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On “Black” and “White” and Law Enforcement

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Some time ago I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by the sound of people brawling outside of my house. I walked toward the sound, peaked out of my front window, and saw a large group of people in the middle of the street in front of my house.  I heard more yelling, breaking glass. Someone kept screaming, “I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!”

I dialed 911.  I described to the operator the things I had seen and heard and asked her to send someone out to break up the fight. But she needed more information.

“What color are they?” she asked.

“What?” I said.

“Are they black or white?” she said.

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

I was confused and annoyed. I think my tone of voice reflected this. The operator hung up on me. I waited inside my home for an hour, unable to sleep, listening to the people outside shouting death threats and expletives at each other. The noise moved up the street away from my house, died down completely, started up again with only a couple of voices, and ended up in my neighbor’s yard.  I peeked out the side window and saw my neighbor stick his head out of his front door and speak sternly to the two or three men standing near the bushes next to his front porch. The men walked away, and things were quiet for the rest of the night. Before I went back to sleep, I checked the time. It was 3:35 a.m., and in the time that had passed, no police officer had shown up on the scene. This was particularly odd because I lived within four blocks of a police station.  I still wonder if the 911 operator decided to disregard my call because I refused to play the “black/white” race-labeling game.

I had not meant to be difficult. When she asked about the color of the angry mob, I was truly confused. Partly due to the fact that I was drowsy from being awakened prematurely and partly due to the fact that it didn’t even occur to me to take note of the ethnicity of members of the angry crowd, I truly didn’t understand what the operator meant. When she clarified “black or white,” it occurred to me too in that moment that I had not noticed the skin tone of any of the people. In order to answer her question I would have to go back to the window and try to ascertain what skin tones I could see under the eerie glow of the streetlamps and then, based on that info, determine if the police would categorize these guys as “black” or “white.” It also occurred to me that the information that was necessary for helping the police to identify the group I had already provided. When one considers that this was a group of at least ten people, standing in the middle of the street, standing directly in front of my house (I had provided my address), and screaming obscenities at each other, the skin color or ethnicity of the individuals seems irrelevant. I doubt that if I had said “white” and the men turned out to be “black,” the police would have driven past them in search of a “white” mob. Their color did not matter, so why did she ask the question?

Why is it important for law enforcement to racialize suspects? One might argue that determining whether a potential suspect is “black” or “white” is just practical. Cops need physical descriptions of people in order to know whom they’re trying to find. This explanation is unsatisfying when one considers that “black” and “white” are not physical descriptions of any human being. Notice the difference between the two questions posed by the 911 operator. She first asked for “color,” which would be a physical description. She then asked if the people were “black or white,” no longer asking for a physical description. Humans do not come in those colors.

Human beings can be described as having a range of skin tones: very dark brown, dark brown, medium brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan, peach, pink, beige, and everything in between. “White” is the color of copier paper or the dry-erase board in a college classroom or snow. “Black” is the color of the space between the stars in the night sky or the fur of a panther. “Black” people do not exist. “White” people do not exist.

On college campuses, when someone is assaulted by a brown-skinned assailant, the reports will warn the campus community that the assailant was “black.” On one campus, bulletins were posted in the campus buses describing an alleged rapist as “black” and accompanied by one of those police sketches that manage to look simultaneously like everyone you’ve ever met and no one you’ve ever met. Once I heard a campus police alert about a “black male wearing a yellow sweatshirt.” This seemed to me highly ineffective because the suspect could simply dispose of the yellow sweatshirt in order to merge inconspicuously into the larger group of “black” males on the campus and in the city. Of course, this is not how such a description really works for law enforcement. It is not intended to identify an individual but rather to point the finger at the group. This type of race-labeling as a substitute for actual physical description is used to justify the harassment of scores of African-American and Latino men who have skin any shade of brown.

How do we stop this?

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On Having “White” Friends

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When someone accused of being a racist says, “I’m not racist. I have lots of X friends,” do you ever wonder if those X people think of the speaker as a real friend? Does Hollis Johnson think of Paula Deen as part of his family or does he just tolerate that racist bitch because she’s paying his salary?

