Friday, March 23, 2012

The Phantasm of Race and the Honesty of Children

This is a response to, "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious," by Michael Skolnik. Skolnik calls a spade a spade and gets right down to brass tacks -- ugly as it may be. But it's a reality/truth every (visible) minority in this country knows damn well already. Read it.

I have three additional thoughts to add.

FIRST, when I heard not just the description of how Trayvon was dressed that night, but how he responded to George Zimmerman, my first thought was, "That could be MY son." Trayvon wore clothes similar to Ian's standard gear right down to the hoodie. Furthermore, he did exactly what my own son would likely do if followed by a stranger: pull up his hood to hide his face, walk faster, and try to appear nondescript. But my son probably wouldn't have been hounded and shot. Why?

He's as pale as the moon.

Now sure, the investigation is on-going, and I tend to listen first before offering an opinion. It's the historian in me -- wait for the evidence. But the more I hear, the more evidence that comes to light, the more it looks like exactly what was first claimed -- this boy was racially profiled and killed for it. Zimmerman was a trigger-happy cop wannabe. He had an issue with blacks. He chased Trayvon and shot him. Yes, he was Hispanic. So what? If you think all minorities like each other just for being minorities ... well, there's ANOTHER myth we should bust right here. Suffice to say, Oh, HELL no. There's as much hostility between various minority groups in the U.S. as between any minority group and Euro-whites. Go back to the riots in L.A. after the Rodney King shooting. Much of the damage? Asian and black. Latino, Asian and black. Other minorities that don't always get along (or understand each other): black and Jewish, black and NDN, etc. Religion is another area that can create friction beyond ethnicity. So it's not simple.

But the more I read, the more convinced I become there is no excuse for Trayvon's shooting. That could be MY son.

Except ... yeah ... probably not. Again, why? He's white. My son will never be profiled even though he's native because he doesn't LOOK it. He'll never be pulled over in an old car to be breathalized for alcohol if he's driving under the speed limit (because the car won't go faster). He could dress like a bum and walk into a mall or Home Depot and nobody would edge away from him in the aisles. He won't be shadowed in a convenience store because he might shop-lift. If he's loitering, cops (probably) won't stop him to ask what he's up to.

And why?

What's that I hear? Oh, yeah, the refrain ... HE'S WHITE. Or looks it. That's what matters. He looks white.

I want to tell a story. It's a true story, happened in the winter of 1999, during the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. I was doing job interviews, post Ph.D. As it was in DC, I opted to stay with my brother's family, not rent an expensive hotel room. That meant every evening, I took the Red Line (Metro) back to Shady Grove, where I'd parked my car. It was late the last night of the Meetings. I was headed back, and as we approached the End of the Line (Shady Grove), the Metro gradually emptied until in our car, the only people who remained were me, another nicely dressed business guy old enough to be my father (or close) ... and a pack of noisy, aggressive, tattooed late teen/early twenty boys (5-6 of them). When we all exited the train at this last stop, I headed for the parking garage where I'd left my car. Both the Pack of Boys and Business Man headed the same way. Well, Pack of Boys soon veered off to a stairwell to go up to another floor as Business Man and I continued on. I reached my car soon after. He then cut across the parking lot and headed for ... the main surface parking area.

I realized he hadn't been parked in the garage at all. He'd parked in the surface lot. He'd just been shadowing me to be sure I got safely to my car. He'd been worried by the noisy boys on the train. They turned out to be harmless, but he'd worried.

Now, let me ask -- as you read that story ... what COLOR did you envision the players? Yes, I'm white (or would look so). Well, my "protector" ... he was about as dark as they come -- that pretty blue-black. Elegantly dressed, clearly well-to-do businessman. But very black. The noisy boys? Skinheads. White, blond, tattooed ... To be honest, my protector was probably in more danger from them than I was. But he worried about ME. He made sure I got safely to my car. It was what any gentleman-father would have done ... regardless of color.

But what interests me most is the various ways this incident could be viewed. To the teen boys, who were ultimately harmless ... we were boring business types, we'd Sold Out to The Man. This assumes they paid any attention to us at all ... and they very well may not have. Adults assume teens notice them more than teens actually DO. They're usually more interested in each other.

