The Human Cost of Racism

I’m going to break blog silence today, and speak, as well as I can, about Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin, 1995-2012

Trayvon Martin, 1995-2012

Have you heard his name yet? The 17-year-old boy who was shot dead by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman for carrying skittles and walking slowly home in the rain? Whose killer walked free without so much as a night in jail? Who you can hear screaming for help on the 911 tapes? Whose death screams were heard by a witness who was CORRECTED by a police officer when she said she heard Trayvon screaming for help?

It’s been a month now, and George Zimmerman is still free. This is far from an isolated incident, though the circumstances may make it more blatantly a travesty than some. This is what every black mother is afraid of every moment that her son is out of her sight.

Do you know what it is to be afraid for your child’s life? Not afraid that they will do something stupid, or there will be an accident – but that they will be killed, just for existing in their own skin.

All parents have moments of fear for their children. When they don’t nurse like you are told they should. When they fall off the bed the first time. When you turn around at the zoo and find them nowhere to be seen. As terrible as that lurching, dizzying pain is, it is mundane, normal, and thanks to my mostly-neurotypicality it lives in the background, only coming out occasionally.

This is the fear that black parents must live with every moment of their lives.

And in the end I know that if my son gets lost at the zoo, say, he can depend on not only his bubbly cuteness and his wits to find his way to safety, but on the color of his skin.

Because my son is white, he is not automatically seen as a threat as a black boy would be, even at the tender age of five. Imagine a five-year-old black boy wandering alone at the zoo – do you think people would be as quick to offer him help? They would justify their inaction by thoughts that “those people raise their children to be more independent, so he’s probably fine”; or they would call security rather than offering a kind word. And if you think I’m wrong, then you’ve deliberately chosen not to see what is right in front of you.

A few weeks ago we hired a couple of men to help us move. They were black men, charming and friendly and guys I wish I’d met before moving out of the neighborhood. One of them arrived early, and our next-door neighbor, who’s never even spoken to us, told him he looked suspicious for sitting on our doorstep, waiting for us to get back. Do you think a white man would have gotten the same kind of questioning?

Yesterday I took my son to the playground, where a young black boy about his age was already playing. My son barged in front of him and took over the toy he was playing with. I intervened, scolded my son, and took him to play on a different piece of equipment. My son is impetuous and not the best with his social skills, and might have done that to anyone – but I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have pushed so quickly in front of a white kid. I’ve done my damnedest to teach him to treat everyone as equally worthy of politeness, but I’m new at this myself and am fighting a world created out of white supremacist poison that seeps into all of us from the moment we are born. I try, I will keep trying, but it’s not enough, will never be enough – and still my discomfort is nothing next to the pain of a black mother who must fear for her son’s life every moment of every day.

White American culture teaches us not to see race, not to talk about it. Calling someone a racist is the worst thing you can do, worse than pointing out the sort of injustice that led to Trayvon’s death for Existing While Black. We live in a segregated society that allows us to continue our racist stereotypes unchallenged, allows us to live without ever even asking why it is that you don’t know any black people, or thinking because your one black friend acts totally “normal” (read: “white”) you’re totally not racist, nevermind that you never go to “those” parts of town or approach the black salesperson when a white one is free, or even realize that you never quite make eye contact or let your fingers touch the black cashier’s at the supermarket.

Yes, all these things are totally normal and happen every day. Don’t get in a huff and say “well, we’re not *all* like that!” Instead listen to the people of color who talk about these and countless other microaggressions happening to them every damned day, and then ask yourself why they might be a tad tetchy just because you “didn’t know it was rude” to come up and touch their afro without asking. (Would you touch a white woman’s hair without asking? Seriously?)

And if you’re still so convinced that you’ve never done anything like this, how about you get mad at the white people who do, rather than the black people who call it out for what it is – institutionalized, normalized white racism, designed and perpetuated for the purpose of making black people less than human, giving the prison-industrial complex fodder for its money machine without the need to muck about with tawdry things like evidence and justice.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am. And yet this is not about my life. I can post this secure in the knowledge that nobody will appear in the comments calling me a n****r because I too have the unasked-for power of my white skin protecting me. I wear black today in memory of Trayvon and his fallen brethren, but I can never take off my white skin or know what it is to be black in this country. I can witness, and listen, remember, and let people of color mourn in their own way, and try to speak up when I see other white people doing stupid racist shit.

You can do the same. Start by listening. And if you don’t know how to confront someone who is being a racist ass, consider that a well-placed raised eyebrow can work wonders. Don’t let it pass unremarked. Don’t laugh at racist jokes. If you don’t know if it’s racist, flip races and see if it’s still funny. (The same trick works for genders and sexist jokes.) Even if you don’t think you’re racist, this stuff gets in you and becomes normal because it’s so pervasive. Learn to see it. Learn to see.


