Thursday, June 11, 2009

Race and Afro-Caribbean Religions, Pt. 1: It's Not All About You...

When talking about race and Vodou (or other Afro-Caribbean religions), I frequently hear some variation on "but what about my suffering?" Discussions about the role of race in western culture get transformed into arguments about whether or not plus-sized people, Goths, punk rockers, etc. can be victims of prejudice. This is generally accompanied with observations like "I'm not a racist, I never even think about race, some of my best friends are black." The goal appears to be twofold: the posters wish to claim the moral superiority of victimhood while distancing themselves from the benefits which racism provides to members of the dominant culture.

Like many other primates, the human animal is hard-wired to distinguish between "our pack" and "the other guys." Race is just one of the more convenient dividing lines: religion, language and physical appearance (among other things) can also be used as justifications for bad behavior. Racism certainly isn't the only form of oppression. Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians are all "white," but do a perfectly fine job of hating each other.

Yet discussions of race and racial prejudice frequently get sidetracked into discussions about other forms of oppression. I can't imagine someone going to a forum dedicated to cancer patients and claiming that their chronic migraines hurt too ... then arguing that pain is pain and there's no reason why cancer survivors deserve any special sympathy. Americans can't stop talking about race - but often those discussions involve ways to minimize the role racism plays in our culture. And so we get the sad spectacle of white people telling black people that racism doesn't exist anymore, or assuring them that being black in America is no more challenging than being obese, having a Mohawk, or wearing a pentagram necklace.

There is definitely a time and a place to talk about oppression and prejudice as things in themselves. But there are also good reasons why we should examine specific manifestations of these instincts. And there are also reasons why we shouldn't try to turn discussions about the suffering of others into explorations of our own pain. Standing up for one's rights is one thing: whiny self-absorption is another.