Friday, April 30, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Black men...oh, my!

Lately, I've been thinking about how White people are scared of Black men. Not all White people, of course, but certainly most of them. And not all Black men, but...well...once they arrested Henry Louis Gates (a world-famous, 59-year-old Harvard professor who walks with a cane and was arrested last year on his own porch for being irritated with police for entering his house uninvited), it's hard to imagine immediately just where to draw the line.

Anyway, White folks are a scary bunch around African-Americans ("scary" being Black talk for frightened of pretty much everything pretty much all the time). And the big sociological question, naturally, is why?

I see this a lot. And more recently, I've been seeing it more and more.

A month or so ago, I began to hear rumblings about young Black men getting into trouble on my campus by hanging around the front of the library loud-talking, arguing about sports mostly, blowing off student steam. Girls are encouraged to giggle; guys (in general) are usually allowed to yell. Students, especially over-tired commuter students who work thirty or more hours per week and go to school full time need to let loose one way or the other between classes. But while White males can push each other, leer at girls and make noises at will, Black males are experienced by White bystanders (including librarians and campus police) as "intimidating." So even duly enrolled and tuition-paying Black males listening to an i-pod or eating their lunch were being aggressively rousted and ordered to move, on threat of appearing before the disciplinary committee. And tensions were rising.

One Black administrator I spoke with said the young men should just bite the bullet and leave rather than make standing in front of the library a "Waterloo." My suggestion to him was that if the only two options being offered these students were "Waterloo" or "sucking dick" (yes, I said that), then a resolution was NOT going to be reached. Young Black men (just like every other human on the face of the earth) need to feel that they have a right to exist. Being constantly singled out and "moved along" at the will of authority figures who threaten and disrespect them reduces the personhood of those who are commanded to shuffle quietly away and that will only work so long, if at all.

In any case, while I was considering this situation, I came across Tim Wise's piece on "What If the Tea Party Was Black?" wherein, after outlining numerous examples, he concludes:

"And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis."

Point taken.

Which brought me back around to an email I received in February from Will Capers, whose blog Will Capers' Blaque Ink is WELL worth following and whose post here neatly outlines the opposites of White privilege in a way I've never seen done before.

Capers' email referred me to a piece by Malcolm Trocio entitled "Being Mugged Has Made Me Afraid of Young Black Men. Should I Feel Guilty?" and Capers asked me what I thought of it. When I responded that I wanted to blog on it and welcomed his input, he wrote the following:

It wasn't until a few years ago that I began to feel shame, anger, and depression whenever I hear news about blacks, particularly young black men, committing crimes. From what I've heard from other blacks, they feel the same range of emotions.

There have been crimes committed by white men as well, numerous and heinous at that, but a crime committed by a black man is instantly stapled as proof as to how "those people" are. The media and the news help strengthen the racist stereotype of the young black male that have been around for a few centuries. Sadly, no one within the media or news media will take even an iota of responsibility for this continuous form of racism. Instead, they will shift the blame onto the very people they generalize and stereotype. In the end they help to maintain the hatred and fear society has of the black man, and will do little or no work to ask important questions, do unbiased research and try to clean up the image they help to realize because in the end to them it's what society wants.

As mentioned earlier white men have committed crimes that are large in numbers and heinous in nature, and that too is good for the business of the news media. However, when a white man commits a crime, only that one white man is responsible. Only that one white man must own up to his crime or crimes. The entire white male population in this country or the world for that matter is NOT looked upon as how society looks upon that one, individual white man. That is an example of white privilege.

In the case of the news media some whites who have been convicted or accused of a crime will be reported as having some sort of mental disorder or damaging childhood. It's as if the media wants the public to feel sorry for them and to understand what may have contributed to their behavior. For accused or convicted blacks, it's more silent towards their mental health or childhood and more vocal about their criminal history. Thus, not only strengthening the negative stereotype, but also making it seem as if they were born criminal minded.

For many black men like myself, it's a harsh struggle to live in a world where you are automatically judged for the actions of a few or one. It's a burden to live in a world where hearing about another black man committing a crime or acting deviant makes you feel guilty. Sadly, in white-dominated world, that's the unnatural norm. One black criminal confirms the belief that all black people are criminals despite the fact that there are black men who are constantly trying to prove society wrong. Even though the numbers of black men greatly outweigh the numbers of black men who have fallen astray due to the persistent racism that destroys them in some way, shape or form, the racist stereotypes persist. To that end society feels that those black men who are clearly victims of the continuous oppression cannot be helped, and that society itself must protect itself from them by throwing them in cages or shooting them.

