>[Updated to change weird formatting stuff that made nonsense of bits of what I wrote, and also to add that you can read what others wrote, as they Blogged Against Racism, by going here and scrolling down to the comments and trackbacks. And I’m also now updating to add a link to my latest post, which continues a story about voting and the possible disenfranchisement of my predominantly African-American district.]
– the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)
Chris Clarke has declared today Blog Against Racism Day in honor of the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic act of civil disobedience on that Montgomery bus. But also, part of the conversation that led Chris to do this concerned the ways in which “racism” has come to mean, unhelpfully, only acts that are obviously evil in their intent and effect (or even just in their intent), and the ways in which it has somehow become worse to be called a racist than to be racist. You can read Chris’ original post at the link above, but for those of you not apt to follow links, here’s a good chunk of it:
Some of the response to my posting a criticism of that cannibal cartoon – all of it from people I know to be smart and educated – makes me think that the common definition of the word “racist” has been restricted to the point of near uselessness. It seems these days that many people consider it a worse thing to be called “racist” than it is to actually be racist.
I’m not saying there’s no room for disagreement. For instance, I said I thought Sara Silverman is racist, and I know that’s a gut feeling on my part. People can certainly disagree with that assessment without ill motive.
But it increasingly clear to me – and probably has been for some time to people smarter than me – that many folks think of the word “racist” as meaning something akin to the word “evil.” Thus the defenses of the cartoon that focused on the artist’s intent. If his intentions were benign, then he is not evil and thus not racist.
Anyone who’s studied the history of racism can trot out numerous examples of racist behavior committed with allegedly good intentions, from Moynihan’s “benign neglect” to the myriad acts of condescension by white liberals toward their black acquaintances. I assume, people being more or less the same now as they were two hundred years ago, that there were a number of slaveowners who told themselves they took wonderful care of their chattel property.
Ask a Klan member whether he or she has good intentions. I guarantee you the answer will be in the affirmative, even as the cross is lit.
With Chris’ original post in mind, I want to tell a very short story that I think exemplifies a kind of racism as equally destructive as overt discrimination, segregation, or oppression. Ralph Ellison powerfully invoked this kind of racism in his novel Invisible Man and it’s a racist habit of mind that is much harder to combat than more obvious manifestations, so hard, in fact, that it is still very much with us 53 years after Ellison’s book, even though the overtly segregated buses and water fountains and public bathrooms of his and Rosa Parks’ world are not.
When I landed my job in this Rust Belt City in Great Lakes region, a friend of mine in Sprawling Big City, who’d never lived farther inland from the left or right coasts than the inland parts of coastal states, said to me: “Why would you want to move to the all-white midwest when you could stay here?”
Let me draw your attention to his characterization of the midwest: all white. Partly this is the ignorance of a coaster who considers everything else in between “flyover land,” and has less to do with racism than regionalism. But I had a feeling that his ignorance also came from the invisibility, to him, of African-Americans, so I said to him, calling on his taste in music to make him see what should have been obvious:
“Excuse me? All white? The midwest in general, and especially its industrial cities, like Rust Belt City, has a significant African-American population. Motown? Kansas City jazz? Chicago blues? Does any of this ring a bell?”
I added that Rust Belt also has a large Arab-American population, although I don’t expect many people from outside this area to know that as readily as they should know that it’s certainly not all white. (By the way, I know I was partly drawing on stereotypes of blackness — the black musician, the entertainer — to illustrate to my friend that the midwest is not all white, but I needed something concrete, iconic, and immediate in its impact to make my friend see what had been invisible to him. And since he’s a musician himself, I used music.)
To my friend’s credit, he was ashamed and chagrined once I started naming obvious reasons why he shouldn’t think “all-white” when he thinks “midwest.” And this friend is not a bad person, nor did he have malicious intentions. In fact, I think it’s clear that he feared I was participating in some kind of white flight by taking a job in a place he thought was all white. His intentions were good. But as Chris said later in his original post:
Intentions are all well and good, but more important are the assumptions from which those intentions spring. Garbage in, garbage out: bad information times good intentions equals bad results. And those results are the most important thing of all.
The bad results in my friend’s case was the invisibility (to him and to many others) of black people as part of the category “midwestern,” and, by extention, “American,” for what’s more conventionally part of the myth of what is “American” than the corn-fed, apple-pie-eating midwesterners? Invisibility can be an ideal goal in the sense of working for the day when, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, people are “judged not by the color of their skin but by the quality of their character.” In that sense, the color of someone’s skin, their race, is invisible because they are seen first and foremost as human beings. But we haven’t reached that day. That world does not yet exist. And as long as real, material inequalities exist for people of color, largely because they are people of color, in a world where the most abject victims of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina are mostly black, and it takes a catastrophe like Katrina to make visible those inequalities, then the invisibility of African-Americans in a comment like my friend’s is a destructive and, yes, racist invisibility.