28 December 2013

Ranting about race and privliege

All things considered, America is a pretty cool place to live. It has a lot of really good things going for it, and most of those good things are tied to the idea of upward mobility: the idea that anyone can succeed in society if they're smart enough and work hard enough. We're a country that has, for centuries, believes that how much someone achieves is tied to their ability and work ethic. And all things considered, it's a pretty tidy narrative. Problem is: it's not true. And this is at the core of most conversations on power (perceived or real): privilege benefits those in power at the expense of those not in power, and only when helping those not in power becomes a political neutral or an external positive for those in power will real change happen (ex: Civil Rights Act of 1954- the most benefitted group from this are white women, and it's by a staggering statistic- close to 4-1- for those not in the know, the inclusion of these women is what ended the nearly 2 month filibuster and allowed for it's passage). It is only with the recognition of privilege will we actually have any access to the change and recognition society needs. 

The American concept is"all men are created equal". And so if you, to follow the advice of Horatio Alger, if all men are created equal, is to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" to advance yourself. This advances two separate, but equally powerful claims: 1) that those who are successful have HAD to pull themselves up at one time- which may not be true, and 2) that in order to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, that presupposes that one has BOOTS, much less a STRAP on those boots. Not everybody has equality- which is an interesting word, but not really the correct word. That word is equity- the idea that everyone has what then need, as opposed to equality, which presupposes that everyone be provided with the same access points to success, as opposed to being given the same TOOL for success. An example of this would happen in The Classroom would be if i had everyone take off both their shoes in a pile and just handed them back 2 at a time, grabbing any two I see- the kids would complain (for having two different shoes). This would be equal, each kid gets two shoes, but not equitable because no kids (outside smooth luck) are lucky enough to get two of their own shoes. Meritocracy is defined by Webster's dictionary as: a system where the talented are chosen and moved ahead based on achievement. But this kind of begs the question- who determines what "standards" will be used to enforce laws? Who determines what "talent" is, what "achievement" means- which is just more ground for arbitrary distinctions set forth to exclude those you feel don't "achieve" like you want or to be as "talented" as you'd like.

This discussion isn't a true one until the role that privilege plays in day-to-day experiences is exposed. But that can't be done if we truly believe in merit based standards. Let me try to put an end to this discussion now: all standards are: structured preferences- preferences that some party or parties deemed as important and they decided to use those preferences as the measuring sticks. When you look at them as preferences rather than infusing arbitrary implications to them do you realize that meritocracy is, and it always has been, a rouse. A well executed rouse to lead people to believe that if you work hard then you'll be successful: The American Dream as some would call it.

Wait: did he just say the American Dream is fraudulent? Is he saying that people can't just work hard and have it work out?

Kind of.

This isn't to say that it's not possible for you to start with nothing and build your way to the top. I mean it's been done by tens of hundreds of people in the United States. It's why there are soooo many stories of people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What I'm saying is that, depending on who you are, who your parents are (socioeconomically and racially) and many many things well beyond your control will play integral roles in the way things work out for you.

On paper, I look a lot different than people would imagine me being. I have an undergraduate degree in chemistry, am an english, speech and journalism teacher at a private catholic school, i'm the director of the school speech and debate team. Graduated near the top of my class in high school and in college (magna cum laude). My education and socioeconomic location should indicate that i have a fair amount of privilege. And. I. Do. i'm not fronting and saying that i have no privilege, but i am saying that a lot of the privilege i do have is internal: you might not know about it when you approach me. Because on the outside, i'm Black. This puts me in kind of a catch-22: black people who don't know me but judge me based on the way i talk and/or the way i dress assume "i act white" (which is offensive in ways i can't even explain: who the fuck gives you license to determine my blackness based on the way i talk- and who the fuck gives you the right to assign that talking intelligently is talking white- it's that same logic that says reading is white- and i'm sure slaves that lost their lives trying to learn to read are turning over in collective graves thinking about that- but i digress). My body is Black. And I love that. But to say that people treat me like an educated man or a socioeconomically sufficient man would be dishonest- they treat me like a Black man. I was reminded of that just last weekend.

I went to Oakland to hang out with a friend I hadn't seen in awhile, as he teaches at a school in Taipei- something I want to describe as China so badly get under his skin it kills me, but once again, I digress. I went to hang out, and after doing so, I wanted to get some Nation's (local 24 hour burger spot) and on my way there, I realize I'm being followed by a police officer. He pulls me over, ask me the standard alcohol questions and I answer that I haven't drank (yet) and that I was on my way to Nation's (I neglected to mention: I'm less than 100 yards from my house and 2 blocks from Nations). I'm asked to take the motor dexterity tests for DUI. I explain that I'm TERRIBLE at these tests and that I'm likely to fail one or more, and if I could just blow in the breathalyzer then I would be allowed to continue my experience. He did not let me do this, and despite being told about dexterity issues, they found out my balance is excellent when standing, but not as much walking heel to toe, or that holding a leg at a 45 degree angle while counting is easy, unless you REALLY try to hold the leg at 45 degrees (i'm a scientist by nature, my desire for precision has caused me problems in many many facets of life, i see no reason why an exchange with police would be no different). After I pass 2/3 of the tests, before he gives me the breath test, he asks for consent to SEARCH MY CAR, to which i decline (not as much to be difficult than under general reflex). we then WAIT for 20 MINUTES while another cop comes, after which case they gave me a breath test, to which i test .00- stunning to all involved, except me. The cop then explains to me that there have been a lot of drunk drivers, and it's the Holiday weekend, so they have vamped up services (read: trying to bust people). Although I was gonna go to my house (which was literally up the street, i decided to get some Nations and go on home...I get there, get my food, and then leave the Nations parking lot, am driving toward the freeway (so at this point I'm a block from Nations and 3 blocks from my house), and i look behind me- flashing lights. I pull over, and I'm asked for drivers license and registration and proof of insurance (again) and realize (before he does) that this is the 2nd cop that pulled up (the cop we waited for by my house- the cop who HAD the breath machine) that was pulling me over. I comment "didn't we just do this?" and he asks how many drinks I've had- i tell him none, and he asks me to step out of the car and asks me to do a series of dexterity tests, to which i tell him that I'm likely to fail one and if there's a way....hey wait, this sounds familiar...so we went through the ENTIRE PROCESS STEP BY STEP AGAIN, even including the 20 minute wait (let's be honest, it was only 14 minutes, but 20 makes it sound more methodical) for backup to then give me the breathalzyer again (to which I, once again, tested a .00). The absurdity of this was recognized by the 2nd cop (original cop 1) upon his arrival when he says "we just pulled him over" to which the cop retorts: "he never told me that." Which was a lie. They then let me go, but my food is cold and I've been pulled over twice in a 3 block span in my own home town while i tried to get a burger and fries. And that makes this the 70th (yes- that's 70) time i've been pulled over (remarkably only 4 tickets and all were straight bullshit). 

