Friday, April 22, 2011

Walk The Line

I had one of those conversations recently.

Those talks that involve carefully placing each word behind the other, balancing your need to stay true to your feelings without alienating the listener. A conversation where you're always one poorly chosen word away from a serious incident.

A tightrope conversation.

Honestly, I don't have many tightrope conversations about race anymore. Most of the tightrope conversations I have these days involve explaining my worldview to my wife while trying not to piss her off.. All the married men understand what I'm saying.

But, every so often, I find myself trying to explain to a white person a simple fact of black life without using the brash, blunt style I so often employ here on the site. After all, what's cool when talking to your folks, doesn't exactly fly when interacting with The Man, and his representatives. I might not be keeping it revolutionary, but I am keeping it real.

Those tightrope conversations always leave me second guessing myself, and more convinced that certain divides will never be bridged. After all, there are many people that just don't believe in the pervasive nature of racism, whether it be in education, healthcare or law enforcement. And, since they've already made up their minds, they filter all new information through their existing reality. Of course, we're all guilty of that flaw, but in this case, it results in beliefs that quickly diverge from easily verifiable facts.

It would be easier if the folks who hold these sort of beliefs were ignorant ogres, but they're not. Many of them are well-intentioned, respectful and nice people. Yet, they align themselves with viewpoints and talking heads that I find odious to the utmost degree. I'm often struck while talking to folks as part of my job, how the simple realities of being me--a fairly young black male--are so foreign to a huge chunk of the population that they have almost no chance of relating to my worldview.

But, I still see value in walking that tightrope, if only for the chance to see the other side. It is impossible to truly appreciate other folks unless you do your best to put yourself in their shoes, and try to take a few steps. Walking the tightrope makes people comfortable enough to share their true thoughts. It may be frustrating, but it does have its rewards.

As long as you don't fall.



MiGrant said...

I can tell you it works both ways — white people often get that walking-on-eggshells sense any time the subject of race comes up if black people are present (or even if they're not, to a lesser extent). White folks don't want anyone to suspect they might be racist, just like I guess black folks don't want people to think they're "angry" (raving?) or looking for an excuse to blame all their problems on or whatever it may be. Maybe it's that fear on both sides of starting an argument or making the wrong impression that's had the conversation on race stuck for so long in this country.

Big Man said...

Good point.
Yet, I wonder who suffers more from a negative impression. It's not like black people's ideas of who is a "racist" really cause those folks to lose jobs or popularity. I present Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Donald Sterling as proof. It may hurt popularity in some groups, but not overall. And even for regular folks, the complaints of black people have been so marginalized that getting accused of being a racist is likely to draw sympathy unless your offense is completely ridiculous.
For black folks, being labeled angry has definite and immediate drawbacks, even for those folks who use their "anger" to make money.

MiGrant said...

I'm not even close to wanting to argue that whites accused of racism might "suffer more", but I do think you might be underestimating the potential for ostracism of whites who — lets see, how do I put this — haven't learned to be sufficiently subtle in expressing their sense of racial entitlement. Probably more of a class bias thing. As for Beck & Limbaugh & their ilk (I'll just stay blissfully ignorant of who this Sterling person is), being outed as a fan of theirs will definitely get you looked down on in my circles. Might not lose you your job, but could sure narrow your chances of getting hired in the first place.

BTW I'm experiencing the thing we're talking about even in this thread. I want to express what I have to say, but I don't want you to think I'm representing the "white point of view" or conclude that I'm racially incapable of understanding a black person's experience or something. And I'm guessing you're prob'ly feeling some degree of compulsion to avoid giving offense, even on this blog.

Next we could could get into the whole liberal hypocrisy thing that you've also written about, but that just adds a whole 'nother layer of things I have to be careful not to say.

I guess what I really want to say is that asking who suffers more is a legitimate question, but it's also one that tends to reinforce the divisions. I'm convinced that whites would also be better off in a world where racial markers like skin color didn't trigger judgments and antagonisms, and I'm also convinced that a lot of whites want to work alongside people of all races to move toward that kind of world.

MiGrant said...

Still thinking about this and I think I might have missed part of what you were saying. If I get you, you're saying that the consequences to a black person of saying the "wrong" thing potentially go way beyond whether the other person will still like you. Yet another facet of white privilege. So if we want to foster frank communication, the differential consequences are something that has to be addressed. Something like that?