To society the young black male is a beast. Society might consider me to be a "tamed" beast like a pet tiger. Society considers those who have murdered, raped or robbed others as the wild beasts that need to be put down especially if they've harmed one of their privileged citizens. The media will be there to let society know when one of them goes wild. The beast and I will share similar features, one being skin color, and that's all the reason society needs to hate and fear me.

This is hardly the first time I've come across a Black man talking or writing about his frustration with being portrayed continually as the Booger Man. It must be wearing, indeed, to be faced with such judgment as a constant refrain. And we know full well through the media that fear of Black men, especially young Black men -- however unfounded -- can and often does result in an arrest or even the death of a Black man in a New York minute. So here, then, is my commentary on Malcolm Trocio's piece on his fear of Black men.

Trocio opens by calling himself a "socially conscious, bias-free white person" and it occurred to me immediately that this is how White people invariably start off. "Now, don't call me a racist...," they'll begin. Or "I was raised not to SEE color...," they'll say, following the statement with a "but...." And then they'll introduce an attitude that raises my eyebrows up to my hairline. And Trocio is no exception. Calling his fear of young African-American men a "socially unacceptable paranoia" focusing primarily on those sixteen to thirty who exhibit a "'thug' look and mentality," he nevertheless admits that it manages to spread itself to include well dressed or even older Black men. What a surprise.

Then he describes how he was raised around many Black and multi-ethnic children, but "never managed to make a real connection to their social structure." (So it's "not connecting to the social structure" that's the problem, is it? It's the social structure he's afraid of?) And then he does another quintessentially White thing: making a blanket racist statement and attributing it to "human nature."

"Humans," he writes, "tend to naturally regard skin color as a type of uniform." And it is true that I've been thinking about another blog post I want to write about how I sometimes put on my "White suit" to accomplish certain things, but I don't think he and I are actually in agreement here. He wants us to accept his premise that all humans just naturally wear skin like a banner of where we belong. "Uniforms," after all, imply inclusion in a membership of some kind; an organization, if you will; a group of similarly-situated individuals that patently does NOT include those wearing a different "uniform."

In attempting to paint his family and himself as "nice" White people, Trocio relates two stories of family friends who were Black. He apparently felt very warmly toward these two individuals, but couldn't for the life of him remember the name of one of them, what they looked like (other than Black), or any specifics about them other than their entertaining personalities (hmmmm....), but these men's presence in his life is supposed to balance the rest of what he has to say, which is far longer, far more detailed, and much less positive.

It seems that Trocio (brace yourself here) was once approached by a homeless Black guy in filthy clothing and it scared him almost to death. Nothing happened, you understand. There wasn't even any contact at all. But the homeless guy waved his arms (oh, my gosh!) and tried to stop him one time when he was on his way to an Art Museum and he barely escaped with Sanity? Pocket change?

The homeless guy was shouting "I just wanna be your friend," but as we all know, you can't be too careful with somebody wearing filthy clothes. I mean, didn't that homeless guy know that you may not be able to avoid being poor, but you can still be clean? The incident was described as "almost being mugged," which makes, in my book, about as much sense in this case as calling a movie date "almost" getting married. I'm guessing Trocio doesn't get around too much.

Anyway, he went on to Incident Number Two, involving his "gazelle-like" leap from a train platform after seeing a Black teenaged boy hit a White kid over the head and steal his wallet. The Black kid, according to Trocio, has a couple of buddies with him, so I understand Trocio not jumping in to help the victim. But still, he doesn't mention yelling and says he didn't really even see much because the minute the situation began, he ran away. Again, no contact between him and the Black guys. And he repeatedly calls the victim a "doofy White kid" (for whatever reason), which doesn't seem very respectful, especially since the term suggests that Trocio more than likely would NOT refer to himself in such a way.

The third event (which was, again, I'm afraid, more of a non-event than an occurance since the Black "muggers" that have terrorized Trocio have hardly fit the "Menace II Society" description) was an occasion on a public bus when a young Black man demanded Trocio's winter gloves. His terror this time was so nondescript that Trocio admits he didn't even understand what the young man was saying. Finally, getting the point, Trocio responded loudly (in heroic fashion, I guess, given his earlier responses), "Why would I give YOU my gloves?" At which point the female bus driver (luckily) "saved his behind" by declaring, "We ain't gonna have any of that on MY bus!"

Now, the driver did push the police button. And it was a crowded public space (which I deduce from Trocio talking about the "mugger" standing behind him on the bus, which usually means there are no seats available). But really now, if "almost mugger" number three was as frightening as the ones in the movies, Trocio wouldn't have had the nerve to speak, the driver wouldn't have sounded like an Assistant Principal, and the "mugger" would have been after something besides a pair of gloves (which since they were used, I assume the Black man needed or he wouldn't have asked). Yet this was the closest Trocio has ever come to being "mugged." And being "mugged" (according to his title) is why he's afraid of young Black men.

