Friday, January 27, 2006

Is "Almost White" And "Not Really White" The Same?

The other day, I was discussing the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" with a couple of African-American friends and one of them was talking about how he used to play with a little White boy who came from a very racist family that lived nearby. Now, there were apparently lots of kids in the neighborhood and lots of the kids were Black, but this little White boy would only play with my friend (I'll call him "K"). K tried to get the boy to play with some other kids, too, but he refused, finally explaining to K that he "wasn't like the others," that K was "almost White." I asked K what he had thought of that at the time and he said that he was so young, he wasn't sure what the boy meant.

Then, this morning, I heard a story about an African-American dentist back in the day who, because he practiced dentistry in a correctional institution, actually wound up with KKK members coming to him for his services in his private practice. I guess the "good ole boys" got used to him while they were locked up or something and just continued to see him when they got out. But what fascinated me was the thought of these rabidly racist guys--KKK members not being the kind of folks that are wishy-wishy on the topic of race--letting a Black man put his fingers in their mouths. Even to fix their teeth.

Eventually, the way the story went, the KKK members finally came to their senses and took the dentist out in the country for one of those beatings the Klan is so famous for. Now, that, I understood. It was the part about them choosing to go to his office and lay back in the chair, completely vulnerable, while an African-American with his face about six or eight inches from theirs reached into their mouths and pushed their tongue aside that I couldn't get my brain around. I mean, come on now, people of the Klan mentality still think Black folks ought to go back to Africa, stay at home after dark, or even step off the sidewalk when a White person passes.

When I expressed my amazement, I didn't get the feeling that the young man who had told me the story fully understood why the matter intrigued me so much. I mused aloud a few moments on how the dentist's White patients (at least before they tried to fix it so that he couldn't practice any more) probably told each other that he was "okay" or that he wasn't "like the others." In short, that he was "almost White." As it were.

As I reconsider these two separate tales, I'm reminded of the time in my mid-twenties when I was first introduced as being "not really White." It was a peculiar moment. It was in an old rooming house in a Black neighborhood in San Francisco, where I'd gone to visit a European-American artist I'd met who couldn't afford to live anywhere else, I imagine, and besides was known for sending strong messages about race with his work.

Anyway, we were in the middle of a conversation when a couple of Black guys burst into the room and then stopped short in consternation, obviously unsettled by my presence. The artist introduced me to them by name, but they were unconvinced that I should be accepted. This was back when the Black Panthers had a store-front in Oakland, you must remember, and White people were suspect, no matter who they were with.

Finally, with a laugh, he said, "She's not really White." And for some reason, I felt good about him saying that, though I didn't begin to understand yet fully what it meant.

Decades later, these stories are all filed in the same folder in my head under the term "racial identity." Racial identity--the single most important characteristic in U.S. culture--is supposed to be biological. Still, Black people can "pass for" White. White people, if they don't know everything about their family backgrounds, can be Black and not know it. But depending on who's talking and what the context is, a Black kid can be "almost White." Or a woman who looks like me can be "not really White." Or a Black dentist can be paid to get close enough to a Klansman to kiss him--without, at least immediately, repercussions. Which is why I call it "the socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'." And why--though I can be fascinated--I'm never surprised.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

At What Point Does The Perpetrator Have To Stop Doing Things For Which They Will Need To Be Forgiven?

I got a reminder this morning that Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize winner will speak (for free) at the university tonight. His topic: "No Future Without Forgiveness." Now, I'm sure that there's probably a way to spin that ball to include how European-Americans will need to "forgive" people of color for reminding them of how brutal and unapologetic they and their culture has been historically and today--or something.

And I know that the cold fact is that no matter how pain-wracked one's past may be, one must at some point find a way to release the rage or one cannot move on, whether the tormentor ever gets it or not. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But I can't help but wonder how come we can afford to bring someone of the good Bishop's magnitude to deliver his message, but we wouldn't see, say, Andrew Sung Park, the Korean who wrote The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and The Christian Doctrine of Sin. Sung suggests (quite eloquently) that there can be no complete healing on either side until the one that did the damage not only admits it and apologizes and ceases the "sin", but--oh-my-gosh!--does some things to make up for the wrongs they committed.

But then, I don't guess too many would show up to hear what Sung had to say, huh? So we shell out the money and bring Desmond Tutu and tell ourselves we're doing something about oppression against people of color (I mean, he's Black, for goodness' sake--doesn't that prove something?!) And we keep that focus on what African-Americans must do to make things better--just like we always have. Even back when it was Mammy comforting the Missus or little slave whipping boys giving Massuh a way to deal with his uncomfortable feelings. Why am I not surprised?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Movie Night (or How African-American Basketball Players Got Their Size Thirteens In The Door)

I know zip about sports. And, what's harder for some people to understand: I really couldn't care less. I mean, overall, I don't know who's playing. And, for the most part, I don't know which teams play which sports. I don't even know exactly when Super Bowl Sunday is, in spite of the fact that I know it's right around the corner...sometime.

But there are crystal moments in sports history you just gotta love. Like when the two African-American track stars bowed their heads and raised their fists after they won the Olympics that time--while the national anthem played, for goodness' sake. And the time last year when the woman soccer player lost her head after an amazing triumph of some kind and whipped off her shirt in athletic jubilation, to the delighted shock of the fans and a whole bunch of other viewers who got to see it later (over and over and over).

