Whiteness, Symbols and Racial Context

May 21, 2014

The Matrix (1999) meme (only, the "What if I told you" part is incorrect) featuring Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, May 21, 2014. (http://imgflip.com).

The Matrix (1999) meme (only, the “What if I told you” part is incorrect) featuring Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, May 21, 2014. (http://imgflip.com).

For most Whites, racism’s an individual thing. For most Whites, Racism must be obvious. For most Whites, racial bias can only be a deliberate choice. For most Whites, racism’s not infused in the fabric of American culture, or baked into America’s institutions, or infused in its very political and economic structure. Of course, these “most Whites” are just plain wrong. What scares them on this issue — maybe even more than actually using the words “race” or “racism” — is the possibility that though racism is learned, that it also isn’t a decision. It’s an assumption, or really, many layers of assumptions. Of “rights.” Of entitlement. Of privilege. Of being special. Of being colorblind. Of folks knowing their place, and they as Whites knowing where to place these folks.

As I wrote in another social media context last week, part of the insidious nature of Whiteness — aside from its ability to morph over time — are the issues of symbolism and context. Racism for most is obvious and relies heavily on the most obvious of symbols, like in the case of hooded KKK members burning crosses, or in Donald Sterling‘s case, an elderly rich White guy whose Archie Bunker paternalism can be seen from space.

These incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg of race and racism in the US because most people of color exist outside the context that comes with Whiteness. For walking in Whiteness without any acknowledgement of one’s privilege — but with tons of assumptions of privilege — is the psychological and social equivalent of breathing and walking at the same time — one only thinks about it when forced to. If those Black and Brown are on TV in orange jump suits, it fits the narrative and context of Whiteness. If someone like me is a college professor in a predominantly White classroom, however, the context doesn’t fit the Whiteness playbook, and with that systems error, many of my White students manifest so many racial assumptions.

Writer, educator and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on ABC's This Week discussing NBA's response to Donald Sterling's racist statements, May 4, 2014. (http://www.politifact.com).

Writer, educator and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on ABC’s This Week discussing NBA’s response to Donald Sterling’s racist statements, May 4, 2014. (http://www.politifact.com).

These out-of-context scenarios occur on individual and institutional scales. Like having White co-workers only recognize me in the context of being at work and at a desk, but being scared upon seeing me board an elevator with them five minutes after the end of a work day. Or in spotting me searching for something at a store, only to ask me to help them find something for them, assuming that I work there. Or in assuming that in the context of sports and entertainment, anyone Black or Brown with an IQ higher than 100 with verbal skills is “angry,” or is “too cerebral” to be successful, or has “an attitude problem.”

Then there’s the assumption that no matter one’s grades, test scores or degrees, that wee folk of color achieved all we have because of affirmative action, the symbol of so-called reverse racism in the US (talk about the narcissism and master-race assumptions of intelligence embedded in this line of reasoning!). For most of the history of Whiteness and racism in American history, this was an infrequent prospect. These days, these microaggressions and racist behaviors occur almost every moment of every day. Precisely because there are so many successful Black and Brown folks, at least in the semi-conscious mind of Whites in the midst of their own Whiteness. This despite the reality that these successful Black and Brown folks are only symbols of  the very success that has eluded a broad majority of those of color.

Agent Mr. Smith (played by Hugo Weaving) about to explode, The Matrix (1999), May 21, 2014. (http://www.oocities.org/)

Agent Mr. Smith (played by Hugo Weaving) about to explode, The Matrix (1999), May 21, 2014. (http://www.oocities.org/)

But the context here will rarely be obvious to those awash in Whiteness. Structural inequality and racism, institutional racism, even internalized racism — all confirm the world that most operating in Whiteness can see, precisely because this world is the one in which they are comfortable and virtually unchallenged. Challenging the very structures and institutions upon which Whiteness has been built is like trying to metaphorically deconstruct The Matrix. Most living in Whiteness don’t want to wake up, For waking up would obliterate their world, their very understanding of their existence. And that’s too high a price for recognizing racism and inequality, and their own inadvertent hand in both.


Newtown Calling

December 19, 2012

President Barack Obama tears up during White House press conference on Newtown, CT mass shooting, December 14, 2012. (UPI)

President Barack Obama tears up during White House press conference on Newtown, CT mass shooting, December 14, 2012. (UPI)

One thing that I can say about myself with confidence is that I’ve had some experience with violence and tragedy. A witness to domestic violence, a victim of child abuse, an observer of violent assaults involving knives and baseball bats. Knowing a couple of folks who committed suicide — one who jumped on my side of the office building in which I worked a decade ago — and watching a former boss flip out from a manic-depressive episode right in front of me.

Still, even with all of that experience, I don’t know anything about being the parent of a child killed in the midst of a mass shooting like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I can only begin to imagine that kind of grief, pain and anger.