i write all of this to let people know a couple of things: 1) racism ain't going anywhere- and the fact that there's a black president (that some people are unhappy with) has actually, i feel, increased animosity towards African Americans (for some reason, Blacks carry the weights of all Blacks on bad act or intents, whereas whites are allowed to have individual acts of bad actions- another benefit of privilege that nobody talks about- the impression of white as the standard and all others being held to that standard-which if you remember is simply a structured preference). People that used to say shameful things (in closed audiences) about Joey, the black man in their neighborhood they "always was up to no good" can now say increasingly hateful things about the President IN OPEN SPACES- so everyone gets to hear it said, which makes it more acceptable.  

If you think language doesn't work this way, think about how taboo the conversation of domestic violence is in society. now think about the last time you, or someone you know, described a sleeveless tank top a "wife beater." When it happened, did you speak up- did you tell someone how FUCKING OFFENSIVE that was? Did you try to get them to understand how normalizing that term makes it easier to normalize abuse of women? I'd bet that most of you reading this did NOT speak up, and that many of you laugh at the term when you hear it. 

I consider myself a pretty decent person (stop laughing fool!!)- and yet when i heard this for the first time- I felt a lot of guilt. At first I wanted to say I didn't do that. But that was a lie. Then I wanted to think that she was wrong: not just in the information, but telling me, i mean telling ME this. Who does she think she is?!? THIS IS WHERE I STOP AND REVERSE ROLES. I put myself in her position. I change the issue from a gender issue to a race issue. And there it is: i can see MYSELF in the same position she is, making a very similar plea about language, and I can see that the things I'm thinking are the SAME THINGS PEOPLE SAY TO ME- and that realization is key: that ability to recognize emotions being experienced is the true starting point to change- as change requires not just empathy, but sympathy- which is an actual concern for other people. Everybody knows what it's like to feel love (except psychopaths- but that's another blog for another day) so the idea of being in love with someone and not being able to show it is something that all people feel. So the idea that someone who loves someone else should NOT get to express that love through marriage is something that, as a country, has drawn traction- which is what i think the impetus for the overarching societal shift in gay marriage (from about 75% against less than 20 years ago to 18 states allowing it including South Carolina and Utah, not exactly bastions of liberalism). You may not love someone of the same sex, but you have loved and lost, and know it sucks to lose someone and it's hard to find someone right. Also if the numbers of 10% are true, then chances you have a gay uncle, cousin, sister, nephew, father or mother in the family tree- and hearing the stories of oppression coming from family members will also foster change. The empathy gap between gays and heterosexuals has gone from the size of The Grand Canyon (I remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic where there was open discussion of things like general quarantine) to the size of a small creek- one might just jump on their mountain bike or with a good running start, just plain jump it. Note: I recognize there are people that still believe homosexuality is a sin and that some of them are vocal: don't worry, I'll get there. But the fact that that parallel can be drawn is part in parcel why I think the needle has changed on homosexuality in general and on gay marriage in particular. The empathy gap between themselves and the oppressed/marginalized group is small, and they can see themselves in the people being oppressed. 

But what about that old bastard from Duck Dynasty? He said some pretty hateful shit about gay people? Doesn't that prove people are less tolerant than you're saying? In a word- no. That proves that some old hate-filled man hates gay people- doesn't change the national meter on gay people. The fact that soooooo many people came to bat for the LGBT community as this happened proves my point that Gayness is more socially acceptable. I will note there was also a discussion on race, where he said essentially that because he knew happy blacks before the civil rights movement working in the fields that blacks must have been happier than they are now. So I don't get this wrong, let me quote it:

"I never with my eyes saw any mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived all was farmers. The blacks worked in the farm. I hoed cotton with em...They're singing and happy...Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."

what the fuck? This statement went essentially un-discussed in the media. Was Old Man Phil offensive to gays? Yes. Was this "Jim Crow" comment made offensive? Yes. The idea that blacks in the field sharecropping were happier because they were singing is pretty ignorant: What were they supposed to do? The LEGAL SYSTEM is rigged against them, causing a fuss just gets you put into a rigged system- not sure if they understand that the smile and the shuffle are acts of defiance. 

The way this Duck Dynasty thing worked out makes perfect sense to me based on this discussion. Duckman says homophobic and racist shit. Media and liberals up in arms about homophobic shit. Conservatives rally around right to say homophobic shit. Network waffles and lets him back on despite saying homophobic shit. Discussion of race never gets brought up. I act like I'm surprised- I'm not. Just wake up...