Saturday, October 25, 2008

Racism is a Race that Must End

I wrote my college history thesis on the Vietnam anti-war movement at the University of Virgina. A rather narrow topic that required many hours spent in the basement of Alderman Library and in personal interviews with a tape recorder in hand. I took notes in my spiral bound notebook because the Trapper Keeper was too bulky. I had the honor and pleasure of talking to men who were outraged at the political, racial, and social divisions of their day. Men who took a stand, often against their upbringing, their parents, their professors, and their fraternity brothers.

Keep in mind it was 1969 when these men clad in suit coats and ties were quietly protesting the Vietnam war at a conservative Southern school where women (4 of them) had just been admitted. Nevermind that it took The University from 1895 to 1969 to finally admit women to its hallowed halls. The anti-war movement at UVa. was not newsworthy on the same scale as Kent State, Berkley or the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. But is was news in Charlottesville, a quintessentially quaint college town.

The climate is much the same now.

If those old cassette tapes still worked I know I would sense the same emotion, zeal, and frustration that I sense among my peers today. The handful of protesting men could sit as bystanders no longer. The racist jokes and chauvanist banter could be ignored no more. They took action, as a small group, and faced jeering, mimickry, and black balling. But they did not shed their convictions. They did not silence their battlecry.

I had a History of the Civil Rights Movement professor in college who inspired me to write about this small, unknown anti-war movement in the South. He told tales of small groups of citizens banding together for a common cause, to right what was wrong. He spoke of grassroots power, civil disobedience, living by conviction. Perhaps you've heard of my professor, Julian Bond. He regaled us with harrowing tales of the civil rights movement. He brought in speakers who marched, protested, organized, and battled for us. All of us. Rosa Parks spoke. I can still hear her story and see her grandmotherly face. I read to my kids about Rosa Parks now and I am proud to tell them I heard her tale spun from her own frail lips.

Julian Bond, Rosa Parks, and the men of UVa. cemented for me the reality of the fight they fought. The made it more than a chapter in a history book. They were more than answers on a test or names engraved on a plaque covered in ivy. The gave me faces of change. Of hope. Of grassroots power.

Our climate is much the same today.

I used to joke that people who vote for John McCain are either greedy or stupid. Sure, that's anger rearing its snarky head. But one thing I cannot shake is that some people voting for John McCain are racist. I say this from firsthand experience. I realize it is no small claim but I stand behind my words and assessment.

The beast that is Racism snarls its rotten teeth and growls its hot gasp in corners we don't suspect. Let me recount a conversation I just had with someone very close to me. She had just taken a Greyhound trip and arrived delightfully on time. I asked about her trip, and she commented it was fine, easy, and swift. She went on to tell me the trip was fine because there were lots of white people on the bus. As soon as the words escaped her lips she backpedaled, trying to suck them back in. Racism managed to squeak past, stealth in its manner. She felt ashamed and disappointed in her remarks. But the sad truth is that the feelings and the words were there, hovering above us. It made me sick to my stomach. This person is voting for Barack Obama and has been a staunch, tireless supporter and volunteer. I tell you this tale so you see how camoflaged and unexpected Racism can be.

Another friend has been saying for months now that she simply cannot vote for Obama because she is worried about his safety. She, a 30-something white woman, speaks with feigned empathy and concern as she says a vote against Obama will help spare his life. She cannot bear for the country to experience another Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy tragedy. Oh to hear her treacly earnestness is enough to make a diabetic go into shock. I call bullshit here. She takes issue with Obama's race. Period. She cannot get past it. She knows nothing of either candidate's policies. She is not politically active, much less aware. She has said that Obama will be assassinated while in office and she does not want to be responsible for the country's loss and his family's loss with her vote. This is simple Racism hiding in the wings of sympathy. I don't buy it.

I hear this story, this canned rationale, from a number of people. My friends have shared similar tales. We see through you. We distrust you. We're calling you on it.