Big Man said...

I compare it to the consequences for criminal behavior among the rich and poor.

When poor people commit crimes, they tend to face the full extent of the law from the beginning. Rich people, who have money to use the legal system, or seek other treatment options outside of the legal system often escape the full punishment.

White folks, because of their dominance in positions of power throughout the known world, impose upon every one else the rules of engagement. And, by those rules, the angry black behavior is seen as more of a problem then insensitive white behavior. And white people can do that because they are in charge.

Imhotep said...

“So if we want to foster frank communication, the differential consequences are something that has to be addressed. Something like that?”

Yes, something like that! Definitely the differential consequences needs to be addressed, but even before that, the differential needs first to be acknowledged. But because white folks (I would say the vast majority) need to see themselves as fair minded people, they will not acknowledge much in the way of differential consequences that’s favorable to them. If and when they acknowledge the differential exist, they rarely see their role in this differential politics.

These differential consequences have played out over the centuries and I suspect will play out for my yet unborn grandchildren. The reason for the long shelf life of the differential consequences is that white folks at their core (maybe it’s a learned behavior) need to harbor pejorative thoughts about Black people. These negative and malevolent thought permeate the white world, and are reinforced by the white society at large, these thoughts were/are allowed to manifest into terrorism against black people with such physical and mental devastation resulting in cross generational effects that are not easily quantifiable.

So, before we get to the differential consequence, lets recognize that there is a white supremacy mind set at work that’s been cultivated over centuries that believes in innate superiority. And this superiority guides the differential. First things first, white folks have to admit to their white supremacy complex.

To your point that in a conversation a white person walks on egg shells because they fear the racist label. They “may” fear the label but there are no real consequences or justification for their fear, mainly because Black people do not have the institutional power to impact a white person’s life. As important, the system is rife with racist sympathizer. Fortune 1000 companies are predominantly white managed. The majority of college and universities are white controlled. Lending institutions, the news media, you get the point. A white racist does not have to depend on a black person for a job, bank loan, favorable media narrative or hospital care. Therefore a white person’s racism have little if any consequences, but my Black skin comes with a built-in differential.

To Big Man’s point, we have had to navigate our conversation with precision when dealing with white folks. Heck over time in those conversation we had to be more concerned about their feelings and thought and suppress ours, so truth has been a casualty in those conversation, and continues to be. White folks prefer to hear the lie, and they want to have a say in the legitimacy of our truths, that’s a non-starter for any meaningful dialogue.

White folks have little or no concerns for our truths. Example, the U.S. unemployment is roughly 9 % and people are talking bad economic times and about jobs, in my life time Black unemployment has ALWAYS been in double digits and not a peep from white folks. Not to mention levels of incarceration and sentencing disparity. That’s because these differential consequences are perfectly acceptable in a white supremacy social structure. Until that structure is renounced and repudiated by White folks, nothing gets done.

Big Man said...

Maybe Imhotep should have been the one writing this blog. Great comment man.

MiGrant said...

Imhotep, with all due respect, your essentialist beliefs about what we white folks "need" at our "core" are part of the problem. The "negative and malevolent" thoughts you attribute to white people in general are the flip side of the "pejorative thoughts about Black people" that you rightly condemn. And yes, those biases hurt one side more than the other, but the only way we're ever going to make progress, unless you're advocating complete racial separation, is to root them out wherever they exist (and, ultimately, replace them with love, however silly that may sound).

I think you may be underestimating just how often white individuals actually do depend on black individuals nowadays for a job, etc., but I'll grant that those situations are the exception. What doesn't even seem to occur to you is that many, I'd even go out on a limb and say most, white people really do condemn racism as they understand it, and that being perceived as racist will lead to negative consequences among other white people. Fewer and lesser overall, maybe, than being perceived as a dangerous black radical/criminal, but consequences nevertheless. I'll grant you that most white people's understanding of racism, especially the structural and subconscious kinds, is shallow as hell, but deciding who's "us" and who's "them" on the basis of skin color is precisely what got us into this mess.

"Not a peep from white folks" about racial disparities in unemployment, incarceration, etc. is also inaccurate. There are plenty of white people — though not enough — who will and do stand up publicly against them.