Good places to start:
Angry Black Bitch
Angry Black Woman
Dumb Things White People Say
Love Isn’t Enough
Womanist Musings

My challenge to you: add some of these blogs to your feed reader, and take a few minutes each week to listen to the worldview of a POC.

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A black woman in profile, arm outstretched, fingers grasping and turned downward. Beneath her hand, the sun rises over the earth.

Half the Sky by Heather Keith Freeman
14″x17″, pen and ink on watercolor paper

So I have no idea how to tell this story without it seeming like bragging, but it’s touched me deeply and I’d like to write about it.

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival started last Friday. It snarled up mass transit downtown, so my husband took a cab home. The driver, a friendly black woman, was chatting with him about the festival, and said that she was kind of interested in going but that the kind of art that gets shown is so mainstream and white.

Andrei pulled out Half the Sky to show her, told her a little about it and why I am actively working to show people of color in my artwork.

She was, by my husband’s account, impressed and pleased, and happy to know that there were artists out there who “got it.”

And I’m validated in ways I can’t even describe to know that a black woman has seen what I’m trying to do and appreciates it.

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Revealing Racism through Art

What with my becoming involved in the anti-racist and other social justice communities, and my ongoing work to call out privilege and prejudice within myself, I discovered I was tired of drawing white people.

Now, I’m white. And in art, as with writing, the repeated maxim is often “make what you know”. That’s one of the reasons I draw mainly women; I’m familiar with the way female bodies work on a deeper level from having inhabited one. (Also, they’re pretty. Though whether that opinion is a manifestation of internalized sexism is something I’m still working on.) And white women, well, again, I’m white. Plus I’ve recently realized going through my copious collection of naked-woman-photo books, almost all of them are white, especially the “photo reference for artists” type. Right there is a huge example of racism I never would have noticed a year ago.

Yeah, I was tired of drawing white people. And even more, I was newly aware of how problematic it was to make an unconscious assumption – not decision – to make the subject of my art white.

So this woman, I decided, would be black. A mild artistic challenge, since in black and white differences in skin color are not as apparent as they would be in color. But just approaching it with the mindset that she was black set off unexpected turmoil within me. Was I over-emphasizing her facial features? Was I sending a message by portraying a nude black woman that I wouldn’t send by portraying a nude white one? Did I even have the right to portray someone whose ancestors were enslaved, raped, and killed by my ancestors? By portraying someone constructed by society as Other, was I making this single person into a token, with every physical feature, gesture, and curve of limb somehow a commentary on her race as a whole?

Of course my first reaction was to explain it away, that I was just worried about what “people” would think, because “people” were unthinkingly racist, not me, oh no. But the sheer strength and volume of my internal reaction belied that explanation. I didn’t have these sorts of internal dialogues when drawing “Get it Out of Me“, despite my subject in that piece being significantly larger than I. The truth is I was being racist, and what’s more I was more concerned with the potential of being considered racist than with the art itself.

Our society is racist. We live and breathe racism every damned day, it’s embedded in our media and advertising and fashion and literature from the day we’re born. And as we are intertwined with our society, we cannot separate ourselves from the worst in it. The best I can think of to do is try to become aware of it, and to talk about the process. The silence around racism (unless it’s to decry it in other people or to declare America “post-racial“) is just as damaging as the racism itself, since it prevents us from moving forward.

The tagline of this blog is The intersection of art and activism. It isn’t just about creating pretty pictures to call out problems in the world outside. It’s also about the very difficult conversations the work creates within yourself, acknowledging that you’re just as broken as the society that made you, and trying to be better.

In conclusion, I should say that I am not posting this to collect anti-racist points, or to solicit validation from POC. I have done my best to talk about this in an honest and anti-racist manner, but I’m equally aware that I have probably fucked up in quite a few ways. I welcome commentary but do not expect teaching. The art in question I will post separately, as it ended up really being about something else entirely. (I’ve also decided it’s not, in fact, quite done yet.)

Edited to add: It’s done now, and posted here.

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Political correctness is politeness

Ok, so here’s the thing.

“Politically correct” speech is POLITE speech.

No more, no less.

If you bump into someone accidentally on the street, which of the following do you do?
a) Yell “Hey! Get out of the way, asshole!”
b) Hurry on, trying not to acknowledge that anything happened
c) Apologize and try to be more aware of your surroundings

I was once firmly in the camp of those who insisted that “political correctness” was silly, overhyped, a meaningless bandaid. Those advocating it should get over themselves, not be so touchy, and just realize that we all meant well.

