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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

March 18th, 2008 (12:32 pm)
thoughtful
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current mood: thoughtful

You know, I've been following this story about Obama's pastor in only the most cursory of ways. I saw a bleeped-out clip of part of it on TV, and thought a.) that he had said "God fuck America" (who bleeps out "damn"?), b.) that that was inappropriate, and c.) that he was talking primarily about the war in Iraq. (I should note that even though I thought it was an inappropriate and un-nuanced thing to say, I was figuring that he had said more nuanced things in the rest of the speech that had been eliminated from the sound byte.) When I became aware that he had said "God damn America" and that he was talking primarily about race relations here in America, my opinion that it was inappropriate slipped quite a few notches. And now I don't really know what to think.

I appreciate Obama's remarks on the subject: his repeated assertion that you can respect someone and consider them an important part of your life without agreeing with everything they have to say; his remark that the problem with the reverend's remarks was not that he talked about racism in America, but that he implied that it was a static situation, that there had been no progress and could be no progress. Because there has been a great deal of progress, and there is still a great deal more to be made, and you just can't discount either of those facts. You can't discount the first because it shows that progress is in fact possible. You can't discount the second because you can't give up.

But I am beginning to get very, very edgy with the responses to this. I'm getting very edgy that the minister (whose name I can't even remember right now, isn't that awful?) is becoming so demonized in the media. I'm getting very edgy that the general consensus that the media is portraying is that there was nothing redeeming about his speech, that Obama needs to distance himself entirely from it all, that the nation as a whole is reacting in horror to the ideas presented and that it needs to be rejected in toto.

Because I have been reading a whole lot of books about the history of race relations in America recently. I just finished reading Mildred D. Taylor's whole series of books about the Logan family -- apart from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I'd never read any of them -- which are astonishingly nuanced and well-written and thought-provoking and are all the more astonishing for presenting such complex matters in a way that works so well in the YA format. I spent some time rereading Octavia Butler's Kindred. Reading stuff by Walter White, longtime secretary of the NAACP from its inception through the civil rights era. Right now I'm reading Randall Kennedy's Nigger: A Short History of a Troublesome Word. (And facing the issue of, if I read this in public, how do I hold the cover to obscure the title? Should I hold the cover to obscure the title? I haven't felt able to brandish that word for the world to see, somehow.)

I've been reading so much of this stuff and I have had the privilege, as a white girl, never to have had it impact my life directly -- at least, not in any way I could perceive. I have had the privilege of believing that all that was in the past, that when slavery ended it was over and no longer affected our country, that lynching was over and done with so long ago it didn't matter anymore. I thought we could live in the present, in terms of racial relations, without having the past matter.

And as I've been reading, I just can't... I can't see it that way anymore. It rocks me to learn about the realities of lynching, to realize that there was a time in the lifetime of many people who are still alive today that a black person could be killed by whites, for no reason other than that they felt like it, and nothing would be done. The law did not exist for blacks. President Roosevelt called lynching "a states' rights issue": he equivocated on passing anti-lynching laws because, apparently, states had the right to determine on their own whether blacks could be murdered with impunity.

And there are people alive today who lived through those times, and I cannot see how we can tell them it's over -- not just because the last lynching in this country is not nearly as long ago as we like to think it was, and not just because racism is very much alive and well in contemporary society (a subject I'm not addressing in this post because on account of what I've been reading, my current musings are on the subject of how the past affects the present; see the comments for further elucidation of my POV here) -- but also because that is the sort of thing that just... it lives on long after its physical presence has passed. The memories, the emotions, the ingrained fear and mistrust. It lives on, I am sure, even in those who weren't alive through that time, those whose parents or grandparents were alive in that time, because we are shaped by our families and by our families' lives as well as our own experiences. My mother still consciously and vocally mistrusts Russians because she lived through the Cold War and because one of them got in a car accident with her and then defrauded her insurance company. How can she argue that blacks need to get over the past history of racism in this country when she still hasn't gotten over some Russian guy raising her insurance premiums for a couple of years?

I don't know. This post is lengthy and wandering off-topic and just not making that much sense. I think what I am trying to say is that it makes me feel very, very icky when I hear white people telling black people they need to be less angry about racism in this country. That's what I see happening in the media in response to Obama's pastor's speech, and that's what I wish would stop. I wish we could listen not just to the words, but to the history and the emotions behind the words.

I guess, in the end, I wish that a whole lot of white people in this country would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening on the subject of race. I wish it, I guess, from my own experience. I had the privilege for a lot of years of not having to listen. I thought, moreover, that I could speak loudly and confidently without first having listened. I'm ashamed of that now. Now that I'm trying to do more listening, I'm ashamed.

