Racism


I was recently told that because of who I am and where I grew up, I had no right to defend anti-racism arguments. Given that it is the last day of Black History Month (11 pm Feb 28, even though the post says March 1), I felt it appropriate to discuss my experience with race in my lifetime.

I grew up in the whitest of white suburbs, Mendham, NJ. Of the approximately 5,000 people, 97% are white. There was one black girl in my Catholic grammar school, and she didn’t even live in my town. My Catholic high school had a little more diversity, but again, they did not live near me. My college, Wheaton College in MA, was 78% white, which was less than I was used to but still not very impressive in the context of the actual demographics of the US. I have also lived in Newport, RI (84% white), Boston (56% white), and have now been living in Jersey City for the last year, which is 34% white (compared to our neighbor across the Hudson, New York City, which is 45% white).

Despite my current immersion in racial diversity, my college education which was very often focused on analysis of racial issues, and my personal interest and research in the topic, my coworkers thought that wasn’t enough.

Now, this wasn’t the type of conversation where they were trying to one-up me on who’s a better anti-racist activist (although I admittedly am no expert on the topic, nor do I think it’s necessarily something one needs to brag about).  In fact, quite the contrary: our conversation had touched upon topics of political correctness and affirmative action, both of which I was the sole defender. Apparently my lack of long term personal experience with racial diversity made me not only unqualified to defend racial justice, but unable to have an informed opinion on it. However, since my coworkers did grow up in more diverse communities, they were apparently more qualified to hold their views against racial equality and inclusion. Yup, actually defending their racism.

Usually in discussions on race with various people, it always comes down to, “I have nothing against people of color, I just don’t think they should get jobs/college admission spots/any other benefits that they’re not qualified for or don’t deserve.” Granted, the college admission that they received due to a legacy that started when a relative attended in a time when blacks weren’t allowed, that was deserved. Or the job interview they got because of connections their family has starting back when the company didn’t hire blacks, that was deserved. Or the spot they received because of a generous family contribution, which was possible due to the wealth accumulated through years of blatant racist oppression and undeserved white privilege, that was deserved.

Sure, picking the “best qualified” person sounds like a good idea (although what those qualifications are can be debated). But if so, why is it then that job applicants with white sounding names are 50% more likely to get called for an interview than those applicants with black sounding names, according to a 2004 University of Chicago and  MIT study? According to other studies by  Devah Pager from Northwestern University and Princeton, even white job applicants who have been incarcerated are more likely to be called back than blacks with no criminal background. This is really a fair scale of qualification?

I’m not going to go into the details of why affirmative action is not only necessary in theory but also ineffective in practice despite so-called claims of the mythic “reverse-discrimination.” Not only am I under-qualified to discuss it, but one of my favorite anti-racist authors and activists, Tim Wise, can say it much more eloquently than I can. Thus, I will refer you to this article for more information.

However, I think one important piece of the argument stems from our nation’s history of racial oppression and current state of inequality. If all organizations were at one point run solely by white men, making decisions only for other white men to benefit white men and their families, then how can one think that a group run by mostly white men today can still make the best decisions for an integrated and diverse world? E.g. How can a white man accurately write a policy on workplace harassment when he has never been cat called, judged solely for his looks, touched inappropriately or called a derogatory name? In order to best represent a company or organization or even a state that consists of a diverse array of people, those in charge need to accurately represent those they are representing.

For example, no matter how much education and experience I could ever attain, I would never think myself the most qualified to run an anti-racist organization because I have never experienced racism, or any adversity or oppression due to my race. I would not expect men to make decisions regarding my reproductive health since they do not have breasts, a vagina or a uterus, nor have they ever experienced the world through the eyes of a woman. And yet, men do this every day. I would never expect the top 2% wealthiest Americans to make decisions on tax cuts and benefits for low-income families if they have never lived their lives through their eyes either. And yet, that top 2% does this every day.

Sure degrees and good resumes matter and in theory contribute to your qualifications. But identity matters, too.

