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.


The Quest For Work, Past and Present

August 21, 2012

Down and out on New York pier, 1935, June 2009. (Lewis W. Hine via FDR Presidential Library). In public domain.

Election ’12 should be about how to generate more jobs and how to grow the economy. Sadly, it hasn’t been about these issues, and given the toxic political and cultural climate, it will not be about jobs or the economy when this cycle ends on November 6.

I’ve seen this horror movie of economic downturns and mini-depressions in American society and in my own life now three times in the past thirty-five years. Each time, I’ve been better prepared, more informed, more able to ride out the storm. And each time, I’ve seen the ugly side of what we call the United States of America, a place that has and will continue to punish the unemployed and underemployed for problems beyond their control. Especially if they were and are women, young, over forty, of color, and among the poor.

In the period between ’79 and ’83, when the effective inflation rate for that four-year period was more than thirty-five percent, when we experienced a double-dip recession, when interest rates reached 22.5 percent. My mother’s meager income of $12,000 in ’79 didn’t keep up, even as it reached $15,000 in ’82. We were late with our rent at 616 by an average of three weeks each month and didn’t have food in the apartment the last ten days of any month, going back to October ’81. Things were so bad that my mother, a supervisor in Mount Vernon Hospital’s dietary department, brought food home from the hospital kitchen for us to eat for dinner several times each month.

“Negro Women,” Earle, Arkansas, July 1936, August 21, 2012. (Dorothea Lange via Library of Congress/http://libinfo.uark.edu). In public domain.

The good news was, Mount Vernon Hospital’s employees went on strike for higher wages and increased job security in mid-July ’82. The bad news was, although Mom was a sixteen-year veteran, nearly fifteen of those as a dietary department supervisor, Mom never joined the union. She didn’t want to pay “them bloodsuckers” dues, and said that she “couldn’t afford them” anyway.

I can only imagine how much spit and venom Mom faced on her way to work every day for three weeks. Considering our money situation, which I knew because I checked the mail and looked at our bills every day, picketing and getting union benefits might have been better than working. It wasn’t as if there was food in the house to eat anyway. As much as I enjoyed Mount Vernon Hospital’s Boston Cream Pie, I thought that picketing for a better wage was the way to go.

Soon after I started eighth grade, the other shoe dropped. Mom, so insistent on not joining Mount Vernon
Hospital’s union, was the odd woman out. The hospital’s concession of five percent increases per year over three years left them looking to cut costs. The only personnel left vulnerable were non-union service workers and their supervisors. My Mom had been cut to half-time by her boss Mrs. Hunce. Mom was screwed, but it was a screwing partly of her own making. It was the beginning of a two-decade-long period of welfare, underemployment, unemployment welfare-to-work, with an associate’s degree along the way. So much for hard work leading to prosperity!

I’ve gone through my own periods of unemployment and underemployment over the years. The most severe one for me was between June and September ’97, right after I finished my PhD. It was the first time in four years I hadn’t had work or a fellowship to rely on, and it was brutal. I did interviews with Teachers College and Slippery Rock University for tenure-track positions in education foundations, only to finish second for one job, and to see the folks at Slippery Rock cancel the other search. In the latter case, I think that they felt uncomfortable hiring someone of my age — twenty-seven — and my, um, ilk (read race here).

What made it worse was the fact that I couldn’t simply apply for any old job. I did actually try, too. McDonald’s, UPS, FedEx, Barnes & Noble, among others. I couldn’t even get Food Stamps in July, because my income threshold for March, April and May ’97 — $1,200 per month — was too high. And because I technically was a student for tax purposes my last two semesters at Carnegie Mellon — even though I was adjunct professor teaching history courses — I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.

Shuttered Homestead steel mill, 1989, August 21, 2012. (Jet Lowe/Historical American Engineering Record). In public domain.

I had to omit the fact that I had a PhD to get a part-time job at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which began after Labor Day ’97. I ended up teaching as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University’s College of Education the following year. Still, my income level did not return to where it was my last year of graduate school until June ’99, when I’d accepted a position with Presidential Classroom in the DC area.