I realize I've had a more dramatic life than some or maybe even most. But honestly, regardless, I can't relate to poor Malcolm Trocio's post-traumatic stress. I've taken some serious licks at the hands of both Black and White guys at one time or another in my life, so I guess, based on his standard, I could claim terror at the face of anyone with a penis (including Trocio). But I don't. Because those people were individual Black or White guys. They had real problems, no doubt. But they didn't typify all Black and all White men. In fact, for every wacko male I've met (and I've met more than my share for a variety of reasons), I've met MANY guys that were at least trying to be decent, a goodly number you could take home to your mother, and more than a few I would trust with my life (Trocio not being one of them since I'm high-strung as it is and he obviously freaks out pretty fast).

Trocio, on the other hand, while not lumping himself and all his White brothers in the "Tim McVey" or "John Wayne Gacy" pools, fears all Black men, he writes, because the "Gangsta Rap/Thug" culture is meant to intimidate. If this makes no sense to you, don't blame the sentence, blame the idea. (I do, by the way, agree with Trocio that gangsta rap is intended to get Whites' attention, which it does. I would, however, suggest that Whites intimidate African-Americans day and night in this society and, as far as I'm concerned, Black intimidation of Whites is just blow-back. Besides, White money and White production is how we GOT gangsta rap in the first place -- see this YouTube video or this one, both by spoken word artist Taalam Acey).

Trocio closes by trying to make nice. Thuggish clothes, he reminds himself, are worn by lots of folks (including White people) and aren't a good way to judge character. He's also afraid, he admits, of Southerners and hill-folk, too (which includes me on both counts and I'm here to say that, as nervous as he apparently stays, he's right to steer clear of a lot of us, as we tend to make sport of those who flinch too often).

Still, he claims that paranoia -- defined by as "baseless or excessive suspicion of the motives of others" -- is a normal reaction to the circumstances he writes about in this piece. If that's true, then it's a wonder any of us is willing to get out of bed in the morning.

He tries, he says, to judge each person as an individual and that would be a laudable stance if he hadn't just written 1100 words about why he can't. But when he finishes with the line, "all people act all ways," I don't believe he means it. Because if he did, he wouldn't have written this nonsense and put his name on it for all the world to see.
NOTE: The graphic above is by Laurie Cooper and is available as a poster here.


sawtooth said...

In a recent meeting of a library committee, a person reported on the newly-established police presence in the library of which you speak. I was struck by the 'generic' portrayal of the "issue" on the front steps being "noise", as well as a sleeping individual on the Nth floor with a pistol falling out of his pocket, and a "self-gratifying" individual in the "reference section" of the library as being additional problem; hence, the heightened security at this library. I am saddened by the expression of social control over people who should be provided a public place to socialize and freely express themselve without some oppressive response by the authorities. It's sickening how we promote democracy but severely restrict the spaces where democracy should flourish. Your picture is beautiful, but I already knew you were.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks, Sawtooth. I couldn't agree more. As for the picture, I assume you mean the photo I added to the post that follows this one. Thanks (again). It's a big step when you begin to own your identity in new ways and love makes it much, much easier to take the risk.

Will Capers said...

First of, thanks for posting my comment on your blog.

Second, your response was spot on. You took everything he said, broke it down, and gave an accurate response.

Third, I've heard of incidents like that in other public places or in neighborhoods in general. I heard a couple of years back in this town that a group of young black boys were forced out of another neighborhood by police because, according to the police
report, they looked suspicious. As far as the report goes, they haven't committed any crimes, they weren't being loud as far as the report goes, but they were approached because they looked suspicious. Sometimes just being there young, black, and male is enough for suspicion. You don't have to act rowdy, you can just be there.

michaelTO said...

You should remind yourself that this is nothing new. It used to be against the law for more than a few blacks to congregate and in Kansas they installed "Laughing barrels" on the streets for blacks because, according to the powers that be, we laughed to loudly.

If I, a black man, ran my life the way this dude did, I'd be crazy just like him.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks for tipping me to the piece in the first place, Will. It was a classic for use in discussing these realities related to so-called "relations" between African-Americans and those White people who have the power to define in this country.

The law used to arrest Black youth in Florida for being in the "wrong" neighborhood makes "prowling" a criminal offense. I was once told by a police officer that "prowling" charges are virtually NEVER brought against White youths...sigh.

Good point, MichaelTO. This kind of oppression and harrassment is a matter of public record historically, though I never heard of "laughing barrels" before. And the kind of mind that thinks up things like "laughing barrels" scares the be-jeezus out of me. Were they for real? Didn't at least one of them ever say to the others in the planning process for such ludicrous decision-making, "Really now, guys. Don't you think 'laughing barrels' are a pretty weird idea?" But I guess not. That part of the insanity, huh?

