Sunday, July 11, 2010

How White Supremacy Works

Ever since I was interviewed on the C.O.W.S. radio show, I have been going deeper in my exploration of the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." I have been going deeper and learning more and examining more fearlessly and forgiving less of the damage that continues to be inflicted on people of color by the ideology of White Supremacy that operates like a rabid, raging bull in a shop full to bursting with the finest china. And I'm getting help in the way of opportunities to face more and deal with more, though definitely no freebies. I used to think I knew a thing or two, but these days, I feel increasingly like a wobbling toddler of an intellect (or whatever it is I see myself as being).

So it is with some considerable trepidation that I approach this particular post.

Last week, I got an email that read:

"I always condemn the media in my writing, but there are times where I'm so overwhelmed with the news when it concerns crime committed by blacks. Today is one of those times. I read about how a group of black men were beating up someone while being taped. I read how almost 20 gang members were netted, all of them black men.

A town near where I live has seen an increase in shootings, violence and other crimes over the past 3 years. Most of them involved young black males. I look at news like this, and despite my disdain for the news and how they project blacks, especially black men, I still feel intense shame, and it gets worse whenever more news about crimes committed by blacks surfaces. Then I start struggling with the issues. Sometimes I think that maybe there is something wrong with us. I struggle not to think like there is something wrong with blacks. I try to think about how the news tries to make one-dimensional stories of everything. I try to think that there must be some explanation behind all of this, but the shame seems so strong within me. I ask myself why; why us, and what is done or can be done to stop it other than the default response of putting more cops on the streets?

I know that those people must be held accountable, but what happened? What made it come to this? I hate to admit this, but there are times where I wish I was gone. I get so ashamed that I feel like just giving up, and that it will always be this way. I know it's silly to think this way, but when you're bombarded with news like the ones mentioned plus more, you wonder what's going on.

So, right now, I'm extraordinarily depressed, not to mention helpless as I don't know how to even approach this problem.

I try to avoid local news even though my family watches it. I avoid them whenever they watch the news because I expect the first 5-10 minutes to be about crime, and that they will either have mug shots of blacks or provide descriptions which will likely be described as young, black and male.

Despite knowing the economic, social, educational, and even historical factors that come into play, the shame is still prevalent even when I look for crimes committed by whites as a way of reassuring myself that it's not just blacks. I told my family about this once and they confessed they feel the same way. It's as if the media is purposely trying to make blacks look less-than-human with no remorse. It's like they want to show society how bad black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel. The media will make excuses and shift the blame back onto us which helps it seem like there is something wrong with blacks.

I know there are people and programs doing what they can to save young blacks at risk, but even so, the shame caused by those who've lost their way continues. So, I ask why, why us, and why me alone in my room trying to make sense out of this nonsense?"

I was brought to a halt by this email. And despite pondering and asking for input and reading and poring over files and pondering some more, I still feel (appropriately, I think) overwhelmed by this man's question.

I have, of course, posted a number of times on some of these issues, even recently. But who am I, I ask myself, to even participate in any discussion of such gripping difficulty? I feel inadequate and insecure. And, I suspect, finally, appropriately, so. That is to say, perhaps it is about damn time.

In any case, I have been asked and I will offer what I can (so far). Hopefully, over time, I will either have more to offer or learn how to butt out, one or the other.

Let me begin by writing that I believe the Email Writer's response is EXACTLY the response the White Supremacist system is shooting for from African-Americans: self-doubt, desperation, helplessness, hopelessness, resignation, depression, shame and more shame. It isn't "silly" to feel those feelings. And it's not "LIKE they want to show society how 'bad' black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel." It's they WANT African-Americans to feel crappy about being Black. It's a two-fer. White people get to see Black people as inferior, anti-social, dangerous, and 'bad' while seeing themselves as the opposite. And Black people register and virtually drown in feelings that these descriptors MUST be about them because, as the Email Writer suggests, the images actually "bombard" them from all sides continuously. The desired effect is for African-Americans to become convinced on a deep level, not that a system calculated to destroy them psychologically, emotionally and physically is "wrong," but that there MUST be something "wrong" with them.

Consequently, it's not that some poor African-American man (or boy or woman or girl or group) "lost their way." It's that they were herded off a cliff, a cliff reserved expressly for Black people, where the screams of the falling horrify and terrorize other Black people and the resultant carnage occurs at such a rate, it becomes virtually impossible to clean up the broken and bleeding psyches filling the Black community's waking dreams.