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As you may know if you’ve followed my blog or know me in person, I spent a total of 7 months in an Arab-Muslim country in North Africa, Tunisia. Once was a study abroad experience to study Arabic, and then I went back last summer to teach English. Given all the religious debate and Islamaphobia in the country lately, I’d like to take a moment to just share some stories.

My first week in Tunis, our director and his two assistants were more than kind to us and made sure that we were safe at all times. Our teachers gave us lessons in basic Arabic so we wouldn’t be totally helpless, and we were escorted around the city.

My first host family was awesome. A divorcee and her two teenage sons, they took me in and literally treated me like family. She even called me her binti, or daughter, to her friends (which, needless to say, got some strange reactions since we definitely do not look related). She even drove me into the city every morning for class for the first few weeks because she was scared of me taking the bus on my own in an unfamiliar place (not that it wasn’t safe, but she was just overprotective). The other Americans in my group had very similar experiences.

Every Tunisian I met welcomed me into their homes with open arms. They fed (and overfed) me, made sure I was comfortable, and gave me the utmost hospitality. They know that many Americans don’t like Muslims, yet they didn’t let that taint their view of me. I couldn’t even communicate with some of them and yet they still went out of their way to show me that they weren’t like the crazy Muslims I see on TV back home. They were thrilled to be able to break that stereotype to at least one American.

One time we went to the house of a friend of my host mom. I’m not sure her exact position, but she was some religious figure in the local mosque. My host mom was joking about how I have such a small appetite (especially compared to her 2 boys), so I tried to say in Arabic, “No, I like to eat!” Instead I said, “I would like to eat,” nheb nakol. This woman jumped out of her seat to go and make me dinner, even after I insisted that’s not what I meant and she didn’t have to.

The many people my age that I met were eager to talk about American culture: movies, music, Michael Jackson, and even politics (especially in the spring of 2008 during the Presidential primary). They showed me the best cafes and clubs to go to, and were eager to take me out and introduce me to people.

Last summer, I needed to find a place to stay last minute. Both of my bosses immediately jumped at the chance to host me, and my old director also helped me find a house and more teaching opportunities.

Two of my host moms were very religious, but it took me weeks to even find out, as they would pray in their rooms with the doors closed while the kids and I watched TV or did homework. When discussing their religious devotion, they said that it was a very personal thing, their personal connection between them and God. They were not about to impose it on anyone, not even their children (which is more than I can say of most Christian parents in the US). In fact, the only time I debated religion or was pressured to convert was with my American Christian friends who tried to get me to “see the light.”

My real mother, who took some convincing to let me go in the first place, came to visit for a week and absolutely loved it. Everyone treated her the same as me: with open arms, extreme hospitality, and plenty of food. All of the other Americans I met loved their experiences there and want to go back to visit. All of the Tunisians I met were the most open-minded, friendly people ever, eager to learn as much as they could. That’s not to say there weren’t a few assholes I met, but that will be anywhere. Some of my friends observed Ramadan, some merely abstained from drinking during Ramadan. Some never drank, while others rivaled the alcohol tolerance of my college friends. Some considered themselves moderate Muslims, others said they were simply agnostic and didn’t care at all for Islam or any religion. They were laid back (especially due to the heat), and I love them all and still stay in touch with many.

Now, does this sound like the type of people who want to kill us? Do my friends, my 2nd and 3rd families, do they sound like the type of people who hate Americans and want us all killed? Who want Islam to rule the world?

People ask me why I care so much about the Park51 community center in lower Manhattan. As an atheist, and someone who doesn’t particularly care for organized religion in general, I still believe in the freedom to worship. After living in a Muslim country for 7 months, I simply cannot understand why people hate them. I have never felt LESS pressured to convert to a religion as when I was over there. I have never felt LESS unwelcome or judged as when I was over there. I understand that there are extremists in every religion or group, but that has nothing to do with my friends.

Muslims as a group aren’t out to kill us. They want everything that all other Americans want for them and their families, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to sacrifice any of it due to a small fringe group. How many stories must I tell about my Muslim friends until this is clear?

