Monday, April 25, 2011

Confronting Racism – The Wrong Way

A week or two ago, I came across a link in Twitter that led me to an article detailing a poll. The article’s headline stated that half of Mississippi Republicans thought interracial marriage should be illegal.

I was immediately angry. I clicked through to the featured poll to see exactly what was asked. It turns out that only 400 people were polled and the poll was primarily asking participants which local candidates they supported. There was only one unrelated question, and it asked if the participants believed interracial marriage should be banned. I believe 46% (so just under 200 people) said it should be banned. A smaller number said it should not be banned and another group said they weren’t sure.

I don’t know much about polling organizations so I had no idea whether this was a credible source, but after noting that only 400 people had been polled and only one random question asked about interracial marriage, I thought the headline – generalizing that half of Mississippi Republicans (i.e. likely a significant portion of the state) wanted interracial marriage to be illegal – was at the very least inflammatory. It was pretty obvious that the polling organization and news source was hoping to draw a tie between the Southern GOP and racism.

I didn’t really care. I was pissed, knowing that there are a hell of a lot more than 200 people in our world that believe these things. I re-tweeted the article and posted it on Facebook. I noted on Facebook that I thought the headline was inflammatory, but invited my Facebook friends to remove themselves from a relationship with me if they believed my marriage should be illegal. Oh yeah, readers – if you didn’t know, I’m White, my husband is Black and our three kids are both.

A friend commented and pointed out that the poll’s credibility was in question. I agreed, but stated that my point wasn’t to throw mud on Mississippi Republicans, rather to state clearly that I didn’t want to be in a relationship with people who thought my marriage should be illegal.

A couple people commented about how much racism sucks. Then an old friend – someone I haven’t been in touch with since the late 90s except for a couple short “Hi, how are you”s on Facebook – commented about how much he disliked news items like this. He stated that he believed that these “issues” were nothing but media hype and that it was only the media keeping them alive. If media would shut up about it all for a while, we’d see that the very next generation would have no racism at all.

At this point, I was already regretting having posted the article & poll. I knew I’d made a mistake trying to use sensational faux-science to make my point and that it hadn’t really added any credibility to my point. I could have just written a simple status with no link attached, asking friends & family to remove me if they believe in an interracial marriage ban. I only barely owned up to this mistake and instead responded to the old friend, noting a few anecdotal and personal experiences with racism that had no connection to media hype whatsoever.

I mentioned the time a family member (through marriage) gave me a lecture on how there are Black people and there are niggers. I noted that people have said to my children (in front of me, even) that they are lucky to have turned out so light skinned. Like me. Not like their Dad. I reminded him that there are still churches in the U.S. that teach that interracial marriages aren’t blessed by God (and no, I’m not talking about Westboro Baptist). I didn’t mention that these same churches teach that the products of interracial relationships – you know, MY KIDS – are also exempt from blessings until something like 7 generations have passed. I.E. once one or the other race has likely been bred out (at least visibly). These aren’t churches affiliated with militia groups, they’re regular conservative, Bible-belt churches that don’t consider their beliefs racist. I told him that if he lives in a world where racism only exists in the media, then he was a lucky guy. That wasn’t my reality and it wasn’t bound to be the reality of my grandchildren, even if the media never said another word about racism.

The old friend backpedaled a bit – he said that those things were said by ignorant people and he was sorry they’d happened to me. He said he hates when someone tries to draw a correlation between things he considers unrelated (the GOP and racism) and that is what he was responding to.

I think the truth is that we each responded hotheadedly to something that pushed our personal buttons. I knew I was posting a poll that lacked credibility and he pretended that racism only exists in the minds of people who are out to get his political party . . . each of us had our own real problems we could have been more forthright about.

I could have said, “If you think my marriage – and more importantly the lives of my children – should be illegal, that cuts me to my soul and I don’t want you looking at pictures of my family, of these children, I don’t want you thinking evil things about us and pretending to be someone who loves me. I don’t want to see you one day, with my family, and have you say something really hurtful that means nothing to you but will be etched on their hearts forever. I want to protect us from that so please get out of my life.” But I didn’t.

He could have said, “I believe in my party’s ideals and I don’t agree with racism and it really bothers me that you see a link between the two. I’m so tired of being labeled a racist just because I’m fiscally conservative . . . when you say something about the GOP, you’re referring to me as a member, and I resent that because I don’t believe those things. It would be one thing if your poll had any credibility, but it doesn’t. So you’re pointing a finger at me for something that was actually concocted with the intent to deceive.” But he didn’t.

I was sick to my stomach all night over this – oh, I’ll fight for what I believe in, but the conflict tears me up – and in the morning, what made me feel so bad was this: My actions added weight to the belief that racism only exists in media hype. Besides the handful of people who commented on the poll, how many others read the headline, saw my upset response, noted the comments about the poll’s lack of credibility, and thought, “Yep. Just another example of someone crying ‘racism’ where it doesn’t really exist”?

