I have yet to have a dialog on race where both the person of the minority group in question and someone from the dominant (white) culture really want to engage with the defenses down. Acknowledging privilege doesn’t have to be an exercise in guilt-tripping by the minority group, nor is it some catastrophe to say we are all steeped in racism in ways that we don’t ever question or are even aware of on a daily basis.
The fact is that our country’s history and economic power was built on white settlers displacing and slaughtering native people on this mainland, and owning other human beings for the purpose of labor that enriched them (and their descendants). The simple fact is that while slavery was abolished in 1865, the U.S. spent the last century roiling over race, as our legislative and legal systems attempted to curtail institutionalized racism.
Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad, head of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture reflected upon the little-discussed contradictions between the American belief in equality and freedom — and its actual treatment of its own citizens with Bill Moyers. (Transcript):
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, it took me a long time, long past college and even graduate school, to figure out that eight of the first ten of our presidents were enriched by their ownership of capital, land or slaves. We were never taught that these men actually created a government, a constitution designed to protect the further acquisition of property for the privileged classes. Which that just didn’t get discussed.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, it’s also the difference between an individual living a contradiction in terms of enslaving another as a proponent of freedom. And the ways in which those same individuals helped to build philosophical and ideological justifications for enslavement. And again, that’s where things get a little trickier. So of course Thomas Jefferson penned “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1787, which was effectively one of the first scientific arguments for why black people should be treated differently from whites, by virtue of their racial inferiority.
In other words, the scientific notion that black people were fundamentally different, whether it was in hair texture or in body odor, which is all part of Thomas Jefferson’s analysis, gave birth to the enduring justification that even in America, even in a place that represented a tradition of republicanism in the world, the first modern democracy, that you could actually reconcile freedom and slavery, as long as the people who were enslaved were not equal citizens, were not made of the stuff of equal humanity.
BILL MOYERS: Well, then you had to construct a system that made sure they could never be seen to be equal members of society?
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Correct. Well, that system was already self-reinforcing by the economic imperatives of enslavement. So you had the system that provided a modus operandi for reproducing inferiority. But you had to explain it still. And it was to that task that theologians, philosophers, scientists, eventually social scientists, journalists and politicians eventually weighed in and said, “This all makes sense. It makes sense because these people– I mean, from a religious standpoint, these people are not of the same God even. That they represent a different species created by God to serve White men.”
It’s nice to know that I’m a full human being in 2012. At least legally. Our President knows full well what it’s like to be seen as a monkey by some U.S. citizens. Culturally, while we’ve moved forward in creating a more integrated cultural patchwork (and interracial marriages continue to bloom), we are still in denial about why it’s so difficult to talk about how the past affects the present without getting defensive, or simply down. It is a downer to talk about how our racial economic history continues to play itself out, even as we are so many generations away from the dark past. Sometimes it’s worth discussing even if there is no concrete solution. It’s the learning about one another’s discomfort — without accusation or rancor — that leads to more productive conversations that allow assumptions and perceptions to be challenged.
Allowing one’s ignorance or upbringing to be an excuse not to explore ingrained assumptions about ethnic or racial difference is lazy. And it’s pretty clear that many Americans would rather be lazy and remain blissful in their fear and ignorance, choosing to live among people like themselves rather than extend themselves socially to “the other.” I’ve spoken to people who consider the fact that they work with a diverse group of co-workers as their example of “exposure” to difference, but can’t claim one CLOSE friend who is of a different race or even a non-Christian religion (or god forbid, an atheist!).
What is a “close friend”?
If you’re white, a “close friend,” for instance, would be a black friend you could comfortably actually ask questions about, say, their hair — and that friend wouldn’t take offense, but would be easily willing to talk about hair texture, differences in how we take care of it, etc. Or asking a Jewish or Muslim friend about customs you are unfamiliar with as a Christian and have no fear of rejection or defensive reaction.
If you don’t have friends of that nature, then you haven’t extended yourself beyond your cultural comfort zone.
On the other hand, let’s just say I’ve had numerous experiences with white people I don’t know just walking up and asking if they can touch my locs. I give them bravery points (how do they know I won’t snap back at them to stay out of my personal space?). I’m not sure what that’s about, but what is it about black women’s hair, particularly it its natural state (locs, twists, etc), that fascinates some people to that degree?
On the politics of “black hair” tip — and it is political, take a look at black women explaining the deal on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show – the economy around it, the effect of dominant culture and the nitty gritty interesting facts white folks may be curious about, and were afraid to ask. The women on the panel — actress Nicole Ari Parker of Broadway’s Streetcar Named Desire, University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler, cultural critic Joan Morgan, and CurlyNikki.com founder Nikki Walton go into the subculture surrounding the weave.
How screwed up is it that majority of Americans are not ready for a First Lady with kinky hair? Why is this thought threatening — this is why non-heated conversations about this kind of curious fear need to occur. It’s not a small deal, because it gets to the root — no pun intended — about perceptions of race, difference and inferiority.
Black women spend an inordinate amount of their income on hair care ($185 million/year is garnered by the hair care industrial complex), and they are constantly judged – weave vs. chemical straightening vs. natural hair. More women are moving toward natural hair, growing out the damaged dried-out hair, but it is a very personal decision that rocks foundations — even in families with disapproving relatives making it clear that you need to “stop the nap” in its tracks. It still goes on.
But the personal becomes the political when the texture of your hair affects what kind of job you can hold, how your beauty is perceived or categorized, what your socioeconomic status is assumed to be. That is something most white people will never experience (aside from people who purposely choose a counter-culture hairstyle that is judged, like a mohawk or non-traditional color).
What I also experience is some earnest white people, trying to identify with the oppression associated with hair politics, make the mistake of opining that there is some equivalence of illegal or socioeconomic discrimination that they’ve experienced (such as the mohawk analogy), which is of course, not equivalent. Your hair doesn’t grow out at the root in a way that it is automatically seen as a legacy mark of racial and socioeconomic inferiority that, no matter your education level, can stand in the way of economic success. But, let me underscore, it’s ok if you don’t have any equivalent experience of oppression to share. The point of talking about these differences is to listen, share and learn, not pile on guilt you might be feeling that you don’t want assigned to you by listening to these stories. Any guilt (or defensiveness) should be lifted by acknowledging that privilege exists, and that we all can consciously begin to understand how difference and history are linked, and move past it by not participating in the lazy broad strokes painted on groups as a way to dismiss the individual.