So, it’s with that in mind that I write about the things that have been said by journalists, parents, politicians and others about this latest tragedy that have really bothered me. Despite the core-shaking event in Newtown last week, apparently there are people in this country who believe in guns more than people, who believe that some lives are worth more than others, that people with mental health issues are the perpetrators of most violent crimes. These people are wrong, wrong-headed, and the kind of people who seemingly want to steal my hope that we’ll do something serious about guns and gun violence in the US.

Mogadishu (Somalia) suicide bomb victims, January 24, 2009. (Ontdek Islam website).

Mogadishu (Somalia) suicide bomb victims, January 24, 2009. (Ontdek Islam website).

1. The “I can’t believe that this happened here” response. Every time I hear someone say something like this, I think, “So it’s all right if a mass shooting happens in Mogadishu, Harlem or Southeast DC?” It’s one of the most entitled, elitist and bigoted things I’ve heard over the years. Tragedy happens everywhere, especially in a nation as fearful, violent, imperialistic and gun-obsessed as ours. And people’s lives are invariably screwed up by tragic events, regardless of race or location. Whether in a mostly White bedroom suburb like Newtown or on the South Side of Chicago.

2. “If the teachers and principal had been armed, this wouldn’t have happened” response. Really now? Folks whose job it is to teach should walk around with or have handy a handgun on the rare chance someone like Adam Lanza shows up? Gun enthusiasts can say this a billion times a day. But more people with guns doesn’t make anyone any safer. There’s about a generation’s worth of research showing this very fact. End of discussion.

3. “We need to get rid of violent video games” response. This is ludicrous. American history is replete with mass murders and mass shootings, from White “settlers” decimating American Indians to the Rosewood, Florida race riot of 1923 to Charles Whitman shooting and killing fourteen during his University of Texas clock tower rampage in 1966. Last I checked, Mortal Kombat and Halo 4 didn’t exist in 1877, 1923 or 1966. Violent video games aren’t the problem. Our violent obsession with guns and supremacy in life is the problem.

4. “We need a better mental health system in this country” response. This one is actually correct. At least, it mostly is. The assumption here, of course, is that people somehow snap in the process of taking their own and others lives without a coherent rationale. Psychological screenings (see my post “A Call for Psychological Screenings” from September ’12) and backgrounds checks with 100 hours of mandatory gun training would definitely help. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are NOT violent. There are plenty of “normal” folks who are anti-social, have borderline personalities, are psychotic, but function normally in our society. Until the day they get a hold of a gun or some other weapon, that is. Those folks, though, would likely not test as having a mental illness.

Sidewalk memorial with 26 stuffed animals representing 26 shooting victims, Newtown, CT, December 16, 2012. (David Goldman/AP).

Sidewalk memorial with 26 stuffed animals representing 26 shooting victims (cropped), Newtown, CT, December 16, 2012. (David Goldman/AP).

We need much tougher gun control laws, a total assault weapons ban, regulations on bullets sales, maybe even a repeal of the Second Amendment. We certainly need a system that promotes comprehensive mental health services from birth through death. But right now, we also need to stop engaging in clichés, to get the story right before reporting it first (hint, CNN), to step outside of our cloistered and entitled way of viewing the world. Newtown’s calling, but for me, so is Mount Vernon, New York, Littleton, Colorado, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Silver Spring, Maryland, Aurora, Colorado, Norway, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so many other parts of this world that have experienced violent tragedies.


Hatin’ the Player Over the Game – Repost (w/ On Ex-Gladiators)

May 4, 2012

Junior Seau (New England Patriots linebacker at the time) during a game against the Oakland Raiders, December 14, 2008. (JJ Hall via Wikipedia/Flickr.com). In public domain via cc.-Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I originally wrote the post below in May ’10, with off-the-field incidents involving Ben Roethlisberger, my man Lawrence Taylor, and Brian Cushing in mind. Not to mention our secret (or not-so-secret) lust for violence in professional football in mind. I post it again, now shocked, saddened and even mortified over Junior Seau’s suicide on Wednesday. As Paul Daugherty wrote in his SI.com column yesterday, most of us “don’t know athletes. We like to think we do,” but “we just don’t know.”

