*Warning: this post does contain some hateful language, but it is presented in a fact-finding way, and it should be clear that there is no intention of hate on my part when using these words. I felt that using the words in this context was important to deliver the overall message.
Recently, a fellow blogger Kyle wrote a bit about race and privilege and then there was quite a discussion in the comments. Check it out if you want, though you won’t see any comments by me.
That’s because I don’t want to talk about race. I know that it is an important issue. I know that issues about race are bound to come up when dealing with Buddhism, bloggers, and inflated egos on the internet. Some of these discussions are very important. But I don’t want any part of them. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m white. I’ve simply had it with issues of race. (and yes, I understand the irony of this post)
I grew up in Saginaw, MI. My whole life, Saginaw has been in the top 10 most segregated cities/areas in the country. For a long time it has been Black on the East side of the river, and White on the West side (and Latinos close to the water on the West side). Saginaw is a town much like Flint, Detroit, or Gary, Indiana. Back after WW2, African-Americans were actually able to find work in these Northern industrial towns, and they were paid well. Well, this scared the shit out of the white folks in Saginaw, so they all started moving farther West of the river, where the land had been previously used for farm or was vacant forest. Many of the homes that the white folks abandoned were left vacant and property values dropped as houses sat unsold and began to deteriorate. If you’ve ever seen a Micheal Moore film, he’ll usually show a bunch of abandoned houses somewhere in Flint. It’s not the same street that he shows over and over. It’s common place to find such conditions in many areas there, and in recent years that’s become the norm in areas in Saginaw as well.
On top of white flight, GM once employed over 30,000 people at a factory once called simply “GM Steering Gear”. That’s where my Father (luckily) continues to work today. Of course now he does the job that 3 salaried plant managers and a secretary once did. Oh, and he only has about 4,500 co-workers now. There were other manufacturing business that depended on sales to Steering Gear that now sit empty as well. Ask many today, and they’ll blame the lazy Black man. Never mind that it was GM’s poor management, shitty cars, and the UAW asking for unreasonable demands that were the real culprit (there are plenty of other reasons as well, but those are the most direct). It was just easy to blame it on low production due to lazy black people.
So that’s a short history of the city I grew up in. And obviously only a tiny fraction of it. But I felt it important to include. It might help you understand why I grew up hearing African-Americans called niggers and negroes and colored people (“hey, if the NAACP can use it, so can I!” – something I heard on more than one occasion) instead of African-American or Black (I’m not a fan of either of these terms either).
A lot of times growing up I would hear racial slurs, but always with the addendum that “well, I don’t hate Black people, just niggers.” (don’t worry, I also heard about stupid Polloks, wetbacks, camel jockeys, towel heads and “Indian givers”) Oh, well, that makes sense! There are good “x” people, and then there are the “other x” people. It isn’t a surprise that I ended up parroting those sentiments later in life (much to my present dismay). My grandfather, uncles, father all repeated this message for most of my life, never believing themselves to be racist, of course.
Understandably I was confused as a youth when my mother (my parents divorced when I was 7) began dating one of “those people”. When we headed to the other side of town for that first time, I was terrified. The image of the scary black man had been firmly implanted in my head. But I never met him. What I did meet was a bunch of really nice people who ate some really good food (and some really weird food) and liked to invite us over for cookouts in the summer time. It turned out that they were people too.
Of course even more confusion set in when I wasn’t allowed to talk to my grandparents about mom’s new boyfriend. (On a side note, my mother did date an African-American cop for a month or so and I remember him referring to his baton as a “nigger beater”. Yet another mixed signal to send to a 9-year-old). I didn’t want to tell anyone about my new friends on the other side of the river for fear that I would be punished or ostracized in some way. I was yelled at for championing Malcolm X, and told that I should have looked up to Dr. King, because he was one of “the good ones”. Hip-hop or, “nigger music” wasn’t allowed in my house either.
Clearly, confusion about race was an ever-present factor in my childhood.
