As she related in a phone conversation, my stepmother Katherine was born a Negro in 1922. (She was also sometimes labeled a mulatto, as her father was white.) Later, she became a colored person, and in the 1960's, she was black and beautiful. (The ignorant and bigoted, of course, would use the N-word in the most degrading tone possible.) "Now I'm supposed to call myself African-American," she said to me and my sister, somewhat plaintively. "I wish they'd make up their minds."
For a long-time, I've been using the term African-American, but lately I've noticed in blogs I follow by POC/People of Color, the term Black (capitalized) seems to be the most popular term. What to say/write? I've heard, for example, that some people who used to be called (physically) handicapped prefer the term handi-capable, and others find that appallingly cutesy and they prefer disabled. Others like differently-abled.
Those periodically or permanently disabled by mental illness would prefer we don't call them crazies, wackos, or nutjobs.
Hispanic or Latino? I think right now, Latino is the preferred designation. (Yes? No? Both?)
White Hispanic & Latino-Americans Image via Wikipedia
I'm not asking you to break out the hankies for me. I'm certain that all people who've experienced discrimination and oppression worldwide would be thrilled if their biggest dilemma was one of vocabulary, akin to choosing the proper salad fork.
I am asking you to grant me (and other poor, dumb, well-meaning people) the benefit of the doubt if occasionally I use a term which was the Politically Correct term to use, 10 years ago. Or even last week. By all means, bring me up to speed, but please understand I'm not deliberately trying to hurt others.
In fact, that is kind of the break I am asking you to give me, in all matters regarding racism and discrimination.
I "get" it. I have not lived in your skin. I have not been in a car while my boyfriend got his third DWB (Driving While Black) traffic stop in a week. I have not been followed around by a store owner with a hairy eyeball who assumed I was a thief based on my ethnicity. I have not been denied jobs, housing, or educational opportunities based on the color of my skin, my accent, my sexual orientation, or my physical inability to walk up a flight of steps. I can only imagine how hurtful and soul-scarring such treatment must be. I know that simply being born with white(r) skin, in America, has given me many privileges I'm aware of, and countless others I'm not.
On the other hand... I was born female. From the day I was born, I've been deemed "lesser" by some. I remember being passed over in school when I had my hand raised, and having teachers who actually said, when I led the class in an independent science study program, "You boys aren't going to let a girl beat you, are you?" I've been paid less than a man for doing the same work. I've been molested, raped, and beaten.
I've lived in a multi-racial household at a time when hardly anyone did, and gotten into fistfights over it. I've been the only white girl in a Black neighborhood, on the receiving end of a lot of hairy eyeballs, hoots and hollers. I've been mocked for not knowing how to plait hair or dance. At times when I've dated Black, I've gotten plenty of ugly comments, not just from whites, but from Black girls and women who deeply resent "some white bitch stealing our men."
So when somebody says to me, "You don't know what it's like to be treated as if you're a lesser being, or to be hated just for the color of your skin," I tend to bristle a little.
I think as human beings, we all have pain. Don't assume, because you see a happy smiling Caucasian face on my About Me page, or even in person, that I'm some airhead who thinks her shit don't stink and is oblivious to the pain and suffering of others. I don't know your pain, you're absolutely right, but I'm willing to listen. Explain it to me. Don't blow me off with "Somebody like you wouldn't understand." I might just understand some parts better than you think.
I "get" that you are probably real tired of having to explain the same shit, over and over again. But I would like us to be allies, not enemies. That means, I'm sorry to say, if you want me (and people like me) to care, you have to continue to educate me. I'm not going to be your enemy, regardless of how rude you might be to me, but if you continually insult me, I'm not going to make your cause a priority, either.
If I want someone to cease sexist behavior, I have to educate him as to what he's doing that is sexist, and why it's hurtful to me. Throwing up my hands and saying, "You're an asshole and you just don't get it," might be momentarily satisfying, but it doesn't accomplish the larger goal of achieving a change in attitude.
I do deeply want to get closer to a place where all human beings are indeed, valued for the content of their characters. I think it sucks that economic class and certain externals grant privilege to some and create disadvantages for others.
