rhetoric

I don’t see race

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I don’t see race. I don’t see your gender. I don’t see your age, or your family. I do not see your height, or your width. I do not see your shape, your hair, or your color or your eyes. I don’t see your education, your job, or potential. I don’t see your culture or community. I don’t see your neighborhood, your city, your state or your country. I don’t see your accomplishments or failures; your hope or fears. I don’t hear your accent or language. I do not hear your voice. Not your shouts; not your whispers; Not your dispassioned reason or your impassioned thunder.

I don’t see your beliefs, your religion, traditions, or symbols. I don’t see your churches, temples, mosques, or holy places. I don’t hear your stories, your fables, myths, old wives tales, or superstitions. I do not see your elders, prophets, and wise men. I don’t hear your singing, your chanting, or your poetry. I don’t see your dancing.

I don’t see your strengths. I don’t see your needs. I don’t see your struggles. What you have overcome and what you have left to do. I don’t see your heartache when tragedy befalls your brothers or sisters. I don’t hear your cries of anguish, your sorrow, your tears. I do not see your torn clothing and your sackcloth and ashes. I do not hear your prayers or pleas. I don’t hear your anger or frustration. I do not see beyond boxed illusions.

I don’t see your history. Your comings and goings. What you’ve been through. What you’ve taken and left behind. What your still going through, and will continue to go through. I do not see the mountains and valleys, the sun scorched deserts, the plains, or the jungles or the tundra. I don’t see the tapestry of your life. What makes you who you are and who you are not. I do not see you apart and a part of the aggregation of humanity. I don’t see the road you are on or the journey you must travel. That is not what I see. I don’t see race. I don’t see you.  If I can not see race, I can not see anything about you.  I am blind.  I see only myself reflected all around me.  Endless reflections as if looking across mirrors.  An army of me from every angle and I think myself wonderful.

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Reverse Racism

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One of the most difficult things about discussing race in America is, like most things, a certain ambiguity of language. Race, for example, has no biological basis. To divide people based on genetic lineage is absurd and legal strictures based on this division become hopelessly convoluted before they breakdown altogether. Rather, race is a group with a certain social, cultural, historical, and economic commonality. It’s as much a choice for the individual as it is an imposition by larger societal forces. It no surprise then any discussion is going to complicated. Which is fine, so long as the discussion remains complicated and nuanced. It’s tempting to simplify, but reductive reasoning is one of the most significant problems in this discussion. In fact, it’s this tendency to narrow the collective experience of people that is, in many ways, so devastating and dehumanizing.

Racism at the moment has two working definitions. One definition of racism is a narrow form of bigotry. Which is to say, it is racist to discriminate against an individual or groups because of their race. This might manifest as hateful words and actions, criminal activity targeting a group, denying people products, services, access to goods, neighborhoods, etc.

There is a second and perhaps more important definition of racism. It an economic, social, and political system designed to benefit one group above that of another. The starkest example of this kind of racism was apartheid in South Africa but it is endemic at every level in every country, even this one, perhaps especially this one.

One of the great frustrations of minorities trying to tackle racism and discrimination in America, is the charge of Reverse Racism. You hear this often, especially in regard to programs or institutions designed to rectify centuries of abuse, neglect, and discrimination. For example, some schools and scholarship programs exist to help black people obtain a high quality education. Since these programs do not help white people get an education, one might say this is “Reverse Racism”, which is, of course, ridiculous. These kinds of programs exist to merely ameliorate the inequality endemic in the educational system as it exists today. So no. There’s no such thing as a “Black racist” because they can not benefit from a system that marginalizes them regardless of how successful that person might be. Oprah and President Obama are outliers and do not demonstrate the absence of discrimination or inequality.