I was more worried by the boys than the man. Why? They LOOKED more threatening. Is that fair? No. Predators (of any ethnic background) often learn to make themselves nonthreatening. So Mr. Business might have been more of a threat than the noisy teens. Predator camouflage is not just found in the Animal Kingdom.

Last, what did my Protector think? Hard to know, or even guess. Clearly, he was concerned for me -- probably a product of my gender, my age, and perhaps even HIS skin color. I do think our age difference had a lot to do with it. When I boarded the train, he'd looked up and smiled at me. I'm sure that (white or not) I probably looked of an age to be his daughter. Maybe he had daughters; maybe he didn't, doesn't matter. He could have been my daddy, even if I was probably older than he thought I was. Yet I brought out some sort of protective/paternal vibe in him. The man went WELL out of his way to be sure I got safely to my car.

But I've also wondered what, if any, racial element was involved for him? We often evaluate situations from OUR perspective (unless we consciously rethink). Had he seen "Skinheads" and assumed "Danger, Danger, Will Robinson?" -- a natural enough response for someone black (or Jewish, or native, or Hispanic, etc.) Maybe he just saw, "Rowdy pack of teen boys feeling their oats" -- nothing racial at all.

But what does all this tell me? We are not our skins. We are our experiences: our age, our family relationships, our occupations, our choices for how we present ourselves to the public. Yes skin color plays into that as it forms some of our experiences, but not all of them. Not even the majority of them (in most cases). If you take skin color out of the above story, it could be any story.

And that's how it should be. Gentlemanly, father-figure ensures young woman gets safely to her destination. End of story. The only reason I DO remember it? SKIN COLOR shaded everything. I sincerely hope a day comes when I'd have chalked up that incident to, "Whatever," and forgotten it 15 years later. Because that's how it should be. I shouldn't remember it. But I do.

And man, that's just Messed Up, ennit?

SECOND, one can be of Euro-colonial ancestry, hear about the fact racism still exists, and NOT HAVE TO GO ON THE DEFENSE. Really. I think some Euro-whites in the U.S. feel they must defend against, diminish, or deny racism, or they are somehow culpable. No. One is more likely to become culpable by sticking one's head in the sand ... and thereby perpetuating it. Our European ANCESTORS may have been guilty, but by denying or diminishing racism, we are MORE likely to continue what they started.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let's recognize and admit what's in black and white (and red and brown and yellow) in front of us. There is a difference between recognizing and being. Furthermore, it's possible for people (now or historically) to do really GOOD things and really BAD things. They're not mutually exclusive, and people are not that simple. We do not wear white hats and black hats. (And boy, there's a loaded metaphor, no? But I'm using it on purpose.) We can admire our ancestors for some things even while critiquing them for others.

Furthermore, when some of one's ancestors abused, took advantage of, or enslaved the other half of one's ancestors, it creates a weird internal quandary in the mind ... but perhaps that's good. When that happens, it forces us to consider the difference between ancestry and actuality. The sins of the fathers need NOT be visited on the sons (and daughters), as long as the sons and daughters recognize what was done and try to fix it.

THIRD, one can be curious about obvious difference without being racist. For instance, as a Euro-native, I find the differences in my hair and that of some of my black friends kinda interesting. I've had long conversations with them about black hair care. There's a big difference between natural curiosity and making fun of differences. What is it? Simple Interest. Does one approach difference as threatening? Or as interesting? The former is a large underpinning of racism (sexism, religious-ism, etc.). The later is healthy. It shows an active mind. I can vividly recall a conversation I had years ago between a really dark black friend, an India-Indian friend and myself, about skin tone. We were baffled by labels (at 7) because when comparing, Anula's skin was, yes, brown, by mine was pink, and Vanessa's was sorta chocolate. I wasn't white (or red), and Vanessa wasn't black, so where did these terms come from anyway? Seemed sorta off-base from what our skin REALLY looked like. This is how kids see things ... REAL. Individual difference trumps categories and defies cookie-cutter "Are you black enough to be black ... red enough to be red ... etc., etc.) These games of who IS, and who isn't weaken us. WE ARE NOT LABELS. But we are indelibly affected by them, and the assumptions they foist onto us -- assumptions we may adopt, reject, or passively learn to live with.

