Thursday, April 05, 2007

I laughed while he told me I'm a racist

I have made an uncomfortable discovery about myself.

I'm a racist.

Please know I'm not at all happy about that revelation. As a political and theological liberal racism is anathema to me. I thought that I had shed it like an unwanted skin as I grew up (even while I knew that some small taint of it lingered. I assumed that it had no more bearing on how I dealt with the world than a hang nail or an appendix).

Driving to pick up my daughter for Easter break from college I was listening to the radio. I was in the mood for some interesting discussion but it was too early for the local NPR station, they were still in music. I tried sports talk but the uber cool, intellect free zone of the host and the sycophant sheeple of his audience weren't offering the cerebral nurture I wanted.

Then I found Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson is a Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a brilliant speaker, ranging between a wide variety of character's voices, white and black, rich and poor. I found myself being challenged, and amused (some of his stuff was laugh-so-hard-I-may-wreck-the-damn-car funny). How good is Dyson? This is what Ann Coulter has to say about him: As always, Dyson is fiercely honest, controversial, engaging, funny, and brimming with arguments and ideas. The speech was presented before the Commonwealth Club of California and it was talking about the subject of his latest book Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson. It's one of the best speeches I've ever heard, ever, by anybody on any subject. He spoke passionately and with great compassion. There was also an unyielding light shown upon all of us, white and black, when it came to the subject at hand.

I found myself, good liberal that I am, nodding along with each point. Yes, there is still much institutional racism. Yes, yes, yes, all those OTHER bad people should really get their butts into the racism free zone, where alla God's children hold hands and strive together for a better world. I should have known that when I start getting that feeling I'm setting myself up for a fall. Then Dyson took me out.

He was talking about Michael Jordan as part of a larger point about the world being a better place when people are accepted because of their skills. In part he talked about Jordan as the greatest player the game has ever seen and how (this is my phrasing of what I heard not a quote) a world of Larry Birds and Bob Cousys is just fine but the world with Michael Jordan is so much better.

And I'm ashamed to admit that my first thought was "Whoa, wait a minute there are a lot of fine white players and why are we just going to shunt them to the side?" My second thought was "Man, did he just make his point or what?". I'm not a huge hoops fan, in fact let's be honest, I am NOT a basketball fan at all. In our society today it's hard not to know a little something about the game however. And the clear consensus is that MJ stands at the pinnacle of the sport, all time. Others may be argued to be on a par, but none above him. And my objection to Dyson's statement was based entirely upon race. I couldn't just say "This is the greatest player of all time". In my head it had been "This is the greatest BLACK player of all time right up there with some white guy". This is something about which I care damn little. This is something that can be measured quantifiably pretty well. This is something that intellectually I agree should fall into the celebration of human excellence.

Is it a small point in the world of racism? Yes. The fact that the point still exists, that a white middle aged guy like me finds it so easy to fall back into that mode of thought makes my skin crawl. Like so many movie situations I find myself looking at someone I thought I knew and now know they have deep, ugly secrets.

But the institutional racism had pushed itself pretty deeply into my psyche. It's there and it needs to be confronted. At the very end the host asked Dr. Dyson for a 15 second response to two one word questions. Solutions? Hope? Dyson laughed, and said there was no way to answer them in only 15 seconds and that we should listen to the speech and read the books. And so I will. Because by the end of the speech what I wanted to hear is that there is something I can do to fight this in myself and in the society around me. It seems obvious that the first thing is to shed the liberal, middle class complacency that has over taken me. The fight is not over, at home or in the world. In this case at least I bear the stain of the sins of the fathers passed along to the sons.

I'm going to go look for his books, I'll go back and listen to that speech again. I will not accept where I am or where we are as a society.

There's still a lot of work to do.



MadPriest said...

You could argue that the way you split people into black and white for comparison purposes is no different to splitting them into the different teams they play for and supporting "your" team. In other words is racism nothing more than supporting your favourite team and so should we ditch competitive sports? Maybe this would gradually reduce our tribal instincts.

Don't be hard on yourself for having instincts, that's like being hard on yourself for going bald. We will not got rid of these natural instincts for a long time, if ever. What we must do is to allow our ability as human beings to reason to control our instincts when they are not appropriate. For example most men want to have sex with most women we see as we walk down the street, but we don't (well I don't anyway!) In the past Christians have gone to all sorts of masochistic lengths to get rid of such lustful feelings. It wasn't until we realised they were just part of being human that we learned to live with them and be in control of them - the result - less psychopathic Anglican priests but still many child abusing RC priests.

PseudoPiskie said...

When I was very young, I met two black girls who swam with us. I was told to be friendly but not bring them home to dinner. As I grew, I heard that applied to all sorts of people. For example, if you never date a Catholic, you won't marry one. Of course I dated a Catholic all thru high school. His mother called me "that protestant floozy". (We didn't marry.)

Mom was totally prejudiced. She hated the fact that all the hired help in NC was black. She longed to be in the white world she grew up in. But she was friendly and all the gals, white and black, loved her.

My stepfather embarrassed us regularly by using the n word in public places. Yet he didn't object when a black man built a house on the street behind. He ran an extension cord so the man could have light before the electricity was hooked up.

I am racist and I notice it all the time. Racism was instilled in me from birth. I will never completely overcome it. My parents weren't to blame as nearly everyone was racist then. My task is to recognize it and put it aside.

I pray that younger people will not teach their children the same fears and, in some cases, hatred that we grew up with.