From the outside in

As many of us have, I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Between Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, and the resulting protests and marches, I think you’d have to be living under the proverbial rock if you weren’t thinking about race these days.

What’s really got me bothered, though, is the blindness I see from fellow white folk on FB, Twitter, and the like. You can’t turn around without someone taking a stand: you’re for the police or for people of color. If you honestly think race in America is that simple, then you’ve got some soul searching to do.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not I should write a post about race. It’s tough, but I felt I should weight in. No, I am not a person of color, but I am married to one. He’s not black, but brown, and that comes with its own set of issues. However, I am part of a minority, and I know first-hand the feeling of snap judgment and prejudice. Don’t get me started on the number of hurtful things I’ve seen spread in the media about people with disabilities and Obamacare when it comes to coverage of pre-existing conditions. Life on the outside of mainstream culture, whether it’s because of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. is not easy, and I’ve decided that anyone looking from the outside in has valuable insights to offer.

That being said, there is also a fine line between advocacy and speaking for a group to which you do not belong; there is an excellent piece about this for trans awareness that you can read in the Huffington Post. Being close to a group is far from sharing the experiences of that group. I do not know what it is like to be pulled over for “driving while black,” but, as a woman, I know the potential fear of being pulled over at night by an unmarked car. The experience is not the same, but there is a shared pervading disquiet. Though, I’m pretty sure that if a woman expresses her right to drive to the nearest police station before continuing the interaction, she has a better chance at being respected than a black male who might ask for the same.

What I’m trying to get at is the shared experience of institutional discrimination. This is a very real phenomenon shared by people in the margins of society. You can see my previous post about it: 21 October, 2014 – Discrimination, Partie Deux. We live in a society created for and by white males. This is why things like feminism, LGBTQ activism, disability awareness, and civil rights movements count: their goal is to effect change (yes, that’s the correct spelling of the verb – I checked) to the structure. It is very easy for those within the structure to see no problems with it, because it does not harm them. The world of business is a patriarchal structure based on paradigms of male leadership, which make it easy for us to pigeonhole any strong woman in a leadership role as a bitch (Hilary Clinton, anyone?)… The aim of feminism is to change the paradigm to a new structure, and not necessarily one that favors the feminine either (though, they are out there). Most activists for any marginalized group really want to create a new structure, to start fresh. But… this is always frightening to the current people in charge.

The caricature of the black male so pervasive in the coverage of recent events has got me thinking about Richard Wright’s Native Son, which I have taught in a freshman seminar for the past two years in my “Capital Punishment in Literature” course. Though we talk about other books like A Tale of Two Cities, In Cold Blood, and The Last Day of a Condemned Man, amongst others, I use Native Son as a vehicle to talk about race and the justice system. It was actually the Troy Davis case that gave me the idea for the class, but every year, there seems to be something else relevant and contemporary to talk about the 21st century justice system. Trayvon Martin had been killed shortly before my first session, and George ZImmerman was acquitted just before my second time around. If I were teaching the course this year, I’d not have a shortage of material. How can a novel that was published in 1940 about race in Black Belt Chicago still be so informative today? I was looking back at my underlines and textual notes, and so much of the marks echoed the sentiments expressed in recent protests.

Even the introduction rings true to the contemporary endeavor:

“The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright’s urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation. As proud, rich, and powerful as America was, Wright insisted, the nation was facing a grave danger, one that would ultimately destroy the United States if its dimensions and devious complexity were not recognized. Native Son was intended to be America’s guide in confronting this danger.

Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America. The dehumanization of African Americans during slavery had been followed in the long aftermath of the Civil War by their often brutal repression in the South and by conditions of life in many respects equally severe in the nominally integrated North. Nevertheless, Wright knew, blacks and whites alike continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races even as the nation lurched inexorably toward a possible collapse over the fundamental question of justice for the despised African American minority.” (Introduction to Native Son by Arnold Rampersad).

Richard Wright

Richard Wright

What Richard Wright’s attempted to show in his novel was the deep underbelly of racism, to expose it at the roots. For him, the conditions of people of color living in Chicago were symptoms of a greater illness: an entire society built on, and repeating, slavery. Really, it’s institutional racism. Institutional racism isn’t always conscious; in fact, based on the reactions to Ferguson and NY, I’m guessing that most people don’t believe it because they don’t see it (I love this explanation of institutional racism). People think of racism as an individual act, but it runs much more deeply than that, as it is ingrained in our social institutions: law, government, education, business, etc. The fact that so many of our institutions and their policies disenfranchise a variety of groups (e.g. the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill) implicates us in those very systems if we do nothing about it. An educator who does not speak up when accessibility is violated, who does not speak up when a colleague is mistreated, who does not question disparities in their own school, or someone who sits quietly by because “things never change,” perpetuates those injustices. If we do not lead by example and teach our young people to question and think critically, then things may really “never change.”

