Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, July 22, 2013

Race Matters In America: What I've Learned So Far

Here in this post Zimmerman world it has suddenly become okay, if not in fact, necessary to address racism. I venture a perspective from my own particular niche of racial privilege. 


Race Matters In America: What I've Learned So Far

When I came to the US in 1968 (on Labor Day) America appeared to be enjoying a state of progressiveness that infected the whole culture with a vibrancy and newness. And in this context of progressiveness I thought this country of mixed races had this whole race thing solved.

In fifth grade, which was where I entered this conversation, I noted and appreciated the respect being shown by my white teacher during the lessons on black culture. And as I read the story put before me about George Washington Carver learning to read, I also learned something of the plight of black people in America. For in this story black children born into slavery were denied an education, but George Washington Carver had figured out how to get the white boys to teach him the alphabet, by boasting to them that he already knew it. And when they demanded that he recite it, he was counting on them to correct him and that was how he got it right in the end. He did not mind being humiliated in the meantime. This was a lesson I would carry with me for it was quite often that I would find myself in the same position of not knowing something everyone else took for granted. And if you didn't mind being totally clueless and possibly humiliated by those who were in the know, you could learn what you needed to know. This was a big help. Could be of help now.

I don't recall learning to be afraid of black men. My white mother was a fan of Sidney Poitier and the movie Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was used as a teaching point for me since she too had had to introduce her parents to a fiancé who was a man of color. In contrast my Thai father learned to speak in what I would come to recognize as racist terms. He chiefly complained about Mexicans and how inferior they were as fellow immigrants. I disliked his rants because I did not have a Ph.D. like him and my mother implied that I was lazy about just as often. (To insure that I would I live up to my potential, I was sent to private schools where the attention of teachers in small classes would keep me forever anxious about making something of myself.)

At my private high school I was required to read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I did not understand this book at all. The sense of irony was beyond me possibly because I did not realize how being invisible was problematic and I was taking for granted my own invisibility. I better understood Black Like Me which my mother owned. (I also did not understand Crime and Punishment because basically Western thought was still foreign to me, but I didn't know it at the time.) 

I did, however, speak with a British accent identical to my mother's and this was encouraged in my anglophile prep school. (She had actually upgraded her accent from her provincial Yorkshire one when she moved closer to London as a teen.) Post high school the accent gave me another layer of privilege because people listened to me when I talked and assumed I was unusually intelligent or highly educated. I am neither nor am I good at math. I've tried to make up for it with reading. It also helped that I had three different cultural perspectives to choose from, one of which was openly based on class privilege. It gave me more room to observe and understand biases.


Confessions of a Model Minority

And so I came to hold that odd position complicit with white America. I am a model minority. More to the point I am a collectible much like a piece of exotic art. Or as my ex-lover, a horsewoman, put it "I wanted you like I wanted an arabian horse I saw passing by." I had by then acquired a head swiveling beauty that made watching me walk through a room a source of entertainment especially since I was oblivious to the attentions of the men turning to look at me. Beauty brought me social privilege though I was aware that my particular brand of beauty was objectified in a fetishistic way that didn't include being introduced to mom. Not that I'm complaining. On balance my list of privileges, benefits and access to life enhancing experiences amounted to more than your average white person might enjoy. And though I had experienced numerous incidents of stereotyping and inquisition demanding I explain myself, it would be unseemly for me to complain of racism because of this.

I know I tried once and I am still amused and disheartened by the response of my all white, women's writer's group. "Is this an anti-white polemic?" was the first comment. (Love that high brow literary label.) Then several tried to justify, reframe or blame me for all the incidents of prejudice I had described. And I rewrote that poem until all that they were teaching me was included in the rewrite. I had brought up the topic because I thought it might help to add my voice to the issue if I showed my personal experiences of it. I expected them to give me the benefit of the doubt since they had known me for nearly 10 years and it cut me to the quick that they didn't believe me and were defending the perpetrators. The ordeal was so unloving and unsupportive, I knew I would never bring up the topic again. Perhaps they were right, I had too much privilege to complain. And that is how I was silenced because until I figured out some other way to talk about race I couldn't impart what I knew.