Even if you go by the simpler definition that “racism” is merely a subset of bigoted behavior or attitude, what prejudice majority groups experience (individually or collectively) in their lives is trivial compared to what a person of color might experience. Which is not to suggest that we should condone prejudicial behavior from anyone, only that as a white person I can bear this “burden” of tolerance. (I use the word “burden” ironically, obviously)

However, in so much as reverse racism does not exist, minorities want it to.  Whatever shape or form their demands for equality may take, it will require shifting time, energy, attention, and resources from the groups which currently possess them.  It may be justified in the grand scheme of things.  It may be moral and ethical and idealistic, but minorities and liberals must do much better than “in the name of social justice”.  As we talk to those who have the money and the resources, what incentives are there for this shifting of emphasis?  Why is it in the interest of white male America to do more than merely placate everyone else just enough to avoid civil disruption?

Whether Reverse Racism exists or not is completely beside the point (and yes I realize how ridiculous that sounds). Liberals are going to have to find a way to address the subject seriously or the movement will stutter and stall…. basically like it’s been doing the last 30 years.  Surely this can not be that difficult?

White and confused #Ferguson

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Days after the failed indictment of Darren Wilson I see many of my white friends are still confused on this issue. One can only assume that they are not listening.  The message is clear.  It’s unambiguous, and simple enough to be tweeted. Let’s start with the first thing protesters chanted over and over again.

#handsupdontshoot  What is confusing about this message?  An unarmed teen was shot by a police while surrendering.  If you can’t understand the tremendous grief and loss that this should provoke, then I weep for your lost humanity. True, accounts differ and if there was any justice in the world there should, at the barest minimum, have been a trial.  But there wasn’t one.  At the end of the day not only was there no justice (not even for Darren Wilson if he deserved it) but Michael Brown didn’t even get a voice.  It was silenced.  What happened to him was dragged through the media and social media and insane pundits, but not the courtroom.  What we saw was the every member of the police, investigators, medical professionals, and even the courtroom and prosecutors close ranks around Wilson and they treated this case with shocking callousness.  A kid died and they left his body in the streets for 4 1/2 hours.  There has been a miscarriage of justice and people are angry about it.  And folks have the gall to wonder why people are upset.

#Blacklivesmatter  Maybe you’re the kind of racist who doesn’t believe this.  Perhaps you’re the kind that “Doesn’t see race at all”.  Maybe you’re the kind of racist who genuinely believes this but are still wondering why black communities are so outraged.  What should be painfully obvious is that minority community feels that they’re lives don’t matter to the rest of our society.  That millions of people genuinely believe that they matter less because of what they look like.  So much so that they can be killed with impunity.  They’ve seen innocent people gunned down with shocking regularity simply because they were black.  Like the gentleman wandering around a toy store with a toy gun who was shot on sight by police. Or a 12 year old kid with a toy gun that was shot on sight, or a teenager out to get some candy at a convenience store that was hunted down and killed.  The stories go on and on.  Most never make it to the press.  These people are merely mourned in obscurity as the violence continues.  Never mind that white people wander around stores with real guns all the time, or the blatantly unconstitutional stop and frisk policies of major metropolitan police departments that have frisked more minorities than actually live in the city.  Or the fact that Darren Wilson had absolutely no reason to stop Michael Brown at all.  There was no probable cause here.  At the time Wilson didn’t know about the robbery.  He had absolutely no business going anywhere near another pedestrian.  Brown, assuming he said the things he allegedly said, was perfectly within his rights to do so.  Yet this is a frightfully common experience for people of color.  Black lives DO matter, but black people are tired of being treated as if they don’t.  I would assume that would have been obvious.

White people protest, black people riot  -“where they live”.  –even animals don’t foul their own lairs and these crazy thugs destroy their own town. —  As far as coded language goes that goes near the top of the list.  Yeah when people protest, they’re angry, they want justice.  When they riot, they’re angry beyond mere protesting.  But it’s not the inhabitants of Ferguson that are doing the looting and it certainly isn’t just people of color.  The violence, as is very often the case in poor communities, is being imported from outside.   Even if it wasn’t, to characterize the entire movement or an entire community as dangerous and violent is the height of racism.  Yes there are a few bad actors and they need to be arrested, but the vast majority of protesters are doing so peacefully.  There’s an incredible double standard that my white friends may or may not be aware of.  Feel free to google, “White people riot”.  Perhaps we should say, “White people white over sports games and black people riot over injustice”  But let’s not say anything.  This isn’t our crises.  Let’s simply stand with our friends and neighbors against the evils of this world.

