Yesterday I heard the term “polite racism” being used. I know something about that. I was born in 1957. I grew up in various upper middle class white, mostly WASP, suburbs in Ohio. I did not see a black person until I was seven. She was our housekeeper. Her name was Sophie. She was the first adult I ever called by her first name, not “Mrs.” anything. It wasn’t until I was an adult, actively doing anti-racist work, that it even dawned on me that this was weird. This happened in Rocky River, outside Cleveland.
The second time I saw a black people I was on a bus with my maternal grandmother. We were going on a shopping trip in downtown Cleveland. A black mother with her baby sat in front of us. Grandma said “oh look at that cute nappy headed baby.” Again, it wasn’t until I was an adult, actually doing anti-racist work, that it dawned on me that she was objectifying these people and, wow, the hair thing. That’s a whole other blog post. Until I moved to New York City, at the age of 20, those glimpses were all I saw of black people.
Notice I said “I saw black people.” That is a lie. I did not SEE them at all. I looked past them, as I had been TAUGHT to do, all without a word having been said. Nobody ever said blatantly racist things. I never heard the infamous “n word.” Nobody ever said anything blatantly derogatory about black people. Nobody ever sat me down and said “Now, you know, you are better than negroes (we said “negro” then), cleaner, smarter, higher class, so be nice to them but don’t think of them as equals or, heaven forbid, authorities on anything.” I just KNEW it. Fish don’t talk about water. White people don’t talk about race. We just swim in it and, as we are swimming, we learn the polite racist gaze, the one that looks, but doesn’t see what is all around us.
Until it erupts in our face. I remember watching the March on Washington on the small black and white TV in the living room of my paternal grandparents’ farm house. The only black people (actually, they called them “colored”) in that community lived “down the road a bit” What road, I did not know. I just heard that they “made a lot of noise” in their church. That’s all that was said about black people in that house, until the day they “made a lot of noise” in Washington DC, enough that it was on television, pre-empting Lawrence Welk. I remember my grandpa, who never rose his voice before in my hearing, slamming his hand down on the arms of his chair and saying “I just don’t know what the colored people want!” That is the problem. None of us knew. We were polite racists, too polite to realize we were racist at all.
When Martin Luther King died, four years after I met (or didn’t meet) Sophie, we were all sent home early from school, for fear of riots. My parents cried. They said he was a great man. They meant it too. They knew there was something really wrong about our country and they wanted to change it. But it’s hard to change what you cannot see and, like I said, polite racists don’t see.
When I was a teenager, in High School, we lived in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. At the time, it was all white. There was one black face in my class, an exchange student from Kenya. That’s it. But nobody said the “n word.” In fact, no one talked about black people at all. We were too polite.
My dad worked for Ohio Bell at the time. When time came to hire a sales manager, he found the most qualified person was a black man. So, against great opposition, he hired him. The two of them looked forward to working together. Living in the same neighborhood was another story. There were houses for sale on our block but, strangely enough, none were “available.” It was then that I learned that even *our* home had been purchased under an illegal “restrictive covenant.” I always thought the block association was all about cookouts and stuff. Apparently there was more. Apparently, as we were swimming in our polite racism, looking past black faces, we also had been swimming past a whole lot of red lines, including the ones we drew ourselves.
Something in me knew something weird was happening, but politeness made it hard to see. Until the day, at age 16, I picked up Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” All I “knew” or thought I knew about him was that he was a violent person who should be dismissed in favor of the much more “reasonable” King. Except that is not what I saw when I read his words. This black man, whom I never met, who never lived in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and who wasn’t even alive at the time knew more about my life as a young white woman than I did. Why? Because he was on the outside of the fish tank looking in and he could see what we were swimming in and he named it – White Supremacy – and he said he would rather deal with the blatant southern “cracker” than deal with our polite racism. Hello.
That day, forty years ago, was my first step out of this thing that was killing my soul along with so many black bodies. The memory stays with me. I erupts anew when I hear words like “polite racism” and I have to confess, once again that, yes. I know something about that. I know those deadly waters. I am still trying to get out of them. That is what fuels my anti-racist work, the deep desire to do better, to live better, to be better.