The fact is, given all we can and should know about neuroscience and brain chemistry by now, it’s clear that not only is professional football right on par with hockey as the most brutal and violent sports on the planet. It’s that the sport itself can and does alter an individual’s brain chemistry, their long-term neurology, especially if played for a serious period of time. It’s the American empire’s equivalent of a gladiatorial sport, where the stars play for keeps, live hard (albeit in the most dark and secret of ways sometimes) off the field, and obviously die even harder as well. And like the gladiators of ancient Rome, there are substantial rewards that come with the life of the NFL, including the ability to craft an image that’s larger than oneself.
The problem for NFL stars is that the career does end, begrudgingly and relentlessly so. But the violence that the mind becomes accustomed to — along with the accolades — does not and cannot, at least, not without help. For whatever reason, Junior Seau didn’t have that kind of help in his life. Seau, like so many of us, couldn’t reconcile his image with his reality, and obviously took his life in no small part because of it. As a fan, I can’t allow this to continue without saying or doing something, hence this repost.
———————-

Lawrence Taylor

Let’s see now. Big Ben Roethlisberger, the great LT and Brian Cushing have all found themselves in trouble in recent weeks. With the law, with the NFL and with fans from all over Football Land. The Fourth Estate and the 4.5 Estate (bloggers) have gone on, and on, and on about how these guys lack discipline, are entitled whiners and complainers, and believe that they can get away with anything. These pop-psychology ruminations are much more pop than social psychology, with some being down-right idiotic. The bottom line is, at the bottom of their tax returns, where the IRS asks for your profession, these players (or their tax preparers) write or type “Football Player” in that spot. And that’s all the explanation you need when it comes to criminal behavior, criminal-esque behavior, and just plain bad behavior.

To be sure, many of these players — and not just in the NFL — are spoiled, entitled, whiny, and do think that they can get away with more than an ordinary American. Sure, some of our reaction to think is colored by race, as the majority of players of two of the three major team sports in this country are Black. But while race is a factor in perception and entitlement a factor in general, the real problem with professional football players is the nature of the game itself, especially in terms of violent crimes.

We somehow expect people who’ve spent a significant amount of their time playing a sport like football to somehow turn off all of the intensity, adrenaline and violence that comes with playing the game and then act like normal everyday people. Most players in the NFL have been playing the sport at least since the age of thirteen or fourteen, with many starting as early as six or eight. Then, with college and the pros, tack on at least eight years of play with hits that would put the average person in the ICU. Yet, once their career is over, or at least, during the off-season, these same players must then become model citizens. Are you kidding me?

For most Americans, few things in our lives are more violent than watching a football game. Police officers, soldiers in combat, and boxers are the only ones who may well experience more violence. And all available research shows how difficult it is for a human being to constantly engage in violent acts and then adjust to a normal life setting (whatever that means). So it should be obvious that a professional football player would have the same kind of troubles, as say, a retired boxer or an undercover detective in

Donte’ Stallworth Hit

transitioning between his world and ours.

In many ways, the most popular sport in our country gives us as much of a fix as it does for the players engaged in the sport. In this sense, there isn’t much of a difference between being an NFL player or being a gladiator during the times of the Roman Empire. Both celebrated, both reviled, both part of our societal hypocrisy over their criminal acts (alleged and actual). Ben will be forgiven once the Steelers start living again, while Cushing’s use of HCG will be forgotten by training camp. LT will at least be defended by many until actual proof is provided of guilt or innocent.

Brian Cushing (Houston Texans)

I’m hardly condoning anyone’s actions, on or off the field of play. But, as long as we keep buying the tickets, jerseys, cable packages, and the beer, all we’ll be doing is supporting the violent and sometimes bloody business of professional football. We can’t have our cake and then eat it too, especially in these cases, even though we’re trying to.


I’m Not Happy Feet (or Ted Williams)

February 21, 2011

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this post.

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this blog post.

Remember that homeless Black guy who kicked off our new year a few weeks ago through the power of YouTube and some folks who recorded him and his golden voice on their smartphone? Yeah, how could any of you forget, really? Ted Williams had a whirlwind ten days, as thirteen million people watched the YouTube recording, companies and individuals offered him jobs and money, his family came back into his life. And then, of course, Williams became violent, relapsed into drug use, and is in the midst of rehab — again.

But it all started with his YouTube performance for the good folks of voyeur America. The whole incident made me cringe from start to finish. It also made me think about something that has always bothered me about race in America. Why? Especially since the video surfaced a man who’d been on a downward spiral for three decades? Because it seems that in order for a Black person to be taken seriously in this society, we have to perform like trained seals in order to get the attention we need and deserve.

Ted Williams, Columbus, OH, January 3, 2011. AP. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and use as subject in blog post.

This isn’t about some metaphorical relationship between excellence and success, or displaying intellect at school and in the world of work. No, this is actually about giving a performance, acting, or as the older folks would say, shuckin’ an’ jivin’, or hustlin’, to grab the attention of mostly Whites in high places. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it also is mostly not good. For it also seems that many of us must experience hardship, prison, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness in order to get attention in the first place.

