Friday, July 27, 2007

It's In There!

On a fairly regular basis, I'm asked - in or out of the classroom - what I have come to call "the question."

"I know," the European-American questioner will invariably begin, "that race relations in this country are far from what they should be..."

Here, though I have heard and responded to this question literally hundreds of times over the past three decades and am ready already to jump in with my rote answer once again, I zero in on the questioner's face attentively, waiting for them to finish, as if this is the most reasonable question in the world.

"...and I support completely the equality of all humans..." they continue, edging toward their point ever so carefully before they finally reach it, "but isn't the situation of Black people in the U.S. at least becoming better?"

By now, typically, the questioner's face is flushed. He or she is genuinely uncomfortable. And there is no doubt that they're speaking for many others present and not.

I then proceed to outline an abbreviated version of a presentation I drafted once for a "State of Black Affairs" panel I was on. It paints a pretty ugly picture of the way things really are instead of the way we think they are. It's not just White folks that don't get it. I often run into Black folks who are working hard to deny what might otherwise bring them to slap somebody. But the facts are the facts.

This is a depressing process for the listener(s). After an entire semester in one of my courses on Racial and Ethnic Relations, European-American students who truly absorbed the course content shake their heads as they say good-bye, telling me that they've been made sad by what they've learned, however committed to change things they have now become. It is sad. What has been and is being done to people of color in this country and this world is very, very sad indeed. Which makes it an appropriate feeling.

Then, I come across an article such as this and I'm reminded why it all stays the way it is. On the surface, in the face of the Don Imus' screw-up and the Michael Richards' meltdown, etc., ad infinitum, Ralph Papitto (long-time Roger Williams University Board Chairman) using the N-word during a Board meeting hardly seems notable. He is eighty-years-old, after all, and he did resign from the position he's had for nearly half his life after his little slip. But the reason I'm raising the issue is that he was so irritated by the dust he raised.

Apparently, what happened was that Papitto was feeling pressured about the lack of the Board's diversity. It currently has fourteen White men and two women (who were not identified in the article by race or ethnicity). Papitto's reaction was to whip out the N-word in frustration and then admit to the rest of those present at the meeting that he knew he couldn't say that because of what happened to Imus. Eventually, he claimed that he had never used the word before (uh-huh) and that he must have heard it in a rap song or on tv (really?). Then, when he was questioned about the incident during a radio interview, he blurted angrily, "I apologized about that. What else can I do - kill myself?"

In his book, "White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son," Tim Wise described how his anti-racist grandmother began to use viciously racist language after she developed Alzheimer's disease. While one could argue that she was no longer responsible for what she was saying, he makes a point very clearly that, in any case, the racism must have been "in there" (like the Prego Spaghetti Sauce ads say) for it to jump out like that after the controls of social acceptability were no longer on.

And that's where the rubber meets the road, if you will. I have written often about how White supremacy has always been the default position in the United States. If you're new to this party and cannot even imagine what I'm suggesting, then start at the top of the blog roll and read the first eleven posts you find listed there. Hopefully, you will come to see what I mean. It's in there, all right. Papitto knows it. And that's why he got pissed. Why, he's wondering, should he have to feel any genuine understanding or remorse for disrespecting African-Americans when everybody knows that's not the page this society is on.


Anonymous said...

super post!
super closing!
thank you!!
:) :) :)

Maxjulian said...

I don't understand why people get sad or down about the truth. In fact, I believe that the emotions go beyond mere mere sadness for how blacks and other "minorities" are treated to, "we're losing our privilege/advantage/ability to skate through unconsciously." I've seen too many white folks be exposed to "the truth" who shut down completely. It makes no sense unless something vital to them is being terribly threatened.

Peacechick Mary said...

I wonder how so many can turn away from simply "doing the right thing" when it comes to race. Why are they blind? Why can't they see that this position of white supremacy has nothing to do with being supreme, but everything to do with being fearful - fearful of being wrong, fearful of being equal. I often think it isn't hate that causes it, but fear and then the hate comes up as a shield. Take the Imus situation. What prompted him from using derogatory language? He needs to feel secure in his falsely elevated opinion of himself. Fear.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

Maxjulian: No question.

Mary: I agree. Fear's the motivator. But it's irrational fear in that it keeps the fearful entrenched in mindsets and practices that actually threaten their well-being. I ask my students: "Do you want to be on top or do you want to survive?" (That is the question today, Shakespeare.)

Anonymous said...

change, nice post, and I read the Tim Wise book and found the passage you reference about his grandmother fascinating and a perfect example of how deeply racism is programmed into our American psyche. Thanks for bringing that up