A movie released last week-end tells the story of another one of those moments--the night back in 1966 when a European-American basketball coach from Texas Western (a school nobody had ever heard of) started five Black players in the NCAA national championship play-offs against University of Kentucky, a team touted as four-time champions under the legendary Adolph Rupp. This was just not done. And when Texas Western left the floor victorious, basketball in the United States had been changed for all time.

Now, you know I had to see this movie. Fast pace, great music, underdogs winning against all odds, and let's not ignore that I hurried out immediately to watch "Hustle and Flow" and saw "Crash" twice the week it came out. So, of course, I knew from the preview that I'd be there the opening week-end. And, yeah--I loved it. Walked out smiling. Glad I'd spent the money. Glad to know the story. (I sure didn't know it before I saw the movie.)

But it intrigued me enough to make me check it out a little more after the fact. One thing I learned was that Texas Western (which became University of Texas at El Paso the year after the historic win) was the first college in a southern state to racially integrate its athletic teams and that was before the arrival of Coach Don Haskins. So there were already three African-American players on the team when he got there, though he rapidly added more. And today, the student population at UTEP is 70% Chicano, which is probably a function of their location, but it still makes a point, I think.

Another thing I found interesting was that Haskins cut his basketball teeth playing one-on-one with an African-American friend, Herman Carr. Apparently, Haskins was disappointed when some scenes depicting their relationship wound up on the cutting room floor because Carr was at the movie's premiere.

The bottom line for me, I guess, is that this story portrays a truth I like to consider: European-Americans who learn to respect people of color can be instrumental in pushing the envelope when it comes to social change related to the socially-constructed political notion of "race." Additionally, social institutions (like schools) that are even a little less committed to White privilege than the average quickly become fertile ground for that social change to occur. And people of color are always, repeat, always, repeat, always ready at a moment's notice to rise to that occasion when given half a chance--no matter what kind of nightmare they have to walk through to do it.

Despite the fact that Haskins only had four losing seasons in his 38 years coaching at UTEP and wound up ultimately in the basketball hall of fame, he was never able to repeat what happened back there in 1966. But that's because the first time can only happen once.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Curtain Rises And A Solitary Figure Walks To The Front Of The Stage

When I wrote the end of last September that I was going to start blogging only on the topic of what I call the "socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'," I really thought I meant a few days later. Apparently, I meant three months later. Regardless, I hope to have a book on race (the story of my life, actually) published this year. Then, I'd like to travel around and tell people what I've got on my mind. But in the meantime, while I work on a couple more books and teach and live my life and all, I'll do this, too.

I did my first piece of research on race in 1963 (I was sixteen) on racial discrimination in the area in which I lived with my college-educated, white-bred (pun intended) parents and four younger brothers and sisters. Years in the prison abolition movement, years on welfare, and years in college and grad school later, I am still learning about "race." And talking about it. Loudly. And writing about it. Passionately.

I hope you're not horrified. I'm pretty straight-forward, in general, and absolutely shocking to some folks when I'm communicating about institutionalized oppression against people of color and, most particularly, African-Americans. Most bloggers write: if you don't like what I write, don't read it. But you're not gonna read that here. I hope you're not horrified because I hope you have a clue and you'll be willing to admit it and maybe we can finally make some progress before it's too late. (Yeah. I think there's every possibility that we're already on the downhill slope with our brakes locked as a society and that race is the oil on the pavement.)

But, if you are horrified, don't freak out. Just read it. Then ask yourself, "What if she's right?" Because, dear reader, I am. I'm not here to bury you with statistics. I could, but I won't because people that do that much better than me are already doing it and too many people that need to aren't listening anyway.

No, I'm here to just point out the sights as we careen through our national evolution. I know you can't wake up somebody who's pretending to be asleep. So those of you who choose to snore may continue to do so. But I'm not alone in what I know. So don't think my perspectives are a "personal problem." If you're scared, holler "red rock." And if you believe that there's still hope for us as a nation, then clap your hands. But if you still want to ignore reality, just remember that the ball's still the ball, no matter what kind of spin somebody tries to put on it. And that'll be me you hear in the background, mumbling to myself, "Why am I not surprised?"

Old Stuff in the New Year

So somebody has been vandalizing cars in the driveway of an African-American family across the bay from where I live for four months now. Eggs thrown, sugar in the gas tank, paint thrown, and now--as if the message had somehow been missed--spray-painting "KKK" and "nigger" down the side of a late model car in front of the home of the only Black family in this "upscale" neighborhood. And the next door neighbor still says she "can't imagine someone doing this." Really.

The television newscaster called it the "N-word." We're SO sensitive about not saying the term out loud (me included). But the behavior still continues and some European-Americans can't imagine why. I've finally started asking myself and other people--especially "White" people--why maintain a pretense of respect by not saying the word if we're not going to adequately attack the underlying values that produce such behavior as writing the word on a car? Just because European-Americans don't all vandalize cars doesn't mean that institutionalized racism hasn't remained an inherent part of our socialization from the past right into the present.

African-Americans (and other people of color, as a matter of fact) don't need their cars spray-painted with ugly words to experience the manifestations of White-held power and White privilege and White disrespect in their daily lives. Ask them. And then believe what they tell you for a change. Until we change our world view in the United States and the value system based on it, delicately using language isn't going to fix anything. How about getting real for a hot minute?

Can we say the O-word? (You know: "Oppression".)