Thursday, December 1, 2005

Blog Against Racism: Invisible Men and Women

[Updated to change weird formatting stuff that made nonsense of bits of what I wrote, and also to add that you can read what others wrote, as they Blogged Against Racism, by going here and scrolling down to the comments and trackbacks. And I'm also now updating to add a link to my latest post, which continues a story about voting and the possible disenfranchisement of my predominantly African-American district.]

I am an invisible man.... I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

- the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952)

Chris Clarke has declared today Blog Against Racism Day in honor of the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' historic act of civil disobedience on that Montgomery bus. But also, part of the conversation that led Chris to do this concerned the ways in which "racism" has come to mean, unhelpfully, only acts that are obviously evil in their intent and effect (or even just in their intent), and the ways in which it has somehow become worse to be called a racist than to be racist. You can read Chris' original post at the link above, but for those of you not apt to follow links, here's a good chunk of it:

Some of the response to my posting a criticism of that cannibal cartoon – all of it from people I know to be smart and educated – makes me think that the common definition of the word "racist" has been restricted to the point of near uselessness. It seems these days that many people consider it a worse thing to be called "racist" than it is to actually be racist.

I'm not saying there's no room for disagreement. For instance, I said I thought Sara Silverman is racist, and I know that's a gut feeling on my part. People can certainly disagree with that assessment without ill motive.

But it increasingly clear to me – and probably has been for some time to people smarter than me – that many folks think of the word "racist" as meaning something akin to the word "evil." Thus the defenses of the cartoon that focused on the artist's intent. If his intentions were benign, then he is not evil and thus not racist.

Anyone who's studied the history of racism can trot out numerous examples of racist behavior committed with allegedly good intentions, from Moynihan's "benign neglect" to the myriad acts of condescension by white liberals toward their black acquaintances. I assume, people being more or less the same now as they were two hundred years ago, that there were a number of slaveowners who told themselves they took wonderful care of their chattel property.

Ask a Klan member whether he or she has good intentions. I guarantee you the answer will be in the affirmative, even as the cross is lit.

With Chris' original post in mind, I want to tell a very short story that I think exemplifies a kind of racism as equally destructive as overt discrimination, segregation, or oppression. Ralph Ellison powerfully invoked this kind of racism in his novel Invisible Man and it's a racist habit of mind that is much harder to combat than more obvious manifestations, so hard, in fact, that it is still very much with us 53 years after Ellison's book, even though the overtly segregated buses and water fountains and public bathrooms of his and Rosa Parks' world are not.

When I landed my job in this Rust Belt City in Great Lakes region, a friend of mine in Sprawling Big City, who'd never lived farther inland from the left or right coasts than the inland parts of coastal states, said to me: "Why would you want to move to the all-white midwest when you could stay here?"

Let me draw your attention to his characterization of the midwest: all white. Partly this is the ignorance of a coaster who considers everything else in between "flyover land," and has less to do with racism than regionalism. But I had a feeling that his ignorance also came from the invisibility, to him, of African-Americans, so I said to him, calling on his taste in music to make him see what should have been obvious:

"Excuse me? All white? The midwest in general, and especially its industrial cities, like Rust Belt City, has a significant African-American population. Motown? Kansas City jazz? Chicago blues? Does any of this ring a bell?"

I added that Rust Belt also has a large Arab-American population, although I don't expect many people from outside this area to know that as readily as they should know that it's certainly not all white. (By the way, I know I was partly drawing on stereotypes of blackness -- the black musician, the entertainer -- to illustrate to my friend that the midwest is not all white, but I needed something concrete, iconic, and immediate in its impact to make my friend see what had been invisible to him. And since he's a musician himself, I used music.)