These subtle forms of racism affect me as a woman of color who was not born in this country or raised Christian (YIKES! Someone alert the authorities!). My boys are of mixed race since Mac Daddy is as white as they make 'em up in Wisconsin. They are first generation American. They will always be the children of a brown immigrant mother. We teach them what an honor that is.

It would be a lie if I told that life is peachy keen. When we are out as a family we get plenty of stares and snickers, especially when we are off the beaten path. Race is a hot topic in these parts, and many people see the world as black and white, literally and figuratively. When acquaintances or neighbors rant about immigrants or funny accents, I remind them that I am an immigrant, that my parents speak English with an accent, that they speak Bengali, Hindi, German, French, and Italian with an accent too. And then I try to bite my tongue and not remark about how the rest of the country thinks a Southern accent sounds hick.

Anyway, when I gently interject a reminder of who I am into the conversation, I get a blase head toss, waving hand as if to say pshaw and an "Oh, you're different. We don't even think of you as Indian." Whhaaaaatttt????? This is supposed to make me feel better? To discount my heritage, my appearance, my identity is supposed to make me feel better? Does "different" mean "better?" Is it somehow complimentary that they don't see me as Indian because I am "good enough" to be considered one of them? Someone help me understand what the fuck a comment like that means.

News flash, folks, that's Racism snickering in your psyche.

This is how our friends at Merriam Webster define racism:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
— rac·ist \-sist also -shist\ noun or adjective

The underslying subtleties of racism are difficult to express in words. But I feel them all the time. During this heated, and historic, election, I hear them all the time. Silent racism plagues more people than we realize. Many friends in our lifetime will come to disappoint us when they give voice to their silent racism. Bear to witness my friend who is voting for John McCain in principle of race alone.

I think back to the professorial, driven, enchanting Julian Bond. I think of Rosa Parks speaking from what might as well have been a pulpit. I think of the brave men who were willing to put their necks on the line at a conservative good ol' boys' school. I think of the faceless, countless others who have devoted their time, and their lives, to bring equality to our country. A country founded on eqality and freedom in the first place. I think of them and feel unabashed pride in my vote.

I am not voting for Obama because he is black. I am voting for him because he will help make this country change into what the people who inspired me back in 1990 at the University of Virginia fought for. It is no understatement to say that he is our Bobby Kennedy.
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Anonymous said...

I hope you can feel the Hi-5 from Apex ... you rock. Ashley

Anonymous said...

Honey that was an awesome post. I felt every emotion in each word.


Anonymous said...

"This is simple Racism hiding in the wings of sympathy. I don't buy it."

No kidding. and OMFG - what a cop-out that woman spouts. Pure and simple.

Great post sweetie!

landismom said...

Great post. I have been surprised, on an almost daily basis, by two things in this election. One is the outright racism that some white people are still totally comfortable spouting. The other is how far we have come, and what a small minority of the population fall into the first category.

Unknown said...

Voting for who you believe in shows the rest of the country that America is capable of change - Not voting to (ahem!) save his life is a cop out! Great post!

The Cube Monkey said...

Living in Ohio, I am very aware of the racism in this election. Especially in the southeastern region. They did interviews with democrats down there that are voting McCain purely because they cannot bring themselves to vote for an uppity black man. Just makes you wanna hit them with a rock.
When my son was young my husbands family commented on how my sons almond shaped eyes are more pronounced when he isn't feeling well. I told them that he gets his almond shaped eyes from my gggrandmother who was rumored to be full blooded Cherokee. My mother in law just muttered "well, we'll just forget that part". Ummmm, forget that he is part Indian? My husband and I both stood there with our chins to the floor. Pretty offended.
People amaze me.

steenky bee said...

I have family members citing Obama's color as reason to not vote for him because of an attack on him or our government. What? I can not believe for one minute they really feel that way. If they do, it's only because they've convinced themselves that this would somehow be a more acceptable form of their racism. We are all the same people. Don't ignore color, creed or gender. Just do not discriminate with it. Obama 08!!

erin said...

ilina, well said/written. i'm passing this on. erin

Anonymous said...

