Tuesday, July 03, 2007

We've got the race for the cure. Now how 'bout a cure for the race?

This is another one of those posts that may seem, on its surface, off-topic. (And it's something I threw together hastily, to fill the space that would've been devoted to installment one of our next self-help horror story. So forgive me if it doesn't seem as neatly tied-together as it ought to be.) But really, what could be more central to the question of Self or Identity than the way you define yourself in terms of race, ethnicity, etc? That is to say: Are you an individual? One unique chunk of protoplasm among 300 million (if we confine this to America) or 6 billion (if we look at the world as a whole) other unique chunks? Or are you more a member of a bloc of similar people who share a large number of common, innate and immutable characteristics? (We'll come back to the italicized phrase later.) Or are we all really, in essence, "the same person"?

Some months back I had an interesting dialogue with Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Clarence Page, whose home base is the Chicago Tribune. This was after Page wrote a column in which he talked extensively about black voters and black issues. And my opening question for him was, "How are we to get past the question of race in America if Big Media never stop talking about race in America?" I could actually hear the benevolent smile in his voice—I'm sure he saw me as quite the dreamer—as he explained, "Race is a fact of life. It's how it is. It's how people see themselves and their environments and their problems. And it's a reality that's going to be with us."

I've heard that reasoning put forward in many connections, to justify many hapless situations. I'm sure you've heard it as well. "It's just how it is." And I've never understood how intelligent, well-meaning people could make that argument with a straight face (or maybe a "straight mind" is the better term). Though I didn't think to mention it to Page on the day we talked, for many years in America, after all, slavery was also "just how it is." Further, slavery, as a concept, rested on another "just how it is" assumption: that blacks were somehow an inferior grade of humankind. It took a war and some tweaks to the Constitution, but we managed to get past the Jim Crow era. Until the 1960s, too, women stayed home and tended babies and kept house, and though there's hardly universal agreement on the virtue of all that's taken place in the interim, the fact is, women were able to make major changes in the options available to them and their daughters. How did they do this? They threw off the yoke of their own "just how it is": the assumption that staying home in the kitchen and tending babies was simply "what women do." To me, the women's movement in America represents even more of a sea change in cultural attitudes than the question of race, and what role race should play in self-definition. For better or worse, the women's movement quite simply changed the way we view biology and the "natural order of things."

In fact, the condition known as that's just how it is is merely the way things are until people decide that things don't need to be like that anymore. Which leads to a new "that's just how it is." And on and on it goes. We're pretty stupid that way. We always think the new way is the "right" and "only" way. Until the next new way comes along.

Point being, there are few things in life, I think, that must be exactly as they are. The notion that "race is here to stay so we're going to keep covering it that way" is circular reasoning that sets in motion a self-fulfilling (or self-sustaining) prophecy. That in itself prevents change from taking place.

Now, I realize that physical appearance figures in this discussion. People who are seriously into their blackness often will say, "We're not like other groups that have been victims of discrimination. We can't hide the fact that we're black." I would point out that women can't usually hide the fact that they're women, either...but beyond that, we already know that even among members of "our own race" (if you must), people come in all shapes, sizes and shades. As I've pointed out before, I have relatives who are darker than either Halle Berry or Barack Obama, both of whom are allegedly black. Does that make my Italian relatives black? Does it make Halle Berry white? Why/why not? At what point in the spectrum of human hue does a person become, officially, black? Even if we expand the discussion to the constellation of facial features that makes a person "look black" or "look white".... Well, there's a wide array of specific facial topographies in life, lots of which may be suggestive of certain ancestries, but finally mean nothing. For example, I have many relatives who "look Italian" much more than I do. You might see my cousin Frankie and think, That guy's gotta be Italian. Fair enough, I guess. But why go further in the case of people who look like Clarence Page, shown above? Why can't Page just be some guy who happens to have a certain look ("African," if you must) in the same way that Frankie has a certain look? Why do we need a separate race? Is my cousin a member of the Italian race? No. While I'm on the subject, there are many people who look kind of like Frankie who aren't even Italian. Some are Jewish. At least one is Jairek Robbins, son of Tony. Ergo, the look, in and of itself, means nothing.

You see, to me*, the response to "Blacks are inferior" is not "Black is beautiful," but rather, "There's no such thing as black." Ultimately, any form of race-consciousness strikes me as the same as racism, or surely lays the groundwork for it. This is one reason why I applaud the recent Supreme Court decision on school desegregation and particularly admire the clean and unencumbered logic of Chief Justice Roberts' majority opinion: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race." That is exactly right. You don't attack racism by substituting another form of racism. You attack it with the contention that race is irrelevant or, ideally, that there's no such thing as race.

In his official Tribune bio, Clarence Page writes, "I started out as a baby." It's a priceless line that, while meant to be whimsical, says much more than its author intends. He started out as a baby, as do we all: blank slates. Not black babies (unless someone tells us so), not white babies...just babies. Infant humans. At that point, whatever is "innate and immutable," I truly believe, has little to do with any racial markers. If Page had been raised to think there was no race—and if he went out into a world consisting of other kids who'd been raised that way—he would not now think of himself as Clarence Page, black syndicated columnist.

