Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Racism

Woke up this morning after having a fabulous date night with Darling (more on that in another post), dropped the Sunday paper out of the plastic sleeve and plucked out the two eh, sections I read first on Sunday morning: the Target ad and Parade Magazine.  I heart the questions on the back of the Parade cover.

Per my usual Sunday ritual, I read Parade with coffee in hand.  The fam was fed and the kids had happily scampered off to play trains.  (No joke, it was like a Norman Rockwell painting around here this morning.)  I sat in my chair and read Parade, finally get to Soledad O'Brien's piece on how racism spurred her to succeed.  Great.  I just love me a good article about someone pontificating about racism.  Crap.

So, I read anyway because I happen to like Soledad O'Brien - but I'm getting mighty tired of hearing people trade their wares using the race card.  And here's why:

Has it ever, possibly, maybe, incidentally occurred to anyone who's carrying a racism chip on their shoulder that possibly, maybe, incidentally, they misinterpreted someone's statement?  Maybe?  Possibly?

O'Brien's story, in a nutshell, is that she and her sister were going to a photo studio to get their portraits made as an anniversary gift for their parents.  The photographer asked, "forgive me if I'm offending you, but are you black?"  Her older, 14 year-old sister squared her shoulders and they stalked off in a huff at the obvious, terrible racist comment of the racist photographer.  "Forgive me if I'm offending you..." As we all know, 14 is an age of rational reason, maturity, and clear-thinking.  Obviously.

Just a question: Is is possible, just maybe, that he was asking because he had a compliment for them?  Is it possible that he had something else to say that might not have been racist?  Is it possible he was asking "forgive me..." because he wasn't thinking they should be ashamed of their heritage, but that it's just rude to ask?  Is it possible he was asking forgiveness because he wanted to say "you have the most beautiful skin/hair/eye color I've ever seen" and he knew a grown man saying those things to young girls might be a little creepy?  They'll never know, will they?  They were so busy carrying their boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, they didn't bother to find out.  They huffed out of the store with self-righteous indignation.  That incident spurred O'Brien to make something of herself and prove that racist man wrong  and show that she was something.

Now, pardon me, but I think we have a problem here.  We're so sure that people are insulting us we don't bother to find out why  - or even what - they really mean.  This applies to many situations.  Let's explore this a little more:

When I was 10 and at the neighborhood swimming pool, I was about to jump in the water when a kid from my class yelled out, "there she blows, a hump like a whale!"  Now, that was nearly 30 years ago, but I can still tell you everything about that day.  I can tell you his name.  I can tell you where he was standing.  I can tell you what his swimsuit looked like.  I can tell you how I felt and I can tell you that for the first time in my life - because of that comment - I began to worry that I was fat.  Forevermore, my ears pricked to any possibly comment, insinuation, fart-in-the-wind-notion that I might be fat.

The truth is, he was also 10 and for all I know, he had just seen the movie "Mody Dick."  He had (still has?) older brothers and it's possible one of them read "Moby Dick" for class the previous school year and he'd heard that line a gagillion times around the house and thought he'd try it on for size when he was at the pool.  It probably had nothing to do with me or my size.  Looking back at pictures, I wasn't fat - not even close.  He was just a dumb 10 year-old kid, wasn't he?  But, I gave him power over me with that comment and I attributed meaning to those words that probably had no grounding in his reality.  I based my self-image on that dumbass comment for decades.  What a colossal waste of my energy.

Want another example?

A few years ago, I was talking with a neighborhood girl about possibly babysitting.  She was very sweet and just breathtakingly beautiful.  We were talking in the front yard one afternoon as she walked home from the school bus stop and I asked where she lived.  She lived 6-7 houses up on the right.  I was thinking that her mom was the children's book author (and fabulous gardener) who lived 6-7 houses up on the right.  So, I asked, "what does your mom look like?"  I was thinking she might be that lovely author with the long hair and the lovely jawline (yes, I notice jawlines because I wish I had one - thanks punk kid at the pool).

The girl got very quiet, suddenly looked withdrawn, and responded, "my mom's white."  Whoa.  Frankly, I hadn't noticed the color of her skin.  I was looking at her hair and her pretty eyes and jawline and thought she looked like the author and was really just trying to place her geographically on our street.  Damage done.  I had offended her.

Somewhere along the way, she willingly placed a chip on her shoulder (like Soledad O'Brien about her heritage and me about my weight) and couldn't just hear the question as someone trying to figure out which mom up the street was hers, but rather that it was an indictment about her heritage.  I was so flummoxed as to why she got quiet and offended that it didn't occur to me to say I was thinking she might be the author's daughter.  She slunk home, probably convinced that she'd been insulted - never having heard that I thought she was beautiful and might be related to the beautiful author.  She heard race.

So I ask you, dear readers, is it possible, just maybe, that comments people hear and take to heart as an indictment of them have nothing to do with the them but are actually questions that might lead to something they want to hear?

Most Americans are kind people.  Most Americans have open minds.  Most Americans don't live to hurt others' feelings.  Most Americans don't even see color.  Yes, some do.  Some are racist.  However, most Americans are not racist.  So how come so many people try to make a buck (or win elections) preying on the notion that racism is alive and well and we have to fight it?  I guess that maybe when it comes to not having a story to tell or needing to explain a bad attitude, it's better to just rely on sweet, sweet racism.  It's politically expedient to attempt to shut down conversation by calling any dissension "race based."  It gets everyone so riled up, no?

Chances are good I'll be vilified merely for deigning to write about race.  In that case, I thank you for proving my point.

~ G

1 comment:

  1. Right on, G! I was curious so I read the article. This jumped out at me: "I just don't understand how it could possibly be offensive to be black. "

    It isn't offensive to be black. But, as a "white" person, I am terrified of even saying the word "black" out loud these days because someone could get offended. It seems as if so many are on edge these days, being offended at every little thing. Should I say "African American?" Should I even mention race? Can I tell you that I love your awesome hairdo? Or, can I mention that you have absolutely gorgeous skin tones? We are accused of racism at every turn. Just disagreeing with someone's ideas slaps me with the label of racism, so ya, I can see why the photographer was worrying about being fearful of coming across as rude by asking a question about race. If I was in his shoes, I would have been too confused by political correctness to verbalize the question. I am sure that Soledad and her sister were stunningly beautiful. As a photographer myself, I notice skin tones and, sadly, would hesitate before mentioning anything about skin tones to a non-white person, even if it was to say how strikingly beautiful the color and tone of someone's skin is. It is frighteningly easy to offend someone even when just the opposite is indended.



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