One of the products of our unequal social foundations is that word that people throw around, but is nevertheless very true: white privilege. It’s really easy for white people to come to the defense of the police and call Michael Brown a thug. In a culture where the black male is the archetypal perpetrator, it is so easy to dismiss his death because he somehow “had it coming,” even though he didn’t. I know plenty of white thugs who really had it coming, but never saw the end of the barrel. Al Capone, anyone? As far as I know, in this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. Brown did not enjoy the due process that was his right, because of a snap judgment created by the culturally accepted norm of the angry black man. The face of the stereotypical cop is a white one, and we trust our own and fear the other. It is so easy to do. That said, it is possible to support police and call out the inequities of our current system.

Are cops racist? I don’t think so. (Though there are exceptions to every rule – think about the scandal in Ohio at the moment). That’s like saying all men are rapists. I’ve known a fair number of cops, and each of them has been awesome and committed to the notion of “protect and serve.” I do not question that. But, the justice system as a whole, as a product of our society, feeds into the stereotypes of black man as criminal, of brown man as terrorist, of Latino as illegal. As a member of the dominant society, it is so easy to fall prey to the images spread by the media of the black gansta, the flaming faggot, the butch dyke, the confused tranny, the retarded crip, without thinking too much about it. By blindly accepting those images, by not questioning them as they fly by our hyper-connectivity, we are complicit in these systems that disenfranchise. If we do not question the system, we tacitly accept it as just. However, I must also not that criticizing a social structure is not equivalent to judging the individual people working in the system. I take my hat off to all the men and women who choose to protect their communities; they are indeed under a pressure that most of us fortunately do not know.

By the way, I don’t use the pejorative terms above lightly. There are people who do use these words amongst themselves, when none of these people can hear. Or, even in public, on social media in online news sources when these people can hear and see. We live in a culture where people living outside the norms are caricatures of “real people.” It’s really easy to convince yourself that these lives don’t matter, that our side is the right side, because “they have it coming.” White privilege (and straight privilege, and cisgender privilege, and able-bodied privilege… and… and) are all real.

Was Michael Brown a thug? I honestly have no idea, and I don’t care. What I do care about is the fact that this is just one drop in the bucket of a string of “shoot first, ask later.” I shouldn’t have to be nervous when my husband and his brother are pulled over in the middle of the night in Arizona only two years after 9/11. But, the fact is, I’m still scared more than 10 years later. My husband is a physician, an American. People feel better when I explain that to them, but don’t you see the problem with that? I have to explain it to them. And it shouldn’t matter where he was born. People shouldn’t feel better when he doesn’t have an accent, but they do. People shouldn’t feel better when a black man sounds “so well spoken” (i.e. white), but they do. Straight men and women shouldn’t feel more comfortable around “normal-seeming” gay/lesbian folk (i.e. passing for straight), but they do.

Our culture is infused with norms that are unfair. What the #blacklivesmatter movement means is important. It’s not about one man but about a system that needs to change, and it cannot change without white people, and other people of color. What it means is that we need to open our eyes and be courageous enough to stand up for change, even if it means our own group looses a little bit of power. Imagine what we could learn if we let everyone have a valid voice? How much brighter would be our society?

I leave you with a few excerpts from Native Son to ponder in light of current events. When times were different? image

Bigger and his friends “play white”:

They were silent again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter.


“Hello,” Gus answered.

“Who’s this?”

“This is the President of the United States speaking,” Bigger said.

“Oh, yessuh, Mr. President,” Gus said.

“I’m calling a cabinet meeting this afternoon at four o’clock and you, as Secretary of State, must be there.”

“Well, now, Mr. President,” Gus said, “I’m pretty busy. They raising sand over there in Germany and I got to send ’em a note….”

“But this is important,” Bigger said.

“What you going to take up at this cabinet meeting?” Gus asked.

“Well, you see, the niggers is raising sand all over the country,” Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. “We’ve got to do something with these black folks….”

“Oh, if it’s about the niggers, I’ll be right there, Mr. President,” Gus said.

They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore.


“What’s the matter?”

“They don’t let us do nothing.”


“The white folks.”

“You talk like you just now finding that out,” Gus said.

“Naw. But I just can’t get used to it,” Bigger said. “I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence….”

Bigger’s lawyer, Max, defends Bigger:

“His entire existence was one long craving for satisfaction, with the objects of satisfaction denied; and we regulated every part of the world he touched. Through the instrument of fear, we determined the mode and the quality of his consciousness.

“Your Honor, is this boy alone in feeling deprived and baffled? Is he an exception? Or are there others? There are others, Your Honor, millions of others, Negro and white, and that is what makes our future seem a looming image of violence. The feeling of resentment and the balked longing for some kind of fulfilment and exultation—in degrees more or less intense and in actions more or less conscious—stalk day by day through this land. The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of others more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put upon them, form the quicksands upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling? Does that sound fantastic? I assure you that it is no more fantastic than those troops and that waiting mob whose presence and guilty anger portend something which we dare not even think!