Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Move On Racism: Obama or Else

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, by NY Street Artist TMNK [Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, by NY Street Artist TMNK™ (The Me Nobody Knows)]

Move On Racism: Obama or Else

Bill Clinton was on Letterman last night, mostly talking about the Clinton Global Initiative and explaining the current economic crisis. I wish he'd done more to assign blame, but that's an emotional reaction on my part.

In fact, here's my entirely emotional, working class reaction to the economic hooha: Ya'll are JUST NOW figuring out things are in the crapper? As usual, awareness of reality starts at the bottom and works it way up to the rarified air of the so-called "leaders". And thinkers. You know what I'd like to see? NO MORE WHITE MEN IN SUITS TALKING GRAVELY ABOUT THE ECONOMY. I've had it up to here on my fat red neck.

Furthermore, if I go to Walgreen's and steal a package of batteries, and the alarm goes off at the door, here's what happens: I get questioned, probably charged, and I don't get to keep the batteries. If I get charged, I get fined or do time. The penalty will depend on my looks (if I'm non-white, I do time; if I'm white and female and look poor/fat, I do time; etc.)

So what I want to see FIRST, before anything else, is the homes, condos, cars, boats, and pensions of every single fucker who has headed up banks and investment firms SEIZED and sold, with that money applied to the debt they've run up. Then they get fined on top of that, and their asses get FIRED. As Clinton said about the economic crisis last night, he's interested in seeing someone apply gaming theory to the situation, because there's no way things could get worse so any action will lead to improvement. If that's true, then ANYBODY hired in place of the alleged experts will make things better. Let's give it a try, shall we?

The penalty for greed at the expense of others (and that sums up the past eight years in a nutshell) needs to be deprivation on an epic scale for those who indulged themselves.

Okay, back to Bill: What I've been most thinking about is his assessment of how the Presidential race will come down to personality, not issues. How the Republicans want to keep it on that level, because they've won with idiots several times in a row now and it's all they have left. (That last sentence is my paraphrase.) And with the current ADD, so-you-think-you-can-raise-a-baby-while-dancing-to-don't-forget-the-lyrics mindset of the populace, perhaps they are right, perhaps nobody can win running on intelligence any more.

But that's okay, because we can win on personality, too.

There's been a lot of angst about the race gap in polls of voters, that there's a certain percentage of white voters who will never cast a ballot for a non-white. Yep, I'm sure that's true as it sits today. Just like there's a certain percentage who will never vote for a woman, or never vote for a non-Christian -- and I'll bet those numbers are comparable or even higher. But people who know they won't vote for a black man, who can answer a poll about it honestly, well, they aren't going to vote for our side anyhow. Whether we run a black guy or not, we're the party who acknowledges the reality of racism and at least makes noises about addressing it, so we're not the choice of someone for whom maintaining racism makes sense.

It's the other folks, the white people who believe they aren't racist, who are the voters we need to care about. And that's most of us. But we have some real advantages to doing this work, winning the hearts as well as the minds of white racists who don't believe they are racists.

Here's the skinny: Nobody is born a racist. (Cue music from South Pacific....) We learn it, from the people we love and trust the most, who are teaching us the nature of the world. We resist as long as we can, in every way we can, until it overwhelms us in spite of our best efforts.

People who have given up fighting racism, who openly admit they hate blacks, for instance, are developmentally still at a level where they dare not comprehend their parents and church and ancestors are damaged liars. They can't bear facing it; better to just give in to becoming like mom and dad.

The rest of us are, on some level, willing to admit the pars were not perfect, not right about everything or maybe even most things. We try to admire Thomas Jefferson's vision and ignore his raping slave women. We admit to some problems, but always need that "but" in there, that America wasn't COMPLETELY based on lies and hate and theft. And because we need a loophole for the myth, it's easy to squeeze our own personal racism through the sphincter as well.

Still, it's exhausting. It's exhausting either way we go, frankly.

For those who choose not to fight internal racism on any level, they have to stay mad. Mad covers up the fear. It also shortens life spans. I mean yeah, depression kills, but not as fast as cardiac disease. Being chronically angry and hostile is a coronary risk factor that ranks right up there with smoking and lack of exercise. On some scales, it's worse than having high cholesterol. It plays hob with our adrenaline systems and we wear out fast, like an engine with the timing set too high.

And being mad in a public way requires continual escalation to keep people in the game. That's why right wing radio gets worse every year, more overt, more dangerous: It's the only way they can keep people from numbing out, from losing listeners. It's like pornography or junk food: Once you give up on human reality, you have to keep feeding the addiction of substitute reality.

For those of us who do admit to doubt, to fear, to grief, even, we're also looking for a high: The high of truth. The relief of responsibility and power. The blood-surging thrill of community and connection.

