25 May 2009

In America's new Obama-forward, post racial world bluebirds follow me around all day

Recently, I decided to take my frozen food on vacation. Ok, there was the little matter of an inland hurricane and my determination not to lose hundreds of dollars worth of steaks, vension, and chicken in my freezer, but regardless of the circumstances, I recently visited D-bro Don in suburban Chicago.

I'm just going to lay it on the line. D-bro is racist. In fact, both D-bros are racist. Why they are racist is a mystery to my sister, mother, and I. My parents did not raise us to hate. It wasn't like my brothers had negative interactions with black people. My grandfathers used to use ethnic slurs, but mostly while watching basketball games on television. I don't recall there being any sort of hateful indoctrination or even overt racism anywhere in my childhood. I mean, who knows, maybe my grandfathers were conducting a covert program of race-hate for my brothers while they spent time together in the garage.

Our community was extraordinarily white. The closest we came to a minority in our grade school was a dark-complected kid who may or may not have been Hispanic or Native American. One African American family attended our church (Episcopalian), and I actually had something of a crush on the boy in that family. I was in grade school and he was in high school. His name was Kevin. Oh, first love. Deep sigh. But I digress. We grew up in a world free of racial strife. Our first interaction with other black students was in junior high school, and by then the politics of adolescence dictated who you hung with (people from your hood), and interracial dating was still strictly taboo. The lunchroom was wicked crowded and I don't remember ever noticing who ate with whom. I ate with kids from my all-white grade school. But the summer between sixths and seventh grade, a black family moved in the house two doors down and all hell broke loose.

The Whiteheads were your standard black middle class family. They had moved from Cincinnati with the major employer in town. Their children were the first people of color to attend the neighborhood grade school. The first ones EVER. In fact, they may have been the first black people to step foot in that building. Even the janitors and lunchroom ladies were white. Neither of their kids was in my class, so I have no idea how they got on. I imagine it was pretty damn tough to be plunked down from Cincy into lily-white backweeds Kentucky and stay above water. And the parents in our neighborhood practically had a fucking coronary. The kids seemed far less distraught. I tried to make them feel welcome--like I would have done for any other new kid. To this day I don't know why, but Paula (the girl closest in age to me) refused to interact with us. For all I know, some parent may have threatened her to stay away from their kids. Her younger brother was like an overgrown puppy dog who just wanted to follow the action around, but as he entered junior high school I think the fact that some parents didn't want a black boy in their house probably limited how close he could get to kids in the neighborhood. Eventually, he gave up as well. Probably with some relief for Paula and Chucky, our junior high school included the "black neighborhood" and was integrated.

Then, when we were all in high school, a curious thing happened. I noticed that Paula had black girlfriends over to her house. They were always from out of town. Her old neighborhood chums? Cousins? I have no idea. But I remember sitting outside with the gang on the block and staring at the Whitehead's place and wondering what the hell Paula did in there all day. Staying inside all summer would have been like imprisonment to me. I wondered why she never wanted our friendship. I supposed that she didn't feel included and didn't want to try. And I remember feeling like a failure because she didn't. I always felt is was OUR neighborhood and that included Paula and Chucky.

But my brothers were a bit older than me and they were too old to hang on the block by the time the Whiteheads moved in. Boys their age were more concerned about getting drafted into Vietnam. I sure don't remember there being any racial issues in our high school in the 70s. My brothers never had a black friend that I knew of, but I never knew either of them to spout racist rhetoric either.

But when I went to visit D-bro last, he slung racial epithets as easily as saying "good morning". It is clear that this is a comfortable part of his vernacular. I started a conversation with, "You know what I don't understand...." and he interjected, "why there are so many niggers in Chicago?" It was clear to me that saying something like this among his friends is considered high humor. I was also clear to me that he realized he had fucked up before it even finished coming out of his mouth. I gave him one of those "you have to be fucking kidding me" looks and we moved on, this time with a little bit more of a check on his language. I can hardly lecture a man on how to think in his own home. But having kicked him out of my house (when we were both in the Chicago area) for using such language in MY house, he is very clear on where I stand on the issue.

I have written before about how my brother and I disagree on social programs and politics. I have also written recently about how he does seem to have an open mind. So this racial bias perplexes me. Granted, he hangs around with lesser educated, country music lovin', gun totin' bubbas, but I grew up surrounded by them, and I'm not racist. Neither is my sister. Or my mother. I am looking forward to the day when he turns to me and asks me that relevant question about race and I can finally answer him. And I have decided if and when he does, I'm going to ask a question back. I'm going to ask him why, what possible justification could he have for discriminating against someone based on skin color?

I desperately want to help my brother on the road to getting the hell over himself. But like all people with screwed up thinking, they have to be ready for the message. When he's ready, I will be, too.

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    Don't know why you & D-sis and D-mom turned out differently, seemingly, than the D-bros. Perhaps it has something to do in part with masculinity, with a feeling of ownership of the country and that ownership and domination of culture slipping away? After all, though women own a huge portion of US assets, their sociocultural power over them is much lower than that would imply. And indeed, I would hardly say that our country has ever seemed like one where women "owned" it as much or as proudly as men.

    Besides that, Eric Alterman, in his excellent book "What Liberal Media?" points out that African Americans are largely absent from national news, except as criminals (and now as the President, happily), and of course, their appearance as criminals is in vast disproportion to the absolute number of crimes committed by blacks versus majority whites -- who are the majority and indeed commit a majority of the crimes.

    Of course, one thing that Obama will not help out with AT ALL in terms of national image is the perception, researched and observed by Alterman, among most whites that blacks are on average equally or better off than whites. Suffice it to say, this is not the case. But if you believe it is, certainly, affirmative action and indeed civil rights more generally in this day and age seem obsolete and "reverse" racist.

    Beyond that, when I worked at P&G and some of my friends complained about the difficulty in "making it" as a white man (gag) in a company so focused on promoting minorities and women, I realized (part of) the problem. White men do command a majority of the power -- and they're losing it. That is, in terms of, say, public office, management positions in companies, etc. etc. it is somewhat of a "zero sum game" -- as more black people (and women, and other minorities) gain these positions, less white males will, by definition, have them. (And if you want to achieve parity rapidly, of course, you "over-hire" or over-promote to raise your average more quickly.)

    So, in the end, I got them with this: if they believe in equality, and they believe that, at least theoretically, white males have or have had disproportionate power, then they are going to have to basi-fuckingly cheer that they're losing power. Because the only way to achieve equality is for those with too much power to have less of it; and if me knees-bent running-about enlightened friends at P&G who grew up solidly after the end of Jim Crow have trouble grasping that losing power as white males is the only path to equality in sociocultural power, I can see how others might as well.

    They're not happy when they come to grips with it intellectually, but this is one of those times I feel like "Yeah, though. Fucking DEAL and stop acting like it's discrimination when it's simply overdue correction." Cuz few things are more annoying than self-pitying people in power.