Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reflections on Race

I've  been thinking a lot about racism. This post has been in draft form for several months now.  My ruminations are not finished  but  as February is Black History Month I decided I would post what I had written thus far. 

Race in the United States is too often a tangle of crossed wires and missed connections when sadly it has the possibility of carrying the charge and fueling spark for great understanding and achievement.   With the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the tragedy of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and even the spectacle of Paula Dean, I've been thinking even more than usual about race.  What exactly is racism?  Who exactly is racist?  How would you know racism if you encountered it? 

The history of our beautiful nations is intertwined with racism.  Black slaves provided free labor that propelled the US to the apex of the world's power.  Blacks were not even  considered people and at best they were  "less than" Slaves were chattel bought and sold, whipped, beaten and treated as livestock.  There is no doubt this is racism. There is no doubt about the injustice.  Racism today though, is often more subtle. Statements that assign value based on physical characteristics of race are, well, racist.   When someone shifts their wallet from their back pocket to their front pocket as a tall black man passes by is that racism?  When time and again the seat on the train next to me goes unoccupied  or is the last to be claimed is that racism?  When it seems to take an unusually long time to get seated or the host gives you an odd but enigmatic frown is that racism? When the Supreme Court which has only two people of color upon it strikes out crucial elements of landmark voting legislation calling it as justice Scalia did a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”  or when that same Supreme Court suggests in the majority opinion that the formula is outdated for the determination of which states needed pre-clearance based on their history of racism is that racism?

Part of what makes modern racism so challenging is that its hard to pinpoint exactly.  Many causes could potentially generate similar outcomes in each of the above situations, some factors probably do contribute but on the other hand on the receiving end, one is always left wondering.  One is always left with a sickening feeling in the gut that something is hidden or masked or one doubts  herself or her sanity.  Today's racism only leaves trace elements of having been present yet is still radioactive in its toxicity. It still leaves pain and doubt in it wake.  The suffering it inflicts still needs witnesses and justice.  Sometimes it is helpful to have others to remind and reflect experience back to us. Perhaps that is one reason why people of the same race or ethnicity often hang out together.  It is perhaps why the table at lunch sometimes fills with kids of one race or any other nameable difference.  It becomes important to name your experience among others who have likely had similar experiences.

I spent all of therapy talking about the Trayvon Martin tragedy.  As a middle aged black father of a black son, this case hurt immensely.  At first  I bracketed the pain, minimized it, but soon realized that that was not possible for me. It touched too close to home and detachment (in this narrow sense) is never a long term strategy.  I realized I was angry, very angry .  I did not know exactly why but it became clear that a deep anger resided near my pain.  Anger is not something I am comfortable with.  In session we tried a few sentences like :

I hate it when. . .

It makes me really, really angry when. . .

It was fascinating to complete with emotional integrity.  At some level I knew I was angry but my mind kept trying to tell me but. . .  and it would fill in reasons for why my anger was unjustified, not peaceful, unspiritual, unwarranted.

Anger is the key to my power and freedom.  Anger is something  of which I am terrified.
Anger feels out of control. Anger feels like it must be acted upon, it is compelling; like a red hot molten ball in my stomach.  I feel like I must rid myself of its fiery presence but really its just energy.  Why is its flavor so bitter? Acknowledged anger can be a driving force.   That kind of anger both recognizes its place as powerful energy to make change while at the same time know that all is fine.  It comes from the whole so it understands the language,  it speaks.  It is anger but the quality of "righteousness" is missing.  It strikes me that righteousness is born of a very concretized me whose ideals are assaulted.  In "whole" anger the identification  with anger is less or isn't present.   The anger- energy simply exists, is expressed and leaves like every other phenomena. Selves sustain anger. They carry it through a cycle of thoughts that fuel it. 

I am revisiting racism and this blog draft several months later.  In the last week among people in my circles I've been essentially asked 'how did I get into Williams" instructed on how there are too few slots for "regular smart folk to get into top notch graduate schools these days" The number of slots for kids from other Ivies has remained the same while the number for minorities has expanded.   In the first conversation it came up as I tried to deflect my little one from being grilled about what he know in  math.  The adult who was asking the question did so from a mindset of tripping my little one up.  It was not a joyful curiosity of I am proud of you it was a "prove it to me".  To take the heat off him I joked how I knew I had had enough math when in 11th grade they let us use calculators.  The person then flat out asked - "how did you get into Williams" - and looking back I proceeded to defend by talking about being well rounded in a variety of subjects including math.   I took the bait.  Perhaps this was a simple conversation about math and aptitude?   Perhaps these are just my projections.

The second conversation, just a few days later, was part of a broader conversation about the education system and how it is failing everyone.  It struck me a little as one of those conversations that had the tone of "back in my day we used to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways - without any shoes".  That is to say it was a romanticization of a former time.  In that conversation the individual spoke about how Ivy league graduate schools  had a certain number of slots for people from other Ivies and for all different kinds of categories including race.  His point, if I heard correctly was that it was harder and harder for "regular smart people" (insert white) to attend these institutions.   This conversation also left me with a sinking feeling. 

Each conversations has potential racial overtones.  Was the first conversation simply about not taking math in 12th grade and it putting me at disadvantage for a school like Williams or was it more subtly about race?  Similarly was the second conversation about how the education system has changed or was it about race.  Without asking more questions it is very hard to know for sure. 

The difficulty however is the enormous courage it takes to broach the subject of race.  Part of the challenge is that the hurt is so deep that it is difficult to traverse a path that is not fraught with anger,
misinterpretation.  It is difficult for others to broach for fear they may be labeled racist.  I do not pretend to have answers here.  I can say with confidence however that we need more authentic conversations.

Dialogue is needed even if often it is very difficult to have honest, candid, safe conversations. 

Take a look at this collection done by NPR of "the most ridiculous questions folks have ever been asked -- and you then answered about racism"  It is a collection questions that are frightening, heartbreaking, sincere but misguided and misinformed and everything in between.  It is a good starting point for more and continued dialogue around race in these United States.  I would love to hear your thoughts.



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