Monday, February 20, 2012

"Are You Tenderheaded?"

I just finished Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black, which was hilarious, poignant and biting, and is officially the first book I actively regretted not buying in hardcopy, because the cover just says "HOW TO BE BLACK," and I feel like I'd get a lot of mileage out of my white ass reading that on the T.  I've been thinking a lot about race, not only because of Thurston's book, but because I am a political scientist and political wonk, and if you're thinking about politics in the age of Barack Obama's Presidency, you are thinking about race.  Race has been so visible in the past several years; it's always been there, obviously, but it feels like racism has really edged its way back into active, visible political discourse since Obama was elected, and I find that supremely disappointing.  Maybe this is my liberal elitist white girl perception, but I thought we'd reached a place where, despite having what I believe is referred to in very professional academic circles as "a metric fuckton" of work to do, a majority of people kind of got that racism was not acceptable and that you should at least attempt to keep that shit to yourself.  Not that racism was fixed, mind you, or even close to being fixed, but that we were at least moving vaguely in a positive direction.

I've also been reading the very funny "Yo, Is This Racist" tumblr, which does exactly as advertised - you ask if things are racist, and the tumblr tells you what's up (hint: usually the answer is "yes").  There was one person who asked "are peas racist," and just got a straight "No." which had me laughing uncontrollably for some reason.  I mean...peas. It occurred to someone to ask if peas were racist.  That is magical.  Anyway, some of them are funny and some of them take a turn for the serious, and some are both, like this one from today:
If you read around about race a bit, you'll run into this idea, which is...really something.  Basically, this person is saying that by identifying racism, you are the real racist, because you are insisting on defining things by race.  I...look, this is a stupid argument.  You cannot will racism out of being.  Moreover, this is a variant of the "we should all just be colorblind!" concept.  For those who might not have thought about this, that's a nice idea that is completely unrealistic and misses the point.  Regardless of whether we feel like race should be a factor in our judgments of individuals or groups, race to this point has translated into enormous social inequities.  These things need to be addressed, not just magicked away.  Ignoring them ignores now fundamental inequalities and is a further injustice.  It would be lovely if racism was merely a matter of people thinking bigoted thoughts, but those thoughts have manifested in very real physical, political, social and economic injuries to people and communities of color.

This is also an idea that can only come from people who are able to opt out of racial considerations.  I don't think it's exclusively limited to white people, because I think there are people of color who have reached different places of privilege that allow them to shed some of the weight of racism, but I'm comfortable saying it's mostly white people.  The word "privilege" gets tossed around a lot here, and it's accurate, though I think some people use it as an insult, and that's not quite right.  Having privilege doesn't mean you are somehow bad, but is instead an understanding that your particular experience as a member of a certain group gives you a certain limited perspective even as it gives you an elevated stature in society.  There's nothing you can do about it, just like there isn't anything you can do about being born without privilege, but you can acknowledge it and work to see what you might be missing in your consideration and arguments as a result of your privilege.    It comes down to this: a straight, cisgendered white girl from Massachusetts like me doesn't need to think about race unless she decides to.  The first time I heard about the concept of privilege, I thought immediately of one particular incident, and I thought of it again today when I read the comment from Yo, Is This Racist? today.  Here's the story.

When I was living in DC and attending American University, I was on my own for the first time.  I needed a haircut and I was over by the Metro; I needed to meet someone on Wisconsin Avenue, I think.  I remembered seeing a hair salon in the area, and being in an adventurey kind of mood, I wanted to try it out.  I walked down to Brandywine and strolled into the salon...which specialized in black hair.  I cannot remember a time when I felt more visible and out of place in my life.  All at once, I realized how fucking white my life was, and how reliably I could count on at least some other white people being in any group I was a part of, because there was not a single white person in there, and the place was packed.  A super nice lady asked me what she could help me with, and she was able to get me in for a haircut, which was sweet.  I went over to the shampoo place, where this giant, awesome guy asked me in this mumbly, quiet voice, if I was tenderheaded.  Well, first he asked me, "'r'you tndhrphmmer?" which I didn't quite catch, but when I asked him to repeat it, I still didn't know what the shit "tenderheaded" was, so that didn't really resolve anything.  I went with "not really," figuring I could hedge my bets, and then quickly learned that he'd asked basically to figure out how hard he could yank my hair around and how hard he could massage my scalp.  (Note: I am, in fact, tenderheaded as hell.)  After that, I went over to the chair and got a great haircut.  It was actually a great experience for a variety of reasons, but I was never unaware of being white.

That's why I feel like it's my job to be aware of race and to listen to people of color and work to resolve racial conflict in our society; for me, that was one haircut's worth of continually being aware of my race, but for people of color, that's continual.  My race, in that shop, was my defining characteristic, and I had no say over that.  It wasn't that way because I'd come in and been all "CAN A WHITE GIRL GET A HAIRCUT, BLACK PEOPLE??" or something I did to call attention to it - it was the simple, visual context for me by dint of everyone else being another way.  When I left that shop, I could return to my white world.  It's worth noting that everyone there was super nice, and my being white carried no particular penalty, but this, as we know, is not always the case for people of color.  The project is NOT to make sure everyone can go to their white world, their black world, their brown world, etc., but rather to create one world that is devoid of racial penalty.  This means accepting that people look different, and their appearances call up certain cultural contexts.  It means recognizing those cultural connotations and adjusting our worldview so we can eventually take people as they are.  But we cannot get to that place without recognizing and considering race.

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