I’m going to tell a story, a story I hope most of you already know, and I want you to pay close attention.

Back in the day in the Southern United States, a lot of white people didn’t like the blacks. They thought they were dirty, unethical, stupid and uneducated, incapable of being educated, and that they were all murderers and criminals. They felt uncomfortable being near them, and they certainly didn’t want their children to be around them, in case their bad influence rubbed off. Even though blacks technically had the same legal rights as whites did, many stores, restaurants, and other such establishments still did not cater to blacks. Blacks and whites had their own separate schools, their separate communities where they lived, and even their separate churches where they worshiped, even though they all believed in the same God. Many blacks had to fight off violence against them, such as burning crosses in their yards, lynchings by the KKK, and an unjust court system.

Then one day a law passed that said blacks had to go to the same schools as white children, and that business owners had to allow blacks equal entrance and service to their businesses. Many whites did not like this, and thought it was an invasion of their space. They thought, “We were here first!” and that these uneducated, dirty, barbaric black people were going to ruin their society. They thought it was insensitive for the blacks to force themselves upon the white community, especially because the white community wasn’t ready for them. Heck, the majority of the popular vote even said they didn’t want integration! The whites were even more pissed off that their government wasn’t listening to them! (Little did they know that many blacks, if not most, were in fact quite smart, and were good, moral people, and just wanted to have a good life for themselves and their families without doing harm to anyone else.)

Some white people didn’t just hate the blacks for no good reason (although many did). Some had very good reasons to hate black people, such as, maybe a black person killed one of their friends or family members, or maybe a black person did them wrong in some other way. Therefore, they thought, if you allow ANY blacks into schools with young, impressionable white children, the entire American way of life will just go to hell. Sure they can legally go to the same schools, but because the whites just weren’t ready for an integrated school system, it was insensitive for the blacks to force their rights upon the white people, to shove black culture in their faces, and they should just step back and wait. Wait another 100 years, maybe more, until the community was ready to let them exercise their Constitutional rights.

I hope you all vehemently disagree with that story, and if you don’t then don’t bother to continue reading. If, however, you realize how utterly ridiculous that story was, yet how true it is, let’s look at the same story but just change around a few key words (which are in bold):

Today in the United States, a lot of people don’t like the Muslims. They thought they were dirty, unethical, stupid and uneducated, incapable of being educated, and that they were all murderers and criminals. They felt uncomfortable being near them, and they certainly didn’t want their children to be around them, in case they tried to convert them to be terrorists. Even though Muslims technically had the same legal rights as non-Muslims did, many stores, restaurants, and other such establishments still did not cater to Muslims. Muslims and non-Muslims had their own separate schools, their separate communities where they lived, and even their separate centers where they worshiped, even though they all believed in the same God. Many Muslims had to fight off violence against them, such as harassment at work, attacks at home, and even crazy cab riders who stabbed them.

Then one day a law passed that said Muslims were allowed to build a mosque in the non-Muslim community. Many non-Muslims did not like this, and thought it was an invasion of their space. They thought, “We were here first!” and that these uneducated, dirty, barbaric Muslim people were going to ruin their society. They thought it was insensitive for the Muslims to force themselves upon the non-Muslim community, especially because the non-Muslim community wasn’t ready for them. Heck, the majority of the popular vote even said they didn’t want a mosque in downtown Manhattan! The non-Muslims were even more pissed off that their government wasn’t listening to them! (Little did they know that many Muslims, if not most, were in fact quite smart, and were good, moral people, and just wanted to have a good life for themselves and their families without doing harm to anyone else.)

Some non-Muslim people didn’t just hate the Muslims for no good reason (although many did). Some had very good reasons to hate Muslims, such as, maybe an extremist, terrorist Muslim killed one of their friends or family members on 9/11. Therefore, they thought, if you allow ANY Muslims to worship near the 9/1 site, the entire American way of life will just go to hell. Sure they can legally go build a mosque wherever they want, but because the non-Muslims just weren’t ready for an integrated system, it was insensitive for the Muslims to force their rights upon the non-Muslim people, to shove Muslim culture in their faces, and they should just step back and wait. Wait another 100 years, maybe more, until the community was ready to let them exercise their Constitutional rights.

