Hello, I'm Chauncey DeVega from the blog We Are Respectable Negroes and I am making a study of black people's experiences with racism...
Noted author and journalist Toure has conducted a parallel project with his book Whose Afraid of Post-Blackness? But he is much more patient than I am:
I asked my 105 interviewees, What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to you? The response I received most often was indicative of modern racism: The answer is unknowable. "I imagine it'd be a thing I don't even know ever happened," Aaron McGruder said. "It would be that opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know that it was even possible."
A decision is made in a back room or a high-level office, perhaps by someone you'll never see, about whether or not you get a job or a home loan or admission to a school. Or perhaps you'll never be allowed to know that a home in a certain area or a job is available. This is how modern institutional racism functions and it can weigh on and shape a black person differently than the more overt, simplistic racism of the past did.
In the post-Civil Rights era and the Age of Obama, a large portion of the public imagination views racism as the stuff of mean words and small minds. Racism is an anachronism. The Klan doesn't ride through the streets killing black people anymore; multiculturalism is now a lengua franca for the Generation X Millennial crowd; ultimately, racism is dead because there is a man who happens to be black in the White House.
The reality is much more challenging. Race still structures life chances for people of color. White privilege remains real into the 21st century as a type of property, material right, and psychological investment for white Americans.
But allowing for these facts, Americans still lack a vocabulary for speaking in a sophisticated and nuanced way about racism. Moreover, they also have a void in their cognitive map, one that obviates any capacity for seeing how structures and institutions impact opportunity as 1) Americans historically describe themselves as being middle class (both millionaires and the underclass alike); and 2) many still believe that the Horatio Alger myth is real, even while the wealth gap widens and class mobility has greatly decreased and hardened in this, our time of Great Recession.
In all, these factors buttress an appeal to the oft-heard phrase that all we need is a "national conversation on race" to finally slay the bugaboo of racism.
From the beer summit, to "teachable moments," and the omnipresence of multiculturalism and diversity programs in schools and workplaces, there is a persistent belief that some type of talk therapy will cathartically free the United States from the lingering shadows of white supremacy and make Dr. King's dream real.
Here is the misdirection: Americans have been talking about race for centuries. The result of this difficult dialogue has in some ways been transformative. In others ways, this national conversation on race has resulted in quite a bit of wasted time and energy. People of color have been talking back to Whiteness for centuries; Whiteness chooses either not to listen or to selectively hear that part of the exchange which is both most self-satisfying and self-legitimating. As one would reasonably expect, a unidirectional conversation can become a bit exhausting after more than just a few decades.
"The most racist experience you have," said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, "is the one that's worst, and the one that's worst is usually the one that transforms the way you look at the world." These moments of suddenly discovering the pain and lack of status and power that attends being black is what comedian Paul Mooney refers to as "a nigger wake-up call."
Skip Gates calls them "the scene of instruction" and he says they exist in classic black autobiographies from slavery to recent days. "For W.E.B. Dubois it was a little girl who wouldn't take his Valentine card," Gates said.
"For James Weldon Johnson in Autobiography of an Ex‑Colored Man it was when the teacher said, 'Would all the white scholars stand up,' and he stands up and she goes 'No, you can sit down.' It's always a moment of trauma. There's always something lacking, a deprivation that makes you realize what being black means."
[A question: is this an experience, one that those not of the Other--for a moment or a lifetime--can ever "get?"]
When people of color share their personal experiences with racism a routine in colorblind, pluralist America is enacted, one wherein the struggles to overcome the brutality and limitations imposed by white supremacy and the colorline have (quite rightly) been framed as a badge of national honor. The obsession with talking--if even in a tired ritual--about national problems is a function of a faith in consensus based politics, and a belief that reasonable people can participate in a discourse that produces a sensible outcome.
Stated more simply, where matters of identity are concerned, if "we" could just "understand" each other, things would inevitably have to get better.
It takes courage to share nakedly, with vulnerability, and with honesty. I would suggest that it does not take much courage to listen fairly. Likewise, when black and brown folks share our pain with the white public in a confessional about how racism has caused hurt (as well as substantive material, economic, and physical harm), it often serves as a detour from serious talk about power, institutions, and privilege--and what real justice would look like.
I appreciate Toure's project. But, I am also made quite tired by how black and brown folks have to share our experiences with white supremacy and racism in order to receive acknowledgement and validation of those experiences from white folks (and some others) by "educating" them about the realities of race in America.
History echoes. There was a scripted moment during the anti-slavery rallies held by Abolitionists where there would be a great reveal, a living, human example of the evils of white supremacy and the peculiar institution's gross wickedness. In that ritual, an escaped slave would take off his or her clothing in order to show the scars caused by the whip, the blade, or other foul instrument to the horror of all in attendance. The "what has racism done to you moment" in the post-Civil Rights era feels like a continuation of that script, but one with a far less generous, invested, and accepting audience.
For those sincere about true and substantive social justice, the "please tell me about racism/sexism/other ism moment" is also an error in tactics: it still plays to the veto power of the privileged and the in-group, where for every honest ear there are many more who want you, the sharer, to tell a story which they, the listener can't wait to invalidate for reasons of their own investment in the status quo and/or a belief that most people are "good" and all that "ism" talk is so much chaff and belly aching.
The script is consistent:
"You were overreacting." "It can't possibly be that bad." "How do you know that was their intent?" "I go through stuff like that all the time, what is the big deal?" "If you expect to see racism, you will find it, you need to just relax." And of course the classic, "you are being too sensitive!"
Here, the common refrain is that empathy and sympathy are dependent on sharing, or that communicating one's experiences are a prerequisite and prior for confronting challenging issues of social policy. And how can we make the world a better place if there are no efforts to talk about personal subjects across lines of human difference and identity?
In the year 2011, many of those white folks who are being spoken to just don't care to listen anymore, except when it is to borrow a lazy script where they discover "reverse racism," minimize the experiences of non-whites with prejudice and bigotry, or to steal Dr. King's radical vision and struggle for their own Right-wing, in defense of Whiteness, populist Conservative agenda.
In post-racial America, a country in which some white folks absurdly claim that they are now "oppressed" by people of color and Barack Obama, the black folk racism confessional just doesn't have any zing or punch left to it.
Sorry folks, I just can't play along anymore. Those white folks on the right side of history have already heard the message and come along. Those others are deaf of ear, and there is nothing you can say to win them over.