I use a concept in the classroom I call the "functional result." If one or more people knows perfectly well what the outcome of a situation is going to be and he, she or they do nothing to stop the process or change the outcome, then they might just as well have intended for the outcome to occur because the "functional result" is the same as if they had. If I know, for example, that the ceiling is dripping and I do nothing to trace the drip to its point of origin or stop it, then, when the ceiling falls in, I'm responsible. The result would have been the same if I had meant for the ceiling to cave in. It's that simple. And I no longer accept that White people in general mean well. It doesn't take a Ph.D. or a psychiatrist to know that what's being done to Black people is not only wrong, it's effective. James Baldwin said, "You can learn everything you need to know about race in America by asking a White man would he want to be Black."

So I'm laying your pain, Email Writer, at the door of White America, myself included. You have done nothing wrong. And even those who have, as you put it, "lost their way" have rather developed, I think, a condition sociologist Calvin Hernton discussed in his essay, "Dynamite Growing Out of Their Skulls" in the late 1960's. Hernton wrote in his unapologetic warning that if the population of the U.S. didn't stop tormenting African-Americans, it would be responsible for unleashing generations of young Blacks with "the psychology of the damned," the sense that there was nothing to discuss or negotiate because they would no longer feel they had anything left to lose.

And that, I would argue, is EXACTLY what we see reflected in the media. I come back to this theme over and over again. And have been thinking about it all anew this week while following the case of Dontae Rashawn Morris, who's been arrested for the murder of two police officers in Tampa, Florida, where I used to live before coming to Louisiana. Even if Morris committed the murders (and murder is ALWAYS a tragic event, not just when police officers are the victims), I am absolutely positive that his life has unfolded in ways that made the outcome inevitable in one way or another. It doesn't take Morris off the hook. But it does add us on there with him.

As Frantz Fanon wrote, "Torture rearranges the mind of the tortured." Which means that we are, just as Hernton warned, increasingly likely to see manifested in our society nightmares first visited on children of color and now, ultimately, returned to us, writhing like snakes hatched in ignorance and back to exact an unexpected karmic justice. "[T]he unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps," wrote Fanon further. And I would add to this the clarification that if we see the lazy, cowardly, "educated" class as White America disconnected from the mass of people of color in the U.S., then we might finally begin to recognize where the tragic "mishaps" (on both sides) are really coming from.

Add to all this a system guaranteeing that African-American men in particular will experience their access to jobs as greatly reduced and their likelihood of arrest as greatly enhanced and you have a self-fulfilling prophecy and social script engineered to produce a deepening morass of social issues mascarading as personal problems. Frost this ugly poisonous cake with a frothy mound of what has been called "historical unresolved grief syndrome" or "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome" (watch a YouTube video on the latter here) and you have the piece de resistance at the White Supremacist banquet.

"We are compelled to resolve," writes Toi Derricotte near the beginning of The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, "not only our personal wounds, but the wounds of our ancestors...Now I realize that the depression and fear of suicide that made me begin the work of this book was really a first re-memory of 'killing' voices from my childhood. It was like feeling returning in a limb that has been asleep...I often feel sad, guilty, frightened, and confused. Perhaps my anger isn't just about race. Perhaps it's..a way of dulling the edge of feelings that lie even deeper...What if that feeling of separation and distance from the 'other' is fear of being one with the self, a fear to take in emotionally the meaning of a part of the self that one is not yet ready to handle?"

"I am sure," continues Derricotte later in the book, "that years of conditioning in a society that blamed us for our own destruction -- they're animals, they don't deserve any better -- being aware of what power white people's thought has over our lives, made us feel especially vulnerable. If we controlled our anger, were kind, responsible, dressed in good clothes, drove expensive cars, racism would not affect us. But then there is always the story of the black middle-class doctor stopped in an all-white suburb because the police thought his car was stolen. It seems that many of the shames and desires of the black middle class had at their base a desire to change the perception of whites. This is not just a hangover from slavery, it is an accurate assessment of the danger in the world we live in today. Just about every black person I ever met has some tale of arbitrary cruelty."

Calvin Hernton outlined his agreement with this in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers when he wrote: "In all oppressive situations, it is deemed a virtue for the oppressed to identify with the world-view of the oppressors. The oppressed are 'praised' and 'rewarded' for loathing themselves and for admiring their oppressors; they are derided, made to feel ashamed, and are punished for embracing any ways they themselves might develop, and are instructed and forced to manifest allegiance to the ways of those who oppress them."