Big Man said...

Mi Grant
I think you recognize that what many white people recognize as racism is just a drop in the bucket. Furthermore, even when things qualify as "real" racism, the response to them depends on who is talking.
Quite simply, if "most" white folks thought the way you believe they think, Fox News and its ilk would not have found so much success advocating and excusing racism.
I used to think, "Oh it's the subtle stuff they can't understand." But, what Obama has done through his existence has shown that people will excuse blatant racism if they feel it furthers their larger aims. We've never moved past that, which is one of the key planks of Imhotep's response.

MiGrant said...

Yes. One of the more insidious aspects of white privilege is how its very existence tends to conceal it from its beneficiaries, so that many white people can sincerely believe that racism has largely been overcome in this country. (After all, we have a black president, don't we?) I think I'm relatively sensitive to this stuff as us crackers go, but obviously there's a lot that I'm still blind to. That doesn't make comments about white people having a need at their core to look down on black people any less counterproductive. We're s'posed to be judging each other by the content of our (individual) character, right?

Imhotep said...

@BigMan, can’t write like you Dude. I’d rather the occasional respond to a post, than the responsibilities of a blog.

“ your essentialist beliefs about what we white folks "need" at our "core" are part of the problem”.

So, I’m telling you there is a boot on my neck, and you’re interested in telling me that not everyone is standing on my neck. Fine, but it does not lessen the suffocation. Your need for me to recognize that there are whites advocating for justice, can never be as important as my need for social and economic justice. If for me not to pat some white folks on the back for doing what’s right is a problem, well your priorities are part of the problem.

“What doesn't even seem to occur to you is that many, I'd even go out on a limb and say most, white people really do condemn racism as they understand it”

How can you condemn something that you don’t believe exist? What good is your definition of racism to me if it does not involve my input? When I bring up racism to white folks, their knee jerk response is that slavery is over as if that’s the only context in which racism flourishes. And see no connection between the war on drugs and racism. Oh, that creaking sound? is that limb giving way.

“I'll grant you that most white people's understanding of racism, especially the structural and subconscious kinds, is shallow as hell”

That’s your starting point. Letting white folks know that their lack of understanding of the structural and subconscious racism is vital for racism to thrive into the 21 century and beyond, and they will be doing their part to pass down racism to the next generation, kinda like passing down a family heirloom.

MiGrant said...

No Imhotep, what you're telling me is that it's my boot on your neck. I don't need any pats on the back, but if all you can see is whitey, it's like you're hanging on to that boot yourself.

T.A.N. Man said...

Good post and comments. Looks like this turned into one of "those" coversations, except that Imhotep waived off the curveball is just throwing the heater. I had two knee jerk reactions to Imhotep's comments, "tell it like it is" and "this coversation is going no where."

Even if a person, white or black, disagrees with the concept that a white superiority complex is a natural off shoot of being white in this world and failing to denounce your white superiority complex, I think the topic should be debated without end. Although we all know that white people have done tons of human and civil rights work in this country and throughout the world, I don't think that's outcome determinative. I think most of this work was done out of the "to whom much is given, much is required" mind frame as opposed to the "this whole system is foul, and I don't want any part in it" mind frame. Helping the less fortunate (non-white) out. Seriously, how often is charity/community service work done by white people in your local area trailer park? Folks are always planting trees in black communities and adopting schools, but poor little dumb white kids are left to fend for themselves. Why, because (1) the fact that those people exist works as a counterargument to white superiority and (2) they're white, they have no excuse.

Though the natural human response to a personal attack is to defend yourself, I think incendiary remarks are necessary (from both sides) on a discussion about race, because everyone feels strongly about it and because racism has a volatile past. Censoring brash commentary, right of the bat, without addressing it's roots, is counterproductive.

Imhotep said...

“That doesn't make comments about white people having a need at their core to look down on black people any less counterproductive.”

MiGrant, I appreciate your willingness to engage me on the topic, I believe you need to examine your position more clearly. This above statement may or may not apply to you, but to call the statement counterproductive is disingenuous. Explain to me how you can maintain an institution of racism, without looking down on the opposite race? You may want to pussy foot around the issue, and pretend it’s not there, talk about counterproductive. You know it exist, you just have issue with it being a core belief of white folks. And me placing it at the core is counterproductive? For us to be productive I need to ignore it? Or just not place it at the core?

