Friday, May 24, 2013

Introduction: Racism, hidden away

I think a lot of people in the US want to forget about racism.  They don't want to talk about it, bring it up, deal with it, think about it.  They want to tell themselves that racism was something that happened in the distant past.  Racism is a problem for history books.  Racism was a serious problem in the early days, back when the nation was first formed and slavery was an acceptable, rampant institution.  Or maybe back in the days of the civil war, when the US was literally torn apart amidst a time of deep racial inequalities.  Sure, that's when it was a problem.  And perhaps the problems of racism lingered until the 1930s or maybe the 1950s.  Yes, those were the days when things were really bad.  People want to tell themselves that today things are different.  Racism is history.

After all, since the days of the Civil Rights reforms, and the election of the first black president, clearly racism can't be a problem anymore.*  It's over and done with, right?  


A few short stories:

1. It's the mid 1980s.  I am driving through Los Angeles with an older family member.  I am about 8 eight years old.  This family member was part of the "white flight" out of some parts of LA that took place in the 1950s and 1960s.  This family member would often talk about "how things used to be" before all of "those people" started to arrive.  On this particular day this family member told me about a game called "Find The White Person" as we were driving through Los Angeles.  The game was supposed to be funny.  I'm not sure what I thought about it at the time, since I was a kid.  This is one of the subtle ways that certain ideas about "others" get passed down. 

2. Late 1980s, San Diego County, California.  I live in a small suburban neighborhood, not far from the beach.  I am about 12 years old.  A young man, exhausted, walks into our driveway.  He is wearing multiple layers of clothes and two jackets.  It's not cold outside.  He asks me, in quiet Spanish, if I have a can opener.  He's hungry.  Years later I understand things a bit more--this was a young man in his early 20s who had crossed the US-Mexico border in search of work.  A refugee from devastated economies and things like NAFTA.  But back then I was only about 12 and I just knew he was a desperate person.  He looked so tired.  One of the neighbors decided to help him out and let him stay with them for a while.  I thought this was a really kind gesture.  The neighbor across the street, however, was not happy about this.  Not because this migrant had done anything wrong, but because of how he looked.  It was a purely chromatic judgment she made, based more on her own ideas about people from "Mexico" than anything else.  She made some comment about turning the neighborhood into the "United Nations" or something like that.  I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember thinking that her anger didn't make any sense.  How could you hate someone you didn't even know?  But, again, I was 12.

3.  Late 1990s.  San Diego.  I am doing some research about family history.  I have some documents that provide little snippets of information about certain members of the family.  One of the stories talks about a person who used to tie his slaves' feet to trees while they were sleeping, put cotton between their toes, and then light them on fire.  They would jump up to run away, but they were bound to the tree.  He thought this was funny.  A joke.  Abusing people for fun and pleasure.  I don't want to see this story in my family history, but it's there, in print.  Undeniable.  I find another document during my search.  It's from the 1860 census.  The record identifies one of my distant relatives from Texas, and the dozen or so slaves he treated as property.  I wonder about the children this person raised, what he taught them.  I think about how these things, these realities, shaped the subsequent generations of my family.  These histories don't just disappear.  They affect.  They literally color realities with the stupidities and brutalities of racism.

4. 2007, Oaxaca, Mexico.  My wife and I are at a minor league baseball game in Oaxaca City.  The visiting team's pitcher starts to lose steam, so they call in a reliever.  He comes in from the bullpen.  He's from the Dominican Republic.  He takes the mound, and starts mowing down home team batters one after another.  The guy is good.  He's clocked at 97 more than once.  I am amazed.  But the drunken home team crowd is not happy.  They belch out vicious racist insults.  This is just one small sliver of the deep racism that pervades Mexico.  It's also when I start to learn that racism has different histories and characteristics in various places.  Racism in the US isn't the same as racism in Mexico.

5. 2009, Kentucky.  We just moved into a new house.  We've been there about a week.  We are the new people in town.  One day I am outside cleaning up after mowing the lawn.  It's late afternoon.  There's a guy walking, and he comes over to talk.  He likes to talk, a lot.  I nod my head, answer his questions.  When he finds out we're new, he starts telling me about "how things are here."  He tells me that certain kinds of people live in this part of the neighborhood, and others live over by the train tracks.  Then he says, "You know, everyone is racist in some way."  I understand this as an invitation to say something he is hoping to hear.  I don't bite.  For the rest of the time I live there I avoid him at all costs.

6. 2013, San Jose del Cabo, Mexico.  This was just a few days ago.  I had just arrived at the airport, and was standing at the car rental counter.  There's an American guy standing there too.  I say hello and engage in a bit of small talk about how hot it is there.  Then he asks me: "Do you like Obama?"  I say: "I don't really know who I like these days."  I'll admit, I wasn't quite ready for what came next.  The guy then proceeds to tell me a ridiculously offensive, racist joke about "people from Africa."  I then realize that his question about Obama was another one of those subtle tests to see where I stood.  I make it clear to him that I don't think his joke is anywhere near funny.  He doesn't say much and goes about his business, turns in his car, and goes on his way to the US.  I can't help but think about how many people like him are out there.  And I also wonder: did I say enough?  Should I have done something more?  Sometimes these things happen so quickly it's hard to know how to react.

Racism is out there.  Some people experience it in more subtle ways, and others, obviously, in more brutal ways.  More violent ways.  More relentless ways.  But the issue of racism--despite what so many Americans want to tell themselves--is anything but resolved.  It persists.  It plagues us.  And it's something that corrodes on a very deep, very personal, and daily level.

This issue is about anthropology and confronting racism.  It's not enough.  There needs to be more.  More education, more confrontation, more conversation.  But then, I don't think that education and conversation and dialog and all of that is enough.  It's not.  I don't think nice Powerpoint lectures about race are going to make the problems go away.  There needs to be something more, something deeper.  One thing is for sure though: racism surely isn't going away if we pretend that it's some historical artifact.  And that's what we've been doing here in the US for far too long: lying to ourselves, telling ourselves that race was a problem.  Ending that pattern, that lie, would be a start.  Then we can move on to the fact that race is about a lot more than just skin color, it's also about power.


Thanks to Agustin Fuentes, Nicole Truesdell, Francine Barone, Douglas La Rose, Candace Moore, Steven Bunce, and Jonathan Marks for taking part in this issue.  As always, I encourage reader comments, questions, concerns, and thoughts.  If you don't want to post on here, you can always email us at anthropologies project at gmail dot com.  Thanks for reading.


*This is an argument that I hear among pundits (and others) fairly often.  The argument goes like this: since the Civil Rights era, all kinds of changes have happened, and racism is all but gone.  The election of Barack Obama is somehow proof of this.  This sort of argument often goes hand in hand with the "you're just pulling the race card" charge, which is sometimes used against anyone who tries to bring up the subject of racism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why is that anthropologist do not agree about the roles of race and racism within the discipline?