I ask myself all the time if I am being racist - and sometimes I get lost. For example, all Asian people do not look the same to me. My "adopted" Korean-Chinese son introduced a new girlfriend once, and wanted me to guess her ethnicity. I got it right - Chinese, and he was so proud of me. Generally I don't mix up Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese people. I see beautiful differences in the faces, hear it in the language (even if I can't understand it.) When I went to a co-worker's (mostly) Filipino wedding, I enjoyed the diversity in the different faces - some look Korean, some Latino, some Native American, and some could "pass" for Caucasian. Much like the United States, there isn't one Filipino "look."
Is it bad of me that I tend to look at people as individuals? That I think our differences are what make us beautiful and interesting?
While not every Black person has a "Black" voice, many have a distinct, warm, richness to their voices that simply isn't duplicated in Caucasian or Hispanic or Asian voices, no matter how vocally talented they may be. James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou and Barack Obama; Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Ludicris are just a few who come to mind. Is it racist of me to notice and appreciate this gift?
I want to respect those people who strong identify with a group, whether that identity is by birth, such as being Native American or deaf, or by choice, such as being a member of the Sierra Club. (None of which may be apparent at first glance.) Yet I don't want to treat people as if they are only a member of said group, either. And I tend to push back when one person claims to express the way "people who are XX think," without support to back up that statement.
Among Dr. Cornell West, Herman Cain, and 50 Cent, which gentleman represents "the way real Black men think"? All? None? The racial and cultural experience of Tennessee-born Henry Cho, above, is very different from that of his own father. Marc Rubio, politician, Floridian son of Cuban emigrés, has a life-story vastly unlike that of my Los Angeles-born co-worker of Mexican parents, or her undocumented alien Guatemalan husband, or that their two young children will have.
I don't think it's racist to tell someone, "I think you may represent the way some of the people in your group think or feel. I appreciate and respect your point of view. But I don't agree with it, nor am I yet convinced that the majority of people in 'your group' think that way, or 'should' think that way."
I'm also more than a little resistant to the pressure to feel some kind of cultural white guilt. My ancestors did not own slaves or displace Native Americans. Several fought in the Civil War for the Union side.
Which means... nothing. I don't feel I am entitled to either credit or blame for what my many times greats might have done. I'm sure that my ancestors, and your ancestors, and everybody's ancestors, behaved badly to somebody. There has to be some point where we stop squabbling about who first hurt who, like two little kids. "Mo-om, Cain pushed me." "Yeah, but Abel pushed me first!" "Well, Dad likes me best so there!" Remember how well that story turned out?
As far as assuming guilt for what other people did to Blacks, or Jews during the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide, or that Helen Keller had a real rough time before Annie Sullivan came along... no, not buying it for my own personal use. The only load of guilt or shame I am willing to carry on my soul is what I have earned by my own stupid or thoughtless mistakes.
Frankly I find the idea of assigning blame/guilt to be needlessly divisive and a time-waster.
IMO, it would much more helpful to look at problem areas, all of us together, and see how they can be addressed. Have people within certain groups been disadvantaged to due to generations of prejudice and discrimination? Absolutely. Are some people still disadvantaged? Absolutely. How do we fix that?
I don't see racism and discrimination as something only whites do or that only Blacks suffer from. As I posted originally, a lot of people, including women, the differently-abled (crossing my fingers that's okay to say), Latinos, Asian-Americans, LGBT and countless other people who are "different" suffer from being judged by what they look like on the surface. By those outside their groups, and sometimes, by those inside it.
Children living in poverty - that's a big problem, one about which Dr. King was deeply concerned. How do we get them out? How do we reduce the numbers of children from being born into poverty?
I'm volunteering now, in my spare time, in a newly formed organization aimed at bringing reading and storytelling experiences to the youngest children in facilities generally overlooked, like homeless and battered women's shelters, and leaving each child with his/her own book. If we can introduce a love of story and an interest in reading from a very young age, it won't solve the problem, but perhaps it'll chip away at it a little bit. (You can Like it on FaceBook here; website is in the process of being designed.)
Rape, sexual assault, class warfare... all the ways in which people with power take unfair advantage of those who have less, these are issues about which we could all work together.
I think this would be the greatest tribute we could do for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all those who have worked to advance civil rights and against poverty and oppression.
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