Black White Man

My mother is black, and my father is white. I walk among you.

Archive for March, 2008

Confederate Monuments

Protesters Say Monument Stands For Racism, Bigotry

I spent a lot of time growing up in the South, and I’ve seen how pride in being a Southerner gets all wrapped up in pride about the Civil War.   I’m sensitive to it, and I can see the other side.   Especially since our country still grapples with the tension between states’ rights versus the power of the federal (or even international) government, the values of the Confederate uprising aren’t entirely something of the past.  Theres a mythos there that persists.

On the other hand…

Near my house here in northern Virginia there’s a plaque on a tree which memorializes that Yankee spies used to be hanged there.   This is directly on my way when I take my family out for our weekly Sunday brunch.    It’s both morbid and disturbing.   As much as I sympathize with the ideals of the Civil War extending past a battle over slavery — it was also about slavery.   As a “mulatto,” if I had lived at the time, I would certainly have been fighting on the side of the North, and I would also certainly have been ‘passing’ as white.   And who’s to say I wouldn’t have been discovered and strung up on that tree?   For that matter, whose to say that any of my white friends wouldn’t have been caught as spies and strung up on that tree.   Regardless of what the real underpinnings of that war were, regardless of what it means for cultural pride, there are appropriate ways to express your culture and commemorate history and there are inappropriate ways.   I’d like to think that the issue of confederate monuments would be a prime example of something that we could compromise on as a culture… but maybe I’m wrong.

The “difficulties” of being raised biracial

Elise has a very good post about the drawbacks and benefits being raised in an interracial family.   It struck me that some people seriously consider the pros and cons of bringing children into multi-racial families — not because that’s a bad thing to consider, it’s a good thing to think about; but because it’s never been a choice for me, so I’ve never considered it a choice, really.    Of course, I didn’t choose being born into a multi-racial family myself, and I’ve always imagined myself in multi-racial families myself.   Whether I married a Black or a White woman, I’d consider that relationship to be somewhat multi-racial.

Reading over Elise’s post, one thing that struck me is that, to me, the ‘downside’ of not feeling like you fit in and that you’re not represented in popular media, which are very serious issues that I had growing up (and continue to have) is something very external.   There’s a system of racial categorization “out there” and I don’t happen to fit into it.    Conversely, the ‘strength’ of being taught about diversity and inclusiveness, which I find equally true in my case, I’ve always considered a personal strength.    So, in my mind at least, the ‘pro’ and the ‘con’ of being raised in a multi-racial family don’t exactly balance out.   They have a complicated synergy, as if being flip sides of the same coin.

I think that systems of classifying race are important, at least for the time and place that we live in now.    There are differences between people which are important for us to talk about (e.g. differences in culture, income, and health), and so we need language.    But any system has its flaws, and I think that problems I’ve had fitting in are useful in highlighting those flaws, without necessarily throwing out the whole system altogether.    So, I guess I see the ‘strength’ of diversity as being a cure for the ‘problem’ of not fitting in.    It’s not as simple as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’, but more of an ongoing process.    There will always be ways to categorize people which will be simultaneously useful and also sources of division — the same thing happens on class, nationality, gender, religion, profession, etc. etc.   And so I think there will also be a difficult but important role for people who don’t fit into those categories.    I don’t think parents should be shying away from the concept, any more than I think that we should be encouraging multi-racial-ness.   It simply is what it is, something to be proud of, but not any moreso than people who are deeply entrenched in one ancestry should be proud of that.

What is the deal with people thinking that a noose is not racist?? 

When I was in college in Boston there was an incident of a police officer leaving a noose over the parking space of another officer.    I was shocked by how little press it got.     Recently there was the Jena 6 incident.    And as I troll the Internet, I’m seeing more and more incidents of people leaving nooses out, and then being shocked when it’s taken seriously.

Really, America?    Do you not understand that gravity of that symbol?    In a country that’s so sensitive around the images of terrorism, I find the lack of sympathy around what are symbols of a older terror tactic to be staggering.

The need for multi-racial churches

One thing that struck me about Obama’s recent speech was his pronouncement that the most segregated hour in America is church-hour on Sunday morning.    Provocative, sad and true.   As a multi-racial person, I don’t feel completely comfortable in either all-White or all-Black environments, and so I’ve struggled looking for a church where I could feel I belong.    Our relationship with God is one of the most intimate in our lives — how telling that we refuse to share that, most of all, with people from different backgrounds.

So, I was very glad to read this article about one Christian group’s efforts to create and maintain multi-racial churches.    This gave me a lot of hope.   And it also came from, for me, an unlikely source.  I’m pretty vehemently opposed to Creationism.   It’s one of the few topics that can really get me frustrated; and so I have a blind-spot in my attempts to be tolerant of people.    This article not only gave me hope about the goal of multi-racial churches, but reminded me to be more open-minded to people who I may disagree with on one topic — because we may share common ground in other areas.

