Monday, April 14, 2008

I Understand Where I Am

[I suppose there are a thousand more appropriate images for this topic, but somehow a black and white cat in a sink is as confrontational as I feel like being. The cat's black and white, get it? ;)]

At least, I usually understand where I am on my good days ...

A few months ago, Natasha over at Pacific Views linked to a wonderful essay on race relations in the late Twentieth Century. In a conversation with a close relative tonight, I couldn't recall its name. So, I decided to write about it if only because I don't want to forget how to find it again.

It was written not long after the Jena Six incident, in which black and white teenagers fought over who had the right to sit under a tree in a schoolyard. The white kids hung nooses from the tree one day, which as you might imagine, didn't go over well with the black kids. This prompted Lower Manhattanite to write an essay about his experiences as a young man visiting North Carolina:

It is, “par for the course”. The tale of Jena reminded me of an incident that took place in my family some 14 years ago. It was a simple family a small southern town. A tiny place in the extreme southernmost end of North Carolina. So small, that the town didn't have a McDonald's—just an outlet of an odd chicken sandwich chain called “Skats”. My family descended on that little town—some 220 of us, totally juicing the hamlet's economy, while sending the town into a tizzy. We emptied the ATM at the bank and the Food Lion supermarket the Friday afternoon we all arrived. Skats ran out of peach shakes—the only flavor they had. Filled every hotel room—doubling up in quite a few. My family came from wherever they had been flung. But these places were mostly northern cities. Philly. Boston. Chicago, et al. Those who came “home” were thousands of miles away physically in most cases—psychologically in almost all.

My mother and father, both of this little two-stoplight town, were also far removed from the mores of the Jim Crow south of their youths, as were many of the adults, but not so far that the rattle of the junebugs, the sound of the freight trains's horn as it signalled its thrice daily bi-secting of “town”, and yes...the spectre of institutionalized, fist-to-the-gut racism was in any way forgotten.

You see, once the bulk of the family arrived, a huge meeting was held in the town square, honoring my family, and giving the reunion's organizers the chance to kill two birds with one stone—taking the opportunity while everyone was together to pass out info on what was happening that special weekend. There would be the big barbecue on the grounds of the local high school, the tour of places in town reknowned in family “legend”, a trip to the cemetery to honor the ancestors, and of course, the big Sunday breakfast before the church service we were all “ahem!”, expected to attend.

But one thing in the information packet began to start a buzz among the present.

There was a note about the local nightspots. Namely, that there were none. Save for the juke joint down the road a piece across from the “Fish Shack”, and of course, the few spots some 35 minutes away in Wilmington. But one of the note's points of interest got some of the young people going. It stated, that after 8:00 P.M., NO ONE WAS TO GO DOWN ACROSS THE RAILROAD TRACKS, PAST THE GREEN HOUSE (an actual green-colored house), AS THAT WAS THE DEMARCATION LINE BETWEEN FREE-GOING COUNTRY, AND KLAN TERRITORY.

Do you understand where you are?

Just to emphasize, this is the mid-1990's we're talking about. Yet there was still a klan territory in this town. As you might expect, a few of those at the reunion decided to test the veracity of that warning - they went across the tracks and were shot at by the local bigots. The family had a meeting, at which their crazy uncle set them straight:

And then my Uncle R. The supposedly “crazy” Uncle R. (mentioned in comments in Jesse's “Genius” post) stood up, towering in his crisp overalls and bright red work shirt—and brought his frying pan-sized hand down suddenly on a table, and it boomed like a grenade in the lunchroom, stopping us all dead in our tracks.

He thundered, “Ya'll have no clue do you? No clue at all! I read the papers—I hear about what goes on up north. Cops shootin' you down every God-blessed day, but that's okay! That's fine! And then you all come down here, thinkin' everything is fine and mellow. You haven't a care in the world. And you leave your brains at home and forget the simplest things. Do you have the common sense that God gave a gnat? Do you understand where-you-are?

The room fell silent. He looked around at the assembled and repeated it.

“Do you understand...where-you-are? He took a breath. “Where we are?”

We all knew what he meant. That where we all had come from—those four corners of the world were not much different. That we had our own silent codes we had to live under. And that in our descending on Tiny Town, N.C., we had forgotten about that place's awful, and indelible codes and behavior because of race. How in this day and age, flouting those codes was still in many ways a potentially dangerous thing. And that we needed to realize that.

Do you understand where you are?

If you haven't read this essay, please click on the links and do. If you're a white person living in this country, it's likely to be an eye-opener.

My own experiences with prejudice have been nowhere near as dreadful, but they at least help me imagine what it's like for ethnic minorities here. Part of that experience is being an atheist in America. We're probably the most openly despised group in America. One recent American President has said openly that he doesn't think we qualify as citizens. I've put up with a lifetime of condescension, put-downs, and people trying to convert me, because I just don't understand. I've been told that just because of my religious (non)beliefs, I must be amoral, full of myself, and well deserving of going to a place where people are on fire for eternity. One pathetic bigot even told me that he thought I should be grateful that police and fire services were there to protect my sorry ass.

But at least I can avoid this issue by not discussing religion, should I choose.

