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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

March 18th, 2008 (12:32 pm)

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.


Posted by: ~Heather~ <>< (fairy_grrl)
Posted at: March 19th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC)

Hrm, what a thought provoking post!

I think about racism a lot. I think going to an interracial church has sheltered me from a lot of the racism here in Montgomery. It's allowed me to think that black people and white people all over really do get along because we get along so well within the church.

Not too long ago, the lady across the street told me and Granny that we are the only people who ever treated her as if she wasn't black. Later that night, Matt and I had a long discussion about racism in our community and how perhaps we tend to ignore it because we think we're doing enough by being members of a mixed congregation.

A few months ago, Violet came home and told me that she and her friend Emily got in trouble on the bus because they were getting out of their seats when the bus was moving. Emily promptly told Violet that the only reason they got in trouble was because they are white.

Of course, my first reaction probably wasn't the most educated. I told Violet that Emily is stupid and that she's not allowed to hang out with stupid people. Then I backtracked and told her why I felt this comment was so inappropriate. I had to remind Violet that she's not entirely "white" herself and that she needed to remember how much her feelings were hurt when a boy on her bus used to tease her about being Chinese (because all Asians look the same, I guess). I apologized for calling her friend stupid but also told her that what she said was indicative of ignorance. We talked a little about racism and how I feel about it, and then I gave her a stern warning that if I ever heard her complain about being discriminated against because she's "white," I would beat her within an inch of her life so she could really understand what it meant to be disadvantaged.

I really like what Obama has to say about racism, and that's one of the major factors in why I am voting for him. I *have* to believe there is hope for this city. I'm not convinced politicians will do much in Washington, but I really like how Obama seems to encourage change at the grassroots level. Montgomery doesn't need laws; we need local people who actually care to change things. I could go on and on about how backwards this city can be, but I remind myself over and over again that if one of the city's largest churches can be truly integrated, then there's hope. And the fact that I can sit with my daughter and talk about racial issues encourages me because I believe that these talks will energize her to make a difference in her classroom, on the bus and with her friends. Hopefully, the next time one of her friends says something ignorant, Violet will have the intuition to stand up and correct her.

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