Friday, December 15, 2006

Don't Let Nobody Hold You Down

This is a post a long time in the making. [Disclaimer: this post discusses racism and prejudice. If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you ought to read it anyway. In any case, it's my blog; there's a "Next Blog" button up there you can click of you want.]

For years, I've been an avid watcher and listener of anything dealing with the various prejudices of the world. Some I've been known to practice, even currently. I'm not always proud, but I'm always human. Not that prejudice is ever justified.

Racism, however, has always been of particular interest. The notion that some people are to be treated differently, particularly better or worse, than other people because of how they look was introduced to me at a young age. I made friends with a neighber named Joseph. I don't know how old I was; like most childhood memories I can scrape up I can't readily identify whether I was 4 or 8 or 12. But there I was, playing in the alley and the vacant lot where a house had burned a few years before with Joseph one day, and then shunning him the next. My dad had told me that I wasn't allowed to be his friend because he was black, and probably gave me some evidence this was a good idea, because I remember not arguing (that wasn't allowed anyway) and not feeling hurt the first time I purposely ignored my former playmate.

From there, I suppose it went the same way one would expect. We were a low- to mid-income white family in the inner city near a major industrial complex; maybe half the street was minority, black and Hispanic, and my dad was fraught with not only the preconcieved notions he'd grown up with, but what he saw around him. It was a time when crackhouses were popping up all around us. There were two on our street. Adolescents stood on the corner near the empty lot for hours at a time, then would lean into a car window, make some exchange, and walk away. Sometimes they got in. The lot was only three houses away from ours, so it freaked my parents out. The kids were always black and male. Then one day (I was still small enough to be inside the house playing, oblivious), someone came to the door knocking furiously. I only heard about it after he'd run off, but it was one of these kids from the corner. He told my mom to please let him in, that someone was trying to kill him. She didn't, and he ran off down the alley. She was visibly shaken; my dad was visibly furious when he got home.

None of these things necessarily affected me directly, but they definitely convinced my dad that he was right. The n-word was frequently used. He once told me that even a white person can be a n-er, depending on how he or she conducts himself. Aha, I thought, it's not color that defines it...but no. Upon my realization, I was quickly reminded that *all* blacks qualify for the word. My dad's prejudices weren't just against blacks, though. He told Pollack jokes and raved about the communists and Japanese. I never heard anything about Jews, but that's probably only because we never knew anyone that defined themselves as such. As an older man now, probably less bitter at the world but just as confused about how to express it, he still carries his racism and predudices.

While none of this made sense to me growing up, I toed the line. I learned much later in life that nothing ever really satisfies my dad except his addictions, but that was beyond me as a teen. I told endless strings of racist jokes along with my adolescent buddies, and laughed, while never really believing in them. I'd had bad brushes with "bad" black people, but far more decent relationships with black coworkers, friends from school, and neighbors. I never told my dad about them. I also had a disproportionate amount of bad brushes with "bad" white people. Not only did it feel unnatural to be racist, it was statistically unfounded.

So after a time, I practiced racism, and other prejudices I'd learned, as most people practice any distasteful but socially expected thing. Alone, there was none. When someone mentioned it, either stranger or acquaintance, I pretended to think the same thing. In this way I know I perpetuated a greater amount of ignorance than I hope I ever encounter again. My racism, after a time, had become fixed. I didn't like it any more than a rock in my shoes, but when the shoes cannot be taken off and shaken out, you live with it. It changes the way you walk, the way you organize your life, the way you see the world. So it was with this. But truthfully, my own personal racism, with its meager roots, was the least of my issues growing up. Maybe that meant I never focused on it. Maybe it meant I valued friends, no matter what color, more than my dad's social ideals. I have never really tried to figure out how large a role it played in my formation.

After leaving home at age 16, I entered a new world, one I was not entirely ready for. It was filled with people who, generally speaking, had lots more money than my family could ever hope for. There was a greater variety of cultures, including several of the Eurasian types and different religions I'd never seen. The balance was way off in my opinion. What I was used to was maybe 50-60% black, 20-30% white, and the rest a mix of Hispanic cultures (you *never* confused the Puerto Ricans with the Mexicans; you'd likely get your ass kicked). And that was it. I was comfortable with that. At school, it was very different. There were virtually no Hispanics. There was a smaller concentration of black kids, but a majority of them were from affluent households, so they were different than the kids from back home, even though the two places were only 15 minutes' drive apart. There were American kids who'd grown up overseas, people who didn't speak English very well, and nearly everyone was unafraid. Culture shock was severe, but I began to adjust.