Comments

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC)

This is a great post, by the way.

A while ago you said in a post that you were raised to believe that the only kind of racism was reverse racism, I was wondering about that.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
I don't believe this comment came out so long it has to be split

Oh, dear God. It's just that that was all that was ever talked about in my family. I mean, so to give you the background a bit, my mother's parents were both raised in a neighborhood of Boston where, as my mom puts it, "they never saw anyone who wasn't white and Catholic." (Interestingly, it was in Roxbury, a part of Boston that's now primarily black.) Not only were all their acquaintances white, they were all poor white but not dirt-poor white, and from what I understand they had a fierce pride in not being dirt-poor, in being Catholic, in being white -- they were raised to aspire to be richer white and to look down on those who had even less than they had. My grandparents, therefore, have not at all been able to adjust to this world in which you don't look down on blacks because they're generally poorer and they speak different slang sometimes and... well, anyway. The point is that my grandparents speak often and bitterly of reverse racism, of how the only race it's safe to criticize anymore is whites, how whites are constantly taking heat for things they didn't do, and the real problem is that blacks are running around with their pants hanging down over their butts, shooting people. My mother is a degree removed from that, but only one.

It became a particular concern in high school for me, and was talked about very frequently, because there were a number of teachers at my school who were very incompetent, and due to the Boston Teachers' Union (a union that is, FWIW, much *too* strong IMO) almost impossible to fire. There were several black teachers in particular who were incompetent, but who claimed racism when parents spoke out about their incompetence, and my parents viewed this as "playing the race card" and said that if they had been white they would have been fired. This doesn't seem to be true, as I can vouch from personal experience that black or white, the only reason a teacher could be fired in that school system was for sexually harassing a student. (Those are stories for another time -- of all the horrible teachers who continued to teach because of tenure and the BTU.) I also had a black teacher in seventh grade who did show preferential treatment to black students over whites, and who graded whites markedly lower than blacks. This was also a teacher who one day in class broke down and told us a story about the time she'd seen a pregnant woman lynched -- the teacher was seven or eight years old and her father had forced her to watch ("you need to understand this") as the pregnant woman had her fetus cut out of her stomach and then had been beaten to death to finish off the job. My parents saw her conduct as reprehensible, and talked a great deal about "reverse racism" at that time. However, talk about non-reverse racism was never a part of the discussion in my home. It just didn't come up. So I was raised to believe that blacks may have had a raw deal in the past, but that was all over, and now things had swung to the other side ("pendulum swinging" was a phrase that was frequently used; my father would say that the pendulum had previously swung to the side of discriminating against blacks, and now it was swinging to discriminate against whites, and hopefully someday it would level out). "Political correctness" was generally held to be the culprit in this.

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't believe this comment came out so long it has to be split

Agreed on the BTU. I was offered a job in the BPS six times over the course of a month and refused in part because of all the bullshit seniority rules. I wouldn't have known where I was teaching until prctically labor day.

Awesome post, awesome comments. FTW.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
part two (!)

On my dad's side, my grandmother actually is shockingly non-racist (and non-homophobic, and really just kind of crazily and instinctively liberal, at least where people and discrimination were concerned. She tells the story of how in the '50s she brought some of her black friends to her home to show them the neighborhood, and literally did not understand what people were talking about when her white neighbors told her never to do that again. "Never do what again?" She also used to hang out in gay bars in the '50s, despite being not gay herself, because two of her best friends were gay men. This drove her husband apopletic, from my understanding.) My grandfather... I don't know what he said around his children during my dad's childhood. But I do know that once I was in the car with him and a bunch of other family members, and some black kids walked in front of his car, and he slammed on the horn and said "You see stuff like that, you can understand how people used to string them up from lampposts." My family burst into nervous laughter, by the way, and later when I confronted my mom about it she said "I know what he said was wrong, but he was raised in a different era -- and did you see the way those kids were walking? It was insolent." (They apparently were not walking fast enough.)

This is, again, long and rambling. I don't know if it's what you were asking about or not. But it's where I started from, in terms of racial perception. And I should note that in the public eye, no one would consider my parents racist. They don't say these things publicly; none of their public behavior would suggest that they believe these things. So it sort of makes you wonder what else goes on behind closed doors.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Wow, thank you, that's exactly what I was wondering about, what it was like, the comments that were made, thank you.

