Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Tale Of Two Biddies, or Two Wrongs Don't Make Him White

Ahh, race. That shifty concept has done nothing helpful since it came about. It's a remnant, you see, of our tribal mentalities, from when we were Huns and Slavs and Jews and stop me if you get the point.

We all know how prevalent the concept of race is in society. From murder to slavery to civil rights to census polls to nondiscrimination laws to presidential candidate, we still cling to the concept of race as if it's somehow important. I realize that probably sounds arrogant and snide from a "middle-class white boy," but you don't know me. Not really. So let me tell you a story.

When I attended UVM I had to take a new required class that year on racism. On the very first day of class, the professor came in, put his bag on his desk, said hello to us all, and then said, and I quote, "All of you white people are racist." True story, and by the definition of racism he proceeded to give us, he was correct. He defined racism as prejudice + power. Black people, therefore, could not be racist, because the power in the United States is held primarily by white people, and has been, historically. Other races could be prejudiced, but only white people, you see, could be called racist.

So, seeing completely red at this, I raised my hand. "Professor," I said, "Why are you judging me on the color of my skin?"

He started to explain about the "prejudice + power" concept again and I stopped him.

"No, sir, you misunderstand me. Why do you insist that I am white?"

Don't think that didn't get his attention.

"My grandmother was born on a Reservation. While I'm half french, I'm Iroquois, too, and a little Spanish as well." (I'm also a little English and Irish, FYI.) "My grandmother told me stories of what she remembered of the Reservation, and how her birth certificate was marked white on purpose, because 'you tried to hide it back then.' I've never even considered myself as "white." I don't have a single race."

"Also," I said, pointing to my friend Jenny to my right, "Jenny is a mutt like me, as are a couple of the other "white" people you just pointed to. Now I grew up consistently told that race wasn't something you used against other people, and if you think that just because you can see my skin and call me white that you can call me racist, you can fail me right now. That's the power you have."

That was the first and only time I ever stopped a professor in his tracks. And I got an A+ in that class, too.

The point, I guess, is that we all bleed red and our brains are grey. We breathe the same air and fart the same noxious bean farts. Some of your ancestors were in warmer climates or colder climates or more fertile climates or whatever. And now that we all live together, if we can make it long enough without killing each other, we're going to become more and more homogenous over the next few centuries. What the hell do are we doing still fighting about race?

So it was that when I read of "the race card" once again today, I had to hang my head in shame. Like two old biddies gossiping about each other in the nursing home, they both go negative, one candidate bringing up race without bringing up race, the other bringing up race by being the first in this round to actually utter the word "race."

Doesn't that strike you as really, really stupid? With a war going on, economic downturn, banking crises, etc, etc, etc? And we're supposed to vote for these people?


Matt said...

Umm, you can't play the race card without using the word "race"?

We all know what Jesus, er, Obama was doing.

John said...

We now have very sophisticated DNA testing techniques. And these tests have basically confirmed what we already know. Even when you're tracing ancestry by only a few generations, everyone is multi-racial to some degree or another. And if you go back far enough, there are a couple chromosomes that pretty much everyone on the planet shares. So, I don't think it is a question of evolutionary biology.

Skin color, eye color, and hair color are actually fairly minor mutations. A "polar bear" (white) and a "grizzly bear" (brown) are still essentially bears. They're merely adapted for different climates. It is the same with us. Of course, there are some medical uses for tracing these mutations (sickle cell, skin cancer) because there's an interaction between climate, body, and disease. And I have no objection to that. But I also doubt the science matters to those who care about the concept of "race."

What we're really talking about is social and political power. Race produces a sense of solidarity between people who don't necessarily have much in common. People are emotionally invested in it precisely because it grants them certain privileges and protections. Anti-racist efforts generally underestimate the seductiveness of flattery and ego. The facts of evolutionary biology might be irrefutable. But they're also a poor substitute for feeling secure / powerful.

Tommy said...

Sounds like you had a good professor.

I too reject the power+race equivilancy but I think it's useful pedagogically, as you've shown.

The "race problem" in this country continues primarily because of two things, in my view 1) the persistant socio-economic differences (including health, wealth and incarceration issues) among different communities; and 2) the different world views evidenced by the polls of the different communities. How can we possibly come to identitify and agree when these disparities exist. The only answers seem to be sustained empathy and sympathy on both sides, over decades, (perhaps generations -- like the past that got us here).

It is naive to think this will soon or has all gone away when bleak history is still so recent. I was just reading the other day that up until AFTER WWII legal slavery still existed in many parts of the south. It worked like this. Employer tells sheriff how much labor he needs. Sheriff rounds up poor blacks on false charges. Employer pays bail and fine. Prisoner must sign contract with employer to get out of jail, to 'work off bail and fine.' With history such as this, and many other such examples, is it any wonder different groups still see the world differently.

Pat said...

