How We Start the Conversation About Race

Last week brought yet another infuriating example of America’s incessant tendency to ignore everything wrong until that wrong thing blows up in its collective face, and then ignore it again. Of course, I’m speaking of the nine African-Americans killed at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Like all of America’s best examples of ignoring problems, this one checked off two boxes on the chronic cancers that we’ve been trying hard not to address: the proliferation of guns and gun culture and our favorite subject of ignorance, racism. A 21-year old man went into one of the most historically-black churches in this country and shot nine people to death, including a Senator, all while stating that the reasons for his violence were no more inscrutable than noticing that his victim’s skin color was a few shades darker than his. Despite Fox News and the entire right-wing’s attempts to characterize the violence as some sort of fantasy assault on religion, every bit of evidence presented shows that the motivation was entirely racial.

Now, I’ve already covered the gun culture angle and the mental health angle, in a post I can’t believe has barely been a year in the past. So I won’t be retreading those grounds again other than to say that we did nothing about guns after 21 children were gunned down at Sandy Hook, so there’s no reason to think we’ll do a damn thing about guns over nine black people in a church. The people trying not to call Dylann Roof a domestic terrorist/white supremacist/racist are the same assholes who will ensure we can’t talk about guns, and we can’t talk about mental health issues if it involves spending government funds to treat poor people.

The other thing that the media will say when discussing this story ad nauseum will be that “maybe we can finally have a frank conversation about race in this country.” I’ve heard all sorts of talking heads on all sides of the political spectrum spout those words, but like the gun control debate, we only mention that it’s time to “have a national conversation” and then a conversation never really happens. No one wants to talk about race. Why would they? It’s a thoroughly uncomfortable fucking subject.

White people avoid the conversation because it’s frankly uncomfortable, though I’d imagine not as uncomfortable as being denied the right to vote or getting lynched, or to use a more modern issue that’s been in the news lately, getting shot by a cop. White people find it uncomfortable because: 1) most white people don’t want to admit that “white privilege” means they get benefits they don’t have to make any conscious effort to access and 2) they don’t want to admit the one truth of the human condition that makes racism so easy.

We are all racist, every single one of us, no matter what nationality, color, creed, political bent or religion. The human psyche automatically attempts to categorize differences of any types into easily definable classifications to make threat identification instinctive. As barely-evolved savages, we are protective of our tribal identities and close personal relationships, and instinctively hostile to the unknown other which may or may not pose a threat. And beyond all that, we’ve all grown up in a society that one way or another reinforces certain stereotypes and systemic mores. Recognizing that one has made errors in judgement about another individual based solely on these deeply ingrained prejudices means one has to recognize a fault in oneself. In other words, one has to acknowledge that despite our good intentions, or our thoughts of our own moral compass, we have to admit we’ve look askance at someone else based solely on their race.

The only way a conversation about race can be fruitful is if everyone is prepared to admit their own prejudices. To that effect, let me be the one to start by saying that yes, I am a racist.

I’m 43 years old, born in 1971. Thankfully, my life began after the Civil Rights Act had been passed, so I wasn’t taught that blacks had their place, or that Jim Crow laws were acceptable, or that I should refer to all black people as the “N WORD.” That doesn’t mean I didn’t get handed down my own set of peculiar prejudices from family, friends and society that raised me.

I’ve said the “N WORD” more times in my life than I like to admit, and certainly more times than I can remember, and can offer no good excuse or reason for doing so. All I can offer is my deepest apologies and make every attempt not to say it again.

That’s an easy one. That’s one of those things that, growing up when I did, I knew was wrong. I want to talk about another thing that I did that marked me as a racist. This one isn’t so subtle, but I use it as an illustration for a larger issue that’s been in the news lately. I’m talking about the Confederate flag controversy that this tragedy has brought to the forefront.

For many years, I maintained the ignorant and oblivious view that use of the Confederate flag wasn’t about celebrating slavery and the oppression of the black race, but about celebrating my “heritage and history.” Thankfully, the last time this issue came up in my home state was in 2001, when a ballot initiative was raised to remove the Confederate “stars and bars” from the Mississippi state flag. I voted to remove the flag then, though 64% of the voters in Mississippi voted to keep it. At the time, I rationalized my vote purely on economic grounds. While I had no problem with its inclusion then, I did think that it gave a negative impression of Mississippi to businesses from out-of-state that might be considering locating here.

In high school, however, I had what you might call a bit of rebellious streak. Now, I wasn’t the type of hellraiser that was going to get arrested, killed or do something to otherwise derail my future. I wasn’t a complete idiot despite being a teenager. However, the “rebel flag” was to me a great symbol of “rebellion.” Saying that, I realize might paint me as more a fucking idiot than I like to admit. I don’t know how “the kids” do it these days, but in the ’80’s when you got to your junior year of high school, you bought a class ring which you’d give to you girlfriend if you had one. For some reason, I was excited to get a class ring even though I never wore jewelry nor really cared that much about my clothes other than wanting to look more like a heavy metal musician and less like a preppy. It was the ’80’s, after all.

When it came time to pick out my class ring, I pored through the design books, and in the end, decided on a design with a symbol underneath the stone. What symbol did a young, dumb rebel like me pick? Yep, you got it. The Confederate flag, that same flag which now flies over the South Carolina state house near where nine people were killed in a church for the sin of being black. I was proud of that design too.

One of my best friends in high school was a black man named Stefan. Let me tell you something about Stefan. He might have been one of the smartest people I knew. He was passionate, head strong, intelligent and just fun to be around. Dumbass that I was, I showed my class ring to him proudly. I couldn’t understand why he gave me the look he did, though over the years I think I’ve come to understand what that look means. It’s equal parts, “You privileged dumbass” and “Bless his heart, he just doesn’t get it.”

No, I get it, it just took 25 goddamn years and some dead people to do it. That, and it took Jon Stewart saying this.

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That flag that I so PROUDLY displayed on my ring finger is the same flag used to terrorize black people, to keep them from exercising their rights to vote, to drink out of the same fountain as white people, to attend the same schools as white people. The streets named after Confederate “heroes” are named after people who betrayed their country in order to ensure that, if they happened to be rich enough, they could own another human being. That flag wasn’t even used in its current “stars and bars” incarnation as an official flag of the Confederacy. With that in mind, its heritage and history wasn’t even the one I was professing to celebrate, that of defending ones home from some form of tyranny. I was defending that symbol ignorant of its real history, its real meaning and most unfortunate, its real effect on the friend I probably didn’t deserve to have. If Stefan or any of my black friends are reading this, I’m sorry.

I am a racist and I always will be. I am not proud of it, but I need to admit it because the only way any of us can move forward as one species united in progress is by admitting we are not perfect. We are not perfect but goddamnit, we really really really ought to try to be if not perfect, at least a little fucking better than we used to be.

June 26, 2015 at 8:23 pm | Politics, Uncategorized | No comment

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