By the content of our characters: my thoughts on my racism, and yours

Note: While this is intended to acknowledge, and to share my personal experiences with racism, I can see where it might also offend. This is not my intention. It is only to bring attention to things we might be ignoring in and amongst ourselves, and it has my attention so clearly I need to think about it.

There has been argument from a certain overclass of which I am part that Martin Luther King Jr. did not merit a national holiday. “George Washington Carver did more the country if they must make a holiday of a black man,” said one woman I knew, sneering in distaste. Her argument was that he did something for everyone, while MLK Jr. only did something for black people. ((There was also MLK’s consorting with criminals that was brought up, but given that a)he was a reverend and holy man and b)the situation he was in at the time, I think that this is in no way evidence of his corruption. I heard a recording of him from when he spoke in Mankato, Minnesota – there’s no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit, however you may see the Holy Spirit (I’m Wiccan, so very different from most people, but I believe in it) was with him.))

This, as we know, is bullshit.

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Civil rights are for everyone. Just because a group of abusive white men see themselves as victims by having the law take away their “rights” to have victims does not mean that it doesn’t ultimately do them good, too. They may not see it that way, but being forced to acknowledge humanity in any class, race, gender and variations of all of that is a giant step that makes a lot of people who are accustomed to getting their way without question feel obsolete. The very root of this stuff is from people needing to feel important, and there are a lot of men and women in the world who have become accustomed to having it done for them. This DIY of self-importance is a new and often rattling concept. (Self-important falls in a spectrum from healthy to pejorative.)

We are all racist. I’ve spent some time thinking and reading about institutional racism. I am not an expert, but I have made an effort to inform myself. I agree that our institutions ARE racist – black and Native American students in Minneapolis are suspended at a disproportionately high rate in contrast to their peers. Our prison populations are over packed with people of color, and even those who have the financial means are often unable to leverage the same appeals systems that white money can. At this point, I think that the banks are equal opportunity exploiters, but I daresay that given the opportunity such as that presented with the current Somali financial crisis,  they will do a special screw-over on people of color. Oh yes, there’s a problem, and it’s pervasive. I’m not sure who declared President Obama’s election the “end of racism.” It’s not. I’m still not sure that wasn’t said in jest – racism is an endemic part of US American self-identity, and don’t preen too much Canadians, I’ve caught some of you at it, too.

Here’s the other part of it: while our institutions are indeed racist, the races that they are racist toward are ALSO racist. I have heard the argument that institutional racism means it’s a one way, monogamous deal. That’s crap. People of color do some hating on the side and right out front, too. I’ve had “cracker bitch,” yelled at me a few times (and that’s the only epithet I’ve had hurled at me from that arena I’m willing to print), not for something I did (that was apparent to me, anyway) but for a)dating men of color b)for showing up to shop in a black neighborhood and c)for showing up white in my own mixed neighborhood. I have encountered women of color who automatically assume because I’m a woman of no color that a)I am automatically afraid of them and b)that I automatically hate them. The women that have attempted to intimidate me when I’m waiting at a bus stop and minding my own business have been confused and annoyed when I don’t respond as they expect. I have had men of various nationalities and color approach me and outright demand sex from me, on the assumption that a fat white woman will naturally be eager for any male attention – and on the assumption that my skin (or my Pagan religion) meant I come without sexual morality. (Just because it’s not YOUR morality does not mean it’s not moral.) Certainly there’s some misogyny mixed in there, too, but all the same, I’ve had some crap dished to me because of my white skin – because that was the only real information that the person doing the dishing had about me in those moments. This is not about whether my suffering is proportional to the daily pressure that people of color endure – we all know it’s not – but it is present, and can be a factor in my endangerment, too.

I’ve said some stupid shit in my day – there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know was racist until I got the hell out of Indiana, and I’m only glad that people chose to gently educate me instead of throttle me Homer Simpson-style. I’m sure I still say stupid shit. I am part of a racist culture, and I am racist.  I’m truly grateful Mrs. Keene in the 7th grade had me read Cry the Beloved Country; South Africa’s situation forced me to take a look at what went on in my own country, so when the clue-stick appeared in early adulthood, I usually took it as blessing rather than a beating.

But Martin Luther King Jr. did lay out a vision, and every day of my life I am putting energy into the vision that his children, and their children, and everyone’s children “will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Civil rights are ONE way to get individuals like you and me  to look for the content of another person’s character. To know any person, to make an effort to know any person, before you engage, assume or judge, is a powerful and sacred act. It changes what you decide about sex – the content of the character of a same sex couple marrying can bring happiness and stability into a chaotic world; it changes how you see single parenthood; it changes how you see the elderly because you take time to know their stories. It changes how you see race, as you learn to see the person. The way we consume media and live our lives ultimately reinforces racism as we see only pictures that we judge and snark at, without ever truly seeing the person below. We depersonalize celebrities so we may stick them in our confirmation loops, and thus we never see them, only what we want to see in them; often that comes with justification and practice at hating.

Perhaps, as a ritual, it might be worth seeking out someone else’s story today. Listen to someone talking on the bus; read something at the Experience Project; even watch something from one of the nationality channels on cable access. Leave your “I” out of it – don’t relate yourself or inject yourself or make yourself a character. Just listen, read or watch that other experience. Today is not about your story – it is about hearing another person’s story.