Monday, September 24, 2012

Ally School I: The Healing Power of Silence or, Shut Up and Listen

The only drug I'm on is Wade Long...
My blogging time has largely been taken up of late by diaper detail, and so I missed this comment on the blog of the lovely and talented Fern Miller.  It seems that Wade Long feels neglected because  I (and every other commenter) refused to acknowledge that there is no such thing as black culture. To assuage his wounded feelings, let it be known that when it comes to debates on race Wade (like another American Warlock) is officially "Winning."

But as I looked back through that lengthy conversation, I realized there were still many things that needed to be said.  I had talked about a problem I saw within the community but hadn't offered any constructive solutions.  Plenty of white liberals talk about racism, classism and other social issues as penance and absolution. Acknowledging problems frees them of responsibility for doing something about them. I didn't want to fall into that trap.  I think the issues I discussed need to be met with deeds, not words.

Nor do I think the situation is hopeless.  I would also note that the majority of white people (and people in general) who have written to me about Vodou are well-meaning and sincere. Of course good intentions do not mitigate the pain caused by bad behavior. But sincere, well-meaning people can be educated.  If you point out their mistakes and suggest better approaches they may just change their ways.  To that end, I thought I would offer some suggestions based on my life experiences.  Comments, observations and constructive criticism are welcome.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is this: nobody is "colorblind." You may think you are unaffected by race, class and other social signifiers. You, like everybody else, are far too intelligent to be tripped up by stereotypes and biases. The truth is that we are pack primates: we are wired to distinguish between those in our group and those outside.  And for centuries one of the most important dividing lines has been race.  Race may be an imaginary social construct but it is has a very real impact on people's lives.  One's perceived race can shape their interactions with others as much as their perceived gender or social class. It's foolish to think you have managed to rise above this construct and its effects. It is presumptuous and rude in the extreme to assume everyone else has.

This is not meant to say we cannot build bridges between our divisions.  But we must first acknowledge that those divisions exist.  We have made great strides in 21st century America: we are moving toward a culture where African-Americans have overcome prejudices like Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans before them.  But that doesn't mean that we've reached Martin Luther King's promised land, or that there are not still significant differences between the black American and white American experiences.  Like it or not, we still see things across a racial divide.

Consider antiracism activist and educator Tim Wise. Wise is effective in reaching white audiences largely because he's also white.  Were they to hear the same thing from a black speaker, they would be far more likely to get defensive.  They would see him as thin-skinned and overly sensitive; they would claim he was seeing prejudice where none existed; they would be affronted by the idea that he might see them as racist. ("I came to this anti-racism lecture! Doesn't that count for anything?!?!?!") When they hear the same speech from Wise, those defense mechanisms are no longer available.  For better or for worse, he reaches people who might not otherwise get the message.

When white commenters start talking about problems they see among blacks, or members of other minority groups, they frequently run into a similar problem.  Their intentions are good and they mean well. They sincerely think they are doing the right thing.  Yet their suggestions are dismissed and even mocked: they are accused of all sorts of nefarious motives and shut out of discussions just because they are white.  It's easy enough to take this as proof of "antiwhite bigotry," especially if you are more interested in justifying racism than dealing with it. But what is really happening here is the same thing we see with Tim Wise.  Black audiences tend to hear solutions and observations proffered by white people as patronizing, arrogant and clueless.

If you're feeling defensive, you may want to examine what makes you uncomfortable. You probably wouldn't demand the podium at a mathematician's convention so you could present your paper on high school algebra.  You wouldn't claim you know as much about legal issues as an attorney or that your opinion on a medical question is as informed and valuable as that of a physician. So why would you presume to speak authoritatively about someone else's community? Why would you not defer to those who have lived as black Americans and who can speak from their direct experience?

More to the point, why do you feel the need to speak up? Covered in Light, a recent Pagan initiative in support of veiled women, inspired many comments about the tyranny of the hijab and the horrors endured by women in Islamic countries. Few bothered to read or acknowledge commentary from Islamic women who veiled by choice - or, for that matter, from Muslim women opposed to the veil.  Like evangelists using pictures of malnourished children to solicit donations, they reduced the disempowered to sentimental images for their own purposes.  This kind of behavior is racist and patronizing and don't be surprised when you get called on it.

(I speak from experience here.  I was a long-time participant in the ever-popular Vodou flame wars across several battlefields.  I finally disengaged after a Haitian-American pointed out that the online Vodou scene looked like Survivor: a bunch of white people fighting over who gets to control the island.  The comment stung, but it was accurate.  I thought I was defending a tradition and a culture, but to those born and raised in the culture I was just being an annoying git).

I am sure that sooner or later I will get a comment here about freedom of speech and how I am a racist because I am asking white people to "censor" themselves.  This has nothing to do with freedom or with rights. This is about getting along with people. If you are not a clueless bigot, you presumably want to avoid being seen as clueless and bigoted. This is intended to help you avoid those pitfalls. If you feel it impinges on your right to say whatever you want whenever you want to with no concern for how others might react, you are free to ignore it.