If it’s not at the core, well where is it? How do you maintain white supremacy without some core beliefs and practices? If Whites holding Blacks in low regard is not at the core, well enlighten me, what is the core belief that allow white supremacy to prosper? You needing to escape the stain of racism is fine and well, but you insult my intelligence when you suggest that white folks (in large) don’t look down on Black folks. I’m now forced to wonder about the level of your understanding of race relations in contemporary America. If I’ve misrepresented your position let me know.

So now I want a boot on my neck? I’m expecting to hear from you any moment now that there is NO boot on the neck. So I understand, are you saying I take the boot of these well meaning white folks place it on my neck, and scream victimhood. Is that your position? Or is there a boot on my neck, just not your boot?

MiGrant said...

I don't want to make this about me personally, and I also don't want to veer off into blame-the-victim territory. In fact I don't think "blame" is really a useful category in the first place. More useful is to figure out what it is we'd like to achieve and how to get there. My contention is that an attitude that all (or for all practical purposes all) people of whatever given race are a certain way or should be thought of or treated in a certain way is the problem, no matter who it is that holds that kind of attitude. Power relationships determine which group is affected how and to what extent, but the situation would be just as unacceptable if those power relationships were reversed. To get back to the beginning of the thread, I wouldn't want to have to apply to Imhotep for a job or a loan if what he's said here reflects his general outlook.

So if the goal we'd all like to achieve is to root out the evil of racism, which I'm assuming it is, what kind of sense does it make to identify where that evil lies in terms of race? White people aren't the enemy, and some of them may even sometimes be allies.

So do I believe that white people by and large look down on black people? That's kind of a tough call. I think there's a lot of un-/sub-/semi-conscious prejudice, but also a readiness to condemn that prejudice, often in the same people and sometimes at almost the same time. Not a lot of readiness to confront one's own individual failings, but that's true of just about anything. Quite a bit of readiness to confront it in others, and that's gotta be a start. Flawed people are the only kind we've got to work with.

T.A.N. Man, I'm not entirely sure I follow you. When you say censoring brash commentary, do you mean my response to Imhotep? If so, he doesn't sound too intimidated. :-)

T.A.N. Man said...

I didn't say he was intimidated. In fact, I said he was only thrownig the heater--intidimated pitchers usually switch to breaking balls.

My point was that you started focusing on how his arguments were being presented as opposed to focusing solely on whether the arguments deserved consideration. That's censorship and that's precisely the stuff "egg shell conversations" are made of.

Deacon Blue said...

The key problem in these kinds of discussions is the nature of the playing field and the two teams on it. (Yes, time for more sports metaphors soon).

The nation is built upon white privilege, and so that typically means that blacks have to operate according to rules laid out by whites to get ahead. That isn't always the case, but it is overwhelmingly so. MiGrant, it might come to pass that you need to ask for a loan from a black man, but that black man is still handing out those loans according to largely white rules.

There are cultural differences, but rarely in these kinds of discussions are blacks allowed to let their cultural differences show and speak honestly. The reason is that the default setting in this country would be the "white" ways doing things, and rarely do those ways of doing things allow blacks to speak how they might want to, talk about what is truly important to them...or even wear their hair in its natural form sometimes.

What many whites don't realize, and I think that includes you MiGrant, and I'm sure me as well more often than I'd like, is that this game (getting back to my original metaphor) is like a football team inviting a hockey team to play a game with them.

Except the hockey team is invited to the football field and told the game that they will play is football, which puts them at a marked disadvantage.

What doesn't happen (and I feel like perhaps you want it to happen, MiGrant, but most whites just don't care enough to consider it) but NEEDS TO is that the football team and the hockey team agree to play baseball so that they are more evenly matched.

The hockey team (blacks) tends to be willing to do this. The football team (whites) is fundamentally too scared of losing to do that.

If none of that made any sense, blame the glass of wine I'm drinking.

MiGrant said...

@Deacon — I think I get what you're saying, but I'm having a hard time getting what a baseball game might actually look like. Got any real-world examples? Not disagreeing, just would like to explore it further.