Can we see the parallel yet? Can we open our eyes and our minds just a teeny, tiny bit and see the relationship between what happened with the blacks during the Civil Rights movement, and even after that, and what’s happening with Muslims now? They are a minority group, and prejudiced people don’t like them and don’t want them in certain areas of this country. One of those areas happens to be a few blocks away from the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, but others include Tennessee, Kentucky, and even Staten Island. Most opponents of the Muslim community center near the “ground zero” site, formally called Park51, say that it is simply too close to where Muslim terrorists attacked our country, and that it’s insensitive for them to build there, they’d be happy if they just built it somewhere else. Tennessee and Kentucky are too close, too? All the other mosques in the middle of Manhattan that haven’t caused terrorists to spark up after decades, they’re fine, but the middle of the country is too close, too? Where CAN Muslims exercise their 1st Amendment Rights then? Why don’t we let the majority once again horde the people they want to oppress into a specific area and tell them what they can and cannot do and where they can do it?

It’s only insensitive to have anything to do with Islam near the 9/11 attack site in NYC because the majority of the public apparently still think that all Muslims are terrorists. (Bigoted whites thought it was insensitive for blacks to “infringe” on their territory, too, but did we let them win?) People think  that all Muslims have some connection with the 9/11 attacks. If that’s true, then I say that every Christian in America is responsible for the murder of Dr. George Tiller, for the Oklahoma City bombing, and for Waco, Texas, just to name a few. Just read my other blog post about how there are plenty of white, Christian terrorists in our own country that we don’t bat an eye over.

I lived in a Muslim country. I am friends with many Arab-Muslims. Many of them don’t even practice their religion, just as many Christians don’t ever go to church or have never read the Bible, let alone follow it strictly (although Evangelicalism is drastically rising in this country). My Muslim friends are nice people, nicer than many Christians I know. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but it really needs to be emphasized: all Muslims are not terrorists. Terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, creeds and colors. We want to be able to target one specific group to scapegoat, to say, “Yes they are the problem, we see them, they’re a small group and easy to target, now let’s get rid of them so we can be safe!” It’s much easier than facing reality, which is that we don’t know who a terrorist is, it could be your wholesome Christian neighbor who one day decides to go on a killing spree for Jesus. The world’s a scary place, and infringing on the rights of a particular group so that you can feign a sense of security doesn’t make you more American. It just makes you less human.

Whenever someone accuses a person of disliking Obama because he’s black, or that racism fuels a lot of the debate against him, the accused person automatically becomes exacerbated and criticizes the accuser for stooping so low as to “play the race card.” Obviously they’re not racist, they have black friends! Heck, some of them even voted for Obama, America’s not racist any more! How dare they suggest that!

I never really understood what it meant to “play the race card,” or any card for that matter. Are people trying to say that race has nothing to do with people’s perceptions of others? That in a country where where segregation was legal not even 45 years ago, where immigrants are currently being discriminated against for their inability to learn English, or rather, our inability – nay, unwillingness – to accommodate to new cultural changes in the melting pot that once defined our great nation, where women still don’t have equal pay for equal work, for people to say that there’s no racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination in today’s society is plain ignorant.

No one likes being called a bigot. Our society has changed so that it’s no longer socially acceptable (or in some contexts, legal) to be overtly discriminatory. No one likes having their faults pointed out to them. So for someone to accuse you of being racist, regardless of your actions, you may honestly think that you’re not simply because you want to believe it. Also, some people think that being racist means being a member of the KKK, or actively denouncing integration, or any other public form of extreme racism. But what many people don’t realize is that discriminatory behaviors can be subtle, even subconscious. Just because we don’t recognize it or admit it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I watched a clip from a South Carolina news station today about civility in discourse, and how it’s disintegrating. One question asked was, “Are we a racist society?” Two of the guests said yes, definitely. The other man said, “We’re a racialized society where race matters profoundly.” What the hell does that mean? For one, I think he made that word up. Is he saying that it’s possible to be un-racialized? De-racialized? That it’s possible to strip people of fundamental parts of their identities and not see their race? If it were simply that race matters, fine, it matters but all races are treated equally, but that is not the case in America. Racial minorities are discriminated against in so many ways I won’t even get into, so yes, we are racist, not just racial or racialized. Why are people so unwilling to admit that? Because we don’t want to own up to our own shortcomings?