The bi-polar immigration debate

Quebec’s immigration debate

The immigration debate seems very similar to me all over the world (here in the States, Canada, the UK, Japan).    On the one hand, there’s the fear that immigrants threaten our national culture; and on the other hand, the assertion that people should be able to express their own language and culture wherever they happen to be.    Both of these extremes (stereotypically the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ viewpoints) posit something which I don’t find to be true: that culture is, or should be, immutable.  The ‘conservative’ view rests on the assumption that our national culture shouldn’t ever change, and the ‘liberal’ view rests on the converse assumption that one’s individual culture shouldn’t ever change.

I’ve spent a lot of my life living in foreign countries — a state which we often call, in our Americano-centric way, being an ‘expat’; but which we call being an ‘immigrant’ when it’s someone else.    When I’ve lived overseas I’ve always tried very hard both to learn and respect the culture that I’m living in, and to share the many great things about American culture with the people around me.   And I think that anything less is a loss for everyone.

I think that having people from other cultures is a great opportunity to assimilate new things.    Look at the wonderful invention of “Chinese food” here in the States.    It’s a cuisine that comes specifically out of Chinese immigration in the late end of the 19th century, and is completely unique from real Chinese food.  It’s also awesome.   Even without immigration, national cultures change because of new technologies, philosophies and artistic movements.    Holding onto a sense of static culture is simply unrealistic.

But conversely, whenever I’ve lived as an immigrant (or expat, whatever) the thing that annoys me most are my fellow Americans who refuse to participate in the local culture.   Whether it’s not studying the local language, not making friends with the local people, or overly frequenting ‘expat’ restaurants and bars — I believe that immigrants should make a concerted effort to respect and learn the local culture.    Now, there are times, as someone living in a foreign culture, that you want to eat some comfort food, speak your own language, or hang out somewhere that reminds you of home.   And that’s not only okay but healthy.   But there’s a huge difference between ‘sometimes’ and ‘always’.   There’s a difference between keeping your home as a bastion of your foreign culture, and letting it extend to your work, church, neighborhood and social habits.

Back to the original example of Quebec: I think, on the one hand, that denying people the right to wear their own religious affects is a completely atrocious infringement on civil rights; but on the other hand, I think it’s entirely reasonable that Quebecoises expect immigrants to learn French.    As in many things, the path to peace comes in a little perspective and compromise.   We all of us have to be willing to learn and change, and realize that accepting new things doesn’t necessarily mean eschewing the old things.

Liberals are ‘racists,’ obsessed with race in the same way that ‘florists’ are obsessed with flowers

Mr. MacEachern here starts with a fair point that many of us on the liberal side are overly-infatuated with racial distinctions.     We are all one human race, and the goal should be to achieve a parity where concepts of ‘race’ are no more important than your favorite movie or political affiliation — important aspects of your upbringing and personality, but not topics that are self-defining in terms of overly determining what neighborhoods you live in, churches and schools you go to, jobs you get, or chances of going to jail.

So, I accept Mr. MacEachern’s main argument: that liberals often overly fixate on race.    I’ll think about it, and hopefully internalize it.    As someone who keeps a blog about race, I think it’s a criticism that’s mainly levelled at people like me, and therefore that much more important to think about.

That being said, I think that Mr. MacEachern overstates his case.   It’s a common thread in conservative thought that because race shouldn’t matter, that we shouldn’t be talking about it or making distinctions based on it.    There’s a huge difference between “race shouldn’t matter” and “race doesn’t matter,” and it’s within that gulf that we have to have conversations about race.    It’s difficult to talk about important issues like the high rates at which Black people contract AIDS, the disparity of income, or incarceration rates, without talking about ‘race’.   In fact, without talking about race, it would be impossible to see that these individual statistics point to a larger pattern — and a larger pattern which is a problem.

It’s important that when we bring up these conversations that we do so in a way that helps to address the problems, rather than merely being divisive.    The young woman in Mr. MacEachern’s example who came out of a workshop about gender and race oppression feeling somehow bad about being White is exactly the kind of thing that we should be trying to avoid.    White people also have a unique culture of which we should be proud.   The history of oppression is not confined to Europe — China, India, the Great Zimbabwe and Azteca empires have all had horrible racial oppressiveness, just to name a few.    And, lastly, White Americans have played just as important a role in the civil rights movements as Black Americans and Americans of every other ethnicity have.   The problem we have is a problem for all of us, and so the solution necessarily has always and must always come from all of us.   Individual White people shoudn’t feel responsible or guilty — except to the extent that each and every one of us of all races is guilty of racism to some degree.