MiGrant said...

@T.A.N. Man — point taken. But we're not having eggshell conversations here, right? If anyone thought I was trying to shut Imhotep down, as opposed to responding with my own views on what he was saying, then I must not have done a very good job expressing myself. Plus, I'm not in a position to shut anyone here down anyway.

Imhotep said...

MIGrant, Can’t speak for T.A.N Man, but I believe what he is saying is that you allowed yourself to shut down once you heard some words that you were uncomfortable hearing or did not believe to be true. My contention is that whites has as a core belief, that Blacks are inferior. You took issue with white supremacy being a core belief, and argued that such a position was counterproductive. The implication being that I was part of the problem and there was no chance for progress if I held such a position. Personally I saw that as a classic case of a white person trying to dictate the terms of a discussion on race while protecting their sensibilities. Not going to happen, progress cannot take place under those conditions. What’s perplexing to me, is few whites admit to being racist, but yet racism is institutionalize, how is that possible? Does not add up.

For me the most egregious thing was to dismiss my comments as if they had no basis in reality. I suggest you ask yourself, what event or series of events would shape a reality that see ingrained racist beliefs at the core of white people, what kind of reality would lead to such a conclusion? What would YOU and those who came before you have to experience to arrive at such a conclusion? Ponder those questions first before you dismiss the notion of white supremacy being at the core of white people.

If it’s not at the core, how did you manage to escape it? Because it sure seems to have contaminated a whole lot of white folks, some more that others, but the contagion is wide spread. If you are like most white folks you have to look no further than your family to see members who have espoused racist beliefs, from the virulent to the benign. In most white families the anti-racist is the lone wolf in the family or in the minority. Not saying the other members are burning crosses (not acceptable these days) but they just don’t care.

I believe a white person cannot escape the cancer of white supremacy, it’s the system you’re born into, there’s no denying that. I also believe there are those white folks (few) who question the legitimacy of the system they are born into, and to the best of their ability will work to deprogram themself. But because white supremacy is such an intoxicating feeling, and confers unearned privileges, most don’t bother to interrupt its flow.

MiGrant said...

@Imhotep — I agree with 90% of what you're saying. And where I disagree, I hope you understand that I'm offering my opinions here because I feel your views, the other commenters', and certainly Big Man's are important and worth discussing. It's hard to take the I'm-right-you're-wrong aspect out of it, but I think we've got to accept that there's going to be some friction and try to get past it. I don't know how to avoid triggering that "white guy trying to dictate the terms" response and still speak frankly. But I feel compelled to put in my two cents worth, even knowing I might be perceived as one more pushy whitey, because I choose a commitment to a world where blacks, whites and everybody else can work together to build a better future. This is an important conversation and it's one that every part of our society needs to be involved in (if not here then somewhere else). For me to hold back and just let you black folks talk here amongst yourselves without sharing my "white" views would be to condone a sort of "segregation".

The main thing I take issue with is that you still seem to be insisting that all whites and only whites are racist, and if there are any exceptions they're hardly worth considering. I think I get where that comes from, but I don't think it's accurate or helpful, and it's not because you're hurting my poor delicate feelings either. It's not that what you say has no basis in reality, but it's a limited view of reality, and what it leaves out is damned important. (I don't doubt for a moment that my own view is just as limited, and I appreciate opportunities to expand it. If I'm full of shit, I have a feeling I can count on you to let me know.)

Again, I don't want to make this all yay-me, and I may be going out on another limb here, but if I tell you that I personally don't believe that blacks are inferior, are you going to tell me I don't know what I believe? (How did I manage to escape? I guess I was lucky enough to be exposed to people from many different backgrounds while I was growing up. That and listening to Coltrane — there's no way anyone who even begins to get Trane can have any patience with the idea that there's anything "inferior" about blacks. Also tempted to add something about "some of my best friends" but better not.)

Where I almost agree with you is that racism is in the air that we breathe. Its in the media, in our language, I know I don't need to tell you all the places you can find it. But in that sense, if white folks can't escape it, neither can black folks. It's part of the message we're all bombarded with, day in, day out. It's permeated American culture almost as long as there's been any American culture. (You want to blame somebody, blame those damn Dutch who brought the first slave ship over.) And that also includes your part of American culture, even if it's mostly you who suffer from it.

