Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fish Outta Water

My favorite poem by Langston Hughes asserts that his blackness is a part of his white instructor, just as his instructor's whiteness is a part of himself. "That's American," he said. And so it is: the nation is constructed and stitched with multiple races, multiracial people, runs because of its diversity of thought, skill and ability.
But how do you convince a blue blood matron on Central Park West that she has any relevance or connection to a barefoot, sweaty-headed black girl in her backyard playing in the Gulf Coast sunshine? How do you make the Chinese med student who hates the stereotype he has become relate to the Latina who, despite her education and experience, watches colleagues promoted over her? What do you say to someone to make them aware of, care about, someone else?
Someone once told me that white people are to white privilege as fish are to water: completely and utterly unaware of the very thing that sustains their way of life. So how do you hold a fish out of a bowl and show it the water in which it swims?
But white people must know about their own privilege, because they are so scared of people of color, of losing that which they treasure to the darkies, because they do their damnedest to pretend that racism is not an issue, is a thing of the past, without relevance or significance.
Sometimes I think maybe they're right. I wonder, do we people of color, we black folk, make too big a deal out of race? Is all that business really over with? Is America finally post-racial?
And then something happens and I am reminded, No, this is still the broken, odd world I think it is, and race is still a factor.
I recently read an op-ed in the New York times that cited studies of black men and white men trying to get work, and how a black man with a decent background had about the same chance of getting a job as a white man did who was an ex-convict. all this institutionalized thinking. Gone are the days when white folks wore their hate and contempt belligerently across their brows. Even the KKK has gotten a face lift.
Now we who are the other, the different, all we have to fear is the mind who runs the machine.
I'm reading this book by Jedediah Purdy that my father gave me ten years ago, and thinking of James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois. I'm thinking of the assertion that Purdy made, that an intrinsically American idea is that anyone's word or opinion or thought is just as important as anyone else's. I immediately think of the privilege required to make that statement. I think, "Aha! Not so fast. For if you are not a white man, if you are a black man or an Asian man or a Hispanic man, or a woman of any race or culture, then suddenly your word has become less than the same as anyone else's. If you are not a white man, your opinions must be proved as valid, as good as, or can be dismissed without even being heard because you are less than the same as; by virtue of your existence, you're not as important, as good, as worth anything."
I think of the black community's penchant for our-ownness: our own churches, colleges and universities, professional organizations, neighborhoods, coming-out balls, our own teachers and artists, scientists and innovators, our own history. I think of the question I have fielded from so many angry, confused white people: "why do you always have to have your own, why can't we all be one?"
Because there is no room for us in yours.
I think of the immigrant experience that made this country what it was, and the globalization that continues to make this country what it is, and I think there is no room in the majority (white) culture for any of that experience now. White people have been white in America for too long to remember what it was to be Irish or German or Italian in America, and that these communities became white. There is a large bank of truth white people do not need to know, to remember, to believe, in order to thrive in this country. They need not remember their own cultural struggle, much less consider anyone else's, and this ignorance is what permits their privilege.

1 comment:

Chia-Pei said...

This was really insightful and wise. Rock on!