Flash-forward a few years to when I was 16-17. I went to visit my friends Del and Steve to play some basketball quite a bit in the summer. They were on an AAU team with my friend Troy that I lived near and became close friends with. Twice I was pulled over for “driving while white”. Never heard of it? I know, mostly you’ve heard of “driving while black” and people getting harassed in that way. Getting pulled over for DWW is when a white person gets pulled over in a black neighborhood because they suspect you of being there to purchase drugs. After all, what other possible reason could a white person have for making his way over to the black part of town?
It was at this point too, that I started to notice that being white came with baggage I never knew about. While I did make a few friends over on “that” side of the river, I made just as many enemies. Steve’s sister was especially critical, asking why he needed to have a “fucking white boy” in the house. “Fuck you white boy” was something I heard quite a bit just walking down the god damned street on my way to the corner party store. Of course Del frequently told me I was “at least a 1/4 black” furthering the blurry line in my head regarding race/culture. How the hell was I supposed to feel and react to all of this?
Now let’s head over to history class. American History apparently starts in 1492 with Columbus “discovering” the West Indies (isn’t that kind of like discovering my neighbor’s back yard?). Then nothing happens for over a hundred years until Jamestown, and then the pilgrims and a big happy feast at Thanksgiving! Then the French and Indian war, American revolution, early American politics, if you’re lucky you might get a chapter about the wars with the Native tribes and a mention of Sitting Bull, then it’s the civil war, depression, the 2 world wars, civil rights, yadda yadda yadda you know the story.
Hmmm…. something is missing here. Weren’t there already people here, before Columbus? Didn’t they have any history? Culture? Art? Well, not if you read the history books they don’t. To find out about my ancestors, I had to search out some college girl’s thesis paper. If you do happen to take the time to browse through it, you’ll see there is an extremely rich history there. And one of my ancestors was a Native woman (one of many), who was Michigan’s first real business woman, a widow in her 20’s that was successful enough to send her children away to a Canadian private school. She was hugely influential in her time and place and never once did I hear her name during my Michigan History class. All that was ever mentioned were the wars between the Michigan settlers and the native savages. Never mind the fact that the French fur trappers and Natives were extremely cooperative and came to rely on one another and marry each other and take up each other’s religions up there on Mackinaw Island. Nah. Let’s just skip over that and learn about the rich timber barons and Henry Ford. I only happened upon her when doing some research into my family’s history. A couple of generations of a family and an important part of Michigan’s history reduced to an obscure PDF.
So by now you might be wondering, why is he talking about all this? To score racial sympathy points? Why does this white guy have a bug up his ass? I included this bit of personal history because I felt that it was relevant. Relevant to show that issues of race affect all people, including myself. I revealed all of this to show that I’ve had it up to my ears when dealing with issues of race. Racism abounds in this world, this is true. And it comes from people of all colors, and it reaches out to people of all colors. I find it disgusting that we use skin color as the basis for dividing a people. I find it equally disgusting that we use race to keep communities insular and homogenous. “If everyone looks like me, I’m safe! If someone looks different, lock your doors and grab your gun!”
I’ve seen my family literally torn apart because of it (my mom finally decided to bring her boyfriend to meet my grandfather – on his deathbed). I’ve seen the city I loved growing up in destroyed in part because of it. There is no way to escape issues of race, and I have no desire to ignore it (nor could I if I wanted to); instead I’m just not going to confront it, especially not here on this blog. Call me a coward, blame it on my “white privilege”, I don’t give a shit. But don’t tell me that I don’t have to deal with those issues simply because I’m ‘white’. We all deal with issues of race whether we choose to acknowledge them or not, and we all deal with them differently.
Furthermore, I don’t feel that confronting issues of race tend to do anything to change anyone’s mind (there are some obvious exceptions), especially on a blog that no one reads anyway. Instead I feel that hitting at some of the underlying issues of racism (ignorance, culture, hate/fear) are way more worth my time if I ever felt like “combatting” racism. But I don’t. Let someone else do it. Because I’m sick of it. So sick of it all.