Mr. MacEachern’s overall point is that liberals are ‘racists’ in the sense that a ‘florist’ is concerned with flowers and a ‘militarist’ is concerned with the military.    I would say that this, in itself, isn’t a problem in the same way that florists and militarists are not, in themselves, a problem.    Race, unfortunately, is important in our society, and so some people need to be spending time thinking about it and talking about it.

An interesting take on ‘objectification’

David Schraub over at Carleton college has written a very interesting paper exploring the concepts of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ as it related to race in America, and in particular the Black relationship to the White majority.

He basically argues that while the history of America is one of exploitation of Black people, which he categorizes as ‘objectification’, the current problem presented to us is that mainstream America doesn’t objectify the Black community enough — that is to say that mainstream America doesn’t appreciate the usefulness of the Black community, the amount to which we can contribute.

My years working in market research certainly find this to be true.  Outside of movie-related or military research, I saw very little interest in what Black people had to think.   This was mainly because of income; so I might argue that America is equally un-interested in what poor white people have to say.    But I think that the point is a good one.   Like Henry Ford did for the industrial era, I think we need people at the helm who understand how everyone can benefit by allowing poor and disadvantaged people to participate more fully in the economy.    Charity and big-heartedness are good things as far as they go; but ultimately a truly colorblind and fair society will create equality in the workforce, not just in the extension of non-profit and government work.   And the workforce has to be built on mutual objectification — the employee is good for the company, and the company takes care of the employee.

A woman sets herself on fire to protest racism

The Internet is an amazing place, full of flash-in-the-pan memes which spread in an instant and are seemingly everywhere all at once.   For some reason, a story about a poor Congolese woman who set herself on fire in order to protest racism in her home country of Belgium broke out over the Internet late last year with the false impression that it was a recent event.   In fact, the tragedy occurred in 2001.


Omo Alagbede’s Blog (warning: very disturbing graphic pictures)

A poem to memorialize the event

The best coverage I could find of the event, plus some disturbing insight into how racists in Europe took up the event online

Some insight into what led to this tragedy (French language)

Regardless of when this happened, it’s one of the most tragic stories I’ve heard.   Not only did Belgian society systematically wear this woman and her family down with double-standards based on both gender and race, but when she finally did break down completely she was failed by the police, the news media and her own husband.     While in many ways overt racism is worse in Europe than it is here, I don’t think the pressure of daily racism is any less.   I could imagine any of the things that led up to the stress which brought her to the brink happening in this country — being denied her rightful sick leave, being told that she couldn’t run the car dealership that she bought because of bureaucratic problems with her license application.    When I try to imagine being an African woman with an strong accent, trying to get by in this country… I shudder to think.

AIDS statistics

When I talk about how raw statistics prove a cycle of racism, I’m talking about statistics like these: 

Now, of course the situation is a hell of lot more complicated than just chalking it up to racist.    There’s a popular conspiracy theory that AIDS was invented in order to perpetrate genocide in Black Africans.    But the truth, I fear, is a lot scarier.   An organized conspiracy can be dismantled.   People in power can be ousted.   Covert operations can be exposed under the light of journalism.    I think the truth in the case of AIDS, as is the case in a lot of racism, is a lot of people making similar assumptions or bad decisions in a completely unrelated and unorganized way.    And that, that is difficult to fight.

Some of the major contributing factors to the spread of AIDS in the Black community: poverty, widespread distrust in the Black community for government employees including public health officials, widespread incarceration of young Black men, homophobia in the Black community, and drug use … just to name a few.    But we have to apply Malcolm X’s doctrine of the root cause.   A doctor does not fight the symptoms, but the disease.   And in the same way, I think you can look at any single one of the contributing factors that I listed above and find at its root cause the history of slavery and apartheid in this country, and the continued systematic problems in our society, educational systems, and economy.    It’s these systems which perpetrate the poverty, distrust, incarceration, homophobia, and drug use, which then, in turn, create such a tragically fertile ground in which AIDS and other diseases can spread.

The courageous belief that education can combat racism

Even in high school I was a bit of a rabble rouser, growing up in Atlanta and Washington, DC and being opposed to the popular Braves and Redskins mascots.     I was enormously impressed reading Ms. Costanzo’s post about her struggle as a Native American to oppose her local college mascot (also the Braves) and the racism that she’s encountered along the way.   Not only is she taking on one of the most powerful cultural forces in this country when she goes up against Sports; but she retains her idealism and hope that people can change if you let them know the hurt they are causing.    I think too often we descend into calling out racism, when, I believe, the great bulk of it is ignorance, and only a small fraction is malicious.   I know that after being inspired by Ms. Costanzo’s example, I’m going to take a second look at how I go about writing this blog.   I live mostly in white circles, and I’d like to think that I can do good by explaining Black issues to white people in their own language (and from a face that they don’t consider threatening).      But in order to do that, I have to work to keep the faith that Ms. Costanzo is keeping that we can overcome racism with education.

Here’s hoping.