An Addendum to “Let’s Get Some Things Clear”

A little over six months ago I wrote a post about Whitman and his exposure to slavery and how it affected his writing. I ran across some new information about Whitman that I thought was pertinent to that discussion:

The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.

The problem in this is not so much that Whitman thinks races as we know them will disappear (although his language is harsh), but that he places value judgments on the races. The idea that some races are minor is scary.

I Am George Zimmerman

I am George Zimmerman.

That’s the statement that’s missing from talk about white privilege. I can talk all day about how had I been in Trayvon’s place, I wouldn’t have been murdered, but that fails to respect privilege as lethal. The flip side, though, is equally true and rarely discussed. If I was George Zimmerman, I, too, in all likelihood, would have walked away from slaying a child totally free.

I describe myself as an ally, but when something like this happens, I have to dig real dip because the temptation is to sympathize with Trayvon, post a bunch of critical race articles on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, have a couple of solid conversations with friends, and then move on.

But those actions do nothing to recognize or make up for my privilege. In fact, these actions are made easier by my privilege. That I am able to, without emotion, rationally consider every legal and racial side of this argument so easily is because I do not feel the urgency that a different color of skin might give me.

And my identification with Zimmerman goes much further. Because privilege acts without me having to do anything, it and racism are part of my natural state. Racism and prejudice have been totally socialized into me. In two weeks, I’m moving to Detroit. The first thing people say to me is usually “You should take self-defense classes” or “You should buy a gun.” What? So I can protect myself from Trayvon? But it’s hard not to begin to believe them.

The truth is this: every moment that I am not being actively anti-racist, I am loading a gun for someone more bigoted than I. People like me, for fear of our lives, created the Stand Your Gun laws, enabling Zimmerman to kill a young black man and never have to pay for it. It’s time we owned up to it.

That Racism Over There, or, the Fetishization of Racism

It’s weird being in a city where there are so many publications reporting on so many different stories. Back home, I can literally read every news source for local news in any given day. That’s virtually impossible in a place like Chicago.

Today, one of our mentors directed some of my peers to an online blog’s report of an alleged crime committed on July 4th. The blog reported that a black 18-year-old man allegedly stole a woman’s phone. It identified this 18-year-old as a student who graduated at my mentor’s school. The article is very slanted and, well, racist, portraying the recent graduate as a thug. Certainly, stealing is wrong and, if he did in fact steal the phone, he should be reasonably punished. But this article judged this young man by this one, albeit very dumb, action, and attempted to paint a picture of the young man as someone with a history of problem behavior. And the comments are worse–there are literally too many comments to count of the “there goes the neighborhood because of those people” type. (I didn’t post the original article here because I’m so ashamed by its bad journalism that I can’t bear to signal boost it.)

In my CMA group, we had a moment of righteous anger while one member of our group read the article and the comments. And while it felt good to have an example of relatively clear right and wrong in front of me, it also made me a little uncomfortable. I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has to do with the privilege it gives me. By observing and noting someone’s blatant racism, I get to distance myself from racism. I get to feel better about myself. What I’m actually feeling when I think about the young man’s trial is not empathy for the hate he is experiencing but rather relief that I am not as racist as those people.

One of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes about how most racist people are good people because Coates interprets racism broadly. It is not restricted to anonymous comments on a blog. It also occurs every time I make an unwarranted assumption about someone based on their race or when I’m complicit in someone else’s racism.

In some ways, then, observing the kind of bigoted racism that is so easy to find on the Internet is a form of fetishization for me. It enables me to experience relief about my own insecurities. It allows me to box racism in and other it, pushing it far away from me. It’s terrible that this young man has to endure the kind of racism that has been aimed at him, but racism is not fixed by a room full of college graduates groaning over anonymous comments. It’s fixed by every single person examining personal assumptions, biases, prejudices, and, yes, racism.