Earlier this week I watched an episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart. It was after the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. John Stewart’s guest that evening was Michelle Obama, Barack’s wife. I’d not really paid much attention to her previously, aside from the scattered “news” tangents earlier in the campaign. My first impression? She was so very much like many of the young women I grew up around, I immediately felt at ease. Her intelligence, demeanor, and sense of humor was so familiar.
I mentioned this to my mom who said that she grew up around Spanish (i.e. Hispanic) people, so she wouldn’t know. As for me, I grew up in an interesting region around DC where there was such a mixture of races and cultures that the distinctions others make aren’t nearly as clear-cut for me. The people I grew up around were white, black, Filipino, Korean, Middle-Eastern, Indian (sub-continent), Hispanic, and so forth.
Of course I notice race. It would be asinine and disingenuous to say that I don’t. But, by the same token, I also notice height, build, accent, hair, dress, and all those other things that differentiate us. I don’t make an issue of it, but I do note it. My M.O. is to assume people (individually and in groups) are generally good and that they are worthy of respect until proven otherwise. I’ve not often been disappointed. Generally, the times there have been friction was when there was a lack of communication and/or understanding.
Offending by Not Offending
I was reading an article earlier this week that talked about some of the misunderstandings that can occur through no one’s intention. Blah, blah, blah…had to describe a photo…yadda, yadda…the end result was that white subjects tended to avoid mentioning race in specific circumstances: “There was clear evidence the white participants’ behavior was influenced by the precedent set by their partner, but especially when that partner was black….Whites are strategically avoiding the topic of race because they’re worried that they’ll look bad if they admit they notice it in other people.”
Ironically, the study also found that: “Black observers rated whites’ avoidance of asking about race as being evidence of prejudice” This lead to the logical conclusion that, “The findings suggest that when race is clearly relevant, whites who think that it is a wise social strategy to avoid talking about race should think again.”
Even back in college in the 80s, I noticed this behavior. If a white person was trying to identify the person in another group—the one obviously racially different— to a friend, they describe height, or clothing, or any number of things instead of pointing out the obvious. Having noticed this, when I would say something like, “The black fella?” or “The white guy?” you’d think that I’d opened a can of worms. Actually, it was just logical. Less machinations and more unvarnished obviousness.
So, what is it? I think part of it is every group’s tendency toward self-segregation. People tend to group themselves into something they are comfortable with. That doesn’t always hold true, though, to people who are genuinely used to non-segregated interaction. I’ve just been looking through old yearbook photos of non-orchestrated group and classroom settings, and except for small clusters of friends, there’s a fairly homogeneous mix throughout. I will concede that perhaps there was segregation going on, but it just doesn’t seem to register with me.
I wrote in a blog a while back how the demographic in Albuquerque has been changing since I moved back to NM. I think it has done the city a world of good. In some ways, it seems like some of the tension is gone. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just feeling more comfortable as the city gets a more cosmopolitan demo.
I think the only stereotype that irks me is “The angry _______ guy.” Doesn’t matter the race/ethnicity. You know these people: the ones who will pick up on any (mostly perceived) slight and use it as an excuse to be an asshole…often a violent asshole. Some will say that they’ve had a hard life, or some break(s) didn’t go their way. But you know, I’ve known a lot (A LOT) of people who have class and character enough to persevere without being an open flame at a gas station. That said, there is a place for a revolutionary passion. To some, this is the same the angry guy syndrome, just bigger; but it’s much different. It’s not individual and it’s not a mob…but it is political and it can be less than genteel. It’s important to be able to see the difference.
I look back at all of the friendships I’ve had and currently hold, as well a few of my very serious crushes over the decades, and you know what I see? I see faces that represent the globe in all its bright colors. I see the smiles, remember the wit, embrace the minds, and smile at the beauty both from within and without. I have to also thank many of those very same friends for being of a like mind.
Fear and Hopelessness
“OK, CJ,” some might say, “If you’re such a smart and enlightened white guy, why aren’t race relations getting better?”
First…I’m just as Hispanico as I am of European decent. I actually prefer being thought of as nothing more than a classic American mix. While my extended family brings to me a Latin cultural heritage, I’ve spent a lot of time in other regions of the country. Still…I pass more easily as white than I do Hispanic, and I’m treated as such, so we’ll go with that.
Second…I think race relations are getting better, overall. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, it’s something that takes several generations to even out, but I see it happening. When I was a child, it was shocking to see an interracial couple…people feared for them. Now, it’s not so much of a big deal. Notice is made, but for many, if not most regions of the country, it’s not a big deal.
The keys, I think, are fear and hopelessness. For many white people, when they are around blacks, they are afraid. Not terrified, mind you, but there is definitely an undercurrent of fear. Mostly, they are afraid of violence. While the memories of the riots of the 60s are just ancient history to the younger segment, many still recall the L.A. riots following the [idiotic (my opinion) - CJ] acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King incident. Of course it doesn’t help when police incidents that are prima facie racially motivated aren’t given the sort of justice that honestly seems to be warranted. That sort of persecution, perceived or not, does tend to screw with your mind.
The image of the drugged-out black man who just gets women pregnant and gets high on welfare money before getting jailed or killed is, amazingly enough, being mitigated by the image of the drugged-out gang kid (Hispanic and/or black) who…well the same stuff. By showing that really stupid behavior isn’t just the provenance of one group of individuals might actually help race relations in the long term.
Part of the fear from whites is due to a changing landscape. Because there is a subtle guilt in many for the sins of the past…whether or not their ancestors played a part…there is a desire to not make things worse. But, as that study I cited earlier shows, sometimes those good intentions make things worse. Another aspect is that whites know they are losing ground. It is projected that by 2050 the American demographic will see whites having to accept the fact that they are not longer a majority, but simply the largest of the minorities (followed by Hispanics).