But we have shitty role models for how to reach those planes of existence. The prevailing Christian model says we must abase ourselves in repentance, surrender to complete reconfiguration and never look back. This doesn't work for most people who are not either homeless, in prison, or running from facing what their parents told them. New Age approaches can be similarly based on katabatic winds of redemption and renewal.

In most instances, however, real change is gradual, sloppy, shifts back and forth like a smoker trying to quit, and arises almost entirely from a one-on-one connection with another human being. We are hard-wired to change when we are trusted and believed in, not when we are shamed and vilified. Go figure, huh?

I believe the current level of polarization in this country, a divide constantly stoked by the systems of oppression because it prevents meaningful change, is comparable to the Israeli/Palestinian or Catholic/Protestant Ireland conflict in every regard except the use of car bombs. (If you don't count Timothy McVeigh.) It's that serious. And overcoming it will mean abandoning military solutions, eliminationist rhetoric, and, especially, "venting" our "perceptions" about one another. Venting means you dump your gases into another environment temporarily, but you wind up breathing it back in eventually and you simply piss off more people in the process.

In my lifetime, I've seen racism go from almost universal public expression to the current state where accusations of it float around in dispute and some overt forms of it are condemned as unacceptably to "polite society". This doesn't mean it has actually diminished, necessarily, only that some of the racist terms and ideas I heard on TV and radio as a child are not now on mainstream channels. It's gone underground. And part of the cover-up has involved academic theories such as "privilege", which do little to help the average white person actually undo the lies of racism: Guilt is not cathartic and does not engage useful parts of the brain. In too many cases, "owning our privilege" is Covermark instead of exfoliating.

Let's just admit, our entire culture and all the systems it has created are white supremacist. The degree may vary, and that's important to quantify on a strategic level, but we're all in the belly of the beast. "Privilege" is not going to determine who lives in clean air, because none of us do.

Admitting racism is much harder, and much more illuminating, than admitting "privilege". I believe part of the reason why Obama has won over so many guilty white progressives is because he doesn't demand they admit their own racism -- they get to blame others for that. "At least I'm not like those people in Mississippi", they think with self-congratulation. Forgetting, of course, that Mississippi was the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement because of its brilliant and powerful African-American population, almost 40% of the state -- but that doesn't count as the "real" picture of a Mississipian.

We are at the next step in this campaign, now. We are being called on to build bridges across new divides -- or, more accurately, as Barbara Love (an African-American activist) once said, the bridges between us and every other human being already exist. We don't have to do the hard labor of building them, we only need to clear off the debris which has rendered them temporarily unusable.

It's not merely about race, of course. You can't discuss race without factoring in class, and you can't discuss class without factoring in gender. They are all expressed in different ways but with equal impact in the long term. So, today's "Obama or Else" assignment is to literally talk to another human being about who you are, what you believe, and, much more importantly, listen to them in turn.

MoveOn.org is making it easy for us. Last Sunday, they hosted "Call for Change" parties which resulted in almost HALF A MILLION phone calls recruiting new volunteers for Obama. My friend Liza in Burlington, Vermont was one of them. On Monday we had an exhilirating conversation where she described what it was like to talk with people in Lake Jackson, Florida. I was very moved, second-hand, by what she experienced. These parties will be occurring again this coming weekend, and MoveOn is looking for people to host them as well as participate. Click here to get started: Call For Change Parties.

Whether or not you garner a single new vote for Obama, you will have made a human connection which raises the energy and pushes into the ravine detritus from the bridge we are all ravenous to see open to traffic in both directions. Undoing racism involves action, first and last. Your ancestors are cheering you on, whoever they were, believe me. And please come back here to share with us what it felt like, whatever you did.

[About the graphic above: NY Street Artist TMNK™ (The Me Nobody Knows) has this text about the painting at his Flickr site:

In Stanley Kramer's 1967 movie "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?", a whirlwind romance by an interracial couple forced their families to confront their attitudes about race. The male love interest, and lead was a young NEGRO played by Sydney Portier. Matters were only further complicated by the fact that this was no stereotypical NEGRO. Smart, accomplished, ARTICULATE, polite, and sophisticated.

Well here we are some 40+ years later, and guess who may be coming to dinner?

Yep, another smart, accomplished, ARTICULATE, polite, and sophisticated Negro, accept today they're called Black.

It seems America is in the midst of filming an updated version of that cinematic classic starring Barack Obama. This time around , however, the love interest is not a "white woman", it's THE WHITE HOUSE! And just like the parents in 1967, America is being forced to confront it's racial attitudes (the one's it supposedly doesn't have).

You think Tilly had a fit when Sydney Portier's character wanted to marry the sweet little white girl she had helped raise. Well Tilly honey, will likely piss in her panties when she sees who's at the front door of the white house.

Guess who's coming to dinner now Tilly? "Hi, my name is Barack Obama."

H/t to Liza Cowan for her post Picture the Future: Obama Art Part 3 which introduced me to TMNK.