misogynistic, racist, classist views feels like the BS we deal with outside of our family and friends is trying to force its way inside.

Anonymous said...

I am a muslim who worked in an office where violent anti-islam mails were often circulated. I dealt with it using humour. Showing indignance would have only fed the flames of their hate and done no one good. It was not possible to walk out of the job just to make a point that comunalism is not acceptable to me.

When they used to talk about killing muslims, I used to say loudly "Who is talking about killing my people" and "just make sure if you are going to kill me, you give me notice so I can do an assignment handover... after all who will handle the work".

I'm Asian; we deal in a very non-confrontational way with sensitive topics. You cannot change the world. People learn by example. So you have to set a good one yourself. To change the world you must start with the man in the mirror!

My ex was a 'fan' of Hitler. His 'admiration' of Hitler arose from his lack of compassion and immaturity and the fact that he was from the only hindu household in a Muslim area. I think on some subliminal level, he was hoping he could do a Hitler on his Muslim neighbours as he felt very crowded out by people who were different from him. I understood the psychology.

I endured his immaturity for a bit and then got tired of it and walked away.

I live in a family that is very mixed religion and mixed race. There is open support of zionism amongst some in my family. But we still live together. I put forth my point of view on the issue. I am not a good lawyer so I dont manage to talk sense to them. Or when they get started, I simply change the topic.

Tami Everyone has some hatred towards someone. That is how humans have been designed. If you ostracize someone who has hate, are you not doing the same thing?

Yet I agree shutting up about discrimination is not good. I dont shut up if someone sends me anti-muslim mails/forwards... I dont fit into the sterotype of Muslims so people forget... I speak kindly and logically to the sender.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with discrimiation.

I leave you with a nice poem:

THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

and by that time no one was left to speak up."

nice poem, right?

klandestine said...

I love the shout out to KPFK!! cause the Other NPR station is on some BS when it comes to liberal issues. and that's just the *liberal* ones.


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