While researching this essay, I came across a blog, explaining racism in America written by a black person under a pseudonym that confirmed some of what I knew. It was there that I learned that it is the purpose of the model minority to prove that whites are not the primary beneficiaries of this system of white supremacy in America. That minorities of all races (and white people raised poor) who succeed socially and economically prove that it can be done through hard work, good behavior, dressing and speaking for success and making education a priority. 

But the entire yardstick is an illusion because the benefits afforded both middle class whites and model minorities are superficial compared to the positions of prestige commanded by the uber rich who control the country—the 1% who are invisible to most of America and who have no intention of letting anyone else in. This fully admitted by my ruling-class, horse-loving ex-lover. 


The Invention of White People

The whole idea of white people was invented during the time of slavery to separate the interests of white people who were indentured servants from those of black slaves. I learned this from a black author in her book Learning To Be White which I borrowed from a client (white) who teaches seminars to white people on white privilege. The owning class feared that black slaves and white servants, observed to be fraternizing together, would combine resources and form a rebellion so it became necessary to persuade white people that they were a separate class with privileges based on their race. 

Beginning in Virginia in 1670 (and later adopted by other states) it became illegal for free Negros and Indians to own Christians i.e. "white" servants. From 1680 on it became legal for white Christians including servants to give a slave 30 lashes. Then in 1705 it became illegal to strip a white servant naked in order to beat him. That same year property was confiscated from black slaves and sold by church wardens to poor whites. Masters were also required to pay their white servants at the end of their indentureship with money, clothing, corn, a gun and 50 acres of land. In 1723 free Negroes lost the right to vote, right to bear arms and right to bear witness. Interracial marriage was also made illegal in 1691 although an attempt was made to repeal the law in 1699. And so on until a caste system had been created based on race.

This historical construction of the rights of "white" people convinced me that being white was a construct and the slipperier a construct it was, the more it undermined white people's confidence that they were good enough or white enough to make it in America. European immigrants were also taught to discard their home culture as quickly as possible to avoid discrimination. The behavior of former slaves were used as an example of what not to do. (Which might be why white Americans felt justified in complaining about Black English which struck me as an interesting dialect of American culture that should be preserved.)

As an immigrant I was engaged in conversation by white people who wanted me to agree with their complaints about minorities and other immigrants. It irked me that the same white people who extended themselves to me would not also extend that welcome to everyone. It unmasked my role as a token minority; that I was making them look good in a way that aided and abetted the embedded white supremacy agenda of the culture. I was particularly annoyed by the complaint about the poor English of immigrants because it usually turned out that they themselves had never learned another language. Not having to learn another language in American schools enforces the hegemony of the United States, reduces compassion and increases xenophobia, but it was clearly not my place as an immigrant to complain about the country that was allowing me such access to opportunity and advantages. I already knew that if I initiated a criticism about America the standard response would be "So why do you stay here?"

While I could see that the American system favored whites (and model minorities), white people did not to want to talk about it. We were supposed to be over this whole race thing; it was best to claim color blindness. This is supposed to insure that we would all be treated equally. And though I could see that it was well intentioned it nevertheless infuriated me. Why are you asking me to erase my entire heritage and everything that has informed me thus far? I wanted to know. I consulted my client who taught white privilege. "It is part of white guilt", she said. I consulted Lenore, my white shamanic counselor and civil rights activist. "So they don't have to look at their own privilege," she said as if it were obvious. 


Border Crossing Check Points

Which brings me to another aspect of white supremacy in America. Keeping the races apart. I live in one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan areas of the country where people of numerous nations have shown up to offer their educated skill set to the corporate mother ships of technological innovation here in Silicon Valley. But on the weekends this Star Trek composite of races working together disappear while I find myself among white people. To further study this question of being not white in America I borrowed from Lenore's list and friended several informative posters on Facebook who were black and hoped they would accept my friend request; all did.


The bulk of my experience with black people comes from my travels as a writer 20 years ago. I and whatever other minority writers could be rounded up were invited to publish our stories in anthologies about our lesbian experience and contribute to the need to reflect diversity. We were bridge people. People of color who have made it our work to offer our life stories in order to create a literary culture that is more reflective of the diversity of experience in America (also true of white lesbians). And part of that package was to offer ourselves socially to hold and defend not only our own experiences, but all the cultural turf we might represent in the larger context of white America, a role that requires a certain diplomatic skill set and a willingness to defend a perspective (or multiple of perspectives given that there is never just one to represent).