Ah, privilege in action. Of course I didn’t get why “handicapped” was a problem. Even as a person with a disability, it was a relatively mild one and I’d never had that term directed at me or experienced the painful weight that came with it. Language does make a difference. When you label someone with a pejorative, this allows you to think of them as Other, Different, and Less Than you, makes it easier to ignore their complaints and dismiss their concerns, to treat them like objects, possessions, animals. Shifting the language is the first step to acknowledging that these Different people are People, just like you, and worthy of the same respect.

But it’s even simpler than that. The language that is being objected to is HURTING PEOPLE. Real people, people just as worthy as you of respect and decent treatment. And if they speak up to say “hey, this is hurting me, can we find another way to talk about this,” it is incredibly rude to treat their request with scorn or disbelief.

Let’s say that you, growing up, had freckles. Let’s say that there was a pervasive attitude in your community that having freckles meant that you were less intelligent, less capable, less human, even. Let’s say there was a word used to describe people with freckles – “spotty.” That word is hurled at you as an insult on the playground, whispered behind your back in school, said aside with a curled lip and a poorly-concealed expression of disgust when you go to try to apply for a job or visit the doctor. That word rather quickly becomes associated with a world of hurt and shame for you.

Now let’s say that “spotty” starts being used in a larger pejorative sense. It now refers to anything that is viewed as less worthy, less attractive, less anything good. Some people using it that way aren’t even aware of its origin as an insult towards freckled people. But regardless of their intent, you hear it and it stings. It reminds you, each and every time, of that lifetime of hurt, opportunities denied and friendships lost. That word is a symbol of all of that, and when people ignore your protest, it only furthers the systemic marginalization you have endured, because they are saying that you are not worthy of fundamental respect, of being treated like a human being with needs and feelings equal to their own, of being LISTENED TO.

There are plenty of words out there. Plenty of room and richness in human language, whatever your language, to try to find terms that are not loaded with negative context for those you are speaking to. Sure, some of them you might not get why they are hurtful – but shouldn’t it be enough to know that they are?

For example, I’m currently wrestling with the terms “crazy” and “insane” – widely regarded as hurtful and marginalizing by those with mental illness, because they have devolved into general pejoratives that devalue entire humans rather than speaking solely to their brains working a little differently than average. I’ll be honest that while I intellectually see the argument, I don’t grasp it fully. It doesn’t click. But that doesn’t matter. I know that it hurts people, so I’m working on my usage of those terms, listening to those who talk about the problems and at the very least trying not to use them in my public writing.

You don’t need to “get” it. You just need to give a basic level of respect to the people who say it’s a problem.

Here are some other terms to think about. Why and how do you use them? What do they mean, not only to you, but originally and within your cultural context? Have you heard people complain about their usage? If you’ve dismissed those complaints, why have you done so?

lame, weak, retarded, handicapped, spaz, gimp, blink, dumb, moron, idiot, stupid, crazy, insane, girly, gay, faggot

I’ve nauseated myself, so I won’t continue. I’m sure you can add to the list. I have deliberately not ventured into racial epithets, but consider that the terms above are used as marginalizing terms in much the same way as the n-word, carrying with them a weight of implications and assumptions that are both hurtful and untrue.

Suggested further reading: the Ableist word profile series on FwD/Forward.

Edited to add: since a number of people have asked, “blink” is an epithet directed at people who are blind or act in a stereotypically blind manner. Some in the blind community are attempting to reclaim the word; I don’t know how successful they’ve been.

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So here’s a bit more detail on what I was getting at in my last post.

My roommate watches a lot of cop shows. It’s easy to notice in these that the vast majority of the protagonists are white males. What women there are are always in secondary roles, supporting the central character. Nonwhite protagonists are usually Asian lab geeks with the occasional black male thrown in. Nonwhites in general are the criminals and their unsavory companions. I can’t think of a single woman of color playing a “good guy” save the occasional bit part as a judge or guest D.A.

Is this bigotry in action? Or a reflection of the world as the writer sees it? Given that a part of the systemic oppression people of color face is the lack of favorable portrayals in the media, does the writer have a responsibility to tilt the balance away from reality to compensate, a sort of artistic affirmative action?

Responsibility is a loaded word. Every artist has different priorities, goals, ethics – what their art means to them, what they hope to accomplish with it, is intensely personal. However, for those artists who have a desire to make people think, change the world, affect the course of society, what is the better path?

Really, both paths have their uses. It’s impossible to fix a problem if you can’t see it – and there is the use of portraying the world as it is. And it’s also hard to fix a problem if you can’t visualize the solution – and there is the use of portraying the world as you’d like it to be.

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