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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: 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.

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