Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Race and Afro-Caribbean Religions Part 2: (Not) Talking About Race

A recent post on Dionysian Atavism inspired me to throw in my $.02 about race and racial discussions. This is rather a live topic for me. I'm a white practitioner of a religion whose practitioners are largely black Haitians. I also am active on several mailing lists dedicated to Vodou and African Diaspora religions and have written several books on the subject.  This means that I have many opportunities to discuss race, racism and the role it has played in the development of Vodou and other Afro-Caribbean faiths. But in talking about race, I've noticed there are certain "conversational jiu-jitsu moves" which are frequently used to derail the discussion.

One which I've seen on many occasions (and which I have blogged about previously) is "what about my suffering?" Discussions of black suffering and black oppression get met with comments about how badly X has been treated for being overweight, disabled, a member of an alternative subculture, etc. Certainly there are many forms of oppression. But keep in mind that these discussions are generally taking place on Vodou-related forums.  Is it unreasonable to suggest that discussions of racism are on topic in this context whereas discussions of i.e. biphobia, size acceptance, Goth-bashing and Ye Burning Times might be better suited to other lists?  And is it unreasonable to ask that people who wish to explore a majority black religion give some thought to what it means to be black in Western culture?

Yet another favorite trope is to claim that any white person who wants to talk about racism suffers from "white guilt."  I had this one pulled on me on a forum where I dared to suggest that the infamous "Obama Food Stamp" put out by a California Republican organization was racist.  I took pains to note that harsh and even unfair criticism of the President comes with the office.  I noted that while I felt that the "Obama as the Joker" and "Obama as Hitler" posters were unoriginal and stupid, I would admit that they were not in and of themselves inherently racist.  But criticizing a black man's face slapped on a "food stamp" between a watermelon and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is enought to prove my "white guilt."  I suppose I should be thankful for progress: fifty years ago I would have been a nigger-lover, but now I'm just a self-loathing white person. 

Were I black, I wouldn't be suffering from "white guilt" but from "reverse racism." (Remember Glenn Beck's comment about Obama's "hatred of white people?") Any time I tried to talk about being black in America, it would be proof that I was "militant." The discussion might even degenerate into arguments about how "nobody ever gave ME any handouts just because I'm white," and "my ancestors never owned slaves so why do I owe you anything?" Before long we might even start hearing how "the white male is the most persecuted minority in America today" (This presumably explains why so few Fortune 500 executives and high-ranking American political figures are white men).

Other strategies I've noted are "we all come from Africa" (yes, but some of us have more problem hailing a cab than others) or "race means nothing to me" (because you have a privilege which non-white Americans don't have).  This is typically accompanied by comments that "racism is stupid" or "why do we spend so much time talking about race anyway?" The idea is that we give the enemy power by speaking its name. Unfortunately,  as survivors of childhood sexual abuse will tell us, we can also give the enemy power by remaining silent. 

In "The Notorious N-Word," an article I wrote for PanGaia 46, I lamented how "racism" had been redefined from a pervasive system of oppression into the usage of racial epithets and noted 
By this standard, one can avoid being a racist merely by avoiding the use of the “N-word,” along with a few other epithets aimed at various minority groups. (If you complain when you heard others use inappropriate words, you even got extra points for being an activist and Working to Stop Racism). You needn’t question the ways in which you benefit from the systematic oppression of people of color. You needn’t stop and think about your internalized preconceptions and prejudices. All you need do is refrain from a few words and you are immediately forgiven for the sins of your ancestors and your fellow men.
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In paying attention to a vile and provocative word, we neglect far more pressing issues. Instead of fighting racial profiling or inadequate public schooling -- issues which have a real-time, real-world effect on Black people -- we argue with “White Power” types seeking an attention fix. We try to shield our children from “Nigger Jim” even though Huckleberry Finn is one of the most profoundly anti-racist books ever written. And we complain about “Gangsta rap” and the deleterious effects of “hiphop culture” instead of tackling real social issues. Those magicians who are familiar with sleight-of-hand tricks will recognize the fine art of misdirection applied on a grand scale.
It is as if we tried losing weight by refraining from saying “cake” and “sugar” -- or by declaring that food no longer has any calories. We can hardly be surprised to discover that our efforts have not been so successful as we might have hoped. By and large, we have stopped calling Black people niggers – but have we stopped treating them that way? The evidence suggests we have a long way to go.