What’s to be done? A few things, I think. First is to stop being so “respectful”. We all know that the “PC” crap has long since past the point where respect was any part of the equation…it’s now just another version of politi-speak. As our range of hues from milky to dusky goes through an ever-expanding range of color, I think some of our societal makeup will change as well. We are a land of mutts, and we are getting muttier with every generation. That is to our credit. Economics is harder to shake. As we’ve seen, it’s not easy to rise up from the lower classes, but it can still be done.
Prejudice and Bigotry
Prejudice will always be with us. It is human nature. We tend to like to gather strength from our chosen congregations of alliances, and we tend to want to compete successfully against those who are outside of our bubble. I’m not sure that prejudice is something we can fully combat, but it can be mitigated. Thing is, prejudice, is just “judging beforehand”. It isn’t just a racial thing. I think the importance distinction is prejudice ABOUT as opposed to prejudice AGAINST. We will always pre-judge, and will tend to favor those we are familiar with than those we are not, and those who have comforted us vs those who have caused us harm. It’s a fluid thing.
Bigotry, however, is something that must always be fought against. Bigotry is intolerance based on prejudice. I don’t think this has any useful place in the American or global psyche. If you are going to be intolerant of something, then get the valid and rational fact set from a sufficiently large data set before making up your mind. If you do that, if you make your own decision based on what is actual versus what is rhetorical, then you have some foundation for your intolerance. But now, since it is no longer based on a pre-judgment but on solid (and hopefully complete) evidence, then it’s no longer bigotry. What it is will vary depending on the situation.
It’s the bigotry that still confuses me. I’ve had occasion to speak to some white supremacist folk…generally accidentally. While the skin-heads and neo-Nazis are given a lot of press, for the most part these supremacists are your stereotypical white folk who go to church every Sunday, and believe that they are God’s gift to the planet. The ironic thing is how much of their own genetic backgrounds they deny, but I digress. In short, they aren’t exactly plastered in swastikas. I’ve also had occasion to speak with some radical blacks from the 80s as well as some Latino gang youth of the 00s who seem to revel in getting their hate on.
Talking to all these people who so embrace their own groups but angrily push away others isn’t exactly something that provides a lot of insight. I mean, you can sort of understand where they are coming from, but mostly it’s hard to get past the fact that they are choosing to not see beyond their own tunnel-vision view of the world. They don’t seem to understand that change is inevitable and isn’t specifically targeted at them. They don’t understand that improving oneself doesn’t mean that they must destroy something else for balance.
Some of what I heard from those I spoke to was their thirst for violence, regardless of the cause. Still, most of the radicals and gang members eschew the violence when possible. It’s more about “family” or the cause than it is about the hate. The Klan-type people I talked to, though, were scarier in their ignorance. The ones I spoke with truly believe that those not them are beneath them in God’s grace. Now, far be it for me to assume I know upon who God chooses to bestow grace, but it seems hard to swallow it would be on these bigots.
The ones I cry for are the ones who don’t know any better. Because of location and situation, they learn a very narrow view of how things are. Except for having them confront their bigotry head on, I’m not seeing a good way out. I think as the population demos gradually shift and our need to move to new places keeps the sands of race moving from place-to-place, the racial component of bigotry will lessen. Time after time you hear talk of so-and-so being a good person, but their race is a bunch of not-nice-things. As always, it’s the individuals that have to be the flag bearers, and sadly, sometimes the unwilling martyrs.
Looking To the Future
The key to all of this is education. If you can communicate ideas well, then you have a better shot at avoiding the miscommunications that plague us all from time-to-time. I’ve been astonished how, since the 80s, the youth have tended to embrace a sort of ignorance. Yes, it’s part of the desire of every generation to distinguish themselves, but sometimes it’s not to their benefit. Then again, perhaps it’s been to everyone’s benefit. The embracing of cross-cultural art has certainly hastened a degree of inter-racial acceptance that wasn’t there before. If the next generation can both embrace this sort of mentality and combine it with the ability to clearly articulate complex ideas, then I have great hope for the social shift that’s been waiting to come out of the metaphorical closet for longer than I’ve been a witness.
I think I’ve been one very fortunate individual. I’ve been exposed to so many different people and so many different points of view in my life. I have very very rarely felt anything other than elevated because of it. Given some of the small steps that have been made in the past decade or so, I think the rest of the country is starting to realize how enriching it is as well. The key for all of us, I think, is to stop being quite as “respectful”. Race is one of many factors all of us use to classify people. We shouldn’t hide from it, but neither should we make it more than it is. I believe if we acknowledge that the vast majority of people don’t intend offense when they say or don’t say something, then we can realize how little race matters in actually separating us.
Because I’ve gotten to spend so much time in the middle, instead of at the fringes of the racial divide(s), perhaps I am, as I’ve sometimes been accused of being, a little naive on this. Perhaps so. But I’ve seen how well it works when it does work. That’s just life fact. I don’t understand why so many still prefer to stay off to themselves and hurl epithets (and rocks and worse) at those who are also off to themselves. I can say with a high probability of likelihood that if y’all join us happy ones in the middle, you’ll be OK with it. Who knows, you might even come to embrace it.
Slowly, the acceptance via association will increase its hold. The difficult part will be overcoming some of the ignorance from all sides. I likely will never disappear entirely, but with some effort I can see it becoming little more than background noise.
It’s funny how one small event can spark so much. It really wasn’t watching the Michelle Obama interview, but what she represents: all those people who taught me how little race matters. We all still laugh, and learn, and work, and do all those other things. We aren’t any more different than our familial and affiliate cultures make us. So, to all you people I’ve gotten to know over the years, I have to thank you so much for such a wonderful gift.