Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Peculiar People

The Bible says that Christians should be a little strange.

You know, set apart from the world, living their lives using a different measure of success and happiness. This commitment to peculiarity is a key component of most faiths.

I often find that black people in America are a peculiar people.

In many ways, we're separated from mainstream America and even from other minorities. As a result of our unique experience in this country, we've developed our own special customs and outlook on the world. While that outlook is not shared by all black people, it's fairly common.

And that outlook contains a lot of self-hatred.

I know that was an abrupt transition, but I wrote it that way because I received an abrupt reminder of the depths of African American self-hate earlier this week.

My real job involves me writing news stories. In this job, I interact with the public on a fairly regular basis and I am exposed to a pretty large cross section of society. Since the majority of my stories are about crime, and black people are disproportionately affected by crime, I deal with a lot of black people.

And guess what y'all?

We don't really like each other.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped apart New Orleans and the Gulf Coast it exposed many of the inequities and injustices that had been hidden from much of America for a long time. It also re-opened many racial wounds. Sadly, the most egregious of those wounds were the ones that relate to the way black people see each other.

See, one of the most common refrains since the storm has been that those "refugees" have moved into new areas and messed things up for everybody. When FEMA was looking to place emergency trailers for evacuees in communities that sustained less damage during the storm, residents in those areas often fought harder than the Sunni and Shiite. They cited concerns about falling property values and increased traffic problems, but, most often, they were worried about higher crime.

And, sadly, it wasn't just white folks making these complaints. I sat in governmental meetings where I heard black people use the term "Section 8" like it was an epithet. I saw them make snide remarks about lazy black people who didn't want to work and who only wanted to have babies and rob people.

These types of sentiments have not evaporated since the storm. On Tuesday, I had a woman call me at work to discuss some burglaries in her neighborhood and it wasn't long before she noted that everything went downhill once those "Katrina folk" showed up. She tried to be polite, but it was clear she viewed these interlopers as unwashed barbarians invading her pristine neighborhood.

The woman who called me was black and the Katrina folk she mentioned were black. But, it was obvious from her tone that they weren't her type of black folks.

I remember when federal officials first decided to re-open some of New Orleans' public housing complexes after the storm. One of my friends said both she and her father yelled "Noooooooo" when they first heard about the plans on the evening news because they were convinced that undesirable black people were going to move back home in droves and ruin the city.

While there is no doubt that some residents of public housing complexes commit crimes, the sentiment that re-opening public housing would hasten the city's fall into chaos was more suited to an idiotic bigot than this intelligent black woman. And even though she admitted some shame at her thoughts, it was obvious that she believed they were rooted in reality and brutal honesty.

Look, I'm not trying to argue that black folks have some sort of monopoly on self hatred. Latinos, Asians and white folks often make denigrating comments about certain segments of their communities. But, sometimes it seems like black people take a special pleasure in tearing each other down.

It's shocking that although black people are constantly battling to avoid having negative stereotypes applied to them by other ethnic groups, we gleefully embrace those stereotypes when talking about each other. We easily assume the worst about other black people, and are rarely willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt in our daily interactions. Oh, we'll cut some shady black politician a bit of slack, but when it comes to that group of young brothers hanging out on the corner, our first reaction is to call the police and turn on our alarm systems.

Now, I'm not blind to the reality that many black people have internalized the negative stereotypes applied to our race by mainstream America. Nor do I underestimate the impact this negative imagery still has our our collective psyches.

But, I sense something even more insidious at work. See, I think that many black people consciously and unconsciously believe that a willingness to make negative comments about our race is proof of an ability to think critically and objectively. For far too long we've been told that it's impossible for black people to ever move past the issue of race and just be Americans. Consequently, I think many of us, even the well-intentioned among us, think that being willing to criticize seemingly uncouth and irresponsible black people is a sign that we are ready to assume full citizenship.

How many times have you heard a black person preface the use of a reprehensible stereotype with the phrase, "You know I have to keep it real...?" How often have you heard black folks say "I know we shouldn't air dirty laundry.." before launching into an all out attack on some segment of the black community? It seems like most black people believe that the easiest way to display their intelligence is to launch into a litany of complaints about the black community at the slightest provocation.

Now think about the last time you heard a white person make similar statements?

If you're like me, the answer is very rarely. White folks attack those they view as "white trash," but they rarely do so in an effort to prove their objectivity or fairness. Many of them assume that their white skin automatically makes them objective no matter what type of ill-informed bile spews from their lips. Other minorities may show signs of self-hate in their critiques of each other, but none of them has taken it to the level of black people.

Look, attempting to prove our worth by tearing down other black people is extremely counter-productive. Not only does it breed division and anger, but it also helps to brand successful black people as deviations from the norm. It also reinforces racist mindsets, particularly in people who are just itching for a reason to write off black people as a whole. We don't need to prove our citizenship to any other ethnic group because our birth certificates have been filled out with the blood of slaves.

