Friday, January 22, 2010

I Don't Want To Be Racist Against White People.

All my White friends, here's one to you.

Am I Being Racist Against White People?

There is a twofold concern for me as I explore ethnicity and the systematic, generational sin of oppression and cultural violence: (1) Am I demonizing and objectifying Whiteness, Western tradition/authority, and European culture? And even if I am not, (2) am I being perceived as doing so?

This question concerns me for several reasons: (A) if I am, I am being hypocritical. Hypocrisy is not only bad in itself, but it (B) leads to me, and other similar critics of power, being discredited or invalidated. This all contributes to (C) a widening divide of miscommunication or silence between those who are set to inherit the reins of traditional structures of power and contemporary voices who seek to point out the outstanding flaws in those systems.

If you'll bear with me - I'll try to be humble - let's examine these points:

The Natural Response to Violence or Assault

(1) A natural response to injustice is to render the unjust oppressor as inhuman. No one wants to think that someone who is in any way like me could do something so horrific to another; no, there must be something about a criminal, about a rapist, about a murderer, that makes them fundamentally different from me. This mental distance works both ways: slave masters, in order to justify the status of their slaves as property, dehumanized them along racial and cultural lines. If an African exists in a lesser form of being - whether a vastly inferior species of humanity, or not even as human at all - then, in a literal sense, it is not inhuman to claim possession over an African man or woman. Psychologists and historians who worked with post-war Nazi soldiers have noted that one of the ways that the German people coped with the horrific actions of the Holocaust was through a willing dismissal of the shared humanity between German Jews and German citizens of Germanic descent. [1]

Similarly, if, say, a close friend were to be murdered, I know that my temptation would be to see his murderer as a horrific, bloodthirsty, psycho bastard with no humanity, and nothing shared in common with myself. I think it's a general rule: we don't like to admit that we could share anything, even the slightest trace of fundamental humanity, with someone who could do such a thing. It is a natural coping mechanism, tinged with a trace of moral self-righteousness: how could anyone do such a thing? combined with well certainly, I would never be capable of such horrors.

This Is Wrong - What's Going On?

The problem here is twofold, both a problem of reality and effectiveness: first, the reality is that no entity or individual is blameless, and responding to evil by mentally distancing oneself from it is just wrongminded. Brokenness and perversity, when glimpsed in others, should not elicit my recoiling from them as diseased and inhuman, but rather my embracing them, knowing and acknowledging that I too have had my times of ugliness, hatred, anger, and violence. The reality is, as much as White, western cultural imperialism has hurt many people and cultures, I too, even in my short 23 years, have insulted, demeaned, and objectified many. To pretend that I am not also a participant in brokenness is to lie.

Secondly, by creating distance between myself and my oppressor, I lessen the possibility for her to reconcile herself with me and make amends to me, even if she desires to do so. As the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right, and responding to a slight by slighting another only draws both parties further from reconciliation and mutual growth. Even if I were perfect, and my enemy were an incredibly spiteful person, distancing myself from him - while perhaps a useful coping mechanism, and a helpful step towards healing from the injury - ultimately does nothing to prevent the recurrence of the exact same slight, whether towards me or another.

Of course, the burden should be on the oppressor to make amends to the oppressed; even if the oppressed does not ask for apology, it is common human courtesy that if one has created a problem, one ought to fix it. If I kicked down your fence, appropriate apology is not to return bearing a hammer, hand it to you, and let you fix it; it lies on me to return, hammer in hand, and repair the broken fence.

But the simple and sad truth is that many people - myself included - are blind to the wounds we create for others. So to those of us who can be gracious - who have received grace from One who has been wounded by us, and are thus in turn in position to go to those whom we have wounded - it makes sense to do so. Just because I didn't create the problem, doesn't mean I can't be part of the solution.

In the Eye of the Beholder

(2) Tragically, even if I am just telling the truth - or, at least, the truth insofar as I understand it based on fact, evidence, and reasonable inference - I can be perceived as demonizing others. This is difficult.

One thing that I have learned, through reading accounts like Tim Wise's incredible White Like Me, is the unforeseen degree to which people coming from different backgrounds actually possess vastly different experiences. I am not talking about simple social distinctions, like a family only being able to afford bus passes vs. a family being able to afford an SUV. I am talking about completely different perceptions of social order. For example, I grew up with the explicit understanding that police exist to protect me and my friends: I was constantly instructed, in school, at home, and at church, to go to a police officer if I was scared, on my own, in trouble, or lost.

How far is this from the experience of an undocumented immigrant child growing up in, say, downtown Los Angeles! Disregarding the legality of her immigration, an undocumented immigrant girl not only cannot trust the police, but will likely actively distrust them - after all, the legacy of the LAPD is rife with scandal, corruption, abuse, blatant brutality, and more.

Imagine if eight-year-old middle-class suburban Chinese-American me could talk to that Los Angelena. When told about her view of the police, I would have considered her ill-informed, crazy, making up stories, and worse. And while, perhaps, her view of the police would be no more true than mine, I hesitate, now, to say that it is less worthy of consideration.

This is something that often concerns me when I disseminate information into the aether, as it were. I have no way to tell whether my audience is receptive or dismissive; and, while the information that I have uncovered is damning and even sickening to see, it is most terrifying to think that my desire to share the truth could be easily read as simple reverse racism. You can't handle the truth!(?)

After all, it is easiest to respond to an unpleasant message by disengaging from it: writing it off as fallacious, exaggerated, or irrelevant. Whether because a voice is too uncomfortable, too hypocritical, or personally offensive, it is very easy to be discredited, especially in circles into which you are speaking as a critic.

Vision for Reconciliation

But this is distinctly not what I want to do. I do not think that it is the time - at least, in the arena of racial reconciliation - for voices to only be present in the wilderness, crying out to those few who are attracted to them and who are willing to put up with their personal quirks. In this age, I think that the call is to go before not just those who want to listen, or are willing to listen, but especially to those who do not want to listen, and to convince, persuade, or somehow beg them to lend an open ear.

If the persecuted speak only to the persecuted, they cannot proclaim on behalf of the hurt and those crying out for justice. Proclamation comes into a community, and prophetic [2] voices and communities do not retain or hold in prophecy, but share it and spread a message of truth. The difficult, sad, and exhilarating mission for those of us who want to speak truth in love is that communication requires speaking to others, not merely at them.

[1] This is usually how it goes in war crimes: the object of one's transgression is seen as not human and, therefore, not possessing value on par with the subject's humanity. An alternative occurs in the case of child soldiers in Africa: there, instead of being taught that the targets of their violence are subhuman, the humanity of victims is often acknowledged, but simply devalued. Child soldiers are forced to rape, kill, and maim friends and family members, resulting in a general devaluation of all human life, rather than a specifically targeted dehumanization.

[2] Here I use "prophecy" in the general and original sense of "a true proclamation or statement," rather than the more contemporarily common sense of "a true statement about the future".

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