A Utopian vision? Sure. But, like freeing the slaves and securing women's rights, you gotta start somewhere.

* I admit, I have the advantage here of not having to face this in my daily life. But remember, we're arguing principles here, not applications. Principles shouldn't change based on whose ox is gored.


Renee said...

Steve -
You've written about this before and the truth is, I don't think it can be discussed often enough until there is real acknowledgement of the status quo and subsequent change in the way we all think (and speak).
In our house, we've enacted a small but I think significant way we refer to people, in something as mundane as a television show, in this case: Survivor. It sounds kind of ridiculous but maybe it makes your point.
A few years ago, I told my husband that we were referring to some of the contestants as "the black woman," "the black guy," "the asian guy" but not doing the same with the "white" contestants. Which, if I'm reading you right, is exactly the kind of pervasive racism you're recognizing here.
We made a decision to refer to everyone by name (how obvious!) or by their occupations, which is how Survivor identifies their contestants throughout the season.
It's admittedly a small thing - but perhaps the adjustment we made is something our kids took away from the experience, even unconsciously. And it was tacit acknowledgement that we need to be aware of the words and labels we use without thinking.

Steve Salerno said...

I like that approach, Renee. What your family used to do in describing Survivor contestants is like the at-home/racial analogue of the way the media still cover America's two primary political poles: They'll identify people like Rush Limbaugh as "the conservative talk show host," but almost never will identify, say, Ted Kennedy as "the liberal senator from Massachusetts." That's because, in their heart of hearts, the media see the left as the middle--it represents "normal people" with enlightened values (i.e. just like them). In the same way, too many Americans see "being white" as the default race--it's the "normal" condition, the way things are expected to be, whereas people who are not--in their eyes--"normal Americans" need some kind of racial identification.

In college, I spent most of my free time avidly pursuing two realms--jazz and football--that were and are heavily populated by what we call "minorites." Thus most of my friends were non-white. (Again, I'm using the commonplaces labels for clarity. Someday maybe it won't be necessary for me to say any of this.) My father was not a particularly bigoted man--certainly not among Italian-Americans of his generation, living in Brooklyn--but from time to time he would ask me why I didn't have more "regular" friends. It sometimes tickled me, and sometimes saddened me.

RevRon's Rants said...

"If Page had been raised to think there was no race—and if he went out into a world consisting of other kids who'd been raised that way..."

Steve, with all due respect, this line is about as valid as "if frogs had wings, they wouldn't bump their butts." It's just not going to happen, at least not within the next couple of generations. And certainly not as a result of eliminating physical characteristics from our descriptive repertoire.

Besides, racism isn't really about color of skin, but about behavioral stereotypes, and all the politically correct word games in the world won't diminish racism until the stereotypes are recognized and overcome, by both the "actors" and the observers. There are losers in every ethnic group whose behavior contributes to the negative perception people have of them, and that serves to perpetuate racist ideas and emotions. Unfortunately, one looter from New Orleans has a much greater emotional impact than does an individual who risked their own personal safety to rescue stranded neighbors. And no amoun of intellectual cleansing will change that.

Steve Salerno said...

I kind of expected Ron-the-uber-realist to weigh in on this, and I can't fight too hard against the reality check you provide.

But as I say in my post, will you at least give me that we've gotta start somewhere?

Anonymous said...

Ah Steve,

It breaks my heart that you're so far away from me here in London and nobody here seems to be talking any suchlike sense.

I have the same feeling when my fellow psychotherapy students talk about how important transcultural (colour) issues are - and how lacking they are in the curiculum.

Arnt we all just people?

RevRon's Rants said...

I agree that we've "gotta start somewhere," but I don't think that attempting to sanitize our dialog to the point of ignoring obvious physical characteristics is a good launch point.

Better, IMHO, would be to confront head-on the behaviors that perpetuate stereotypes, and to try to educate the "actors" as to how the behaviors are perceived, while simultaneously educating the observers as to the impetus that drives the behavior.

Merely eliminating discussion about the obvious physical differences between different races would be denying the presence of an elephant in the room.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, maybe I'm naive (well, there's no maybe about it), but I don't think this would be as difficult as you seem to think. What it would take, for starters, is for someone with serious clout/gravitas to stand up for the cause. That's one of the reasons I posted on Obama's site; again, I guess I'm being naive, but my fantasy is that somebody like Obama(and he's the PERFECT guy, being "biracial") would simply call a press conference and renounce his supposed racial identity. And explain why he's doing it. I honestly believe that many (good) things would fall right into place on the heels of such a move; that a groundswell of similar initiative would develop.

Now, is a major presidential candidate going to do that in the middle of a race (NPI)? Of course not. It would be political suicide. But we can dream...and who knows, maybe someday soon....

Steve Salerno said...

