Friday, July 19, 2013

On Not Being Nice

I have been sitting with the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial all week. I have been sitting with it, creepy mournful ghastly thing, hunkering on my shoulder and poking its poky tendrils through my brain, and it is a nasty tear-making creature. Ignoring it is not making it go away.
Many people have written about the murder of Trayvon Martin and the context of this case, far more eloquently than I could ever do. The vilification of Trayvon, whose side of the story we will never really know, has been sickening. People attribute and project all sorts of things on this dead boy that it is impossible to know. I have been reading all different viewpoints, and it has been eroding my stomach lining, and I just have to stop.
However, among the many, many pieces I read this week, two really struck me as useful:
 (1) At Native-Born, Faiqa Khan writes (and btw, hat-tip to Kristen at Rage Against the Minivan for her amazing roundup of links, via which I found this):  We acquit each other when we look the other way when a remark is made about “those people” and why they are “that way.” We acquit each other when we accept the idea that “race is not an issue.”
I want to tell you all, for your own good, stop saying that. If you think race isn’t an issue, then race is most definitely an issue for you. When you pretend something does not exist, you give it power. …You cannot destroy that which you think does not exist. You cannot heal a sickness if you refuse to believe that you are sick. You deny a sickness, though, and it only grows. 
(2)  And over at Mocha Momma, two old posts which are not related to Trayvon, but which gave me a lot to chew on: one, where Kelly Wickham recounts going to BlogHer in New York and having to tell off aloud-mouthed woman on the bus; and two, where she describes overhearing a loud racist conversation and how she responded. (Warning:  this second post also later contains one of the most heartbreaking stories that you might ever read about her dad’s ugly encounter with racism as a child. It wrecked me.)
This week I have been thinking a lot about the moments when I have been confronted with prejudiced behavior and I have not wanted to confront the behavior because I am at work or at a party where I don’t know many people, and I don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. But *I* am uncomfortable. It is this socialization to be quiet, not to make a fuss, which allows behavior like this to continue. Unabated, because I don’t do my part to abate it. I can’t wring my hands about racism continuing to exist if I am not actively doing my part to help erase it.
I am a white black woman. Both of my parents are light-skinned black folks. Many people in my family can pass for white, and many have (they don’t talk to the rest of us). In the day-to-day, black people for the most part recognize me as one of them – because most African American families run the gamut of skin color, and inevitably I am told “You look like my niece,” or “You remind me of my cousin.” Most white people do not realize I am black unless I explicitly say so. I have the privilege of being able to fly under the radar, so to speak. I recognize this is a privilege, but I have never enjoyed it. Sometimes people act like I am playing a nasty joke on them when they discover I am black.
At any rate, I know where this silence comes from, and it is hard to get past. Many members of my immediate family are “ethnically ambiguous,” and they have learned it is better to be silent in the face of prejudice, to go along to get along. And that worked for them, I guess, but at the price of their own self-worth. Because to ignore what you are, to deny what you are, means that there is something implicitly wrong with what you are. And that is just bullshit.
There are times when I do speak up. There are times when I am already so weary of the person in question (for other reasons) that I don’t feel like making it a “teachable moment.” There are times when I am so shocked by what someone has said that I can’t speak. But the times when I don’t speak up? They eat away at me. It’s poisonous.
Coming back around to my point: this week I’ve decided to stop being nice. I’m not going to be nasty, but I’m not going to keep my mouth shut. This way, over here? It’s the way forward. And it won’t reverse the verdict, and it won’t bring Trayvon back to his family. But it will help me move toward a world I feel more comfortable in.

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