Thursday, March 6, 2008

On Words, and Hope, and the lack thereof...

I spent a lot of words over the past week or so, figuring out how I feel about Race. Maybe more like why I feel about it the way I do. I know I tend to be wordy and all over-the-place, because that's pretty much the way my mind works. I follow all the strands and at the end of the bowl, there's that last little bite that I have to wrap my head around.

The other day I thought maybe I had the last bite, and that I was done and could move on, but eh, I'm not so sure now. This last round of primaries sort of brought everything up again.

But the last bite was this... me trying to figure out exactly what I don't like about the terms"Black and White", because they are merely labels after all. Why does it bother me so? The obvious answer is that it's polarizing; the very nature of those opposing colors... the absence of light, the absence of darkness implies a clash. It's also true that reducing everything to "black and white" rules out all the other reds and yellows and browns and maybe blues and pinks or peaches of the world. Yes, I was happy to discover the Federal government needs you to fit into a profile, but that a lot of people are willing to state exactly who they think they are, because it sort of gave me hope that maybe we can rise above all that. That people, I can, I mean. It's one of the reasons I'm an Obama fan. Hope.

So I think that what I don't like about those labels as opposed to other labels, is that to talk about "Black and White" in the context of people, is to speak a language of Colonialism. To label "Black and White"over-simplifies the issues of politics, of power, of economics, and religion, of culture and ethnic affiliations. The language implies and unspoken "given" that "white" is the power, and "black" isn't... that "black" is the opposite of power. "Black" can't even equal a victim in a system of abuse, because "black" has come to equal a simple antithesis of "white." Or as the Fat Lady more eloquently and simply stated, it simply implies "Separate Unequal." It takes the self-determination and power away from "black", and make a generic victim, because the terms--while seemingly so clear-cut--in effect cast a shade over a whole host of issues and it makes it very hard to be angry at specifics... because you don't know who to be angry at, or why. And so you're just left with being angry. Undirected anger is a dangerous thing.

Coupla things helped me figure this out... I finished Barack Obama's book the other day. I tell you, it's deep. I almost cried at the end, because it ends with Senator Obama's first trip to Kenya, to visit all his family. And there he is confronted with the very basic elements of the effect of Colonialism, of race and caste in a way that your average American of African descent is generations removed from. What he faced, and what he saw when he went to Kenya, how he felt... I could relate to a lot of it because Jamaica was very much a British colony when I was there... they had only been granted their independence from Britain in '62 and we got there in '68. I remember clearly being in a movie theater, and the whole audience rising to sing "God Save The Queen" before they played the movie. Which ironically enough, was Walt Disney's "Cinderella".

Obama describes his family history through the words of his grandmother. He mentions how they didn't know they were poor until they began to compare themselves to the British and what they had. And so anyone who appeared to do better than they, they felt free in asking for handouts. I think that's a uniquely Colonial thing.... any body who's got relatives "back home" in places where Colonialism ruled, like the West Indies, or Africa or the Philippines, will know what I mean... family/distant relatives/friends/people off the street who come right up to you and say "You're doing well. You should give me such-and-such because you are doing well, and I am poor." You can't "go home" just to go home... you MUST go home with gifts, and lots of them.

The last time I went back to Jamaica, in '87 or so, I went to visit my "Jamaican grandmother". She was in fact, doing much worse than I had anticipated... her husband had died, her son had abandoned her ages ago by going to England, leaving her to raise her grand daughter. Who in turn had two kids and then left them with Mrs. Clarke when she herself went to England. I never knew what happened to her. Anyway, when I went to Jamaica I went to find Mrs. Clarke, and found her washing clothes in a tin basin in the yard. The little bungalow she had lived in and kept so tidy when I lived there before she could no longer afford, and she and her two great-grand children were living in what seemed like a toolshed. She was glad to see me, but I couldn't shake the feeling that she was terribly disappointed that I hadn't brought her anything, that I wasn't there "come from foreign" to save her. I gave her what I had, which wasn't much... and it was the last time I saw her.

An experience like that does something to a person... and I wondered how Obama feels, walking with weight like that. But at the same time, his people, his family can be very clear about the issues of colonialism, because the culture clash was between very specific people; the Luo (his tribe in Kenya) and the British. Even those affected directly by the interaction between the Luo and the British could see what they had gained... as well as what they had lost. But it was specific, as opposed to a generic "clash between the races."

