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March 30, 2012

Re-opening conversations about the ‘little indiginities’ of racism in 2012

Posted in: Bigots,racism

The Trayvon Martin case is, for me,  a severe manifestation of racism that  occurs every day — young black men being profiled. Extreme and severe because he was an unarmed person of color killed by an armed man who perceived (and was correct, to an extent) that he had the law on his side and social justification for taking out his anger about crime in his neighborhood on this particular human being (young black men seen as the “@ssholes” that always “get away with it”), even though Martin was walking in a hoodie with a bag of Skittles and a can of tea.

The political aspects of the story and it’s really spun out of control — the right wing trying to justify Zimmerman’s excuses/explanations for what he did — aren’t surprising, but they are bold. Not surprising because much of the heat is about fear of the black/brown man.

“Racism” is such a dirty word, and no one wants to be tagged with it — after all, we see it in the defense floated by Zimmerman’s defenders — that because he’s half-Latino and has “black friends” (boy did the latter backfire) — but one cannot be inoculated from the disease of racism that affects everyone. Race-consciousness of the negative, reflexive sort comes from 1) images and perceptions of  minorities and crime we see in the media; 2) how we are raised; and 3) the diversity of people we choose to socially associate with. We’re a country steeped in problems about race, and have few productive conversations about it.

An interesting bit of fallout in the heat and light over this is a discussion that NBC black journalists at had about the kind of day-to-day racism that they experience — bourne of that irrational fear about unthreatening men of color that many people still have. And that threat includes black women. The indiginity of frequently being made to feel that you’re a criminal is soul-draining. Take the story of MSNBC’s Tamron Hall.

During last night’s Rock Center, multiple African American journalists opened up about how theTrayvon Martin story has conjured up memories of their own experiences with prejudice. MSNBC host Tamron Hall, for instance, revealed she has been racially profiled while shopping. “I am followed in department stores,” Hall said. “I have walked in dressed professionally or dressed in jeans and I have walked into stores and, instantly, security is on my back.”

When I lived in NYC during the 1970s-80s, this happened to me multiple times, and as Hall noted, it didn’t matter how I was dressed. One incident I vividly recall was being dressed nicely to go to a Broadway show with multi-racial group of friends, and prior to the show we went into a nearby store that had fresh fruit. Like white on rice, the store owner stepped down onto the floor and followed me and the other black friend in our party around the store, no one else. Did I really look like I was going to shoplift? Really? It left me pissed, demoralized and feeling humiliated.

Of course the indignity of “hailing a cab while black” was also a common occurrence. My friend Carole, who is black and married to a white man, and I made a game of it at times. In a futile affair, each of us would step off of the curb to hail a cab and would be passed time and again. Dave would step off the curb and a cab would stop on a dime. Now, admittedly this was in the 80s. I haven’t had that level of difficulty in recent years. But apparently Tamron Hall is still getting the white-on-rice treatment, so some things haven’t changed much at all.  That’s the overt racism at play, but what about the impact of the day-to-day humiliation of being reflexively judged to be a criminal?

Cultural critic Touré observed there were times when he has witnessed people being nervous solely for being around a black person. “I see moments when people are clearly clutching, cringing. ‘I’m near a black person who I don’t know,’ Even if I’m in a suit, this sort of automatic clutch of the purse or what have you. You know, just a little cringe,” Touré explained. “But we know that just wearing a suit does not change anything. You know, they’re not really looking at the suit. They’re not really looking at the hoodie. They’re looking at the skin.”

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Ron Allen added that, while he is fortunate to work in an accepting environment, he acknowledged that at times he has a fear of prejudice at the back of his mind. “I sometimes find it a burden,” Allen said. “I sometimes find it tiring to have to deal with these issues. you know, I sometimes wonder what would it be like if i didn’t have to worry about racism and race and you could just live your life as a normal person.”

Always being aware of your race was a part of my being living in NYC, a socially imposed mode of survival really; it was something I detested. My natural view of the world as a young person was centered on a general curiosity about people who were not like me. It was something my mom didn’t have to teach me, but I believe it came from not setting limitations based on social stick-with-your-own boundaries. After all, race-based self-segregation — being comfortable with people more like you than less like you is somewhat natural. But at some point you make a conscious decision about whether to expand beyond a comfort zone or not.

My group of friends in high school, for instance, was extremely diverse racially, ethnically, religious beliefs, you name it. Our common bond was that we were geeky, not in the popular crowd – and we were focused on academics (Stuyvesant HS, class of 1981, peeps!).  As is the case today, most kids self-segregate in a variety of ways. At Stuy it was no different — the Asian kids, the popular kids, the chess club kids, the math geeks, the popular black folks, etc. Our table in the cafeteria was the oddball one in that respect.