The turning point in my life, prejudiciously speaking, came with a showing of American Pictures. The opening idea was that every white person was racist, every man was sexist, every straight person was homophobic, every Christian hates Jews and get the idea. Of course this is shocking to a group of intelligent adults, and we were just a group of high school students. The presenter tapered off these generalizations, but stressed that deep down in the core of everyone's humanity, we really only understand other people like us, and therefore, we really only like *them*... not anyone else. Not anyone different. And so he began.

American Pictures was, as its name suggests, mostly a slide show. The guy basically hikes his way across some place and photographs it in all its glory and squalor. It doesn't sound tremendous, but they were pictures of poverty, abuse, injustice, preference. They showed things that soeciety hides. There were explanations with some of the pictures, or groups of pictures, that told the circumstances. There was music, I think. In the end, after what was probably two hours that seemed like an instant, I was changed. Probably an unintended (or otherwise, but it's inconsequential either way) side effect was that I was slightly ashamed to be white, male, not-dirt-poor, and Christian. These things I could reconcile right away--what I'd really learned was that, while I could not change who I was, I could change how I view and treat the world and all the other humans therein. And in this way, I can reinvent myself.

And so I did. What I found was that once I stopped laughing at the jokes, nobody told them anymore, not around me. I found that, while at one time one unchallenged slur in an overcrowded fast-food line would silently make everyone blame the single minority worker behind the counter for the delay in getting their nacho belgrande, any open disapproval of any mention of racism would quickly take on a life of its own through the others in line, and the slurer was forced to leave out of shame. What I found was that once I had been given proof of what I truly believed anyway, that I was no better (or worse) than any other person, that my worth was defined solely by the things I'm in control of, that, while perception is 90% of reality, I decide how people will view me based on my behavior, was that everyone else has exactly as much control as I do.

Maybe I'm an idealist, a Forrest Gump. I know the world is far from perfect; I don't expect it to ever be. I know there are cultures, even (especially?) in America, that I have no understanding of where prejudices and racism are part of everyday life. But while my understanding of the world is incomplete, I know that my experiences, even in their limited context, mean something. I might be a dreamer, but I am no fool.

Locally, Michigan residents had the chance to abolish affirmative action in government and things like public university admissions. It passed by just under 60%. I took my views to the polls with me and all that, but what really got my goat over the whole issue was the way the opponents of the measure marketed their wares. One such device was a flier that was put on my doorknob about three times. It showed a black and white picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching ahead of a group of people of mixed race. I thought that was nice, and if that's all it showed, I suppose the flier could have been for either side of the argument. Equality, civil rights, and all that. But above the picture, in bold letters, it said: Don't let nobody put you down.

At first I looked for quotation marks. Phrases like this aren't proper, so I naturally assumed this one had been spoken by someone like Rosa Parks, or maybe it was something like Malcom X's 'by any means necessary.' But there weren't any. Maybe this is racist the way the SAT is preferential to native English speakers, but the incorrectness of this bold slogan, "Don't let nobody put you down," struck me as inherently counterintuitive. I supposed maybe the fliers were intended for a majority black audience. But then I realized that is a racist thought by itself, because it assumes that blacks won't either understand or respond to the properly, grammatically formatted statement: "Don't let anyone hold you down." In the end I was sufficiently disgusted and threw the damned thing away, but the thought lingered, bitterly, in my head that by wording it in such a way that such thing would only perpetuate more ignorance, and possibly, more racism.

Here I cite a blog by a very old, dear friend of mine: The Minority Report . The author has given me a unique perspective on what it might feel like to be a real minority, not just a white kid in a mostly black school. Racism is not dead (also see here), and the only way we will truly defeat it is by not teaching it. Unfortunately, I think the only way to understand just how wrong it truly is is by becoming a victim. Fortunately or otherwise, that is very unlikely to happen to most (white) Americans. Hopefully though, the exposure of stories of extreme prejudice will help us open our eyes. And once our eyes are open, maybe we could all take the time to remove our shoes and shake out the stones.

Update: Would Tara Connor had been booted if she'd been black?

Update: By Any Means Necessary still fighting MCRI (January '07)

Update: U-M halts fight against Prop 2 (January '07)

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