I suspect my mother-in-law, one of the nicest people I know, isn't voting in this election at all because she can't stomach John McCain and can't bring herself to vote for Barack Obama because he's black. She gets real uncomfortable when pressed for why she can't do it, but she will not give a reason. I'm very disappointed in her.

I'll be voting for the person I think most qualified, and I'm excited that this country's moving beyond the only option being elitist white men for president. I want most qualified, regardless of color or race.

Kevin said...

Well said! I could feel the power too, there are things that inspire me, some big ways, in smaller ways. That the emotions stick with you for many years says a lot about the experience and how it effected you. What inspires me is when I can feel the power in the words of the speaker/writer.

Does being a black man shape a part of who Obama is? Of course it does! Being half white shapes him too, much like being an Irish American from Massachusetts shaped me.

We live in the same area, and are both transplants, I think that it makes some of the racism stand out more to us. It's not that there isn't plenty of racism in the North, but I was primed to expect it here.

Thank you for the reminder to always call it out, perhaps not quite as overtly as "I call bullshit", but don't let people get off without them knowing that you caught it.


Cant Hardly Wait said...

I love love LOVED this post. Written so well.

LilaTovCocktail said...

This is my first visit to Dirt & Noise and I love this beautifully-written, nuanced post.

I witness a lot of white people's racism because I am a white person who has lived in predominantly African-American neighborhood for the past 15 years. When white people express surprise about where I live -- especially progressives who would be horrified to be thought of as racist, they do so in euphemisms: They say things like, "You're so brave," and "Aren't you worried that you'll stick out like sore thumb?" and "I'd be so worried about the crime rate" and even "Aren't you worried that your neighbors resent you for moving into their neighborhood?"

All of which I understand to be a direct projection of their own unexamined but nevertheless deeply-ingrained hostility toward African-Americans. They assume my neighbors will have the same feelings toward me -- discomfort, fear, even resentment -- they're familiar with whenever they have to be unexpectedly or continuously in the presence of African-Americans.

I live in Ohio and I can feel that projected racism, that masked fear of reprisal, whenever I talk to people about Obama. And I'm afraid that ultimately, when they're alone in the voting booth, they're going to allow their fear to override their logic and convictions.

I worry they'll vote their skin color because they know that if black Americans were ever to express one-tenth the hostility toward white people that white people have historically felt toward them, white people might become very uncomfortable indeed.

We might have to think about race all the time! (Gasp)Our lives would be like that bus ride your friend was relieved not to experience: We could no longer relax into the fantasy that race isn't really an issue for US, that racism doesn't exist until African-Americans board the bus.

I wish I knew how to speak effectively to other white voters about the danger unacknowledged racism poses in this election. Because I'm certain that Obama doesn't carry Ohio, it will be because of racism.

Anyway, I'm signing up for your RSS feed right now. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wow, so many wonderful comments. You are restoring my faith through these trying times. I am horrified of the news of two young men plotting to kill Obama and other people just for being black. There is no room for such hatred in this world, and it deeply saddens me.

We can still fight the good fight, folks! We cannot and must not let racism win.

Queen of Feisty said...


I found you through a comment you had left on Scary Mommy. Hope you don't mind I came over.

It's funny I just did a whole political post, with a 27 minute video of Obama. How I agree with him, and his love for the middle class.

I agree to an extent that I worry for his behalf. For the ignorant people out there that still see in color, and that may harm him. But that will not stop me from voting for him. I want him to be President. If he is running for President, I am right there for him.

Awesome post.



Kevin said...

I thought of this post from another twitter person http://queenofspainblog.com/2008/10/28/i-dont-know-his-name/

I believe that what has made this election different are people's experiences like these, it's really great.

Also see my latest post.

followthatdog said...

perfectly said. I agree with you completely.