Wednesday, July 30, 2008

They Just Don't Know

Have y'all every had one of those conversations with somebody?

Y'all know what I'm talking about. You're vociferously explaining your version of the truth. Facts are flying off your tongue, you've even brought statistics and visual aides. After hours of discussion it seems like you're finally making headway, it appears that your point-of-view is getting through. And then they hit you with it:

"I don't know. I just don't get it. What's the big deal?"

I've typically had this happen when talking about racism and the impact of America's past on black people's present. These conversations always seem promising when I begin them; the white person I'm talking to says they're really interested in learning and hearing a new point-of-view. Yet, as our discussion goes on, it becomes clear that the person I'm speaking to is woefully ignorant about some basic historical facts, and their impact on the present.

I thought about those types of conversations when I read this essay published by the New York Times. The essay discusses the shameful history of the American Medical Association and how it not only barred black doctors from membership, but actively worked to limit the medical care available to African Americans. Only after intense pressure did the group change some of its practices, and it recently apologized for its past behavior.

(Sidenote: I'm torn about people or organizations apologizing for stuff in the past. In cases like the one with the AMA it sheds light on something I would have never been aware of, so that's a good thing. But, I recently read about Congress considering an apology for slavery and Jim Crow. That seemed fairly stupid. I would prefer if folks saved their apologies and instead admitted the far-reaching effects of both of those periods in American life, and came up with equitable solutions to the problems black people face today because of them.)

When I read about the AMA, it made me think of all the times I've tried to explain to folks just how all-encompassing racism and discrimination once were. Today they are both still massive problems, but they are nothing compared to way things were when our ancestors were trying to live their lives.

It was standard practice to refuse black people care at hospitals simply because they were black. They just let them die in the streets or in their homes. Very few doctors thought this was cruel, in fact, most folks seemed to think this was the natural order of life.

That was a shock to me and I never put anything past a racist. But, if somebody as race-consumed as myself was surprised at how pervasive discrimination was in this society, can you imagine the shock that news would provide to a white person who never really thinks about race? It would be like learning your mom was really a man who adopted you as an infant after having a sex change; your brain would literally shut down.

I think that's what happens to many folks of all races when it comes time to have discussions about race. Because some of the things discussed are so hard to believe and accept, people just shut down their brains and refuse to think. Instead they minimize the problem, or attempt to change the subject to something more palatable. Anything to avoid having to confront the unthinkable.

It's a pretty normal reaction when you think about it. Very few people like having their world view shaken to the core. Most of us have decided which reality we want to live in, and anything that endangers that reality is quickly dismissed. So, we wallow in ignorance.

The only problem is that ignorance affects other people. These revelations about the AMA lend credence to studies that have found that black people often receive substandard healthcare. They provide context for many of the ongoing chronic illnesses that black people struggle with. Like most information about past discrimination, people who take the time to educate themselves about the actions of the AMA would learn about one more way black people were denied opportunity in this country. It would force them to reconsider the idea that America is a true meritocracy.

People may be ignorant, but they don't have to stay that way.


Truthiz said...

"People may be ignorant, but they don't have to stay that way."

Well Said and On Point....the entire post!

In fact, I've long since come to the conclusion that one of America's greatest "sins", going back to the founding of this nation, is that the majority of America's leaders and American citizens indeed CHOSE/CHOOSE to remain "Ignorant" about a host of very "sensitive" issues because, they can't handle "the Truth". As you pointed out Big Man, it messes with their heads in multiple ways!

BTW: I believe MSNBC reported this morning that the Congress DID indeed issue an "Apology" to "African-Americans" for the sufferings under Slavery and Jim Crow.

WNG said...

It might also explain the general reluctance of black people of Papa G's generation to go to hospitals.

Great post - Big Man, but can I pick on you about one thing? A lot of people keep using the word ancestors when we're really talking about our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. I think that using that word pushes these things farther back in the past than they actually are. It really wasn't that long ago - none of it was.

Deacon Blue said...

WNG makes a good point about placing things in time...I always come back to the fact that my father-in-law, who isn't really all that old (mid-50s) actually saw a black man hanging from a tree (victim of a lynching, for any non-blacks who might be confused) as a child. That wasn't very long ago. And generationally speaking, slavery didn't end that long ago either...and certainly not Jim Crow.

But it's easy for people, especially the younger generations, to forget that or not notice that. Even among youth of color, they often perceive that so much of this crap was "so long ago."

Not so. We need to not only learn from history but remember that a lot of history is recent. The USA itself is a mere child of a country at only 230+ years old...

Big Man said...

Thanks for those good points WNG and Deac.

Eddie G. Griffin said...

Well written. We share some mutual experiences that some of the rest of us have experienced in discussing race with white people.

The AfroSpear needs minds like yours.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Yes, it’s really interesting. I was said in college the hardest time I had was discuss racism with whites who just could not comprehend making judgment on skin color at least nit consciously. They would come deep in the heart of Texas from progressive towns on the east and west and they just had a hard time getting some of the racist actions of the folks down here, heck even some black folks. So I think you have a great point about some of the discussion being because people can accept the kind of discrimination we have faced in the not so distant past as something that is plausible.

Thanks for sharing!


Imhotep said...

Big Man, Good post, I particularly appreciated the link to the NY Times essay.

This willful ignorance on the part of white folks regarding race is baffling to me and is a great source of frustration when dealing them.

If a white person line up 10 Black people, and asked them if racism exist, and 9 of the 10 said yes. The white person would say, why can't the rest of you be like this one over here, he/she knows what they are talking about, the rest of you (other 9) are either living in the past of imagining things.

That's the typical white person's reaction, totally ignoring the cries of the masses, while respecting the minority opinion in our group.

This country needs a national holiday that recognize its past inequities, lets call it the national reconciliation day. On this day, the country would remember all those that suffered at the hands of discrimination and prejudice. Basically honor the nation's people of color and the poor.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Eceryone else made great points so no need for me to repeat. =)

the uppity negro said...

I b'lieve it all goes back to white privilege, once we tear down that boundary, then perhaps ignorance will go out the window.

the uppity negro said...

I b'lieve it all goes back to white privilege, once we tear down that boundary, then perhaps ignorance will go out the window.

the uppity negro said...

I b'lieve it all goes back to white privilege, once we tear down that boundary, then perhaps ignorance will go out the window.

jelana said...

You really hit the nail on the head with this one. I have had this experience a few times, and it was enough to make me need several drinks. Why they even start up this conversation truly baffles me when in actuality they don't hear a word said. Now, I don't even bother!

jelana said...

Oh, they did make the apology and are going to rectify the longterm effects----whatever that means?

BATS said...

White people are born into denial, it's like their parents condition them to be nice to niggers and to be in denial of any responsibility or inherent power and/or hate that surrounds their being...there are some, really many that you can have a real conversation about race with, but those many are eclipsed by the majority who rather just continue teaching their children that race relations is smiling at the Nigger to make to prove to him you aint racist....yeah...


Raving Black Lunatic