Sunday, July 11, 2010

icky icky racism

Herein lies a rant, a bit of written processing...

I just hosted the most lovely dinner party. I wish you could plan evenings like these, but that never seems to work. This morning my housemate and I woke up and decided we needed to invite people over for dinner. We thought of ten or so names and gave them a call. Most of them showed up, and it turns out that there was a charming, say, chemistry: funny people who fed off of each other and got even funnier, lots of joking and banter. If only I could figure out a formula for planning such evenings...

The conversation did turn to a more serious note at a few points. One of those points was in response to a mention of racism. On this particular evening, uniquely, all but one of the guests were from the United States. The non-American was Italian. Among the US citizens were an African-American, a Black-American (yes, there was a distinction made) and a Mexican-American. The rest would fall into the vague undefined category of White American. And me - racially I suppose I'm White American, but a sociologist who was raised abroad has a hard time seeing things from any perspective other than from outside.

The Italian innocently asked if the issues regarding race that he'd learned about with regards to the Civil War of the 1860s were still of significance. He got several responses. One of the White Americans suggested it's getting better, to which the Black American essentially accused her - or better, us - of not understanding what it's like to walk in his shoes. It's really tough being Black in America, he said.

That's when I jumped in with my passionate opinions on the matter. In summary, I really really believe the following two things:

- There is good and bad in every issue. Focusing on the good usually yields better results. This is an opinion I developed after a few years being the tiny minority White chic in a Black majority inner city setting. I was certainly not the dominant one, but I was accused of being the dominant one. Even this I could accept. What I couldn't accept was that the sense of victimhood flowed so thickly through those halls and underscored every conversation. I saw people fail because they were too scared to try - this at the very moment that their attempt had the possibility of really really counting for something. If they'd thought about the possibility of succeeding instead of the possibility of failing, they really could have done something amazing. Instead, somehow I felt they blamed me.

- Our Italian friend illustrated this better than I could have, although I'm not sure the other Americans connected with his comment as much as me. Europeans get this better than Americans, I think. It's something I learned living in the Middle East and then in England. There are countless ways to divide people and some of those divisions run deep deep deep. Our Italian friend mentioned the enormous differences between Northern Italians and Southern Italians, something most of us non-Italians would never think of. Then he spoke of how his identity as a Southern Italian with Northern Italian roots (or was it the other way around? Oh-oh.) affected the way he interacted with people from various parts of Africa. And how his understanding of a given culture would be changed forever after he had the experience of truly getting to know a person from that culture. We can play the dividing game forever, but at the end of the day, we're so diverse that each person is different from the next.

Nonetheless, I understand that as a White girl from America, I have lots of opportunity that others don't. I tend to believe this has more to do with being American, and with having parents who stood up and did what they believed in, and who worked hard to earn the right to do it, thus paving the way in the culture of our family for me to do the same. And I think it has less to do with the colour of my skin. Perhaps the struggle wasn't as painful for my family as it is for an African-American family. I accept that. But I do not accept that the opportunities aren't there at all. I have seen the opportunities, and they are colour blind. It's the process of realising those opportunities that is colour-coded. I feel very culturally insensitive saying this, but I strongly believe that it needs to be said so that people will try to access those opportunities.

Our Mexican American friend sat quietly and politely through the conversation. He comes from a part of the country which has historically been quite mixed. But when I've lived in Washington, D.C. or in Baltimore, it seemed the Mexicans or the El Salvadoreans, or other Hispanic communities, were even a rung below the Blacks. I wonder if that's true. There's a lot less literature on race in America with regards to Hispanics. I'd like them to weigh in. What's it like being a Hispanic-American in White America? in Black America?

Is there any way at all to just get along? Besides reminding people of possibilities, is there anything at all I can do to help alleviate this mess that just won't go away?

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