Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our Closeted Racism

The massacre at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was a shocking act of racial terrorism. A young man joined others at a bible study, and after an hour of prayer and study in which he was warmly welcomed, he stood up, said he had come there to kill black people and proceeded to shoot 9 people in cold blood with a pistol he had recently bought with birthday money from his father. He was wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa. He was a self proclaimed white supremacist who, he said, was out to start a race war. 

That he was 21 years old might have been a surprise — we have come to expect older white men to be the biggest culprits in racial hate groups, but we would be wrong. Hate knows no age limits. Racism is present everywhere.

Most whites are racially complacent. We often believe racism is a thing of the past and everything is fine now. We have a black president, right? Isn’t that proof that we have overcome?

Consider the amount of hate and death threats that have been directed at that president, and the volumes of racist jokes aimed toward him and his family. When people get caught doing it, they laugh it off and say they were only making a joke, or that they didn’t realize a picture of the White House lawn planted in watermelon vines was offensive. Or comparing the First Lady to a gorilla. Yeah, right.

But nearly all of us are harboring some deeply closeted racism. It is so ingrained and cleverly  hidden, we don’t even know it’s there. We have a fear of "otherness" that is very primitive. Its comes out in fear of other races, or people who look or act or believe differently than we do. It is by all means to be gotten rid of as soon as we become aware of it. It has no place among adults in civil society. 

A man I know made some very racist statements about the people of Ferguson. When confronted with the racist bias of his remarks, he protested that he worked with black people every day and they were his friends. He said he would willingly lay down his life for them and he was as far from a racist as it gets. I don’t doubt that he sincerely believes that. He has compartmentalized the black people he knows and works with (in his mind, the good black people) and separated them out from the everyday citizens of Ferguson who are strangers to him (in his mind, the bad, lazy, no-count welfare-collecting black people who will rob and loot and burn down stores and wreck their own community for no reason). He is completely unaware of the centuries of frustration, powerlessness, deep hurt and anger that boil over into such destructive behavior. He sees it as willful misconduct by people who have no sense of pride. 

How many of us compartmentalize our racism? I have a mixed race son, and even I can be guilty of racism. We were coming out of the eye clinic at Vanderbilt University Hospital the other day and our car was parked next to the door on the other side of a railing. There was a young black man with braids sitting on the railing next to the car, probably a student waiting for his next class at the clinic, but I felt a twinge of fear. So did Laura. I confronted it immediately for what it was and made myself drop it, not unlike making your dog drop some bad thing he picked up in the yard — and it works in both cases. The sudden awareness of my own racism shocked me. It is so culturally ingrained that no matter how free of racism we might think we are, if we dig, we can find some. 

The mixed-race daughter of a friend of mine used to wear tennis shoes with the word “white power” written on them.  The cognitive dissonance of that phrase on the shoes of a half-black child used to make us laugh, but it isn’t really funny.  It’s a sad commentary on our society.  We saw it as the child being color blind, but it was really the strong denial of a major piece of her ethnic makeup and identification with slave owners and oppressors. That child needed a serious history lesson, stat. 

There is a whole segment of our society that is not made up of closeted racists -- their racism is right out there in the open. Much of that is in the south, but a surprisingly large amount of it exists beyond that region, hidden away in both urban and rural areas all over the country. (Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Group map link here: Racism is based on ignorance and often acquired by being brought up by racist parents. We may see overt racists as a lunatic fringe, but if we are going to avoid another Emmanuel AME massacre, we had better start looking at them as a terrorist threat worse than any from middle eastern foreigners. 

I don’t know how to change them, but I do know how to change myself. It’s like the old adage about peace: ending racism begins with me. Face it, confront it, change it. There can be no solution so long as we are deeply in denial that a problem exists. Confront it wherever you see it or hear it spoken. Speak out. Racism thrives in being tacitly accepted. Let's make it known we don't accept it at all. 

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