As for the public/private thing: Yeah, I got a lot of that growing up too, things said in public were impeccable, private not so much, but my mom was more into the anti-semitism than the racism or sense of reverse racism, but the stuff she would say had a lot of the same ring to it, i.e., "sometimes you can see why everyone hated the Jews."

I am still bitter because I should have gone to NYU, not Fordham, but my mother called it "NYJew" and would say stuff like, "Oh you don't want to be stuck there with all those Jews do you?" In retrospect, GOD YES. But hindsight is 20-20, eh?

The other thing is my mom never *acted* on her anti-semitism, so she would have seen herself as doing no harm, just having unpopular beliefs, but she didn't see the harm of -- well, not-so-gently guiding her daughter into a really bad decision based on that, for instance.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

That's really interesting, how the race is different but the tune's the same. I'm guessing you didn't hear a lot of anti-black stuff? Did your mom not have a problem with blacks, or did she just not talk about it as much as the Jewish thing? (If you don't mind my asking.)

It fascinates me how certain prejudices are picked up while others are left behind by different individuals. My own mother is quietly prejudiced against blacks and outspokenly prejudiced against Russians and occasionally Greeks (i.e., there is only one occasion on which I heard my mother say outright that she thought blacks had lower IQs than whites, and she renounced that the next time I asked, with a good deal of embarrassment and apology; to be so outspoken about that issue is not in her nature -- she'd rather talk about social policies and reverse racism than the actual qualities of blacks as she perceives them. However, she'll say openly that Russians and Greeks will cheat you whenever they can). However, her attitude toward the Jews is one of, like, comradery and respect. I think she likes Jews because she perceives them as having bootstrapped their way into success in America. She's quite pro-Israel and speaks admiringly of the success of the Jews in America. So it's kind of funny. I suppose it's consistent in her mind: like I said, she likes the bootstrapping thing, and doesn't like to be reminded/doesn't believe that blacks' "lack of success in America" (as it would be put in contrast to her construct of Jewishness) is because of white prejudice. In her mind, when you face hardship, you work to overcome it, end sentence.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

I don't mind. I don't know why she was anti-semitic and not racist, but my Irish Catholic dad was very anti-racist and kind of got heat for it when he was in the army during the Korean war, so she might have been deferring to him? She was German and Catholic and didn't like Hungarians and Polish ("hunkies" and "stupid polacks").

Jews in her mind were loud, pushy, greedy and money-hungry. I grew up with a vague, (or not-so-vague) feeling that to push for success in a material sense was somehow sinful, as exemplified by Jews. We were also "better" than families of similar ethnic backgrounds who weren't as middle-class as we were, though, so it was a thin line between pushy careerism and white trash. My father liked to quote the eye of the needle thing from the bible (that it's easier to get a camel through one than for a rich man to get into heaven) and also that behind every great fortune was a great crime.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Also, apropos your comments about Russians: My grandmother told me that all Russians beat their wives.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Oh and in fairness to my parents, my dad hated the British, but since we didn't encounter too many Brits in Pittsburgh, it was mainly theoretical.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

It's so interesting to me that your parents have problems with so many races that appear "white". I'm sure one of the reasons my family's so A-OK with Jews is that they look white and don't generally have accents. I'm pretty sure a lot of why my parents' prejudices have come down the way they have is that they find comfort in an ability to categorize people immediately, on sight. To know something about people without knowing them.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Jews look white? My mother would disagree, she could always "spot a Jew." Of course part of the issue there is that, as was whispered, there were rumors of a "Jew in the woodpile" on her side of the family. As I described it to you, it seems like most of their prejudices came pretty undiluted directly from Germany.

It's all so multi-layered. I mean my mom LOVED Paul Newman, but she would whisper, "You know he's half Jewish." Oooh forbidden love!!! When my mom and dad got married, both sets of parents (Irish Catholic on one side and German Catholic on the other) viewed it as a "mixed" marriage.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Heh. I have never heard my mom espouse that particular belief, but I wouldn't be surprised if she held it. And claimed it to be "cultural". That's why her general distaste for Russians, as she explained it -- "they all immigrated from those communist Soviet states where you can't get ahead unless you cheat, because the system is so unfair."

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Oh man! One of my best friends is a fresh-off-the-boat Ukrainian, and she is pretty pushy. My dad keeps telling me it's because she grew up when it was still the Soviet Union, and anyone who managed to get out as quickly as she did had to be pretty pushy. *sigh*

The only ethnicity anyone in my family shows true antipathy for is the French, which is pretty funny because my Nana's whole extended family (of Italian extraction) has lived in France for three generations now. But lots of "surrendering to the Germans" comments and things like that at family dinners.

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