Some kid in….  More coded language.  –No one really cares about white people, or that people of color don’t care about white people.   What this is, is reverse racism because white people are better than black people because when our children get killed needlessly we don’t throw a national hissy fit —  Are you seriously this dimwitted? Yes when some white kid gets killed by the cops, on a personal level it’s every bit the tragedy of Micheal Brown.  The parents grieve just the same, the friends and community are just as affected.  However, this isn’t about a single incident.  We’re talking about a system that discriminates against minorities.  We’re talking about the widespread violence against them that the white community is terribly ignorant about.   We’re talking about the fact that I can mouth off to the cops and my black friends will get shot for it.  Yes I’m saddened by the tragedies that befall other people, including white people but how self-involved to you have to be for this to make sense to you or be about you?  Do you really need to pick this moment to feel superior to a class of hurting people?

If you genuinely wish to understand the events in Furgeson or Florida or all over this country, simply listen to the people screaming at the top of their lungs.

The Real American Holidays

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This year a few stores are beginning their Black Friday sales on Thursday. It’s been coming for a while. We had some near misses last year and this year the outraged among us are going to boycott the Black Friday sales of the offending stores.

Good luck with that.

Because I just don’t care anymore. The holidays have been on the long road to ruination for years. Let’s start with Thanksgiving. Oh Dear, Thanksgiving is being ruined by greedy corporations! First corporations are supposed to be greedy. This is the point of corporations, but you are not. When did a harvest festival become a tribute day to the American God of Gluttony? Oh yeah I see your 10 minutes of prayer and thanks. I also see a you fighting with strangers over the last turkey, fighting with relatives and the 2000-3000 calorie meal the left overs of which will last for weeks. But you spared an unused can of green beans for the food bank and put $20 in the collection plate. Yeah I see you really getting into the Spirit of things.

Take Christmas. You know. The holiday that’s successfully blitzkrieged Thanksgiving and is now encroaching on Halloween. What’s that about? Is it a religious holiday? A pagan one (hint: no), is about family? Presents? Another epic gluttonous feast? (Isn’t gluttony a sin in most religions?) not sure? Well then ask yourself what you spend the most time and money on during the Holidays? What do you look forward to the most. I think you have your answer. Our family spends about 30-60 minutes getting presents. People spend hours buying them. Black Friday and Cyber Monday (thank you internet) outstripped Christmas in importance years ago.

Corporations aren’t ruining the holidays there celebrating the only one we really care about.

Race Language pt 2: The Dictionary

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The language of race is still in its infancy.  That may sound odd.  Does racism need a language?  It does.  Every serious field of study over time develops a highly specific lexicon.  Social justice will need one.  Perhaps it already has and I just don’t know what it is.  When it comes to social sciences I am an admitted amateur.  However, as a lay-person there are a couple of methods I’ve heard activists use to try to describe the experience of minorities.  I’ve listened to music spanning genres, I’ve heard some of the poetry, read some of the books, I try to keep an eye out for prominent minority journalists, and of course non-white comedians (also a lot of white comedians but that’s not really germane to the point here).  But as a white person I can’t use that language.  Take a black comedian for example.  Their pithy insights on racial issues are often profound, but its purely in one direction.  I can’t say those things.  I wouldn’t even if someone let me.  But this is the only race language that many, if not most, white people have heard.  In terms of crafting a narrative, this language is second to none.  However, it does nothing to foster dialogue between disparate groups.  The assumption inherent to cultural immersion, is that if someone can engage with the various cultural elements long enough, then they will begin to understand that culture both as a collection of individuals and as a group and this in turn will defeat racism.  This is one of the reasons that cultural appropriation is such a sin.  Further, not only has this assumption shown to be false, we’ve doubled down on it with a kind of collective immersion that has proven to be doubly ineffective.

