Some (Chaotic) Thoughts On Race
A few things have happened recently that reminded me that America is not post-racial, still fairly clueless about how to discuss race, that many people are in some strange little bubbles, and that we really need to change the dialogue focus / understanding of racism.
Most recently, one of my best friends, Kenny, wrote this Facebook note that got picked up by the Boston Globe for OpEd, in which he discusses a recent encounter of his running through Harvard Yard to catch a bus, and some strangers called out at him, “Bro, you running from the cops or something?” and “What’d you steal this time?” Kenny is black, and naturally when he confronted these people about how their comments were offensive, they refused to see how, and told him to lighten up because it was a joke. Kenny’s always had a knack for writing/speeching, so it’s a good quick read, and you should read it.
When I first read it on Facebook, it immediately reminded me of this video by J Smooth on how to approach talking about race in the 21st century, which is extremely well done.
I mention these things early on because I really think you should check them out, and I’m afraid things are about to get long-winded/disorganized and I want to make sure you see them first.
Basically, these things sent me on a long thought spiral that brought me back to something that put me on a similar thought spiral a few weeks earlier.
It was first this NYT article: “DNA Gives New Insights Into Michelle Obama’s Roots,” adapted from a book soon to be released by Rachel L. Swarns on the ancestry of Michelle Obama. It essentially outlines Michelle Obama’s family history back to when her ancestors were slaves and reveals that she has some white ancestors and tries to get in touch with her modern day white relatives. I came away from reading it feeling… odd. Odd would be the best word. It took me a while to pinpoint what some of those things were that made me unhappy.
1. I kind of got the impression/feeling that the author was strangely excited that Michelle Obama is partially white, kind of in a weird, “Look, white people, she’s one of you!” kind of way. I guess maybe it’s because as commenter Jennifer Jackson said, the article shows how “normative it is to celebrate (by making news out of) someone being more white.” I doubt that’s what the author meant to sound like, but when describing the possibility of a Jewish member somewhere in the mix as “tantalizing,” it starts to read a bit like a piece of gossip and therefore somewhat in that direction.
2. I feel like the article tries to lean away from the very likely occurrence that Melvinia (FLOTUS’ maternal great-great-great grandmother that was owned as a slave by Henry Wells Shields) was raped by Henry’s son Charles (who, according to research and DNA tests, is likely to be the father of Dolphus, Michelle’s maternal great-great-grandfather), instead letting people continuously tell themselves it was consensual.
The article introduces the rape question with this quote (emphasis my own):
Melvinia was not a privileged house slave like Sally [Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave who bore his children]. She was illiterate and no stranger to laboring in the fields. She had more biracial children after the Civil War, giving some of the white Shieldses hope that her relationship with Charles was consensual.
“To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then,” said Aliene Shields, a descendant who lives in South Carolina.
The article then says that no one knows if the relationship was consensual, that Melvinia never discussed it or who the father was, but that a close relation to the family back then said she suspects it was rape. It continues to stress that no one really knows, then moves into the hush hush status of slavery in family histories, finding more relatives, etc.
Then, the third and last page is filled with quote upon quote from Michelle’s distant white relatives (that agreed to speak with the author) about how shocked they are that their family owned slaves, and disbelief that a family member raped a slave. And then the article pretty much ends.
I’m sorry, but I can’t approve of this.
It is no secret in history that one of the many ways women slaves in the US were exploited was by exploiting their bodies and raping them and keeping any consequent children as new property. Usually, even if it was obvious because of the color of the baby that the slave owner /other family member was the father, it was not discussed nor admitted by the family. And after slavery ended, it wasn’t as if black women were suddenly able to protect themselves against violence committed by a white person. And even if any sex was consensual, it was not free of racial/gendered power dynamics, especially when a girl was as young as Melvinia (15 when she had Dolphus).
Examples of quotes:
Many of them, like Mrs. Tribble, 69, are still grappling with their wrenching connection to the White House. “You really don’t like to face this kind of thing,” said Mrs. Tribble, whose ancestors owned the first lady’s great-great-great-grandmother.
Some of Mrs. Tribble’s relatives have declined to discuss the matter beyond the closed doors of their homes, fearful that they might be vilified as racists or forced to publicly atone for their forebears.
“More or less every white person knows that slave owners raped slaves,” she continued. “But my great-grandfather? People don’t know what they feel. They don’t know what they’re supposed to feel. I think it’s really hard.”