As for people supposedly not caring that our president is black, let me reiterate that racism can be unconscious. Having black friends or having voted for Obama is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for being racist (a phrase I’ve borrowed from one of my favorite writers, Tim Wise). I certainly do not mean to say that everyone who criticizes Obama is automatically racist, or doing so out of racist motivations. That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying everyone who hates George H.W. Bush does so because they hate Texas. I’m saying instead that everyone who claims they’re not racist for criticizing Obama isn’t necessarily right… some are, but not all. Maybe racism isn’t the only factor. Maybe they disagree with his policies, but the fact that he’s black makes them that little bit angrier; it’s the difference between going to an Obama protest and going to an Obama protest with a poster of him dressed as witch-doctor.

As for Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), the one who everyone’s been defending lately: he didn’t just blatantly disrespect the President in a joint session of Congress. He didn’t just state his opinion (and the opinion of many other Americans) in an inappropriate manner. He called the President a liar.

If two men walk into a department store, one black and one white, who is the salesperson most likely to follow to make sure he doesn’t steal? The black man. If two men are walking down the street in jeans and a T-shirt, one black man and one white man, which man is the one that will unconsciously be perceived as the criminal, the one who will be shied away from in passing? The black man. White people are always given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to be honest people. (No one called Bush a liar for a few years, even though by the end of his terms there was enough evidence against him for Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to impeach him, yet it’s not even a full year for Obama and people think he’s dishonest despite lack of solid evidence.) No one knows what Wilson was thinking or why he said what he did. My guess though, is that at least part of his motivation to so blatantly disrespect the President was due to the fact that he thinks black men are inherently dishonest. I’m sure many other Americans feel the same way, but of course would never admit it or even acknowledge it.

Am I “pulling the race card”? Am I being so ridiculous as to assume that subtle, unconscious racism fuels some (if not most) of today’s political debates? Why is it that I’m the one chastised and criticized for pointing out racism when I see it, when those acting racist are protected by this invisible, evil “race card”?

Fine,  maybe I can’t fully understand because I don’t experience racism first hand because I’m white (and no, I don’t think there’s such a thing as reverse-discrimination). But I do experience sexism first hand, and I have people tell me I’m just overreacting, I’m just a crazy, angry feminist who over-analyzes everything. I am thoroughly, genuinely offended by certain actions, and I’m told that my concerns are unwarranted, that I’m being an “irrational” female (and then furthering my disgust at sexism in society).

Example: I was walking down the street in Morristown the other weekend with two female friends, heading to a local bar. A man outside a coffee shop calls out to us, “Oh look, it’s Charlie’s Angels! Are you an angel?” I just say, “No,” as I walk by. He screams to our backs, “That was a fucking compliment!” Oops, my bad. How silly of me to not realize that some random man calling out to me on the street was trying to be a gentleman! I say this is sexism, I pull “the sexism card,” or “the feminist card.” I was offended. He would not have called out to me if I were a man. But because he has the authority of being a man, if he says it’s a compliment, then it is a compliment with 100% pure intentions. Just like if a white person says they didn’t act racist, then it must be true. Right?

Wrong!

My message is this: next time you’re about to accuse someone of “pulling a card,” stop for a moment and analyze your actions. Is it possible that perhaps your actions can be perceived as having discriminatory implications even if you didn’t intend to do so? Is it possible that due to social perceptions of minorities, you might act subtly racist even if you don’t realize it? It’s not a definite, but it’s a maybe.