I recently realized that, while there may be people out there who count me among their “black friends,” from my perspective I have had very few “white” friends since I was a child. I have known and currently know “white” people that I might introduce as friends although many are really more like acquaintances or people-who-have-talked-to-me-more-than-once. I have a host of “white” people in my Facebook friends list. But I have had an extremely limited number of real, deep, meaningful relationships with “white” people. And, after careful consideration, I have determined that it’s not me; it’s them.

I have not intentionally segregated myself away from “white” people. In fact, because of my career and personal interests, I tend to find myself in places populated with more “white” people than people of color. Yet I have formed few lasting connections. This I believe has to do with how the potential “white” friends I have known in my adult life have dealt with me. In my adult life, most interactions that I have had with “white” people who could have been potential friends have turned sour because the “white” friend engaged in some behavior that made me aware of an invisible wall between us, constructed by them, impenetrable by me.

I post this in the hopes that all the “white” people out there who think they have friends who are not “white” will reconsider how they really see those friends. The chances are that, if you have ulterior motives in striking up a friendship with a person of color, you will do or say something that will reveal your motives.

The Anthropologist

One day my “white” friend will say something that lets me know that our friendship has been little more than her attempt to learn about “my people.” We will be discussing some political, social, or less weighty issue. I will state an opinion. Her eyes will open wider, and she’ll say “So that’s what black people think about X. I’ve always wondered.” Or she will ask me, “What is the black perspective on X?” Or she will make a generalizing comment about some mundane aspect of my daily existence, revealing that she assumes that my mundane routine is indicative of the lifestyles and habits of all people like me: “Oh, so black women do wash their hair more than once a month? Because I thought they couldn’t get their hair wet.”

This “white” friend will often try to participate in what she perceives to be my culture. She will get her hair braided in cornrows, or attempt to learn whatever butt-centered dance is supposed to be popular among African-Americans at that moment, or strike up a conversation about how much she loved the latest [insert popular hip-hop/rap artist here] album only to be visibly disappointed when she realizes I don’t know what she’s talking about. For people who are not African-American, this type of “white” friend might smoke hookah, wear turquoise jewelry, sport a sari, or learn a few words of Spanish and then never shut up about how much they understand the struggles of immigrants, or any other culturally-specific appropriation.

These words and behaviors reveal that the time I spent thinking of this person as my friend, she only thought of me as an object of study, specimen A, the Samoan to her Margaret Mead. For her I am not an individual, I am representative.

The Critical Eye

This type of “white” friend reveals himself whenever I am lured into enough familiarity with my white friend to think that I can complain about my woes and I make the mistake of relating an instance in which I encountered racism. It always happens in the same way. (1) I tell my story. (2) My “white” friend tries to convince me that what happened to me in the story wasn’t racism. Sometimes my “white friend” suggests alternatives: “Maybe he/she was just having a bad day. Did you think of that?” “Maybe the server was nice to the ‘white’ customers and not to you because he knew them from somewhere.” “Maybe this.” “Maybe that.”

This “white” friend offers his own analysis because he thinks that I am incapable of bringing a critical eye to my own experiences. He assumes that I, and all people of color in the U.S., am eager to experience racism, and when I fail to experience actual racism, I resort to calling racist that which is not. This “white” friend will often take me to task for what he assumes to be my affinity for unfounded anger. He assumes that I am less human and, therefore, do not have the same capacity for rational thought and careful consideration of evidence that he possess.

The Humanitarian

This “white” friend’s primary motivation for befriending me is so that he can feel charitable. He is the first to welcome me to a new environment, to tell me how wonderful it is that I am there, and to eagerly laud the benefits of “diversity.” “I’m so glad you’re here,” he says to me, “I love diversity.” Well, terrific. Glad I have your permission to occupy this space. It does not seem to occur to him that I do not need his validation. This is because. . .

. . . This type of “white” friend sees people of color always as abject, always as targets of pity. He imagines the most pitiable internal and external circumstances for most people of color and feels that by extending the “white” hand of friendship he is ameliorating what would otherwise be an unbearable existence. He is always thoroughly encouraging and says things like, “You know you’re actually quite bright” or “You’re very articulate” as if this is a surprise. I am the “dog in breeches,” the native to his Marlow.

