Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Elephant in the Room - Race Relations in America

I have been watching the situation involving the black Harvard professor and his run-in with the law with fascination. Books have been written on this type of thing, so my inconsequential blog post to 6 readers is just that - inconsequential - but for the sake of posterity, I'll jot down my reactions.

If you boil it down to it's simplest form, it's pretty straightforward - both men overreacted. Gates should have known better than to antagonize a cop, and Crowley did not need to arrest this man for yelling - or being an ass - in his own home.

But we all know that nothing is ever that simple - especially for two men with unhealthy egos based in diametrically-opposed realities, namely physical power and authority, and superior intelligence and intellect. This was a classic nerd vs. jock scenario, the kind of scenario that has been played out in countless teen movies and adult-male cinema, but the added dimension of race brought it to national attention. Add an off-the-cuff remark by the nation's first African-American President, and BOOM.

But, as much as I would like to maintain a position of "we've come a long way," and "this was nothing more than two blowhards butting heads," um, I can't. I really and truly believe that if Gates was a small, bespectacled, cane-wielding white man - and professor at that - it would never have escalated as far as it did.

But that's just me - and here's the important part - that's just ME. And I don't know that there will ever be any true "color blindness" - or racial quality for that matter - because everyone, in situations like this, bases their opinions on their personal experiences.

Who I am is a woman with an advanced degree, a high IQ, and a professional job. I am also a woman of black and white parentage who has been taken as white, black, Cape Verdean, Hawiian, and everything in between. I am a woman who was raised on welfare in the 70s by people with intelligence, culture, and New England Yankee and Hippie sensibilities. As such, I have encountered white racism, black racism, "reverse racism" (when the folks at library school found out I was a minroty, I was pretty much offered my education on a silver platter - and when my boards came back in the 92nd percentile, that platter turned platinum), classism, sexism, sexual harrassment, and sexual assault.

I was beaten senseless as a child by black kids who didn't like the fact that I was (the only black child) in the gifted class. I was bullied as a child by white kids who didn't like that I was an "Oreo." I have been called a "race traitor" by black teens who didn't like my choice of white boyfriends. I have been hidden by those same white boyfriends for fear their parents would disapprove. The one white boyfriend who did take me home had his parents write him a letter saying that he needed to break up with me because I was "diluting" the bloodline (you cannot make this shit up).

As an adult, I have had people say to me (many, many times) "I didn't think you were black - you're so well-spoken/smart/white-acting." I have had the person at the unemployment office suggest a GED course, without first bothering to ask if I had a diploma - never mind a college education. I have been stopped numerous times, late at night, for "driving while black" (this is when you are pulled over, asked for ID and such, have your plates run, and then sent on your way with the admonition, "slow down" because they did not have any LEGAL reason to stop you in the first place - hence, no ticket). I have had people in cars lock their doors as I've passed on the sidewalk (seriously? I'm 5 feet tall).

Most recently, after leaving the weird comfort of my college town (where everyone is white - but also where everyone knew me) for the Cape, I've had to deal with "bitch-ass nigger" scrawled on my library windows, and the even more upsetting (to me, anyway) reaction from the Chief of Police: "Did you do something to piss someone off?" (yeah, I took a job here). I've had to deal with an enormous amount of animosity based not only of the color of my skin, but also the "poverty" of my background. I have been dragged into my (former) boss' office and berated for "not looking like a librarian" - no suit, no bun, no glasses on a chain, but rather a nose stud and a wardrobe straight out of Old Navy (which, by the way, I had both at my job interview).

As a woman, I have been fondled by male bosses and forced into unwanted sexual contact on a date. And, for good measure, I'll throw in this - as a fat woman, I have been told that I should be thankful for any date I can get.

So, even though I think I have taken most of this in stride, and I MAKE IT A POINT to not jump to racist conclusions everytime someone dislikes me, each and every one of these events has colored the way I see certain events. And I see this event as an almost unavoidable (given their backgrounds and professions) conflict between a black professor who has spent his life not only experiencing racism, but also cataloging it, being confronted in his home by someone he sees as the ultimate enemy - a white cop - and a white police officer in Boston being spoken back to by his ultimate enemy - a belligerant (and uppity at that) Black Man. Gas and match.

I like debate - debate is good. But how serious a debate can we have when there are still people out there who think racism (in whatever form) no longer exists in America? What do I say to my white, Republican friends (yes, I have some of those!) who say, "the President should stick to national issues, and not get involved in local events"? This IS a national issue! Shit like this happens every day - to minority people, gay people, women, poor people, fat people, and even, on occasion, the ubiquitous Wealthy, White, American Male.

I firmly believe that stereotypes aren't created in a vacuum. But at some point we ALL need to acknowledge our personal prejudices, think before we speak and act, and err on the side on decency and respect, especially when dealing with someone we may not like the look of.