My contention is that this whole complex of what white people are like and what black people are like and how they can be expected to behave in what situation and when you have to watch out for them and why, has a lot to do with why you're responding to me the way you are. You say white people have a core belief about black people — well, it sure looks like you have some core beliefs about what white people are like. And I know you can point out a million examples of where you're right and white folks are pricks toward black folks, and they're all true. Lord, don't even get me started about my family. And — there's another side to people, even white people, and that other side is where any progress is going to come from.

MiGrant said...

Or try this on, if you want a little cynicism with your cornflakes: educated "elite" whites have a deep-seated need at our core to look down on ignorant rednecks. One way to express that is to publicly "refudiate" their racism. Another way is to make fun of their linguistic lapses.

Imhotep said...

MiGrant, I get your position, you have articulated it quite well. I can easily continue this discussion, but I think we're approaching the point of diminishing returns on this particular topic. I appreciate the dialogue.

Tom said...


Question for you, how is it possible to bridge a divide, while maintaining that certain topics important to one side of the divide should not be discussed?

Granted that if we discussed nothing else we couldn't get anything done, wouldn't it be easier to hear black folks out, actively work to understand what they're saying, and then move beyond that point with whoever is still interested?

I guess I see lots of white folks saying "Why don't we avoid discussing xyz so we can move on?" rather than "Why don't we really listen and understand xyz so we can move on?"

Why is A better than B? Nobody has ever explained that to me. Seems to me whatever we do while "moving on" will work better if we can talk to each other. And if we don't make rules about what the other folks can talk about.

MiGrant said...

@Tom — are you implying that I'm the one declaring certain topics off-limits? Because I don't see that as what I'm doing at all. What I am doing is stating my view that certain assertions are incorrect, but that's not at all the same thing as saying a topic shouldn't be discussed, or refusing to listen to someone.

Tom said...


Well ... yes. I'm going to fall back on quotations:

'That doesn't make comments about white people having a need at their core to look down on black people any less counterproductive.'

'I guess what I really want to say is that asking who suffers more is a legitimate question, but it's also one that tends to reinforce the divisions.'

'Imhotep, with all due respect, your essentialist beliefs about what we white folks "need" at our "core" are part of the problem.'

Tom said...

I think it really might help clear the air if I say clearly that of course white people think they're better than everybody else. Not necessarily smarter, or better in any other measurable way, just better. In the same way the members of the dominant clique in a high school think they're better. Except we pretty much run the country, so the consequences of our feelings are much worse.

So I don't think Imhotep's point is essentialism at all. I think it's a simple observation that anyone can make.

Now some white folks realize this is wrong and some glory in it. And I think that's a distinction you've been making very clearly.

But even if there are a few of the "in crowd" who don't personally feel that sense of superiority, I think you'll agree that (a) that feeling doesn't in itself do anything for the outsiders, who have much bigger fish to fry, and (b) those white folks still benefit from the system. Their experience is still ... well, kind of superior.

MiGrant said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think there's a growing cohort of people who don't really give very much thought to who's white and who's not (including themselves). I realize that's a view that lends itself to caricature. (like Stephen Colbert's insistence that he "doesn't see race").

MiGrant said...

I like Philip Goff's take on Tavis Smiley's blog: focus on the harm done rather than the individual's intent.

Tom said...


I think I understand your point pretty well, and I got the impression that most folks here did.

How well do you understand Imhotep's points?

Tom said...

Big Man,

Sorry about this long side conversation in your place. Thanks for your patience.


I think we've gotten as far as we're gonna. But if you want to continue, I think there's a link to my blog in my ID icon thing.

Big Man said...

Mi Grant

You know, the idea that black folks shouldn't focus on whether the birthers are racist because that's not the most important issue runs counter to American history.

We have documented proof that racism trumps education and money. Black people know this in our souls. We know that as long as racists are coddled and given equal time, we and anything we accomplish are in danger of being wiped out in an instant.

I think I will write about this as a blog piece.

MiGrant said...

@Tom — I think I get his points. Is there something you think I'm missing? (If you do think this is worth continuing, I'd rather stay here, as long as Big Man doesn't mind.)

@Big Man — Looking forward to your blog piece.

Raving Black Lunatic