And incidentally--before someone points this out--I would be just as delighted if a "white guy" did the same thing (i.e. announced that henceforth, he is no longer to be considered "white"). But let's face it, that wouldn't have the same effect. In fact, sad as it is to say, the media would probably make a big joke out of it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Gotta go with your "naive" assessment on this one, Steve. If Obama were to renounce his racial identity, he would be derided - by both blacks and whites - for pandering to white voters. Would it not be more effective for him (or any public figure) to directly address the stereotypical behaviors that fuel racist attitudes?

Granted, he would face some vilification for such an act, much as did Bill Cosby when he confronted the negative behaviors so frequently used by the African-American community to define genuine "blackness." But at least his words would ring true with those who actually wanted to see improvement in interracial communications and relations. To deny something obvious is simply not the best way to eliminate it as an obstacle, IMHO.

Steve Salerno said...

Folks, I am posting this on behalf of our friend SHAM/Sam, who is having trouble "getting past security":



Obama won't do it - he's run to race for votes - which is one reason I've soured on him. Another is his association to Oprah. Another is she gave him a copy of The Secret. Another is he didn't throw it back at her. And another is his self-help language, always talking of "transformation" and the like.

Screw Obama, I say. He's a weak-minded loser, no matter how much money he raises. I barely think of him as a man at all. I mean, other than the color of his skin, I dare you to tell me what he's running on. Don't believe the hype, Steve.

And I'm with Ron on the whole PC approach - don't care for it. I think of the black guys in school, who will dominate a particular hallway, intimidating anyone who passes by. That could only happen because of the PC attitudes that allowed them to think they had a right. Didn't tell 'em much about right and wrong, though.

I'm an American, Steve, not an African-American. And on this July 4th, I'm proud to say it. (I can see three American flags in my house, from where I'm sitting, and haven't decorated for today's celebration.) I don't mind anyone describing me as black - it's how I think of myself, but not in some group-think kinda way, but just that my nose is wide, my hair is kinky, etc. To call me a black American (or "that black guy") is fine with me.

I think right-thinking people, eventually, relax on race, while correctly kicking anyone who exploits it (Obama, Al Sharton, Spike Lee) to the curb. I got friends from across the spectrum. We protect each other from the simple-minded vagaries of those who don't get it. It's the tyranny of the mob. I hate the friggin' mob.

Happy 4th of July, you guys:

Let Freedom Ring!

Steve Salerno said...

I love the line about how she gave him the book and he "didn't throw it back at her." Very funny set up, SSS.

Cosmic Connie said...

I'm with SSS on Obama. He's way too SHAM-my for my tastes. It's getting to the point where I'm going to be supporting Dave Barry for president again, as I have for every election since '92.

Alas, I also have to agree with Ron. I would love to live in a world where race was NBD. I think Renee is making a good and noble start in her household, but I don't hold out much hope for the world at large to follow in her footsteps.

Maybe I'm just too pessimistic. But the enormity of the problem was sort of brought home for me again, not just by this discussion, but by a tragic news story from my neck of the woods. I'm sure all of y'all have read it. The young man who jumped to his death off the cruise ship Ecstasy a few mornings ago had been the victim of a race-related hate crime. A little over a year ago he was brutally attacked at a party -- his attackers beat him, kicked him, and burned him with cigarettes, poured bleach on him, and kicked a plastic pipe up his rectum while shouting "White power!" They also attempted to carve a swastika into his chest. Then they left him for dead. This happened at night; it was the next morning before anyone came to help him.

Though he didn't have a Hispanic surname, he was Hispanic. The irony is that, according to the (now obsolete) anthropological definitions of "race," he was as Caucasian as his attackers. He wasn't "Mongoloid," "Negroid," or "Australoid."

But in their eyes, he clearly wasn't "one of them."

This is an extreme case, of course. And it's possible that if they'd gotten angry and stoned enough, the nut jobs who attacked this young man would have done the same thing if he had been "white." Nevertheless "race" did play a part in this incident. And in society at large it is still very much a part of our frame of reference. Simply pretending it doesn't exist is a start, but it is not the whole answer. People who actually do or say racist things -- whether they are black, white, brown, yellow, sepia like Steve, or blue like me :-) -- need to be called on their racism. But people who behave in such a way as to perpetuate stereotypes need to be called on that, too.

PS - I've previously cited the above news story in another context on this blog: the mother of one of the attackers said her son wasn't a bad person; he just made some bad choices. That, of course, is a whole 'nother discussion.

moi said...

For what it's worth, in Cuba, where the Catholic Spaniards mixed more freely with the African population in the past, they don't use the racial categories of black and white. they have about 6 or 7 different adjectives relating to skin color. It seems that it was the Protestants who made that easy black/white distinction in the U.S.
Just thought I'd throw my eeny weeny bit of knowledge on the subject in here this morning.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, that is an excellent and telling point, Moi; it shows just how arbitrary this race stuff is, and that nothing really "needs"
(in the cosmic sense) to be this way.

We humans devised these labels. We can un-devise them.

Anonymous said...

Can you take just one more comment on this? While perhaps not the exact quote - I've seen this thought expressed several different ways - I keep thinking about Margaret Mead's approach to behavior:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Optimism - even if it appears misguided, misplaced, and counter to a candid analysis of the circumstances we face - is good.