Malcolm Trocio said...

Thanks for lambasting me for sharing my feelings. No really, it's great to know that it's not only not ok to be racist, but that it's not ok to even admit to the possibility that one might have feelings that might be construed as racist, regardless of past trauma or one's own emotional state. It's great to be reminded that the strong personality type, (yourself) gladly abuses the more timid person and even sees virtue in it. Thank you for making me a villain for having feelings and defending my attackers with only a brief description of the events involved, and thank you for marginalizing my trauma, as though you possess an omniscience over the minds of others. So, your answer to my title, "Should I Feel Guilty, is clearly, "Yes." Also thank you for spending so much time responding to my article.

Changeseeker said...

It's a commentary on the overwhelmingly hectic nature of my fall semester that I didn't even really focus on this comment until now, Malcolm. I am, frankly, somewhat embarrassed at not acknowledging your response sooner. You could have ignored what I wrote and saved yourself some further unwanted attention, but you didn't.

Reading your comment caused me to go back and re-read my post from the standpoint of the one being written about and I winced more than once for sure. I am, yes, a "strong personality type," though I assure you I have a soft underbelly like anyone else. More importantly, however, I do listen because I love to learn and grow and listening is necessary to both.

I am impressed by what you do and do not say in your comment. You don't whine. You don't attack. You just seem to challenge me to think about how I wrote this post. You call into question my aggressive style and this is not a criticism in my book, as much as it is an opportunity for reflection.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not waffling on who I am, how I see the socially-constructed, political notion of "race," or what I've written on this blog over the past seven years since it began. Black people suffer daily in the U.S. in ways White people dismiss without a second thought and part of my life work is to make that suffering loudly and clearly visible. But I do not brush off your statements as irrelevant. I want to communicate. I both write and teach. And I constantly review my performance in both areas. Reflection is a necessary part of the process of progress -- social and individual.

I was clearly more concerned in this post with addressing the feelings of people of color and, most particularly, Black men, and with trying to raise White people's consciousness about how insidious White Supremacy is than I was with considering how what I wrote would affect you. Again, I'm not "apologizing" for taking this stance. We all have a role (and writers have a special one). However, the risk you took in putting your feelings on front street made it possible for me to use your essay as a teachable moment for readers all over the world. Hopefully, Black men felt encouraged and heard. And hopefully, White people were able to learn something new about race. These are both key principles I try to live by.

At the least, however, I could have acknowledged your honesty and your writing as the kind of reflection crucial to our progress. And I could have couched my whole post in the greater context of reviewing how all White people are taught to see these things rather than making you the brunt of a tirade. I spent a lot of time on the post because it was a valuable opportunity to teach and teaching is my life. I will do some thinking about how to do that without turning anyone into a victim. Thank you for helping me go to the next level.

Anonymous said...

Really late to the post but: as a white women, white men, with their deadly double privilege of white and male scare the hell out of me. I go out of my way to avoid them if out in public esp at night.
The system favors them over all, ESP men of color.
Then they have the nerve to scream reverse racism! (something white women do too smh) when having their privilege challenged. Shaking my head.

Changeseeker said...

Shaking my head, too, Anonymous 10:57. Shaking my head, too.

Anonymous said...

Hi This is Malcolm again. I too, am sorry for neglecting to check for a response on this post. I suppose I wrote out of a sense of tit for tat and neglected to check for a response. Anyway, I appreciate your candor and your understanding of the complexities that arise from trying to turn personal experience into socially responsible subjective essays. I will note briefly that even though my "mugging" experiences may seem trivial in their description, I assure you that my body was flooded with adrenaline and all of those other flight or flight chemicals for each of the three instances. The circumstances may suggest otherwise, but my body was telling me that I was going to die. My brain was faced with an enemy. An unknown enemy with unknown intentions with unknown armament. The resulting response was chemical and defensive. Clearly I am descended from apes who chose to run rather that to stick around. I would also like you to know that in the ten or so years since these incidents occurred I have almost fully recovered from my illogical fear of black men, at least to the point where I fear all strangers of all races equally. I live in a city. You never know what some one is going to do. A white guy in a suit could punch you in the face for no reason. I wouldn't even be surprised. I thank you for taking the time to consider my point of view, and for what it is worth, we are all cousins. Every race, ethnicity and color, we are all one family with one branching bloodline. So Happy birthday, Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays, relative o' mine. Peace.

Changeseeker said...

We experience. We learn. And we grow, if we allow ourselves to do so. Thanks for the update. And peace to you, as well.