The other end of the strand was Natalie's response... about how it was easier for her Sun to be angry about the Holocaust, because it was about ideas, and good versus evil in a very clear-cut way. Because there it's people... similar-looking kinds of people... but from very different cultures, believing very different things. And one group of people taking power away from another group.

But while I was reading about Obama's trip to Kenya, about how British rule first marginalized his grandfather, making him bitter and confused, and how that bitterness and confusion was passed on to Obama's father, and how land was confiscated, and tribal rivalries exploited and manipulated I found myself getting mad again at the generic "white people". The way I got mad when I was 16 and realized what racism really meant; the way I got mad when I was in my 20's and was confronted with racial discrimination at various jobs I held; the way I got mad when I hit my 30's and started reading history on my own, learning about the Trail of Tears, or about Wounded Knee. The way I got mad watching "white" cops beat young "black" men behind subway booths, looking around to see who was watching, or the way they chased off our stoop when they hassled my friends. The way I get mad when "white" people apologize, because they harbor some collective guilt for their ancestors, or worse, when they don't harbor any guilt at all because it was a long time ago, because either way I end up feeling dismissed.

Because how can you be angry at some generic, faceless group of "white" people who took advantage of a nameless, generic group of "black" people? You can't--not effectively. You can't pinpoint what makes you angry or hurt. Because those two words, "black" and "white" lump together a whole host of issues, hundreds of years of pain and fear and marginalization into one bubbling soup... and because it's too "big" to handle you end up feeling eternally powerless. And angry. And because the terms are so vague, and don't really explain the circumstances you find yourself getting newly angry all over again, the way you can have the same fight over and over and over again, if you don't take the time to understand the problem that caused the conflict in the first place. You can't work to resolve anything because the terms are so vague. Despite the starkness of the contrast between "black and white".

The words are just labels... just a way to differentiate, people have said to me. The Fat Lady and I had a discussion (and it's a reason I love her, cuz she entertains theses types of discussions with me) recently, and she told me she didn't mind identifying as "black" because "black" was what you knew you could become when no one else wanted you. Because there was that collective history of suffering, of abuse, of being shunned. So if you were Irish and Native, and nobody wanted to claim you, you could easily walk into a "black" community, say you were just a light-skinned black who nobody wanted, and they would let you in. And there is certainly truth to what she says. But on the other hand....

When you know who you are for certain, when you can name "Africa" or "Scotland", or your tribal affiliation or the British, it doesn't take away the pain necessarily, or lessen the effects of injustice, but it's like putting a face on the situation, giving names back to the faceless, to understand a clash between cultures and the reasons for things. Even if the reasons are horrible or psychotic or not at all valid, but you can at least envision a relationship between two people, or between groups of people.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

So I'd thought I was happy with my own explanations, at least for a time, and then Hillary took 3 out of 4 primary contests, and MSNBC gleefully explained how voters in Ohio had voted along racial lines, and Texas Hispanics came out for Hillary. And this happened after a week of fear mongering; including the circulation of a picture of Senator Obama in traditional dress (that to me didn't even exclusively appear "Muslim" if you are at all aware of cultures... his dress could have easily been Punjabi, Sikh, Moroccan). What's worse... people bought it. Which means we are a long long way from ever healing rifts, because we don't seem to "get" that it's far more convenient for the Powers That Be (uh, that would be the ones with the money) to keep the rest of us assholes fighting over "black and white"...

4 comments:

Ros said...

I'm really gonna hate when you get a job again, cause it'll cut down on your blogging. Reading all your thoughts on race has led me to have quite a few discussions about race with "my" kids.

professor said...

your post makes folks go ummm....just cause you don't get many replies doesn't mean it doesn't make us think...actually it makes us think much more than we want to...

The Bear Maiden said...

Ah, Ros, thank you. That alone made it worthwhile.

And professor, thank you too :) Sometimes I feel like some crazy person shouting into the darkness, lol.

professor said...

um, you are crazy...and you are shouting in the dark...however, your voice might guide that one person to the other side of the tunnel and into the light...keep shouting...