“I’m appalled at slavery,” said Mrs. George, 61. “I don’t know how that could have even gone on in a Christian nation. I know that times were different then. But the idea that one of our ancestors raped a slave. … ” She trailed off for a moment, considering the awful possibility. “I would like to know the answer, but I would not like to know that my great-grandfather was a rapist,” she said. “I would like to know in my brain that they were nice to her and her children. It would be easier to live with that.”
I’m sorry. I know that journalists are supposed to present all of the sides, but they shouldn’t skew support/quotes in favor of a side that is clearly, delusionally, way too hopeful about this. It essentially supports these peoples hopes as being very possible by ending on this note and also never discussing the historical facts that I presented a moment ago.
I’m not sure why people are so set on believing that they are the exception to the rule. If you ever listen to / read about people discussing slave-owning family history, the general consensus for every.single.f*cking.person is that yeah… but their ancestor wasn’t like that. I’m sorry people, but not everyone can be the exception to the rule. And most of these people are aware, if you read the quotes, that they are choosing this belief, as opposed to following historical likelihood.
The article hints at one of the main sources of this problem: people being afraid of being vilified as racists because their ancestors were slave owners (even though they are likely at least 3 generations removed from these people). I mean, for pete’s sake it’s 2012 and people are declining to talk about the antebellum US - that in itself is a huge red flag for our country not being over a lot of things.
I’m all for racism being socially unacceptable to a point where people are wary of their actions towards others. The problem with this paranoia though is that it’s attached to a strange all-or-nothing view of racism in this country - an “all racist people are evil” paradigme. You can see it a lot in films. Any movie in which race plays a part, there are two types of racists generally depicted: the first is the “fake” racist, the person who spouts racist ideology but doesn’t really believe it / eventually comes around because they are a good person; the second is the “true” racist, the person who just all around sucks and is mean and never changes how racist they are because they are a bad person (and because most movies have a happy ending, this person is usually seen losing in some way).
But any student of history/culture, or really any person who has found faults in a good person, knows that this is a vast over-generalization of racism’s existence. Many people who either participate/facilitate a racist system, say racist things from time to time, or even vehemently hold racist beliefs, aren’t evil in every essence of their being. Many people who might have disagreed with integration for example, or your friend’s grandma who says inappropriate things as another, might appear to be very lovely people if you never knew / heard these things about them. Racism doesn’t have to appear as a picture as strong as George Wallace or a Klu Klux Klan member; it can be very subtle, subconscious, inadvertent, and based out of ignorance or fear. Especially in today’s world, when much of racism is subversive and institutional, people aren’t always aware of how it operates or how their thought processes / actions are connecting in what some might see as a racist/prejudiced way.
You might not care about all of this, and can decide if you want that you will go ahead and judge a person as a total racist and a secretly bad person if you hear them say something even remotely prejudiced. But remember the main problem with this is that people also take this viewpoint of racism when criticism comes their way. People are very quick to get defensive and shut out criticism when someone tries to point out something prejudiced they may have said or done, instead of listening and trying to understand/improve themselves. People almost always see being criticized as prejudiced as an all out death sentence, that now they are being seen as an evil, racist, bad person, and will immediately jump to deny this depiction, to a point where they will not listen to anything the other person has to say, or say silly things such as the well-known, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend!”
If my experience as a human being and as a psych major has taught me anything, it’s that no one is perfect, and that everyone has some prejudice tendencies / psychological operations, even if they aren’t aware of them. No one is immune to receiving critiques on their prejudice, so you should listen when you get it, and work it into what I’m assuming most people’s goal is of being a good person.
This video by New York hip hop radio DJ and excellent social commenter J Smooth explains this viewpoint that we both share. He explains everything way better than I ever could, and has a great analogy in which being a good person / a non-racist is like being a clean person. It’s something that you have to work at every day. It also means you aren’t immune to being dirty from time to time. You can’t, as per his example, respond to someone telling you there’s something stuck in your teeth with, “Preposterous! That’s impossible because I’m a clean person!” Get it?
I think what he proposes is pretty much what this country needs, so that we can talk about race in a constructive way, instead of the following dialogue:
-You’re a f*cking evil racist!
-No I’m not! F*ck you!
I guess that’s all I have to say.
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