Yet when we can get back to that honesty about difference -- the recognition that it's there -- but not assign it relative value ("better" or "worse") ... THEN we've truly moved past racism. "Color-blindness" is not the opposite of racism. Color (or really ethnic) CURIOSITY is, and to enable this, we must recognize that "race" is a cultural construct, not a biological reality. As such, WE determine how we interpret it. Phenotype isn't identity.

What?, you may be saying. But race is so ... obvious!

Not really. We've just been taught to see a particular set of distinguishing factors and assign them special meaning. Ignore the usual "racial" markers. Look at your family. Imagine if "race" were determined by hair color. Or height. Or the size of one's nose. "Construct" a different set of markers and we have ENTIRELY DIFFERENT categories. In short, we decide to what (marker) we give meaning. Identity is chosen, and ethnicity (and race) is by self-ascription. I've known those who identified as "black" (or Latino) whose skin was no darker than mine. I identify as a part-blood American Indian due to my mother and how I was raised, even if my skin is Dane-fair. And the red hair makes me look even less native, even if it does owe to L'Oreal, not nature. (My natural color is black.) But look at my facial shape, features, body-type, and I look very native. In short, ignore coloring -- remove that as a marker -- and I could walk onto any rez and be recognized as native by other phenotypical criteria.

Identity (and ethnic-racial identification) is a complicated matter that involves everything from language and how one was raised to what one "looks like."

So yes, "black" is a construct that has reality because we give it reality. Why do we give it reality? For a whole host of reasons from the European tendency to view The Other in simplistic terms that denied unique identity, to the pragmatic reality that slavery erased original ethnic identification. African American ancestors were brought here against their will, subjected to dehumanizing tactics, and discouraged from ethnic memory. Thus, original African ethnic identity was lost.

Likewise, I know Euro-Americans who can't name their ethnic ancestry because their immigrant ancestors wanted to leave it behind. Both created a new identity of "black" and "white/American" that are CONSTRUCTS. (And notice that whites are more likely to use just "American" without qualifying it. Why? They don't need to. American Indians have more right to the simple label "American," but must clarify with American Indian.) Furthermore, what has been "white" has varied. It surprises most of my students to learn Italian and Greek immigrants were not considered "white" as recently as the early 20th Century. For that matter, Irish immigrants were a sort of "non-white white" in earlier eras. So even what constitutes a "white" American has altered over history.

This sort of "confused identification" is a frequent fact of colonial countries, or those with large immigrant populations. Identity becomes NEGOTIATED. Yet we all NEED and crave identity, so "black" becomes an identity (at least here in the US), as does "white" (as does "red" and even "Asian"). But we must recognize these are "created" ancestries (not biological). And we must also recognize the HISTORICAL situation that led to these categories.

Furthermore, if we scratch the historical surface of MOST places in the world -- look back a little further into history -- THEIR ethnic identity is often "created" as well. This goes for Europe, the Med, Africa, the Americas, Asia ... you name it. In history, PEOPLES MOVE. They immigrate, and emigrate. They intermarry with those they've moved to live beside, and their offspring create new identities. I don't care if that's Mesopotamia, Sub-Saharan Africa, North America, Northern Europe, Russia, etc., etc., etc. NO ethnic group is "pure." That's just not how history works.

Again, IDENTITY IS A CREATED REALITY. That doesn't make it "unreal." But it's real because we make it real. We ascribe "significant meaning" to certain categories ... but not to others. Change the categories, change the identifications. When we can RECOGNIZE that, see it not as biological ('essentialist') but as CHOSEN ('constructionist') ... then we can begin to see ourselves (and others) in more healthy non-racist/non-ethnic terms. We can recognize phenotypical differences, but not ascribe them to race ... just to the individual. Different can be INTERESTING, if we let it be.

The curiosity of a child. Kids see these same differences we do; they ask the same questions. They're CURIOUS. They just don't assign these differences any particular VALUATION until they're taught to do so.

We need to get back to the curiosity of a child. "You're different from me. I think that's neat. Tell me more about it?"

That's the death of "racism," folks.

Honest, innocent curiosity.