For long term social change, a new language must be had.  It must be exceedingly precise, verifiable, and transmissible.  The fundamental failing of the current language is that is largely dependent on one’s subjective personal perspective.   I’m sorry to say, we’re talking about math.  It’s not enough that policies like Stop&Frisk are racist.  It’s not enough that people are harassed and inconvenienced, it’s not enough that it’s a miscarriage of justice.  It’s that the searches of black men outnumber black men by at least 2:1.  It’s when you can show that the government of Ferguson has a 90% white police force in a predominately black neighborhood and have been using racially biased citations to fund the city government then you have a basis for social change.  Or It’s the racial biases in sentencing laws.  These and other examples are the numbers promoting social change.

But let’s talk about White social change.  Do white people sing songs, go on marches, read poetry, write books?  Sure.  And I’d argue that this has been as effective for White people as it’s been for Black people.  It’s tempting to believe that the Whites are in power as a result it’s their policies.  There may be some truth to that but That’s an incredibly simplistic view.  White social change got its start in the 60s too, only it started with think tanks.  Organizations dedicated to finding mathematical justification for the issues of the day.  These think tanks are effective for several reasons.  One, their very well funded.  Secondly, they produce a data  set that supports their favored policies.  Thirdly, they they promote specific policy objectives.  Fourthly, they are fundamentally based on self-interest.

When we talk about even relatively positive things the only effective means will be through a specific context.  Like gentrification.  In most places this is a wonderful thing.  Property values go up, cities prosper, services and opportunities expand.  It’s a genuinely wonderful thing.  So why are minorities upset? Because it’s only minority neighborhoods that fall within a certain percent of diversity (less than 35% black).  And because local laws make development and expanding housing and transportation difficult (You can’t make more housing available, you can only make it more expensive).  It’s a policy that actively marginalizes minority groups by pushing them into underdeveloped parts of the town, which, under normal circumstances, would undergo a cycle of development except an institutional bias against risk taking from conservatives, and anti-exploitation efforts from liberals make development a difficult prospect.  It’s probably not intentional, it’s probably the culmination of different power brokers looking after their own interests that generate a racial disparity.  But if you want to change it, then you have to have the numbers to back it up, and you have to have specific policies to address it, and you have to have an argument why including poor families and minority groups are beneficial for everyone.

I look forward to the day when moral questions will win out over questions of self-interest, but we have not arrived there yet.  Activists use the language of social justice.  They passionately talk about fairness, justice, feelings and story.  It resonates with the human heart like nothing else can.  But when you compare that to my own selfishness, it’s a losing argument.  I, and most people, have no problem with the cognitive dissonance of being moved by the plight of racism in America while at the same time being comfortable doing nothing about it.  Consider Ferguson.  When militarized police starting burning down the town of Ferguson, it caught the nation’s attention.  Why? Because a black kid got shot?  No.  I wish that was true.  That should be true. I wish as a society we cared about that kind of selfless inequality.  But it was because it was manifestly apparent that this kind of response could have far reaching implications.  A smart activist group might point out that if they can brutalize and harass people of color, they can harass and brutalize anyone with impunity.  And indeed that case has been made and made effectively.

Specific language, math language and large data sets, specific policy objectives, and enlightened self-interest.  This is the language of social change.  This is the kind of language we need to use to discuss race.  At the moment, the way race is discussed actively precludes anyone not part of that specific minority group and that needs to change.

