Saturday, September 2, 2017

Shaken & Stirred (Me and Race in America)

I've been shaken by my recent experiences here blogging about race––by myself, the state of things in my country (yeah, not new, but newly emboldened), and by some responses, most especially those of Departed Commenter on my posts on "other-race effect " (akin to "implicit racism"*) saying that I was racist to think race mattered when I misnamed a black coworker––an action I had ascribed to white-American-me being segregated from my fellow black Americans by systematic social racism, not coming from my consciously held political and philosophical beliefs.

I recently read the book of passages from James Baldwin's writings used in the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, [movie trailer], 
and I find my experience of how segregated I have always been from black people's personal lives reflected in this quote:
"BALDWIN: Most of the white Americans I have ever encountered really, you know, had a negro friend or a negro maid or somebody in high school. But they never, you know, or rarely after school was over or whatever, you know, came to my kitchen.
You know, we were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn't know - he really does not know - what it was like for me to leave my house, you know, leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn't know how negroes live.
And it comes as a great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and to everybody else in the country. I'm certain again, you know, that like - again, like most white Americans I have, you know, encountered, they have no - you know, I'm sure they have nothing whatever against negroes.
That is not - that's really not the question.
You know, the question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance which is a price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means. It - you don't know what's happening on the other side of the wall because you don't want to know."
[--via transcript of NPR interview with director Raoul Peck]

Yes, I've had black friends and black coworkers, but how often have I been to their kitchens? As Baldwin says, rarely.

But here's the thing: 
I was not unaware of that. 
I wrote about misnaming my coworker because I unhappy that I did it, not because I was surprised I did.

I'm a little chagrined to admit that what has surprised me is realizing a different kind of segregation, apathy, ignorance I live with:
how segregated/in denial I am/have been from what many, many nice, well-meaning white people really think about race (and, related, about poverty). And slavery.

Departed Commenter (who seemed to be a genuinely nice white woman who mostly blogged about knitting for her grandchildren) is not at all unique in denying that implicit racism exists--or in being deeply ignorant of the complexities of history--something that became evident when she kept defending the Confederate monuments as "beautiful."

She's far from alone. I was fascinated to read this article:
"I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery."
--by Margaret Biser, Vox, August 28, 2017

Biser writes --with more compassion than finger pointing--about "visitors who had earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery. These folks were usually, but not always, a little older, and almost invariably white.
I was often asked if the slaves there got paid, or (less often) whether they had signed up to work there. You could tell from the questions — and, not less importantly, from the body language — that the people asking were genuinely ignorant of this part of the country's history." 

She outlines in the article "the most common misconceptions about American slavery I encountered during my time interpreting history to the public," starting with:

"1) People think slaveholders 'took care' of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest

"There is a surprisingly prevalent belief out there that slaves' rations and housing were bestowed upon them out of the master's goodwill, rather than handed down as a necessity for their continued labor — and their master's continued profit.

"This view was expressed to me often, usually by people asking if the family was 'kind' or 'benevolent' to their slaves, but at no point was it better encapsulated than by a youngish mom taking the house tour with her 6-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. I had been showing them the inventory to the building, which sets a value on all the high-ticket items in the home, including silver, books, horses, and, of course, actual human people. 
(Remember that the technical definition of a slave is not just an unpaid worker, but a person considered property.)

"For most guests, this is the most emotionally meaningful moment of the tour. I showed the young mother some of the slaves' names and pointed out which people were related to each other. The mom stiffened up, raised her chin, and asked pinchedly, 'Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?'"

James Baldwin again**: 
"If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself.  You are mad."
I'm the person this article's title fits: "You won't believe the questions I got...". 
It's true. 
I was ignorant of how common, how normal this sort of thinking is.  Though I'm not a total ignoramus--I did notice with baffled horror that people have started to get married on slave plantations a while ago:
"The centerpiece of Sweet Home Plantation [yes, really--F.] is a  meticulously restored and elegantly furnished 1840 Greek Revival home.  The 4,200 square foot home, filled with period furniture and accessories,
is a virtual mid-19th century time capsule.
And that's a good thing?
So... I don't know. I'm still thinking a lot about this and what it means and what to do--especially now, in this time of Trump and the rise again of active white supremacy.

I do want to add here that of course there's a huge difference between the sort of sticky-icky, hard-to-get-at unconscious racism I was writing about and the consciously embraced and espoused racism. "Nice white people" like me (who included To Kill a Mockingbird among my favorite books until just a few years ago), whether or not we accept the idea of implicit bias, do nonetheless still object to and even actively work against blatant racism . . . like Nazis marching in the street. 
(I recently added "Nazis" as a blog label---isn't it crazy weird that that refers to recent events and is not a historical term?)

I've mostly lived around people who are familiar with and accept the idea of Implicit Bias and how "it can be even more insidious than the kinds of racism that are most familiar to us."
--"Implicit bias means we're all probably at least a little bit racist"--Vox, 2016
You could debate whether that title itself isn't "a little bit racist"--implying that "we" readers are white, since racism is the oppression of a group with less power, and it doesn't work the other way around.

From the article Implicit Bias:
"Implicit racial bias tends to work against the same groups that are the victims of the type of overt racism that you hear from white supremacists or the subtler bigotry of people who believe that racial minorities suffer from cultural pathology or who actively defend racial and ethnic stereotypes.
"But it can also affect the minds of people who would say — honestly — that they are horrified by these types of attitudes. That's because the implicit associations we hold often don't align with our declared beliefs."
As Justin Simeon, director of Dear White People, says:
"Y'all ain't oppressed. I'm sorry.

"By the way, it's not as good as it sounds. You don't want to be oppressed."
James Baldwin also said**, in 1963:
It is not really a 'Negro revolution' that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity." 

**From “A Talk to Teachers”, James Baldwin:
"Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. . . .
The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. 
But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around."
[boldface mine]


Michael Leddy said...

A lot here — I have to come back and read this again when I have more time (tomorrow).

I just wanted to add — a recent This American Life has a segment with Azie Dungey, who played the role of a slave when working as a historical interpreter at Mount Vernon. The things she recounts white people saying to her — wtf!

Frex said...

Wow, thanks, Michael, for that link---both spooky and gripping how Azie Dungey started to inhabit (or be inhabited by) the enslaved woman she was playing.

(My post is very incomplete---I'm still feeling my way with this...)