Thursday, September 6, 2007

On Racism, Tolerance, and Acceptance

It's taken me a couple of days to arrange this post in a way that makes me want to post. I guess you could call this a disclaimer because I still feel so uncomfortable dealing with the issue of racism and I'm still learning how to talk about it. I welcome comments and suggestions.

A couple of days ago I was just sad. Now I'm angry. ANGRY. A. N. G. R. Y.

I want to know why our newspapers and TV stations haven't had anything to say about the Jena Six. I want to know why this isn't national news. Why are we not outraged as a nation that this kind of behavior still flies. Why do I continue to be sheltered from this ugly reality so that I am afraid to have a conversation about racism?

Have we not learned anything over the last 400 years?

You see, I live in a sheltered little city in the Pacific Northwest, where our demographic consisted of mainly Asians, Caucasians and Native Americans until about 10 or 15 years ago. At 33 years old, I've only experienced a few times the racism that still exists between Blacks and Whites and it happened in other cities.

Except for once.

You see, there are racist skinheads here. But only once did I actually see them harrassing anyone. And I ended it as soon as I was witness to it. I don't hate them because I think it is wrong to hate. I think hate just puts me on their level.

And I certainly can't hate anyone for the way they look or what they believe. I choose, instead, to stay out of their way if I feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Unless they're hurting someone else. Then I will stand in the middle until they go away.

But what else can I do?

What is this concept of "tolerance?"

In my opinion, tolerance implies that something has to be put up with. If I am "tolerant" of something, that means (to me) that I have to put up with something that annoys me or makes me feel uncomfortable. Like I should be "tolerant" of a strange man putting his hands up my shirt.

Can we change that word to "acceptance?"

As in, "I accept you for who you are. Your human-being story, your skin, your hair. Everything that makes you who you are." I don't have to like you or hang out with you if you hurt me or do things that I don't want to do or make me feel uncomfortable. But I accept that you are different and the same as me.

You and I have the same insides.

Liver
Lungs
Stomach
Small and large intestine
Zygomatic bone
Metatarsals
Surfactant
Etcetera...

The difference is what covers it. That's the physical difference.

Well, and reproductive organs (wink wink).

What do I do to help my children understand the differences that are important and the ones that are not? Do I want them to be color-blind or do I want them to notice the difference in skin color? Do I want them to pretend like there is no difference between them or do I want them to embrace and respect it the same way that they notice different hair and eye colors?

I think the significant factor that we are missing as a nation is the difference between right and wrong. Did the parents of these children in Jena teach them that it was OK to hang nooses in a tree and taunt other kids with racial slurs? Did they teach their children that it's OK to brutally beat someone for taunting them? How do you teach a child to stand up for themselves without resorting to violence? How is it that the one child that has gone to trial thus far had an all-white jury?

What's the missing link in this situation?

Is it education? Is it tolerance? Is it acceptance?

Violence begets violence. Does one have to be educated to understand this?

During my first week of midwifery school my class was asked to engage in an activity in which a statement was made (from the instructor) and we were asked to take sides and try to convince the "other side" to agree with us. The instructor made the statement, "It's OK for black people to use the word "ni..er" but it's not OK for white people to say it." This brought about a complete meltdown within the structure of the class. There were several students from other countries, and only one Black student. When ladies from other countries didn't understand the big deal about this word I tried to explain that it has the power to evoke violence. I understand that it's used in the Black community but I would never use that word for the same reasons that I wouldn't call a gay person by one of the many slang words used to identify them. I don't identify with the word so it isn't mine to use. Many of us ended up crying and it effectively ended our session for the day.

I guess I am the ultimate hypocrite in that I was absolutely unwilling to deal with the racism issue because there was one Black woman in our class. I can't tell you why. I think it's my upbringing and the fact that, as a racism-sheltered white woman, I'm afraid that what I would say would be offensive to the one Black woman. It's a very strange mix of emotions for me. I don't have a problem discussing prejudism against gays and lesbians with my gay and lesbian friends. Why the fuck am I so afraid of discussing racism with black people?

I am naive.

If anyone has anything to say to me regarding this post, PLEASE say it. I need to learn how to deal with this issue because in my dreams of serving women through their pregnancies and births, I see people of all colors, nationalities, and cultures.

2 comments:

Niki said...

I think that this is an absolutely wonderful, thoughtful post. I don't have anything to say about it, really, yet, but it is making me think. I appreciate the thoughts on "tolerance" vs. "acceptance" - that really strikes something with me.

J said...

Trip out on that... I am in a similar space right now. I went to a couple of workshops on racism last weekend. It was the first time in my life I actually dealt with my own shit over this issue... shit that sounds remarkably similar to yours. I grew up without very much understanding of racism and without many people of color around. I learned to be "cautious" around black strangers because I might offend them in some way. At the very least, I felt my ignorance of racial issues would be broadcast as soon as I opened my mouth. I have been around discussions about racism at school and other places where I just didn't say anything because I didn't know how to address it in my own life. I had heard people say "we're all racist whether we believe it or not because racism is in the air we breathe, just like capitalism". I'd heard this, but couldn't apply it to my life. I'm finally realizing that how it applies to my life is in my very silence and ignorance around the topic. Pretending racism does not exist. Pretending the social construct of race is a non-issue when in fact it's HUGE. I have all of these intense feelings around this topic which I had not been addressing: guilt, shame, sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, fear--lots of fear.... sheesh! In these workshops at the conference all that shit came welling up and I was overwhelmed. One of the hardest things is that I am THIRTY SIX YEARS OLD and this is the first time I have ever seriously addressed my own passive, unconscious participation in america's racism. That in itself causes more guilt, shame, sadness, anger, etc. I have to acknowledge this stuff and find a way to work through it.

Jay