Race Language Pt 1: defining terms

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Race can’t be boiled down to differences in language.  Obviously it’s a complex social phenomenon that must take into consideration history, economics, culture, legal strictures, identity, and more.  In fact trying to elucidate all the factors that go into race, and racism would be cumbersome and I’m not qualified.  I’m not even sure it’s at all possible.  I hope to learn and grow as I move forward, but at the moment I would simply do disservice to those better qualified to educate.  It’s ironic perhaps that those best suited to expounding on this nuanced race issues are comedians.  But comedians can only bring catharsis.  Their role in achieving permanent dialogue is limited. I, as a white person, certainly can’t use the same language as a Black comedian.  I wouldn’t even if I wanted and no one wants that. Even though race can’t be boiled down to difference in language, I believe we can use differences in language as a  proxy for the broader discussion of issues affecting race.

For simplicity’s sake I’m going to divide the population of the United States into four groups.  Underprivileged, Allies, Non-allies, and Hostiles.  Hostiles are straightforward enough.  They’re overt bigots, they go around in white sheets telling people they’re bigots. They picket funerals and do their level best to ruin everyone’s day.  They have no useful role in the discussion, other than to highlight what can go wrong, and I don’t know how to help them other than to send them to serious intensive deprogramming therapy.

Underprivileged are also a category that’s easy to describe.  They’re anyone who has suffered from a system that is inherently unequal.  There are a lot of different kinds of privilege and a lot of different ways someone might fit into that kind of category.  In fact, a majority of individuals will fit into in some way and to a greater or lesser degree.

Allies are people with privilege, know they’re privileged and want to help.  I’m placing people whose efforts are ineffective or even counterproductive in this group (I recognize that I may fall into this second category.  If so I’ll try and do better.  We’re all learning).

Non-Allies, are the “I’m friends with black people”/”I don’t see race” type of people.  They don’t know or don’t believe they are privileged, or that there even is such a thing as privilege, and think that attempts fixing inequality or even talking about it merely perpetuates that inequality.

Each group has a specific language that they’re using, and there are few individuals, in my opinion, that can really translate between groups, because language is a function of common experience.  Allies are only allies because they have had experiences in common with under-privileged groups.  A quick example, a man living with a woman might gain some appreciation for the difficulties and expense in maintaining an attractive hairstyle.  Obviously this is a trivial example, but I hope it’s demonstrative of what I mean.  White protesters in Ferguson are getting a small taste of what it means to be on the receiving end of police brutality.  I realize that in real life nothing is ever so simple that they can fit into four easy to define categories.  For example, there are plenty of people who will fit into both the ally and underprivileged category.  In fact, there are plenty of people that will fit into all four categories simultaneously.  My point is not to confine individuals into predetermined stereotypes based on my own choosing, but rather to define words in a useful way.  In the next blog I’ll talk more about how I see different groups using language differently.

The Lies We Tell: Part II

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By far, the most pervasive lie we tell generally falls into the category of mere social convention. “How are you?” / “I’m fine”. Person 1 isn’t genuinely soliciting information on Person 2’s health and Person 2 isn’t genuinely attempting to convey factual information either. Both are attempting to be polite. Provided each person is aware of the mere adherence to social convention, they can lie to each other with impunity and indefinitely. Why would we engage in such a meaningless exercise? Because that’s the rule and it is vigorously enforced. Your ability to excel in our society is predicated on your mastery of the social conventions. Flout too many for too long and you may find yourself ostracized. Is that fair, justified, or even utilitarian? I have no idea and it’s beside the point. These rules are. They exist independently of mine or anyone’s wishes.

