Some people think I’m racist. I have called my Metro Council representative “Step n’ Fetchit.” I wrote a Joel Chandler Harris knockoff called “B’rer Obama An’ De Tar Baby,”(since withdrawn pending revision) and I once wondered in print whether TSU president Melvin Johnson “shouted ‘Hosannah!’, “did a buck dance, or “shook his wooly mane in joy” when the May family offered to donate the undevelopable flood plain portion of their Bell’s Bend holdings to TSU for an” organic farming research institute.” Taken out of context, this last one sounds especially awful, but I was attempting to highlight my observation that it was the May family that was actually playing the race card, seeking to enlist the support of Nashville’s African-American community with a splashy show of faux generosity that, in fact, as I put it in my original post, re-enforced ante-bellum Southern class structure by “arranging to have the darkies out toiling in the fields.”
Full disclosure: my father’s family owned slaves, and my great-great grandfather died in the Civil War, defending his right to do so. The idea that one human being can somehow “own” another is morally repugnant to me, as is the idea that lighter-skinned people are entitled to better treatment than darker-skinned ones.
I was not brought up to look down on people for having a different color of skin than my own. Far from it; my mother and I (divorced, she was a single parent long before it was common) attended interracial “family camp” weekends when I was a teenager, and my mother encouraged me to become a civil rights activist. My activism brought me in contact with a more relaxed, informal culture that contrasted sharply with the stultifying mores of the de facto segregated suburb where I grew up. Still, my most common contact with African-americans was the women my mother hired to help her clean house. My mother certainly did not think of herself as “racist” for doing this. Others might dispute that.
But at the same time as I appreciated the culture I found through the civil rights movement, I became aware that this was not my culture and there was no way I could blend into it. I became a hippie, more or less consciously attempting to help initiate a relaxed culture that would be available to those of us with paler complexions. It is my curmudgeonly opinion that most of the serious damage to the planet has been done by short-haired, clean-shaven white guys in suits. I do not want to be a clean-cut white guy in a suit. I can’t do anything about having European ancestors, and cosmetic surgery won’t change the fact that I have a Y chromosome in every cell of my body, but I can at least be shaggy and suitless. “Barbarians,” the clean-cut Romans called us. That’s me. Not interested in supporting the Roman Empire, thank you.
But it’s not just about me, or just about me and the other hippies. It’s about the way people with lighter complexions have treated people with darker complexions–can you say “oppression,” boys and girls? It’s about how that oppression informs the perceptions of the oppressed.
I wasn’t thinking about that when I used the language I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. I was seeing a form of “the Stockholm syndrome,” as the descendants of kidnapped Africans were (and are) seeking to emulate the unsustainable, oppressive lifestyle of their kidnappers, mainstream America, and I was attempting to use shocking language to bring attention to this. However, to the public at large, those who don’t know me personally, I am just another white guy, just another oppressor, and for me to use the kind of language I employed is about as appropriate as telling dirty jokes to a rape victim. I know from long and embarrassing experience that I am capable of astounding insensitivity. That’s why I don’t drink–I’m clumsy, uninhibited, and insensitive enough without taking a drug that will increase those tendencies.
But–am I “racist?” Not on purpose, no–but to the extent that I have not succeeded in transforming myself, I still carry–and express–the subconscious racist attitudes that permeate our European-dominated culture. That’s the real “white man’s burden.”
This is not something that can be overcome merely by legislation. The issue is too complex and psychological for that. It’s something that will only pass away through the healing that comes from open-hearted self-examination and interpersonal contact. That can’t be legislated, but it can be nurtured by creating a slower, more introspective, more compassionate culture. There may not be time or means left to save the planet from the consequences of climate change or resource depletion, but we can, each and every one of us, be kinder and more open in our daily lives, and it will have an effect.
This is not a rejection of “politics.” If enough people in a political system change their minds, the political system will change, no matter how much money the corporations spend. So, if I have offended you with my “racist” language, (and yet you have the patience to still be following my rantings), please accept my apology. I don’t want anything to stand in the way of people getting together and working on what needs to be done.
As Frank Zappa said, “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lot of times I wish I wasn’t white.”