Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why can't we all just be ... like me?

I often listen to NPR as I drive in to work in the morning.  (I also listen to Rush Limbaugh if I'm in the car while his show's on, but that's another matter.)  This morning I heard a piece of a report on diversity in the workplace.  I missed the beginning, but it seemed to be focusing on the tech sector, and it might have been about Intell in specific.  At one point the reporter noted that at Intell, prospective employees not only have to demonstrate their coding ability, but also be assessed for their "cultural fit."  Someone else said that this means that teams are looking for "a unicorn."  She went on to say that in order to make the workplace more diverse they were looking for someone of a different racial, gender, or other under-represented identity who is also in every other way just like the folks who are already there.

I was immediately reminded of a moment in the movie The Color of Fear.  This 1994 film from director and anti-oppression activist Lee Mun Wah documents a weekend retreat during which eight men -- two African Americans, two Hispanic Americans, two Asian Americans, and two Euro Americans -- talk openly and frankly with each other about race and racism.  It's a pretty amazing movie, and if you haven't seen it you really should.  If you're interested, you can stream it from Lee Mun Wah's Stirfry Seminars' website.  (It's expensive, but I think it's worth it, especially if you get a group together to watch it.  Just make sure to create a space and time to talk about it afterward!)

As I said, I was reminded of a moment in which one of the African Americans, Loren Moye, says that he can't wait to get home after a day working in corporate America so that he can "be Black" again.  He talks movingly about how he knows that his Blackness is not really welcome in that environment so he has to "shuffle."  He says that it might be a 1990 kind of shuffle, but that it's still a shuffle.

So often when White people -- yes, I do mean well-intentioned White people and not just explicitly racist folk -- say thinks like, "I'm colorblind; I don't care about race," or, "Why can't we all just be people?"  I have to hold my breath a bit.  Yes, in articulating his dream the Rev. Dr. King did say "I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers."  (I don't know if this means anything, but in all of the websites of quotations by Rev. King this quote appears, but without the last four words.)  More recently, the rapper and activist known as Prince EA created a video titled, "I am NOT Black, You are NOT White" which is making the rounds on social media:

So yes ... it is true that there has long been, and is still, a vision of a "post-racial" society in which the "color of our skin" is not as important as "the content of our character."

And yet ...

I have learned in my relationships with people of color that the same words can mean very different things depending on who is saying them and in what context.  When an African American, for instance, talks about wanting a world where race doesn't matter, they may well be saying something quite different than when a Euro American says the same thing.  Why?  Because African Americans have for so long been treated as "other than," as "less than," that a world without an emphasis on race means an opportunity to live their lives without race getting in the way, being a hurdle, confronting them with injustices committed against them at virtually every turn.  People of color may well mean that they want a world in which they are not judged -- and judged negatively -- simply because of their race or ethnicity.

Our nation's history of systemic racism -- beginning with slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era and up until the present state of what civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls, "the new Jim Crow" -- has made a demonstrable divide between the lived experience of White Americans and people of color.  To deny the inarguable fact of this is as indefensible as is denying the overwhelming evidence from climatologists about global warming.  (As an aside, Ms. Alexander's book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness should be read by every American, followed almost immediately by Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me.)

So, yes, it is true that race is a social construct.  Genetic science has shown conclusively that there is more genetic variation among people of the same "race" than there is between the so-called "races."  Social historians and others can delineate the process of, and purpose for, creating the concept of "race."  In a sense, then, it is true that "race" shouldn't matter; that people should all be seen as "human beings" rather than as Black, White, or any of the other racial/ethnic divisions that permeate our society.  Yet that isn't the same thing as saying that thinking about, and talking about, these distinctions perpetuates the divisions (in other words, the idea that all of this anti-racism,  multicultural stuff just serves to keep racism alive).

When White people -- again, I'm talking about well-intentioned White people -- talk about wanting a "colorblind, post-racial" society they are, of course, in one sense right on the money.  And yet, the way many White people say this glosses over, denies, erases, the lived experiences of people of color.  That's because without acknowledging the very real and devastatingly detrimental affects of centuries of systemic racism on the lives of people of color what we (White people) are really saying is, "none of that really mattered."

If people of color think about "colorblindness" as no longer having to be identified and judged fundamentally by their race or ethnicity, when White people say it they often mean, even if unconsciously, "everybody should be like us."  And this makes a kind of sense, after all, because one of the pernicious aspects of racism is that White Americans have been led to believe that our experiences, our history, is the norm for what it means to be an American.  (And to be human, really.)

And that brings us back to the "unicorn" from this morning's radio report -- the person of a different race or ethnicity who is, none-the-less in every other way exactly the same as the White people who are looking to diversify.  That brings us back to Loren Moye and his experience that he needs to "act white" in order to have a place in the workplace.  Can anyone really suggest that it is these examples of "colorblindness" that are, in unarguable fact, perpetrating the racism they claim to be eradicating?

It's important for Euro Americans to come to grips with the fact that this is neither nothing new nor an outlier phenomenon.  To again use the climate change analogy, just as the truth of climate change becomes unassailable as scientist after scientist weighs in with the results of their observations, the truth of the effects of centuries of systemic racism on the lives and lived experiences of people of color is equally undeniable.  Person after person after person have "published their results," if you will.  No less than a climate-change denier, a reality-of-racism denier simply must be, at this point, willfully disregarding the testimony of experts.  In the case of the reality of racism it is people of color who are the experts, those who have experience it's brutal reality day in and day out for generations.

And what the overwhelming number of experts are saying is that as long as White people mean by the idea of "colorblindness" and "treating everyone the same" that they don't want to recognize the very real and on-going ways our society's racial history has created painfully different realities, then they want no part of it.  Until White folks are willing to step out of our experiences and try to see the world through another lens -- an other and tremendously disturbing and discomforting lens -- that we do need to keep thinking about and talking about these difference.  It really is the only way we can all make our way to the land of the Beloved Community so many of so longed for.

Pax tecum,


I leave you with a powerful and profound clip from The Color of Fear.  The testiony of Victor Lewis:

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