The other day, I picked up a weekly newspaper expressly because one of the headlines on the cover was the question: "Is it racism?" You know me, there's no way I could walk past that one. So I took it upstairs, read the little article and decided to write this post.
The article was really just a short page dedicated to describing a young European-American man's struggles primarily with his own perception of things. He doesn't like to stop at a late night convenience store near his apartment any more, he said, because, after dark, it's full of scary-looking Black guys with gold teeth and saggy pants. But on this particular evening, he goes on, he wound up stopping there anyway and was invited more than once (by one of the scary-looking Black guys) to buy drugs. He asks his readers if he's "racist" for wanting to avoid the guys at the store and if the dope man is "racist" for assuming he was looking for drugs. I hardly know where to begin.
First of all, if you'll recall from this post, I don't believe anybody without the power to define their own and other's lives can be racist. So, I wouldn't see the guys with the grills as racist, in any case. Intimidating, possibly. Maybe even irritating, depending on how you feel about drugs and how much coming and going it brings to that section of the neighborhood. But not racist.
Still, in this case (hang onto your hats here, kids), I don't see the article writer as necessarily racist either, at least not for wanting to avoid the party. See, he may be a racist (I think all "White" people are, even the ones who struggle daily to renounce their racial privilege, as I do), but the reason he doesn't want to go to this particular store any more is because he's afraid. Duh!
Now, what's interesting about this is that, were the parking lot (and inside) of the store in question being haunted by other European-American males, looking tough, even a little psycho maybe, and accosting customers trying to sell stolen property (or drugs--what the heck?), would the writer have wondered why he was uncomfortable? I doubt that he would have written the piece. And if he had, I suspect it would have taken an entirely different tack. He might have ranted about what's happening to his neighborhood. Or to the city in general. Or he might have berated local law enforcement. Or he even might have talked about how lack of jobs has more and more young men looking for alternate ways to support themselves. But he would either not have been afraid (and if not, why not?) or he would have known and admitted he was afraid. He wouldn't have written an article asking whether or not he was being "classist" to look askance at these youth for being up in his world making him uncomfortable.
My point is this: White folks are scared to death of Black folks. Not just after dark, either. And not just the ones with gold teeth. White folks know the history and they know that the history goes on. And they know that they benefit from it and they know that African-Americans are hurt by it. And they know that if they were Black, they would be pissed off. You know what I'm sayin'? And that makes White folks scared of Black folks.
They don't admit it. Even to themselves. But Black folks know. That's why some angry young Black males will push. Because they know White folks are scared. And there's a certain base level of gratification for powerless people of color watching a White guy ready to pee his pants busily trying to pretend otherwise out of concern that the smell of fear will be the deciding factor on whether or not he pays some awful price. The scene is really the pay-off and good for days of chuckling afterwards. As offensive as this might seem to some European-Americans, if it keeps the rage from boiling all over us, we should probably count ourselves lucky and leave it at that.
But White supremacists are always talking about how dangerous African-Americans are to the "good (White) citizens" of U.S. communities. And, God knows, if I looked Black, I'd be dangerous because I'd be one of those who are pissed off--and for what I maintain are perfectly good reasons. But the fact is that, as reasonable as rage against the White power structure and its oppressive practices is, the majority of Black folks, by and large, are not threatening anybody--not even each other. It's really quite remarkable when you think about it, after all African-Americans have been through and continue to face on a daily basis. And White people know. They know. They know. They know. (Hel-lo! Do we not all live in the same nation, even if we don't live in the same culture?)
Last night, I watched a beautifully done Czech movie entitled "Divided We Fall." It was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film of the year 2000 and I could certainly see why. It's a story about a couple in Eastern Europe who hide a Jew during the Nazi occupation and the horrified extents to which they have to go in the attempt to pull it off successfully. The story line, script, and direction were excellent, but the actors were phenomenal, not just because they made me believe them, but because they took me there--to the time, the place, and the incredibly complicated circumstances.
There are few people in the U.S. over the age of fifteen who haven't been exposed in some way or other to information related to the heinous crimes committed against the Jews in Nazi-held countries during World War II. Even the knowledge that Jews were not the only ones to suffer (at least seven million others died, as well--gypsies, homosexuals, members of the resistance, among others) in no way mitigates that particular nightmare of Jewish existence for more than a decade, while much of the world just watched--including the bulk of their neighbors and the communities around them. Which is what the drama of "Divided We Fall" is all about. It's about how some of the community collaborates with the Nazis, even though they are not themselves "bad" people. And how some are so terrified that they'll scream "Jew! Jew!" at the sight of one rather than risk being thought to be sympathetic. And how some just hide behind shutters and try to stay out of the way in the attempt to survive personally, regardless. But, as I already mentioned, the main couple in this film decide to do the unthinkable, putting their lives in mortal danger to save one man, the son of their former boss, the only local Jew to escape and return after the rest of his family is already dead.
The couple has wildly mixed feelings about the process in which they find themselves and emotions run high at one point or another for various reasons (I don't want to spoil it for you--it's a really decent flick, if you don't mind subtitles). Still, the most disturbing thought that wiggled its way into my mind as I watched it had really nothing to do with the Jews or World War II or even Europeans. It had to do with one man who had already suffered unspeakably unexpectedly finding the staunchest kind of allies in two people with everything to lose by reaching out to him.
In more than one unnervingly intense scene, the look on that young Jew's face went straight through me. He wasn't asking for anything. He knew the position he was in. He knew the couple was infinitely better off without him in their lives. And they knew it, too. And it kept occurring to me that this scenario, this precise excruciating horror was played out thousands of times in Nazi-occupied Europe. Many times in this same way, even when all lost their lives because of it.
And then (could you see this coming?) I began to think about other, heart-breakingly similar expressions on the faces of young Black men standing in handcuffs beside a patrol car; young Black mothers trying to figure out how to support their children when the safety net of social assistance has ripped apart without warning; elderly people of color, pushed aside all their lives and praying--still--for grace to keep believing.
Oh, I know that in the U.S. in 2006, there are no concentration camps per se (though if you've never walked down a tier in a maximum security penitentiary and looked into the eyes of the men and women there, how would you know?). I know there are no mass gas chambers and no creamatoria. But there were two and one-half centuries of slavery. And then the better part of another century of Jim Crow. And the continuing trap of the projects and the ghettos. And the on-going reality of always being portrayed by the society as being less than--being "Black"--even when the African-American is a surgeon or a saint.
The fact is that Jews suffered the Nazis for less than two decades, horrendous as the situation was. But African-Americans have suffered White supremacy (different from the Nazis in what way again?) for more than three centuries. And while there have been allies, they are like those in "Divided We Fall," often riddled with their own fears and conflicts and compromises about their stance, and far fewer than have been so desperately needed to support the multiple millions left, sometimes literally, hanging in the wind.
When it's over, and White supremacy will someday be over, one way or the other, who will be ashamed to face their neighbors, I wonder? Who will remember their own humanity and weep? And who will smile across the great divide, knowing they did nothing more than what was right; that the cost, however great, was worth it; and that all they did was only what they would have hoped for from another had they been the one in hiding, had they been the one called "Black"?
One doesn't have to fear one's allies.