I can’t imagine what it’s like for people whose upbringing did nothing to develop an open mind to personal relationships with others not like themselves.

My mom had “the talk” with my brother, you know, the one about how to conduct yourself in front of law enforcement in order to prevent “giving them a reason” to do anything that might land him in jail or dead, something white moms never have to do. Learn to be passive, not to raise your voice or make moves that can be perceived as aggressive.

It was not uncommon back in the day, when it was actually dangerous to live in our neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 80s, for a police call to a disturbance or mugging meant that the police didn’t come at all or worse, they came guns drawn and forcing any black men in the vicinity to the ground, including the victim of the crime, asking questions later. When I visit my old stomping grounds today, it’s a sea change — multi-racial couples with kids strolling down the street, police on foot patrols engaging with residents. It’s a much better place, but that doesn’t mean it’s utopia.

What I am mindful of, now living back in my home state of North Carolina, is that I don’t experience the same level of racial scrutiny on a day-to-day basis. I don’t carry that burden that Tamron Hall experiences when I shop here. I can safely say that the South may have a reputation for racial conflict (historically deserved), but the racism experienced when I lived in NYC was much more overt, persistent and onerous. But racism on all levels of severity is still everywhere. There is no safe place to be a person of color without rude awakenings from time to time.

My brother and his family came for a visit over the weekend and we talked about the Trayvon Martin case. It led him to share a recent experience that he had that was both enraging and depressing. He’s 43, and a professor at UD. On a recent walk to campus, in jeans (no hoodie!) and a knapsack slung over his shoulder, he was stopped by a white woman and asked what he was doing there. In his own neighborhood. Naturally, he did nothing to inflame the situation (recalling, no doubt, the training our late mom gave him years ago), and went on his way, but what does that say about the woman who perceived him as an outsider — enough so to actually approach and challenge his very presence? Is the good news that she didn’t automatically dial 911? Hey, the KKK was doing recruiting door-to-door in his county in 2011.  It makes me sick because I know this is what young men (and apparently not-so-young) men of color face on a regular basis. Soul-draining.

I dread the day that he has to have “the talk” with his two sons. When will it be unnecessary?

I’ve always stressed on my blog that issues around race will never be solved if people are afraid to broach it – either whites, afraid of a defensive reaction from POC, or POC who impatiently won’t be open to what can be perceived as “dumb questions” asked earnestly. If no one is willing to go beyond comfort zones, there will be no progress. Race matters are just hard, and most people don’t want to put the energy into it at a personal level. It might be time to revisit this post of mine from several years ago, Skin and the color of money. A snippet:

“Can black people tan?”

– a white college student at Fordham, back in 1983, asking me whether I could turn browner in the sun, as we sat outside in the late spring.

My answer to that question, by the way (after I picked my jaw up off of the floor) was to calmly say “yes,” and I took off my watch so she could see the contrast between my tan and what was underneath my timepiece. I then held my arm up next to her olive-skinned Italian forearm to show her that my non-tan color was lighter than her skin tone.

Gina was quite friendly and earnest when she asked the question. The fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to ask it, made me feel that she deserved a response that would not humiliate or embarrass her by pointing out her ignorance. I was, however, quite perplexed by the blunt question for several reasons. It made me curious about what she exactly thought “black” meant in physical terms (educating her on the fact that race is a social construct probably would have been too much for her to handle). In her world, though, were we that different? Did she have no concept that all humans just have varying amounts of the same chemical, melanin, that affects the complexion they have? Was she just racist? That last word is loaded. Gina was not outwardly hostile toward someone of another race. To narrowly define that word here — she is a victim of growing up in a world of cultural, institutionalized racism and lack of exposure to people of another color.

That lack of exposure perpetuates the problem on both sides. It must be hard if you’re white, asking a question about skin tone, hair texture or any physical characteristics commonly associated with being “black.” You’ve got to take the leap of faith that the person you’re asking isn’t going to react badly. If you’re black, the insult of the question can cut psychologically deep. Are they judging my whole value by my color? Are they saying I’m subhuman? Am I, yet again, the inferior “other”? The fear of negative reaction on both sides in this politically correct world often ensures much-needed conversations on race will never occur. It doesn’t stop the ignorance, the stereotypes, or promote healing on either side when you remove the ability to ask and answer simple questions about difference.

Related:
* Stepping outside of our comfort zones to work on eliminating biases – my turn


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