It's not just race. It's any physical/genetic or manmade characteristic that distinguishes groups of people. In Northern Ireland it was religion (under a pretense of property ownership). In Yugoslavia, it was ethnic differences as well as religion there too. Today, in the Sudan, the two groups in Darfur who are going at it, are very similar ethnically and religion as well, I think. But the Sudan dictator is heavily supplying one side with weaponry (with the help of China, I believe). And just like Iraq, a military invasion won't solve that problem either. In African colonization, typically the European power will get in cahoots with a minority tribe or ethnic group in the occupied region. Then when the nation(s) get independence, it ain't pretty.

So people have long memories and will hang on to past injustices even when they don't apply today. Of course, it's a real problem if the past injustices have, in fact, continue to be the reason why that group is economically or otherwise disadvantaged.

Tommy has a good point regarding slavery. If this crap was going on as recently as WWII, there are people still alive who were slaves, even if not by name. I found out recently that even in New Jersey, some of the beaches were segregated as recent as 1970.

We have tried to even the playing field, but unfortunately, things don't always go as intentioned.

Your professor story was quite interesting. We see that person's perceptions of racial differences turns into overt physical characteristics. I have a Black colleague who, apparently had a discussion in her class that involved race. A couple of her students insisted that she wasn't Black because she didn't look Black. It was if these students thought she wasn't entitled to believe that the wrongs that happened to Blacks applied to her only because of her physical characteristics. Anyway, if this is a prevailing attitude, this compounds racial (and other) divisions.

I also learned a few years ago from watching some show that I would be ineligible to join the KKK I ever became asinine enough to want to do so. Apparently, you cannot have at least 1/8 Mediterranean ancestry, and I'm 1/4 Melkite Syrian. So I'm not White enough. Oh well. It just illustrates some of the silliness and sadness of racial division.

John said...


I'm not sure, but I think Sudan is divided by religion as well. From what I understand, the rebels in Southern Sudan are mostly Christian. While Northern Sudan (which controls the government and genocidal militias) are primarily Muslim.

Pat said...

John, you're right in that in Sudan, there are Muslims and Christians, and the central government is run by Muslims. The dictator, Gen. al Bashir is a Muslim. Apparently, he has improved the situation for Sudanese near the capital, while most of the remainder of the country remains depressed. After he quelled the rebellion from southern Sudanese, conflicts broke out between two of the factions in Darfur. What al Bashir did to "solve" this problem was to arm the northern group of Darfur to use against the southern group of Darfur, and thus escalating the conflict. What I'm not sure is the religious and ethnic makeup of these two groups. It could be a difference of religion and/or ethnicity or maybe not. But whatever difference there is, that's the part that's going to be emphasized between these two groups long after this current conflict is over.

Kevin said...

Wasn't there a recent study on just how racially mixed all Americans are? Even the ones who think they're lily white? A distant cousin on my father's side of the family did an extensive genealogy which revealed that my family was hardly the WASPS they once thought. My great-great grandmother was Choctaw (thanks for the cheek-bones!), and I have ancestors who were Scot, English, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Jewish.

So if we're boiling it down to "social and political power" I want my reparations from the US, French, Canadian, and British governments for the mistreatment of my Amerindian ancestors, from the Italians (née Romans) for the mistreatment of my Anglo ancestors, the Germans - and HELL everyone everyone else on the planet - for the mistreatment of my Jewish ancestors, the Spanish for their mistreatment of my Dutch Ancestors, and the Germans for always beating the crap out of my French ancestors... nah, forget that one, I'm sure they deserved it.

Anyway, we're either post-racial or we're not. I'm sick and tired of the issue being frivolously thrown about especially by the self-righteous left.

John said...

The whole reason for that lengthy discussion of evolutionary biology was to point out that DNA doesn't matter that much.The "social and political power" isn't derived from genetics. It is granted (and taken away) by government and other institutional sources. These other institutions might include schools, corporations, and the media.

So, you can rattle off your diverse genetic heritage in whatever manner you wish. You can demand this and that. But where you fit into the power structure is dependent on what box others decide to put you in (rather than what you see yourself as). And that process of external classification is inherently political.

In South Africa, a Johannesburg court recently declared that East Asians are "black" for heaven's sake. The court's hands were supposedly tied by the fact that South Africa's census law only accounts for four races: Black, White, Coloured, and Indian. But this ruling was really about money. It means Chinese businesses are now entitled to tax cuts and affirmative action normally reserved for black Africans. It has, in turn, generated a great deal of resentment among those black Africans who don't like the idea of somebody else muscling in on their freebie turf. And of course, some whites see this as the latest round in their ongoing marginalization (no word from the court on when they get to become "black" too).

Clearly, power is the underlying motivation here (primarily economic power in this case). And race, as easily malleable and fluid as it is, serves merely as a proxy for this larger conflict. Religion is another concept that often gets appropriated into political conflicts as a "proxy."

Jamie said...

Umm, you can't play the race card without using the word "race"?

Sure you can, Matt. I was pointing out that Obama did it without the overt mention, while McCain gave the overt mention, which makes him look like the bad guy.

And here's more fuel for the fire.

Tommy said...

That's an interersting read. Especially the comments concerning the fact that Obama was responding to a commercial John McCain put out, rplacing Ben Franklins face with Obama's on the one hundred dollar bill.