To my friend's credit, he was ashamed and chagrined once I started naming obvious reasons why he shouldn't think "all-white" when he thinks "midwest." And this friend is not a bad person, nor did he have malicious intentions. In fact, I think it's clear that he feared I was participating in some kind of white flight by taking a job in a place he thought was all white. His intentions were good. But as Chris said later in his original post:
Intentions are all well and good, but more important are the assumptions from which those intentions spring. Garbage in, garbage out: bad information times good intentions equals bad results. And those results are the most important thing of all.
The bad results in my friend's case was the invisibility (to him and to many others) of black people as part of the category "midwestern," and, by extention, "American," for what's more conventionally part of the myth of what is "American" than the corn-fed, apple-pie-eating midwesterners? Invisibility can be an ideal goal in the sense of working for the day when, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, people are "judged not by the color of their skin but by the quality of their character." In that sense, the color of someone's skin, their race, is invisible because they are seen first and foremost as human beings. But we haven't reached that day. That world does not yet exist. And as long as real, material inequalities exist for people of color, largely because they are people of color, in a world where the most abject victims of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina are mostly black, and it takes a catastrophe like Katrina to make visible those inequalities, then the invisibility of African-Americans in a comment like my friend's is a destructive and, yes, racist invisibility.


La Lecturess said...

Thanks for this post and this link.

I've blogged about this several times in the past, but it wasn't until moving here to Historically Black Neighborhood--where I'm in a distinct and obvious racial minority--that I really started to realize the degree to which my own concept of "racism" and even racial identity, were all out of whack.

I think I just didn't get the degree to which I'm defined by my race as much as a person of color is--I'm not sure I could have gotten it, either, until I lived somewhere where I was hyper-conscious of my race every time I stepped outside my door.

This seems to me to be very common: we right-thinking white people are all properly appalled at an obviously racially-motivated crime, but on a day-to-day basis, do we even think of ourselves as having a race, or belonging to a common one? The assumption of a lot of whites seems to be that race, and racial identity, and even conversations about race, are for those other people--the people who have a race, that is. It's not really our issue (and isn't it a bit tiresome how they're always acting like it is??).

Dr. Virago said...


I think I've had similar experiences. Although Rust Belt Historic District (as I shall now call my neighborhood) was historically white, it became largely black in the '60s and '70s and only in the last two decades have gentrifying whites and others moved back in. Now RBHD itself is pretty racially mixed, though the surrounding neighborhoods and all of the schools, public and Catholic, are almost entirely black.

*Anyway*, after having lived in racially and ethnically diverse areas of both Sprawling Big City and Vertical Big City, I thought I'd seen it all, but like you, I find I haven't really seen myself as racially inscribed until living in a area where, in some situations I'm the only white person. And I hadn't really seen more subtle, institutionalized forms of racism in action, up close and personal, until some of my experiences here -- like my post on voting, which I'm going to add as a link in this post because it just occured to me that it suits the theme of the day.

And I think you're right that that discomfort about talking about race is both about a) whites not thinking of themselves as racially defined and b) the over-emphasis on experience as the only authority for speaking about it. But if race is socially constructed and contingent, and if we all have "race," then we should all be able to talk about it.

(That said, *man* it took me a long time to come up with a topic for my post that I thought wouldn't sound too much like condescending liberal white guilt!)

Anonymous said...

"I am an invisible man.... I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me".

I was looking for this quote for two days. Thank you so much for posting it.

wow power leveling said...

In English class, one girl Cheap WoW Gold said never give up when discussing. It just reminded me wow goldsomething about myself.WoW Gold Maybe it is wow power leveling something about love.WoW Gold My love, which began on July 3rd of WoW Gold 2005 and finished on August wow leveling 23rd of 2008, taught me many things. wow leveling It is not a pleasant world of warcraft power leveling thing to look back on world of warcraft power leveling that. But I know I world of warcraft power leveling must learn something from it,world of warcraft leveling no matter what it is, world of warcraft leveling happiness or sorrow.Our wow gold love did not go on so smoothly and we went through many things.

wow power leveling said...

Youth is warcraft leveling not a time of life;warcraft leveling it is a wow lvl state of mind; wow power level it is not power leveling amatter of World of warcraft Power Leveling rosy cheeks, red wrath of the lich king power leveling lips and supple knees;WOTLK Power Leveling it is a matter of thewill,wlk Power Leveling a quality of buy aoc gold the imagination,aoc gold a vigor of the emotions; it is thefreshness of the deep springs wow gold of life. Youth means a tempera-mental maplestory mesos predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite formaple story mesos adventure over the love of ease. wow gold This often existsin a man of 60 more than a boy of 20. Nobody grows old merely by anumber of years.