On this anti-racist journey, there is so much I do not yet know. But this I do know – polite racism kills. It kills just as surely as blatant racism kills. In a way, it’s even worse because it is so easily disguised. Those of us who are swimming in it have a hard time seeing it, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t drowning in it and killing lots of black and brown people in the process.
White people. We can do better.
Time to drain the swamp.
Dear White Women,
Today’s racism 101 lesson is just for us. So get your pencils and paper ready and put on your big girl panties because this is a tough one. We’re moving past the bullet points now, into some deeper waters.
After the Zimmerman verdict, Facebook and other social media was full of the famous photograph of the lynched Emmett Till that first appeared in Jet magazine in September of 1955. (If you don’t know who Emmett Till was please do your homework now.)
What is the connection between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin that most black people understand while most of us don’t?
Well, for starters, both were black young men, shot down in their prime who should have lived, who should have had a future. But look deeper. What is an important common denominator in these stories that we need to talk about as white women ? It’s white women.
Emmet Till was lynched because he supposedly whistled at one of us. Trayvon Martin was denied justice after his death by a jury mostly made of us. (five out of six) Coincidence? Not. The relationship between black men and white women in the United States has been seriously messed up for centuries.
Consider the history of the lynching of black men in America. If you never considered this history, ask yourself why something so major was not part of your education and do something about that. Start with reading the work of Ida B. Wells. (If you don’t know who she was, again. Homework. ) What was the most common “charge” against these men? The alleged rape of white women- alleged – as in never happened. It was a fiction created by white men, many of which actually *were* raping enslaved African women on a very regular basis, as a way of dealing with their own fears, guilt, and whatever other strange emotions come up when you’ve been raping people you “own” and convincing yourself that’s OK.
On how many levels is that twisted? If it was just one man doing this, you would say he was sick. But when many men do it, it becomes normal and many men were doing it. Still, there had to be a pretext and, guess what, the pretext was US. Black men were tortured and killed in publically *celebrated* – as in pack a lunch and bring the kids – shows because why? The Defense of White Womanhood.
It was done in the name of “JUSTICE” and “Law and Order” by “good Christians” who saw no irony in crucifying people in Jesus’ name. There were all sorts of rationalizations but the one that worked every time to get a lynch mob going was to mention the “honor” of a white woman, supposedly besmirched by a black man. (You did read “To Kill a Mockingbird” right?? ) Something about us, white women, really gets them going. Our delicate “womanhood” our “virtue” our “honor” us ”up on a pedestal” to be defended with unthinkable violence – the very foundation of both patriarchy and white supremacy.
But is that who were are, or ever were? Is that what our womanhood is all about? A pretext for racist violence? You would think white women would have protested such an obvious okie doke. Sadly, we did not. According to the meticulous research done by Wells, not one allegation of rape that led to lynching was ever substantiated. In those very few cases where there was sex between black men and white women it was consensual. Never once did a white woman stand up and tell the truth. Never. Not one instance of any of our sisters saying “excuse me, what rape? He never raped me” and you can be damn sure none of them said “yes, we did have sex. I liked it.”
Imagine that. There were cases where white women invited black men into their beds and then stood by silent, not saying a mumbling word as they were castrated and murdered for this “crime.” Did I say there is some messed up stuff in our history? Yes, I get it that any white woman who told the truth would have really suffered for it but, really? not one?? when this much was at stake??
But what does this have to do with the Zimmerman trial. I’m fixin to tell you.
The idea of the black man as symbolic assailant and the habit of not seeing black men as full human beings is deeply ingrained in us as white women. Oh yes, I know. You think lynching is horrible. You are glad it doesn’t happen anymore (at least not as frequently) and, hey, you weren’t there. You didn’t do it. I get that. But do you really think the many levels of lies from the pit of hell that it took to support such a system just went away? Do you think time alone heals such deep wounds in the human spirit? It does not. Work does, hard gritty, grimy, hear-things-you-don’t-want-to-hear anti-racist WORK ends racism and that work always begins inside of us.
I can’t say what each of the women on the Zimmerman jury were thinking, but I can comment on the one who came forward – b37. When she spoke about how “confusing” the law was, how they all “cried” about it, when she talked about “George” as if the shooter was her son, and never even mentioned Trayvon Martin’s name, I heard the voices – or should I say the non-voices – of countless white women acting according to our training to not see black men as people, women who, when confronted with hard reality of race would rather “get the vapors” and pass out than woman up and deal with it.