Accusing other black people of bringing down the race, even as a joke, shows a level of self-deprecation that has crossed the line into self-hatred.

Don't be so peculiar.

10 comments:

Kieya said...

Great post. I think its easier to look down at others than to try to figure out a way to fix the problem. No one wants to try to help but everyone wants to complain. I can never understand why we do this to each other. Yes, I'm guilty of hating on folks from time to time (and I'm working on it) but you can never assume to know the situation people are in, especially if your assumptions are only coming from viewing them from afar....if that makes any sense.

Temple3 said...

BigMan:

It sounds like your analysis is really about the extent to which class-based or poverty-based misgivings trump racial allegiance. In other words, the "haves" (regardless of "race") desire to protect what they have from those who have not.

I'm wondering if there isn't another way to get at the crux of the complication.

You wrote:
"Oh, we'll cut some shady black politician a bit of slack, but when it comes to that group of young brothers hanging out on the corner, our first reaction is to call the police and turn on our alarm systems."

This sounds like a class-based phenomenon - and believe you've hit this right on the head. There is something more to this than "racial" self-hatred.

From a philosophical standpoint, this rift is a manifestation of left-brained thinking. It posits the politician as a potential benefactor AND representative whose interests must be defended because they represent the advancement of the group. The young men on the corner do not represent the advancement of the group - they represent the ongoing challenges of the group. The rift, then, is about economics and positioning - not "race" or phenotype.

To the extent that this rift reflects an unwillingness to engage in collective struggle to address root causes, it seems to still not be an example of "self-hatred." I do believe there are plenty of examples of that - but I don't know if these examples are right on.

To my mind (and I welcome your correction or addition here), proof of "self-hatred" requires some sort of "control" where other factors can be eliminated. Here, I believe the class factors are too significant to ignore.

I believe that in certain industries (like publishing - the Johnson Empire or Essence), Black folks have demonstrated a clear, consistent preference for Black products. Of course this is a much deeper topic - but I know that when Black folks see other Black folks doing the right thing (and in an excellent manner) we are consistently and demonstratively supportive.

Right now, in downtown Brooklyn, there are five Black-owned businesses that are thriving by serving a largely Black clientele. In two instances, a large number of "whites" and others patronize the business. One business is a fitness center, two are apparel retailers (3 stores), and the last is a hair salon/barber shop. These enterprises are all run by young Black men and women.

I raise these examples because, aside from the hair care salon, black customers have other options. I do not know if they patronize these businesses on a "racial" basis. I do know that there is compelling evidence of customer loyalty which is not adversely impacted by "self-hatred."

In the midst of all this potentially pro-Black buying and selling, it's not clear to me that the patrons are any more or less likely to provide aid to less fortunate Black folk who live in and around the streets on which these businesses thrive.

WNG said...

Papa G becomes a 'raving black lunatic' on this subject. Especially when he perceives (sp?) it as people just one step away from 'the ghetto' turning their backs on the people still there. Blame it on the poor or the uneducated is something he hates. What are you doing to help your community, to help these people, would be his question and I think should be our question. Wouldn't that be the greatest balm to this self-hatred?
Sorry to ramble...
Oh, and you've got a little something on my blog...

Big Man said...

Thanks for the comments from all.

Temple

You made some good points. I think you are right about the class dynamic to the self-hate. And typically, the hatred flows from the well-off to the poor. But, there's also a situation where black people whose level of "refinement" is not matched by their pocketbooks, yet they still look down on people who have less education or sophistication. Even if those less sophisticated folks are better off financially.

When I used the term self-hatred I didn't mean that black people will avoid anything black. I meant that we seem to be overly critical about segments of our population in a way that seems to suggest loathing. We also tend to be willing to voice these complaints to any and everybody in a way that I rarely see from other ethnic groups.

Maybe I haven't noticed this because I don't interact with other minority groups that often, but I don't think so. I think black people have a complex when it comes to proving their worth to mainstream America. We are constantly striving to prove we belong and are worthy, and one of the easiest way to gain acceptance is to show a willingness to denigrate other black people. Even black folks who understand the power dynamic in this country can't seem to resist this practice.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

One problem is that there are SO many types of christians. But t sa peculiar, i dont know, is it really that much like slavery?

T.A.N. Man said...

I think you gave one way in which black people, maybe the "haves," approach the issues that exist within our race/communities, but I don't know that I agree with your conclusion that it's an attempt to show objectivity to the masses.

I often speak about issues that I encounter on a daily basis: the cashier at McDonald's whose chewing gum and mumbling her queries to each customer, to the bagger at the neighborhood supermarket whose at most 140 lbs, but chose to buy his pants in a size 40, to the angry black woman in a random administerial position whose attitude is horrible. But, I don't do it in an effort to show my objectivity. Rather because I think somewhere along the line many in our community have abandoned the standards that used to hold us down; the haves and the have nots alike.