That’s why it pisses me off when hearing about journalists shadowing the homeless in order to learn about life on the streets. Or when writers sit down with a homeless man or woman to learn about their ironic life story. It also bothers me when I see lists of the “50 Most Successful X” and the “100 Most Innovative Y,” knowing before I read one word that the only Blacks who made these lists were entertainers (I include professional athletes in this category, by the way). It’s disheartening to know that, for all of my writing ability and intellect, the only way I’ll likely be as successful as I hope to be will be by delivering a performance that allows Americans — mostly White — to be voyeurs of my life beyond my words and deep thoughts.

It all came together for me in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode  (Season 2, Episode 4) “The Swamp,” where Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh sit at the side of the road in an Earth Kingdom town begging for change. One man forces the once proud general to dance for a gold coin — “Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner,” the man says. It speaks to shameful classism — or, at the very least, a sense of class and race entitlement — that we in this country engage in every day.

So, here are a few more thoughts. I look at Ted Williams, The Soloist with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, even the Pixar/Disney movie Happy Feet (2006) — which me and my wife made the mistake of taking our son Noah to see (he didn’t like the movie, by the way) — and see lots of shuffling across a floor for the attention of Whites (and some people of color) in high places. Do two million penguins really need to tap dance ala Savion Glover in order to get attention from White scientists trying to save life on this planet from our global warming ways? No, but Blacks have had to literally tap dance for food and spare change in the exact same way.

I felt this way in grad school and at various times throughout my career. That I needed to sing, dance and do flips and cartwheels to make myself stand out for my middling White professors and supervisors. It would explain why some of them would ignore my grades, papers and awards to ask me if I could palm or dunk a basketball — out of the blue! Or why a muckity-muck at the Academy for Educational Development would walk by my office, notice the PhD on my name plate, and say, “Wow! You have a doctorate! I thought you only played softball!” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ve been working here for three years, just so I can play on the organization’s softball team.”

We ignore those suffering the most, whether because of race or class or gender or a combination of the three (or more) until they do something that impresses us. That’s when they deserve a chance, at least from the perspective of those laughing at them. And that’s shameful, demeaning, and yes, racist and elitist in a very specific way.


Hatin’ the Player Over the Game

May 17, 2010

Lawrence Taylor

Let’s see now. Big Ben Roethlisberger, the great LT and Brian Cushing have all found themselves in trouble in recent weeks. With the law, with the NFL and with fans from all over Football Land. The Fourth Estate and the 4.5 Estate (bloggers) have gone on, and on, and on about how these guys lack discipline, are entitled whiners and complainers, and believe that they can get away with anything. These pop-psychology ruminations are much more pop than social psychology, with some being down-right idiotic. The bottom line is, at the bottom of their tax returns, where the IRS asks for your profession, these players (or their tax preparers) write or type “Football Player” in that spot. And that’s all the explanation you need when it comes to criminal behavior, criminal-esque behavior, and just plain bad behavior.

To be sure, many of these players — and not just in the NFL — are spoiled, entitled, whiny, and do think that they can get away with more than an ordinary American. Sure, some of our reaction to think is colored by race, as the majority of players of two of the three major team sports in this country are Black. But while race is a factor in perception and entitlement a factor in general, the real problem with professional football players is the nature of the game itself, especially in terms of violent crimes.

We somehow expect people who’ve spent a significant amount of their time playing a sport like football to somehow turn off all of the intensity, adrenaline and violence that comes with playing the game and then act like normal everyday people. Most players in the NFL have been playing the sport at least since the age of thirteen or fourteen, with many starting as early as six or eight. Then, with college and the pros, tack on at least eight years of play with hits that would put the average person in the ICU. Yet, once their career is over, or at least, during the off-season, these same players must then become model citizens. Are you kidding me?

For most Americans, few things in our lives are more violent than watching a football game. Police officers, soldiers in combat, and boxers are the only ones who may well experience more violence. And all available research shows how difficult it is for a human being to constantly engage in violent acts and then adjust to a normal life setting (whatever that means). So it should be obvious that a professional football player would have the same kind of troubles, as say, a retired boxer or an undercover detective in

Donte' Stallworth Hit

transitioning between his world and ours.

In many ways, the most popular sport in our country gives us as much of a fix as it does for the players engaged in the sport. In this sense, there isn’t much of a difference between being an NFL player or being a gladiator during the times of the Roman Empire. Both celebrated, both reviled, both part of our societal hypocrisy over their criminal acts (alleged and actual). Ben will be forgiven once the Steelers start living again, while Cushing’s use of HCG will be forgotten by training camp. LT will at least be defended by many until actual proof is provided of guilt or innocent.

Brian Cushing (Houston Texans)

I’m hardly condoning anyone’s actions, on or off the field of play. But, as long as we keep buying the tickets, jerseys, cable packages, and the beer, all we’ll be doing is supporting the violent and sometimes bloody business of professional football. We can’t have our cake and then eat it too, especially in these cases, even though we’re trying to.


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