Am I being too harsh? Am I misrepresenting the consciousness of far too many white women? Let’s test that. As another meme making the social media rounds puts it – imagine if your 17 year old daughter was walking home at night after buying candy at the store. She was followed by a strange man with a gun. When he came toward her, she tried to defend herself. He shot her. Then he was found “not guilty” and she was portrayed as the aggressor – now imagine it’s your white 17 year old daughter and the assailant is black. How do you feel about what happened to her? Is that how you would have ruled in this case?
Now, here’s the test question – Are you really able to identify with Trayvon Martin in the same way you are able to relate to this fictional white teenage girl? Because, if you can’t, you have work to do.
But here’s the good news – we are women. We are strong. We are able to figure things out, even when those things are hard, and we have the courage to act on the truth when we see it and, like I always say we can do better.
So how about it, white women? Are we ready to do the work?
White Anti-Racism 101
2013 July 23
Leave a comment
Posted by Karyn Carlo
Last week’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial gives those of us in the progressive faith community no choice but to get serious with our anti-racist work. To that end, I offer these reflections that first appeared as facebook posts that I call White Anti-Racism 101
OK white people, listen up. Class is in session.
1. racism is prejudice PLUS power. those who lack social
power can be prejudiced, hateful, and mean but, unless they have the power to
institutionalize their prejudices it’s not racism (and yes, I know that is
“not what the dictionary says” I am talking about critical race
theory here. google it.)
2. victims of racism
are not responsible for making us comfortable with it or finding nicey nice
ways to talk to us about it so we don’t get offended. They have other work to
do. Dismantling racism is our work. figuring out why we can’t hear black and brown
people when they are angry or in pain and learning to get over it is part of
that work. let’s grow up and do it.
3. racism is not
human nature. human beings are capable of much better.
4. The media did not
5. just because you
didn’t personally invent white privilege does not mean you don’t benefit from
6. whether it’s the
use of the infamous “n” word, or anything else, “but they do it
too” is a lame argument (see above re power)
7. no, black power is
not the same thing as white power (read a history book)
8. it’s too late to
“take the country back” We never owned it to begin with.
9. “I just
didn’t know” is not an excuse. There is a cure for ignorance. It’s called
OK, white people. It’s time for our next installment of
anti-racism 101 so grab a pencil. class is in session
1. black people who
protest state sanctioned or state excused killing of other black people are
usually *exactly* the same people who are hard at work in their own communities
with all sorts of anti-violence projects, so unless you are super duper active
in this area (and even then) you probably should leave the “aren’t you
concerned about black on black crime?” thing alone. really. you are just
2. most crime in this
country is white on white. the biggest threat to the white race is white
people; let’s do something about that
3. white women, like
all women, are in more danger in their own homes than on the street. If they
are assaulted or killed, the perpetrator is likely to be an intimate partner or
family member, not a mysterious black stranger. so oppressing black people is
not the answer to violence against white women. not killing us works better.
4. it is possible for
“minorities” to be racist toward other “minorities”
“Zimmerman is half Hispanic” is as compelling an argument as
“some of my best friends are black” (and in case you didn’t know,
that’s not very compelling)
5. nobody in their
right mind goes into anti-racist work for fame and fortune. Trust me. the pay
stinks and you end up hated more than loved. so “they are just stirring
things up for their own benefit” is a questionable claim and not
6. black suffering is
not “our” suffering. we may, and surely should, care about racism
simply because we are human, but unless we experience profiling and
discrimination on a daily basis or fear for our children who do, let’s not
claim it for “our” own. do not confuse solidarity with appropriation.
We are not Trayvon Martin. at best, we are his white friends, or will be once
we do the work, and that is fine
7. the validity of
ideas is not measured by how they make you *feel* In fact, lots of very true
information, particularly about race, is pretty much guaranteed to make you
feel defensive and really piss you off at first. hang in there anyway. the
truth will set you free eventually
8. the fact that
there are black “conservatives” on Fox News proves nothing. please.
we all have issues
9. white anti-racism is
not white self hate. no liberation begins with self contempt. we do this
because we love ourselves too much to be cut off from the rest of humanity- so
we do the work