Monday, November 25, 2013

A Deeper Look: Overcoming the Biases of Power to Go Beyond the Superficial

Almost every day I see someone say that they’re not racist or sexist. Sometimes they literally say, “I’m not racist, but…” Sometimes it’s more subtle than that. Sometimes it’s terribly blatant, but only to those who are awake to much more subtle and pervasive forms of racism and misogyny. And it seems that many white people and men believe that if they simply say that they believe in some very basic rights for people of color and women and don’t even see color, they can then speak with impunity.

This is why I don’t really think it’s helpful for us to freak out when blatantly racist and sexist people say blatantly racist and sexist things. It’s the micro-aggressions that do far more damage to actual lives and are far harder to weed out, especially when micro-aggressors can point to the flagrant and obvious aggressions and compare themselves to those with positive results.

You can be white and buy into white supremacy and have no problems with interracial marriage. The fact that we as a society still appear to believe that we can point to a few overt strides in civil rights and tell ourselves that we live in a post-racial society actually stands in the way of our doing real work to overcome discrimination in our society. The same holds true with strides made by the feminist movement. I’ve had male acquaintances claim they’re “totally feminist” because they believe women should be free to speak their minds, when that is but the bare minimum and they continue to spew misogynist thinking all over the place (that I am then, I suppose, free to call them out on – oh goody).

The other day I watched a panel discussion between civil rights leaders in 1963 that originally aired in 1963. At some point, one of the men says that they will know that civil rights have become a reality when black unemployment isn’t twice that of white unemployment. My heart sank. Last year I looked up unemployment statistics by race, and black unemployment was…twice that of white unemployment. It was as if nothing had changed. Employment opportunity is at the center of people’s ability to live free, equitable lives. If we’re not fighting for employment opportunities for all people, then we are not fighting for civil rights. And yet we defend ourselves and white supremacy when we say that we’re past racism now. Surely, we may feel we’re past the use of racial epithets as white progressives. But we still question people when they interrogate what we’ve actually done to dismantle white supremacy. We say, “We don’t say certain words anymore and interracial marriage is legal! What more do you want from us?” I mean, it is ridiculous, and yet even most white progressives I know refuse to interrogate their own racism because they don’t use slurs (except when it’s funny!) and they aren’t the ones not hiring black people (therefore they’re not involved in systemic racial injustice at all), so they can’t possibly be racist!

I remember the moment I realized I was an alcoholic. I literally could not see it a single second before that point, but after that moment is was as clear as day. And it became clear that it should’ve been obvious months before. I’d been seeking help for deep depression and suicidal ideation, but if anyone pointed out that I might have a problem with alcohol, I simply stopped talking to them. I believed they were wrong because I wanted to believe they were wrong. I wasn’t mentally ready to give up my alcohol yet, so I COULD NOT SEE IT. And I’ve had the experience, too, of not seeing white supremacy. I’ve defended my own problematic behavior, claiming that I didn’t like the way I was being called out on it. It takes pretty constant exposure to ideas that cause you to interrogate your own beliefs and every corner of your thinking before you can see what everyone is talking about. It took a lot of people pointing out the ways alcoholism manifested in my life, and then it took me actually seeing those things happening and recognizing them as alcoholism. It was a process, but the process was invisible until that moment that it clicked into place.

My declaring myself not an alcoholic didn’t make it so. I was always an alcoholic. And declaring oneself not racist or sexist doesn’t make it so, either. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say these things. I feel like I’m probably saying something that other people have said before. I feel like this shouldn’t even be revolutionary thought. But considering the number of times in a single day that I see people in both my real life and the media shoot down claims of racism and sexism with a very quick defense without any consideration of systemic injustice, I figure it does indeed need to be said.

Nothing really changes when we only focus on superficial markers of what white supremacist patriarchal capitalism (i.e. “mainstream American culture”) calls racist and sexist.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cowboys and Children

Last weekend I took a trip on an airplane. The craft was only about a third full, so us travelers spread out; I got a whole row to myself. We were heading to Midland, a small town on the west Texas plains, and the man across the aisle from me was a cowboy: fancy western-style belt, jeans, boots, tanned and sun-worn skin, and a twang. He looked to be about 60, and with him was a little girl, probably 5 or 6.

While boarding was still in process, he sat with the little girl and patiently read to her from her little kid books. He was gentle, and he spoke to the little girl in the voice that people use when talking to small children. I started thinking about dearly-held ideas about natural talents. Men aren't nurturing. Women are more caring and responsive to the needs of children.

I know it's just a story about one man on a plane, but I see this regularly. I see men at the grocery store with their small children and no woman. I see men in restaurants helping their child make his way to the bathroom. I see dads post pictures of themselves playing with their kids on Facebook. And then there it is again; people saying with their words that men and women are different on this count while the world clearly shows me a different story.

I'd argue the difference may be there, all right, but it's lessening because it was never natural; it was always socially constructed. Men aren't naturally less nurturing. They just didn't want to bother with childcare. When you care for children, it's a constant negotiation of your needs against theirs. It's a give and take, and it's very other-centered. If you've got the choice to feign being terrible at that job, allowing you to essentially then focus completely on yourself and avoid the "trap" of sharing your time with another, why would you not take it? If you can simply say, "I'm not good with kids -- you do it!" leaving the woman in your life to then take care of the sometimes boring and sometimes maddening minutiae of life, why would you not? I see women and men every day who buck the stereotype. Of course, one of these women is myself. I feel no special affinity for children. My uterus doesn't lead me toward them as if magnetized to their cuteness. I try to avoid them as much as possible, partially because they make me feel even more awkward than I usually do. And that man on the plane clearly had no trouble being nurturing to that little girl.

Midland is a tiny airport of only five gates, and not many flights go in and out. The man was on my return flight, minus the little girl. This isn't an extraordinary story. It's not even particularly original to talk about whether or not these traits are nature, nurture, or unquestioned societal beliefs. But I'm regularly confronted by people parroting all kinds of beliefs about the world, repeating to me statements that so many take for granted like, "Women are more compassionate," or, "There's a little bit of truth in every stereotype. That's why they exist." We make so many assumptions. We skim the surface of ideas that have given us a sense of security, a way of approaching the world, and it would be nice to just put down our assumptions for a minute and pay attention.

Part of me wants to assume that I don't even have to say any of this, but a larger part of me knows better.