The Gospel of Race in America
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Just so I can be safe in addressing Obama’s speech on race in America that he gave this morning, I’ve posted the video for those that haven’t heard it yet. Since he gave the speech I’ve been checking out the reactions in various places and while some folks are still saying “Rev. Wright hates white peepul! He wants to kill whitey” or they’re saying “Slavery is over, why are black people still talking about racism?!” for the most part people seem willing to at least look at the elephant in the room. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. Black people are angry and white people resent their anger because America likes to pretend that history doesn’t matter at all. Were all white people complicit in slavery? No. But they did benefit from the free labor and not just in the short term. Are black people angry about racism? Yes. But then slavery wasn’t their last brush with overt racism.
There’s this idea that it’s not okay for black people to react to racism except in ways that make white people comfortable. It’s an idea that makes no sense to anyone that grasps that the black community is comprised of people with their own individual agendas and agency. But then the idea of the black community as a monolith is one America has never been able to shake, instead there is an effort to lump us all in under one umbrella and pretend the totality of our experience can be summed up in a few stereotypes. White America is perceived to be made up of individuals with different goals, backgrounds and upbringing all of which can impact their decisions. But when you start talking about black culture there seems to only be two options available, and that’s black people who are “past” race (i.e. don’t discuss it or pretend racism doesn’t affect them) or black people that won’t “let go” of the past by continuing to recognize the reality of modern day racism.
Racism isn’t a contest with specific rules that say that you’re only racist if your ancestors held slaves, or if you come right out and say you hate black people. White America tends to want to shy away from the impact not only of institutional racism, but also that of individual racism. This creates this weird thought process where discussing race and racism in any straightforward fashion is forbidden despite the fact that it’s a huge part of American society. Few white people wants to address the anger or the pain that it causes, and so they ignore it, or get upset when someone starts talking honestly about the issues in a way that’s not comfortable for them to hear.
Meanwhile for black people (and other POC) race is ever present because it impacts every facet of our daily life. From access to appropriate hair care products (or lack thereof) to the way we’re treated by police officers, to the way in which our grooming is judged and discussed at work, school, or even in the media (don’t get me started on being a black woman with natural hair that I wear the way it grows out of my head) as though our bodies are still available to be evaluated for sale. Race is never off the table for us. This is a fact of our life in America. At some point in order for America to really move past it’s history it’s going to need to examine the past, and the roots of so many societal ills that tie into institutionalized racism.
That means talking about redlining, gentrification, discriminatory lending, discriminatory sentencing, racial profiling, and even about what has happened to successful black communities in the past. It means looking at why school district lines are drawn the way they are, and examining why some neighborhoods have more liquor stores than grocery stores. It’ll mean talking about the Welfare Queen myth and looking at who is actually receiving aid, and talking honestly about affirmative action and the primary beneficiaries of the program.
Thus far the accepted American approach seems to involve emulating an ostrich rather than facing the problem head on on a daily basis. This idea that pretending unity can be achieved by ignoring reality has always struck as me as completely ridiculous. We are a society composed of so many individual backgrounds and experiences, and we need to recognize the value of that patchwork even as we address the gaps those differences can cause between the people of America. It’s not enough to talk about being colorblind or tolerant (and let me just say that this idea that POC need to be colorless or tolerated to be accepted as equals is just racism in a different context) we need to address the wrongs and make steps to prevent them from remaining (or becoming) an endemic part of our culture.
It’s time to pull those heads out of the sand, and start participating in the most important conversation America has had in a long time. It cannot just be about this one speech or this one candidate. It needs to be a part of our daily lives for all the years to come, or our kids will inherit a mess that’s comprised of the same garbage that we’re wading through right now.
Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America.” Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.