Still in the area of lies pertaining to social conventions, equal to saying things is not saying things. “Grandma’s house smells funny”. We quickly hush Timmy if this little gem should tumble from his lips. But why? Why not say so? is it not the truth? As a matter of fact, it is the truth but we wish to convey the fantasy that there is nothing uncomfortable about fulfilling a guilt-ridden familial obligation. By the way, you’re not supposed to accurately call it that either. It’s all about obeying social conventions. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Social conventions form the foundation of human relationships. If you never get past the superficial interaction mandated by social conventions, you’ll never develop the more meaningful connections which is the whole point of going to Grandma’s house in the first place. <Grandma, if you should ever happen to find this post, keep in mind this is just a metaphor. I’m not sure if you can believe anything in a post called “the lies we tell” but I really do like visiting and I’m trying to come out to California as soon as I can>. Either way, by following a carefully scripted protocol for shallow and uninteresting interaction or by avoiding unpleasant truths, we are attempting to convey a version of reality we know to be false. That, in my opinion, is a lie. This isn’t a Nixon-lie, or a Clinton-lie, this is a social convention-lie.

“You suck” vs “your performance so far has failed to meet specific policy objectives”. This is the tactful-lie. The example is inspired from an HR departmental meeting; however, the tactful-lie is more generally broad. It’s any truth designed to be concealed with an abundance of prettier verbiage. The upside to this sort of deception is it tends to work well if its legally mandated. “No no no…” supervisors everywhere are saying. “We need to be specific. ‘You suck’ is too vague”. I can appreciate that there times when telling someone exactly and specifically why they suck is important. But what your really doing, especially outside a professional setting, is trying to cover an unpalatable truth. No matter how much potpourri you bring, you’ll never cover up the stench of a fresh turd. With a tactful-lie, the liar might say at some point, “I don’t want to hurt his feelings”. Why would someone’s feelings be hurt? Because confronting an ugly truth is typically what is motivating the tactful lie. We think if we try to place the truth in some kind of contextthat it won’t hurt. But you know, and I know, that it will anyway. We know this to the core of our being but we tell this lie anyway. It’s not surprising. At the heart of all lies is self-deception. (Now there’s a difficult truth for you.)  And I promise, if you are the employee getting yelled at, pretty versus brusk won’t change the underlying emotional value of the communication.

Then there’s “I’m fine”.  This is not your “I’m fine” social convention-lie (because “I’m fine” really covers so very much territory), this is the “I’m mad at you, you loathsome scum and if I have to really tell you how I feel, your best case scenario has you dying quickly and painlessly and this is not likely.”   To be honest, I’m pretty comfortable with this lie.  Intense emotion has an extraordinarily deleterious effect on the intellect.  Being sane, I’m not about to pressure someone to talk to  me if they’re “fine”.  Whether it’s your boss, your spouse, children, friends, whatever, what people really need is emotional space.   Call it the emotional space lie. Sometimes lying is the best way to accomplish this.  This is healthy.

“I will help you”.  This lie is my least favorite.  I sincerely believe that you may put forth a modicum of effort if I badger you to do so (maybe), but I don’t for a second really believe you mean it.  I believe you’re saying this as part of the friendship-lie.  You know, it’s ok if we’re not really friends.  We can hang out occasionally, trade facebook memes, and work together without being friends.  I know it’s hard to imagine not being friends with someone but aside from (max) 4-5 people in your life, you just won’t have that many friends.  I understand this.  I do.  We don’t have to pretend otherwise.

The “good/bad person lie.”  The good person lie goes to one’s self-image.  I see this a lot.   We define ourselves and others through a dichotomous lens.  I fault christianity for this one for its imposition of a false dichotomy on the world.  Truth:  You are not a good person.  Nor are others bad people (or vice versa if you’re really screwed up).  You are just a person.  Good in some ways, needs improvement in others.  I’m sorry let me be honest.  You’re tolerable some ways and  in other you suck. This even applies to real jackasses.  It is a defining narrative that colors so much of our interaction with the world and we know, we KNOW, that it’s not true.  We know that the guy who just cut us off on the freeway is probably a nice guy most of the time, that his rudeness does not define his existence.  That it may not even have been intentional and in fact, probably wasn’t.  Doesn’t keep us from hating him until we find new umbrage in our lives.  Our heroes are not saints and our antagonists are not villains. However, if it makes the day go a little better than, by all means, indulge in the good person lie.