The other experience was many years ago when I spent a few months working in Korea. I met lots of wonderful people over there, and I don't think that Koreans have anything to be ashamed of relative to other countries in how they treat foreigners. If you respect them and their society, they'll treat you well. There were more than a few times when I wandered through Korean cities when I was the only white guy, and probably the only foreigner, for blocks. I never felt safer. Even there, though, I'd encounter people who wouldn't do more than stare at me as though I didn't belong there. I was big, pale, had a big nose and round eyes, and so I was strange looking and a little scary. They wouldn't have thought of me as a Korean even if I'd spoken fluent Korean, had Korean citizenship, and knew where all the best restaurants were.

Now, try to imagine being treated that way in your own country.

A few months ago I was watching a college football game. The announcers, who both sounded white, got into a discussion about Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback. He had made a comment that some of the criticism against him might have been related to the fact that he was black. The announcers agreed that racism wasn't necessary to explain unfair criticism - quarterbacks are often unfairly criticized.

While this is certainly true, I think they overlooked something. I'll bet you that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two highly-rated white quarterbacks, have never in their lives heard the phrase "Go back to Europe, Honky!" yelled at them. If they had, they probably would have laughed. I'm also quite sure that McNabb has heard the corresponding phrase yelled at him, possibly even at his home stadium. I bet he didn't think it was funny. Nor have Brady and Manning had to listen to someone on a national TV broadcast suggest that they were rated more highly because they were white.

So, I can't blame McNabb for wondering.

We think we've come a long way, and in some respects we have. When I was in elementary school there were still places in the South that had separate facilities for "colored" people. Today, open discrimination is mostly a thing of the past, and can often be rectified if it is encountered. We still have a long way to go, however. If you think it's no different being a minority in this country, you've never spent any real time as one. I'd suggest spending a few months in Asia as a big, funny looking pale person, or a few months in Africa as a little, funny looking pale person. Or spend a few months pretending to your friends and relatives that you've converted to atheism. Then get back to me. While the Jeremiah Wrights of this country are certainly annoying and the sort of hateful rhetoric they spew isn't helpful for making race relations better, the anger behind it is understandable.

Some things are hard to swallow, even when you have a lifetime of practice.

That's why on the good days, I usually understand where I am. I understand even better on the bad days.


wobblybits said...

Very nice essay. Certainly was a wonderful opportunity that you were able to at experience being a minority (well some parts anyway)
Amazing the capacity for human beings to focus on our differences instead of our similarities.

Cujo359 said...

Amazing and frustrating, wobblybits, particularly when those similarities involve the things that really matter, and they go unattended because we're fighting over nonsense.

wobblybits said...

yeah our national discourse sucks

One Fly said...

Great post Cujo! I enjoy storys and yours covered a lot of ground.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, One Fly. With all the charges of racism and sexism that are being bandied about, I thought it's important to remember what racism really is, and that it still does exist here.

I'm no fan of Obama's, but when he said that there are folks out there who still cling to bigotry or racism because they don't have much else going on in their lives they can feel good about, he's not far wrong. I grew up with such people, and still know some now. Living out in the Pacific NW has given me a perspective on how wrong race relations are in many parts of the country. Things aren't perfect here, but most folks want it to be better, or at least don't want them to get worse. There are places in this country where that's clearly not true.

So I'm hoping more people will tell their stories.

Vanessa said...

Hey cujo - It's a complicated subject, for sure. As a "colored person" (I am black/white mix) I have certainly experienced my share of racism, including being flat out threatened with physical harm. And while there is an element of truth in the "clinging" theory, it is certainly not a typical white person thing.

I've also experienced an impressive amount of reverse racism from AAs, because I define myself as "a person of mixed race" and not "black". While I haven't been threatened with physical harm, I have been called self-loathing and a traitor to "my" race (and those were among the nicer things).

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that racism (of both kinds) has less to do with economic circumstances, and more to do with rampant ignorance.

I've also come to the conclusion that I can work myself into a self-defeating frenzy when faced with this ignorance, or I can channel that energy into educating people in a positive way, by the way I choose to live my life and conduct myself.

The choice is mine. It doesn't depend on someone like Wright telling me how I should feel, and it doesn't depend on white people acknowledging my (righteous) anger. I can choose my own reaction to ignorance, and I can choose to define myself and my place in the world.

The kind of anger spewed by Rev Wright, or the KKK serves no one well in the end. It accomplishes nothing except to push us further apart.

We need to have an honest national discourse on race; it is long overdue.

However, this kind of angry blaming of "the other" is not going to get us there.

Cujo359 said...

Hi Vanessa,

Thanks for commenting.

I've been called similar things for my religious beliefs by Christians. When you choose to identify yourself as something different from what they are, people are often dismissive about your choice. They take it as an affront, even though it wasn't meant that way.

I think you're right that Rev. Wright's anger isn't a healthy thing. I (mostly) choose not to be that way, either. On the other hand, I didn't serve in an unnecessary war, and then return home to be treated like I didn't belong here. Wright did. I can only imagine what that felt like. I certainly have no idea how I would have responded.

I think the positive thing there is to try to make sure that others don't have that same experience.

Lynn said...

Thanks for writing this, Cujo. I want us to feel free to talk about real things in our country, in our neighborhoods, just casually at the grocery store.

Something has damped down our public conversation and I think we are ready to shake it off.