I am nowhere near those times of being considered or treated as a statistic, marginalized in media and in politics as being lazy, shiftless, not smart or hard-working enough. But as a person who teaches near full-time and has more than occasional consulting work, I know how precarious and temporary work can be.

Ironic, then, that the people making decisions that have put people like me and my Mom in terrible financial straits have never missed a meal or not paid a bill because they were choosing between heat and not making phone calls. That most Americans regardless of party affiliation shun the poor, unemployed and underemployed is a shame and a pitiful example of how we really don’t pull together during tough times.

These attitudes are why rugged individualism and hard work aren’t enough to get and hold a job. An education, a real social safety net, even regulation of the job market, would help level the playing field for millions. Or, maybe some of us should learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic or Portuguese and move to where the jobs really are.


Hard Work and the Human Race

September 17, 2010

When I was nine years old, my fourth grade teacher at Holmes, Mrs. Pierce — a grouch of an older White woman, really — talked about the human race and attempted to describe our species’ variations. She tried to do what we’d call a discussion of diversity now. It went over our heads, no doubt because she didn’t quite get the concept of diversity herself.

Like the fourth-grader I was, I daydreamed about the term, human race. I thought of Whites, Blacks,

Holmes Elementary. Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce's classroom in 1978-79 year.

Asians, Hispanics, young and old, male and female, from all over the world, all on a starting line. It was as if four billion people — that was the world population in ’79 — were lined up to run a race to the top of the world. In my daydream, some were faster than others, or at least appeared to be, while others hobbled along on crutches and in wheelchairs. Still others crawled along, falling farther and farther behind those who were in the lead, the ones that looked like runners in the New York City marathon. Before I could ponder the daydream further, Mrs. Pierce yelled, “Wake up, Donald!.” as if I’d really been asleep.

A high school friend recently gave me some much-needed feedback on my manuscript. Her feedback was helpful and insightful, and very much appreciated. But some of it reminded me of the realities of having someone who’s a character in a story actually read that story. Their perceptions will never fully match up with those of the writer, which is what is so groovy and fascinating about writing in the first place.

One of the things that struck me as a thread in her comments — not to mention in so many conversations I’ve had with my students about race and socioeconomics — was the theme of individual hard work trumping all obstacles and circumstances. As if words, slights, and mindsets in the world around us don’t matter. As if poverty is merely a mirage, and bigotry, race and racism merely words on a page. Sure, a story such as the one I have told in this blog for the past three years is about overcoming roadblocks, especially the ones that we set ourselves up for in life, forget about the ones external to our own fears and doubts.

At the same time, I realized what my weird daydream from thirty-one years ago meant. Some people get a head start — or, in NASCAR terms, the pole — before the race even starts. That certainly doesn’t make

2009 London Marathon. http://www.newsoftheworld. co.uk/

what that individual accomplishes in life any less meaningful, but knowing that the person had an advantage that most others didn’t possess does provide perspective and illuminates how much distance the disadvantaged need to cover to make up ground. Those who limp and crawl and somehow are able to compete in this human race have also worked hard, likely at least as hard as those with a head start, and more than likely, harder than most human beings should ever have to work.

Plus, there are intangibles that go with race, class and other variables that determines how the human race unfolds. “Good luck is where hard work meets opportunity,” at least according to former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso. Most human beings work hard, but all need opportunities that may provide a real sprint to catch up or take a lead in the human race. Family status, political influence, social and community networks, religious memberships, being in the right place at the right time, all matter and are connected to race and class, at least in the US.

The moral of this story is, hard work matters, individual accomplishment matters. Yet a panoramic view of the race in which humans are engaged matters more in putting our individual successes and the distance that remains in some reasonable perspective. Without that, we’re all just pretending that individual hard work is the only thing that matters, when that’s only half the battle, or half of half the battle.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 709 other followers