The Compartmentalizer

This type of “white” friend is warm and engaging only in certain environments when she is alone with me, when there are other people of color around, or when we are together with others in a circumstance that requires our interaction such as a classroom setting. However, when this “white” friend sees me in a public place beyond the established locations of our relationship, she will pretend not to know or even see me. Usually, the “white” friend is with someone she knows but whom I do not know: a boyfriend, a fiancé, a parent, another “white” friend.  This “white” friend seeks to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have the “black friend” that proves that she is not a racist without having that friendship impact the status she holds in her racist world.

The Beauty Contestant

This type of “white” friend, typically female, only wants to be friends with me so that she can feel physically superior in contrast. If the “white” friend and I are out together, the “white” friend assumes that all men will prefer her to me. Any man who directs more attention to me will immediately become the subject of ridicule by this “white” friend. A man who she initially finds “cute” or “hot” will suddenly become “creepy” if he asks for my number instead of hers. She will take every opportunity to deny the physical beauty of women of color and laud the beauty of “white” women. She will watch Bend it Like Beckham and loudly and repeatedly whine that Keira Knightley is sooo pretty, and it doesn’t make sense that she doesn’t get the guy, trying to deny to herself and everyone else in the room the blatant reality that Parminder Nagra is prettier than Keira Knightley.

This friend will engage in frenzied preening of her straight hair whenever she is in my line of vision. She will go on and on about how much she loves her hair, stressing such features as its ability to “blow in the wind,” and she will make frequent sympathetic remarks about the limitations of curly hair. She will lament that her skin is so “white” and patronizingly say to me, “You’re actually lucky that you don’t have to tan” as if she were passing out alms to the poor. If I dare to express an appreciation for my own appearance, this “white” friend is quick to admonish me for being “stuck-up” or “conceited,” reminding me that “It doesn’t sound right to talk about how much you like yourself.”

On the Definition of Racism

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Reading through online discussions and comments about race or racism will reveal that many people are laboring under serious misunderstandings of what constitutes racism. Some commenters claim that the people who “make everything about race” are “the real racists,” meaning that people who talk about racism are somehow more racist than perpetrators of racism. Others have claimed that “‘Racist’ is a hate word used against Whites.”

The muddying of the waters over the meaning of “racism” works to perpetuate racism. The confusion allows those that might feel obligated to challenge racism if they had to confront it in themselves or those they know to simply throw up their hands and claim with exasperation, “Well, who knows what racism is anyway?” If they pretend that the disease of racism cannot be clearly understood or defined, then attempts to eradicate racism can be stalled or abandoned altogether.

Establishing a clear definition of “racism” is essential to attacking racism. Of course, racism is complicated. It can be expressed in a myriad of ways, it can be motivated by many different psychological, economic, and cultural factors, and it can cause a host of different effects in the lives of the racists and the targets of their racism. However, the following definition from A Dictionary of Media and Communication (Oxford UP, 2011) has all the necessary components of a definition of racism, as it expresses both a simple definition and acknowledgement of some of the nuances of defining racism:

Prejudiced attitudes, ideologies, practices, or policies based on an irrational belief in the inherent inferiority of those seen as belonging to other races (see also ethnocentrism; Eurocentrism). It involves ‘othering’ in terms of specific negative stereotypes of racial difference, as well as the exnomination of the definers. It reflects ignorance, dislike, hatred, or fear, and serves to privilege one group while justifying the exclusion, subordination, or exploitation of others. Racism is not a monolithic and unchanging phenomenon and some commentators prefer to refer to racisms (e.g. the different forms it takes in the UK and the USA). It may be overt or covert, conscious or unintentional, individual, cultural, or institutional (see also institutional bias). Racism has been argued to depend less on intentions than on consequences.

This may seem like a lot to take in, but it contains the important components of a clear definition of racism that will be the basis for this blog’s discussions of racism. Expect subsequent blog posts that help to further clarify and explain the definition of racism, posts that help to explain why specific behaviors are or are not racism, and posts on other topics geared toward understanding and dismantling racism.