One such writer was often invited to the parties of a white ally I know. Margaret Sloan Hunter was one of the early editors of Ms. magazine. And because I was usually the only other person of color at these parties (besides her lover), she would recruit me as a POC comrade. Once she invited me to one of her parties along with all the white girls. And so it was that I found myself in an apartment in Oakland hiding out in the kitchen because my white ex lover (the horsewoman) was holding court in the living room with her new (white) lover (and all the other white girls plus our host).

In the kitchen were two black women with whom I tried to converse, but I soon realized that I was not getting anywhere. They were not answering any of my questions just looking at me quizzically. These were not bridge people; they were seeking safe space in the home of a black lesbian community leader and I had just invaded it. Had sat down uninvited like I owned the place. Might I be flirting with them? Hard to tell given my usual oblique, provocative style of engagement. With my English accent, unplaceable nation of origin and non regulation long hair, I was a dangerously unattached cultural discrepancy.

I did have a white date I had invited to accompany me that day, but she didn't show up having not realized the critical role she was to play to legitimize my presence. Five minutes later I felt compelled to leave entirely, my record for shortest attendance at a party.


Beginning The Healing

The worse thing about George Zimmerman's acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin I was realizing for myself the day after the verdict was that he was not white. He was half Jewish with a Latina mother. Whatever psychological pathology he harbored, he needed to hunt black men in the name of protecting the rights of (white) property owners. He was a living example to me that the division of the races was working and that broke me heart. 

The verdict also eroded my confidence. Suddenly we were a divided nation on a topic I knew to be full of land mines. I first had to ask myself—is this my issue? Do I have a right to participate? What do I say as a bridge person? It was not until the half dozen white allies on my Facebook page showed up expressing their grief and disgust at the verdict that I could venture a statement that it was hard to believe this was now a country where it was okay to kill children as a pre-emptive strike. May it be that we just hit bottom, I added.

The day after the verdict I drove to Marin Country for a shamanic workshop where I was the only non-white person in this 18 person workshop. Not unusual for a group so small. No one mentioned the verdict and a woman from Florida was not wanting to talk to me when we were the only ones left to debrief an exercise. Nor did I ask her what she thought about the verdict to protect her from her own shame. 

The workshop was on creativity and it was proving to be a struggle for me as a creative person, but then the definition was opened up and we were asked to make a journey to ask a helping spirit to help us with a community issue. 

"What can I do in ordinary reality to heal racism in America?" I asked. "Writing is your strength" said my grandmother spirit as I was afraid she would. I couldn't even find the door to this topic. In the next journey I asked her to show herself to me as a black woman. She did as I asked, her white hair exchanged for black corn row braids falling to her shoulder. She looked at me with a warm smile. I took her hands in mine across her kitchen table, lacing our fingers together so I could look at the hues of our skin against each other. And then I was in her lap as she wrapped her arms around me and held me. And I asked her how I could bridge the gap between me and black women. (Black men are already happy to talk to me.) "Make eye contact", she said, "offer a welcoming expression, make them visible. Read the literature of black women". (In Asia people do not look at each other straight on quite like people do here. It is too confrontational.) All these ideas I had thought of myself, but it gave me confidence to hear a loving black woman say it. 

When the journey was over, a British woman came over to debrief the exercise. Her eyes widened as I told her how I had asked my guide to show herself as a black woman and when I told her the advice I got, her interest grew and I saw we had both been healed a little bit. 

In the week following I learned of the tumblr blog called We Are Not Trayvon Martin where white people were talking about their white privilege and I saw that we could all participate in this storytelling. Finally the system of white supremacy was being exposed. It reminded me of that other storytelling healing meme called "It Gets Better".

This weekend I made eye contact with a young black woman sitting at a table at the Chipotle restaurant in Palo Alto; she smiled back. On my morning dog walk in my mostly white neighborhood, a white woman jogging by in the customary black spandex, cheerfully said hello to me. I was so taken aback at my sudden visibility I knew it had to be a Trayvon Martin effect. I smiled and said 'hi' back. Then it happened again as I rounded the corner; another woman I had talked to once about a lost dog hailed me from across the street and asked me how I was. I felt more like I belonged in this neighborhood than I have since I moved here 18 years ago. It reminded me that this is a country where people believe that an individual can make a difference. It gave me hope that America would overcome this. 

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