I’m a nice person. I’m a generally happy person and I love life. As I mentioned in my last post, I smile when I pass people on the street at home, I try to be cheery and make others feel happy and comfortable. I’m not like this 100% of the time because well, who is? But I’d definitely say that the vast majority of the time I’m a happy person. Life has so much to offer and as a recent college graduate, I’m just starting my life.

Now, why do I even have to mention this? Why do I have to justify and defend my like-ability? Shouldn’t people already know this about me if they know me? Yes, they should and they do, for the most part. But every now and then I’ll go on a rant about something that ticks me off (usually concerning women’s rights), or I’ll write on this blog or, previously, in my school newspaper The Wheaton Wire. As a writer, I value the opinions of my friends and peers when it comes to what I write. However, sometimes when I ask their opinion, they tell me, “It was good, but you sound angry.”

The way they say it makes it sound like a bad thing. It’s not, “You go girl, you were so pissed off, you really showed them and told them how it is!” It’s more of a, “You sounded angry, that’s so unattractive, why would you write about something like that? Why aren’t you happy? Are you okay?”

No, I’m not okay. There are many things in this world that royally piss me off. Such as the lack of access to affordable birth control for all women, the lack of access to abortion in all states, the horrible abstinence-only sex “education” programs that warp the minds of the youth, the fact that women still get paid less than men, the fact that I can’t walk down the street without getting harassed, gender stereotypes and expectations… just to name a few.

You know what else pisses me off? The fact that I’m apparently not allowed to be pissed off. Granted, I’m allowed to have a bad day and be upset over things like a bad grade, cheating boyfriend, bad hair day, having my period, or other personal problems. However, if I’m angry about something that actually matters in the real world, I’m just the epitome of the angry feminist stereotype: hates the world, hates all men, does nothing but complain and makes a big deal out of nothing. Basically, someone that nobody wants to be around. The same goes for the angry black man stereotype: hates all white people, thinks he’s being discriminated against when he’s really just overreacting (Henry Louis Gates anyone?), and if he gets too angry, a dangerous threat to society.

But of course we’re angry! White women, black men, purple transsexuals – it doesn’t matter what gender or color we are, what matters is that we’re NOT white men and are thus disadvantaged. Of course we’re angry that we’re judged based on what we’re not (white men) instead of what we are (individuals with our own, equally valid experiences). Of course we’re angry that the society we live in is set up to systematically oppress us at all corners. Of course we’re angry that when we speak up, no one listens because we’re just another stereotype. Of course we’re pissed off as hell!

I’m angry that because I’m a woman, I’m expected to always have a smile on my face and just put up with the oppression around me. I’m angry that I’m not supposed to care about disadvantaged women, because since I do benefit from certain privileges (such as being white and college educated), they don’t concern me. I should just live in a bubble and be happy. While no one’s actually used to word “bubble” before, I’ve essentially gotten that advice from numerous people. Why waste all my energy on being angry about something that doesn’t affect me?

By the way, apparently sexism doesn’t affect me because there is no such thing anymore (same with racism, we have a black president, duh!). In fact, it’s all reverse-discrimination now, and I actually have an unfair advantage just for having a vagina. Because no one admits to being sexist or racist nowadays, it obviously doesn’t exist. Just like the cop who called Gates a “banana-eating jungle monkey,” he said he’s not racist because he has black friends, so he’s obviously telling the truth. We should trust the white man.

Ah..ah… AH-CHOO! Excuse me, I’m allergic to bullshit.

I’m a happy person. But there are things in the world that piss me off, and instead of sitting on my blog to bitch about it, I hope to do something about it. I also hope that I no longer have to justify my niceness, especially to people who know me very well. I hope that being a feminist and being angry about certain issues does not mean I’m an extremist and a man-hater. I also hope that I’m not expected to be super cheery and perky 24/7 simply because I’m a woman. So, sorry if I care about people, sorry if I get angry about blatant (and subtle) discrimination in society, and sorry that I’m not just going to put up with it.

On second thought, I take that back. I’m NOT sorry.