But Derricotte has something for this: "Whiteness has to be examined, addressed, not taken as 'normal.' White people have to develop a double consciousness, too, a part in which they see themselves as 'other.' We are all wounded by racism, but for some of us those wounds are anesthetized. When we begin to feel it, we're awake...If we don't recognize anger, if we don't allow for it, if we're not ready, if we don't, in fact, welcome it as a creative force, then I think we're going to end up blaming and dividing people even more...A black person and a white person are not just two individuals who have to decide whether they like each other; but representatives carrying huge expectations, beliefs that they must scale like dangerous mountains, trying to reach each other...Can whites begin to understand and take in the pain of this racist society? So often white people, when a deep pain with regard to racism is uncovered, want it to be immediately addressed, healed, released. Black people have had to live with the wounds of racism for generations. Even goodwill and hard work won't make the personal hurts cease. If this book has any purpose, it's to show the persistence of internal conflicts, of longing, shame, and terror. It represents a twenty-year obsession to observe myself when these feelings arise, rather than to deny or repress them. I have found that there is no cure. Perhaps awareness can give us a second to contain, so that we do not pass these damages on to others."

And finally, Derricotte writes about the terrible price of silence: "Our truths divide us. We fear speaking to each other, black and white, men and women, rich and poor. Yet it is possible to see the context, how we have all been the victims, how it has damaged us. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Of making things worse. Of proving that we really are as bad, stupid, or wrong as we suspect the other one thinks. Yet our silence makes us not trust our perceptions, not trust ourselves, and in the long run, it keeps us 'safe,' unthreatened, but stops the really important movement of change through us. The inner structures with all their defenses must tumble...What a terrible knowledge for our children. We close our mouths...We wait until they can take it. Or we say nothing and let them find out for themselves, slowly, as we found out, walking through the world, often alone...We say, 'I don't want to make them paranoid, to make them go around with a chip on their shoulders'...It is the silence that I fear more than anything, the pretense, the way it seems that, in the silence, suddenly some violence springs out that [appears to be] unconnected."

In his poem, Dark Heritage, Louisiana-native Marcus Christian reminds the reader:

“In times of stresses, wars and blasting storms
This one thing I shall evermore remember:
That all of the strength and the blood and the sweat of me --
That all of my longings, my sorrows, my hopes and my joys
Went into making this great land of ours;
That this is my land by the right of both God and of man --
That this is my land, wet with my own life's blood --
That it is enriched with the flesh and the bones of my fathers --
That this land is mine, grown big through my pain and sufferings;
That all I am today and ever shall be
Lies deeply buried in her plains and valleys,
Swamps, hills and mountains,
Meadows, lakes and streams.
I shall forever be a part of her
And she will always be a part of me.”

Theologian James Cone seemed to underscore Christian's sentiments decades later speaking with Bill Moyers on the relationship of the Christian cross to the lynching tree: "[W]hen you can express and articulate what's happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech. It gives you self-definition. And when you have self-definition, and are not defined by the world, then you transcend what is happening to you. Anytime you can see and articulate your reality -- including your loss, tragedy, that's the terrible beauty. See, the beauty is you not being defined by it. The tragedy is looking at that reality, looking at it sharply, plainly, not avoiding it. It's kind of, as James Baldwin said, an ironic tenacity. It is claiming a sense of yourself, even in the midst of misery. So, you can look anywhere. There's always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word? There is always hope."

I'll close this compendium of sources and thoughts from so many different directions with one last quote, this one from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious Whites and the relatively conscious Blacks who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."



Will Capers said...

Very well written. It gives a lot of sound explanations as well as some ways to treat one's own pain.

Christine said...

Oh my God, your post/response to the email writer was freakin' awesome! You summed up in a perfect nutshell exactly how historical education in this country works, how media works and what the end results are. I have never read anything about White Supremacy that just didn't gloss over the issue by dumbing down the very notion of it and marginalizing it to Klansman and people who just use the N-word or some other racial slur. It goes so much deeper than that!

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

profacero said...

Great post!

Changeseeker said...

Thanks, Will. I'm glad you think so.

Christine: Those are serious props. I appreciate it. Especially since it took a week of thinking and nine hours of work to produce it.

Profacero: Greetings!! How great to see you in the neighborhood! And I'm glad you like the post. Your opinion, as you know, means much to me.