See, I think there is a difference between being an elitist, or an assimilationist (in my opinion this is you objectivity-focused black person), and simply saying that this is unacceptable.

I truly believe that we have to set standards and hold ourselves to them, and be less accepting of things that we know are detrimental to our quality of life in our society.

In sum, if you live next door to me and you have an inoperable car in your driveway, I'm calling the city. If you live next to me and you refuse to cut your grass, but it doesn't amount to a property code violation, only an eye sore, I'm knocking on your door. In general, I'm down for organizing the neighborhood residents to keep bullshit out ... not certain people. That's not self hate, that's self help. Our communities are red lined, so many of the concerned citizens are running away in search of better property values. Since, I'm all about staying put, I'm going to do all I can to sustain may property values and general quality of life. You're welcome, but these are the rules.

Kids standing on the corner, I don't too much have an issue with. In my experiences, if you take the time to know those kids, they will be as asset to you, no matter what they do for a living. I stood on the corner as a youngster, but never committed any crimes as result.

Temple3 said...

"We also tend to be willing to voice these complaints to any and everybody in a way that I rarely see from other ethnic groups.

Maybe I haven't noticed this because I don't interact with other minority groups that often, but I don't think so. I think black people have a complex when it comes to proving their worth to mainstream America."

AGREED.

No question. For every day of our sojourn in this strange and frequently inhospitable land, we have been FORCED to take and pass TESTS of DISASSOCIATION. The first tests were generational between Africans who'd been "in country" for awhile - and the new arrivals.

While we know the "Willie Lynch" letter was a fake, the principles were not. In fact, I stumbled across a book that is quite explicit on this topic. It's called Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, by James Breeden.

Divide and rule...old school, new school no school fool.

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

Maybe we need to be "peculiar" as in airing that "dirty Laundry" or calling out those Blacks who think they are "better than".

I used to have a roommate who didn't have a pot to piss in, but she thought she was better than other Blacks struggling every day. When we all moved to DC, the first thing she complained about was "those people" (i. e. other Blacks) that she had to sit with on Metro everyday going to DC to work.

::Rolls eyes::

But when she was out of a job, she refused to take her behind to the unemployment office and file for benefits (even though she had some money saved)because it was beneath her - until we told her to kick in her share of the rent or get out.

Blacks do have a problem when proving their worth to mainstream America because we're trying to prove our worth on criteria that not even White people are meeting. When we discover that fact, we should be able to define our own self-worth, because society, as they define themselves, are not going to do it for us. Our problem starts when we start looking in disdain at our own.

Some deserve our disdain - many do not. And my answer has always been to offer help but if it's refused, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Case in point, I was on my way back from NYC to DC one weekend and a brotha was in the station, panhandling and begging his butt off.

Two sistas (one kinda masculine) told the brotha to go and help people with their luggage; better yet, step to the counter and see if the transit company was hiring baggage handlers or whatnot.

That brotha said "Naw, I can't do that..." and continued hustling.

I said in snark fashion: "Why not? It's honest hustling."

BrothaMan said "I don't want to have to punch a clock."

Me: "But you'd rather be out here adding to the stereotype that Black people are too lazy to hold down a job, by begging..." ((rolls eyes)).

He asked me for some spare change. In my best Robin Harris impersonation, I told him to go find a spare job and he would have his own spare change.

I will help you if you want to help yourself - but I'm not going to add to the problem by making you dependent, either.

Anonymous said...

I've recently read about group karma, and about how certain experiences are common to a particular group. I believe people are born in a particular group to learn a life or soul lesson. One thing that annoys me about people who say they are liberal, and are so tolerant is that what is liberal anyways? It's a concept. I don't care about people's opinions, rationalizations, or logic...only if they can just be. I'm not a big fan of posturing. I'm from the New Orleans area, actually Mississippi, and these places because of group karma can't really be judged by the same criteria always as other places. For instance, people up north I know for a fact would not like me lecturing to them, and really I feel I should because alot of what they call tolerance just seems fake to me.

Anonymous said...

I've recently read about group karma, and about how certain experiences are common to a particular group. I believe people are born in a particular group to learn a life or soul lesson. One thing that annoys me about people who say they are liberal, and are so tolerant is that what is liberal anyways? It's a concept. I don't care about people's opinions, rationalizations, or logic...only if they can just be. I'm not a big fan of posturing. I'm from the New Orleans area, actually Mississippi, and these places because of group karma can't really be judged by the same criteria always as other places. For instance, people up north I know for a fact would not like me lecturing to them, and really I feel I should because alot of what they call tolerance just seems fake to me.

Raving Black Lunatic