I left one more comment that morning, a long one – and then I deleted the status, poll and comments. I told a story about an old friend, who, upon hearing that I’d gotten married, allegedly gave only this response: “I can’t believe Ashley married a Black guy.” I don’t know whether that guy really said this, it was told to me second-hand. But I believed it. I was shocked and hurt – from his family, friends and community I’d expect that sort of response, but from him? No way. I also hadn’t been in contact with him since the late 90s, so when he found me on Facebook last year, I didn’t want to get into it. “Oh, hi, old friend! By the way, did you express regret over my marrying a Black guy?” That’s an uncomfortable conversation. Confronting someone who has hurt you is uncomfortable. Talking about race is uncomfortable. But I should have done it, because when I saw that poll, I thought of that guy. I thought of the fact that I never asked him if he said that, I went ahead & added him on Facebook, and he had access to pictures of my family. What does he think when he looks at them? When I posted that poll, I was speaking to him and any others like him.

Except I wasn’t doing it with any courage.

I thought about all of this again last week after reading a couple articles about a GOP official in Orange County, CA, who sent out a Birther-themed email showing President Obama as a chimpanzee. The photo’s caption said something like, “Now we know why there’s no birth certificate.” The official was  denounced by her local GOP chairperson and she was asked to resign her position (apparently the most they can do TO her is censure her). She has refused to resign. She initially said she didn’t see anything racist about the email, that it was strictly political. She said she isn’t racist, she has “Black friends”. This has been in the news and Friday she issued an apology, stating that she hadn’t considered the historical ramifications of comparing Black people to apes, and that she’s sorry for offending anyone.

You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to post that article on Facebook. I wanted to post it right on that guy’s page who said this stuff only exists in media hype. I wanted to hear him try to explain away how what she sent out wasn’t really racist. I wanted to tell him that this is why racism isn’t going anywhere. We have parents. And pastors. And elected officials. Teaching their children, congregations and constituents that racism is ok. THIS is why racism is around, not because the liberal media has it out for the GOP.

But I think I burned that bridge. I could make the most eloquent, educated, practical argument, I could send him story after story of For Real Racism, and I don’t think it would matter. He already has a belief growing in his mind that racism is just a story people make up when they don’t get what they want. And I fertilized that belief.


Annie @ Wattlebird said...

Wow, lots of thoughts here. I'll keep it simple. It's really sad that some of these things are true. Of course racism isn't just perpetuated by the media, but since the media might sensationalize SOME things, people make assumptions and think they're just making stuff up. I went to school for journalism, and we talked about this A LOT. Especially now with social media, the "traditional media" reports on things that people are talking about. This isn't always true of course, but if a story breaks and people keep talking about it for weeks, then the media will keep talking about it for weeks as well, because they want to cover things people care about and are interested in.
As far as polling: I worked for a political campaign last year and this was the thing that upset me most of all. It's way more common than I ever thought for parties to use polling as a political tool. For example, the guy running against my boss was waaaaayyy behind in the race and he hired a pollster to do a poll showing him up by 4 points so that the local members and national Republican party would then start to actually pay attention to his race and fund it rather than writing it off as a "no chance" kind of deal. He didn't win, but that one poll made a HUGE DIFFERENCE in the race because people take that as a fact, and that's not always the case. I don't know what the motivation would be with the poll in question here, but it seems like someone is always up to something. It's really sad.

Annie @ Wattlebird said...

Wow, I said I'll keep it simple and that clearly did not happen...

Tricia said...

Ahhh racism.

One of the biggest troubles with racism is removing it from emotion - there is no rational reason to think one person superior to another, nor to assume another is racist. But we do. Why? If it can't be rational then it must be emotional...and if it is emotional than it is surely a no-win in many ways.

No win because its so embedded, so deeply ingrained - be it simple unsaid thoughts, or more extreme acts, again, from both racism to the assumptions thereof.

Some of us are raised hearing even mildly derogatory statements over and over until they become part of who we are, even when we try to shed that past, others raised more extreme, and others to assume that they are being discriminated against by many, every, or most. Are not assumptions of discrimination as detrimental as discrimination itself if we allow it to hold us back?

Same problem in many ways. Holds us back in the same ways. It takes work to move past, work to heal, work to grow. Many people aren't willing to work. Many grasp on to any situations that "prove" their worldview more strongly than the countless other incidents to the contrary.

Is there racism in media? Yes, absolutely. Can it be fixed? Depends on how much work the people behind the scenes are willing to do...which means they will have to come to terms with their often irrational belief systems. And that is real work - more more than compiling skewed statistics, writing sensationalized headlines, or picking stock images, more than pointing fingers and placing fault...

Lindsay - Paint Me A Picture said...

I truly am sorry this is something you have to face. Unfortunately we live in a fallen world. I have experienced racism because I am white. Yes, snubbed, mistreated, overlooked. However, I have never experienced the pain you have - having my marriage called illegal, having such horrible things said about my children. So fir them, I apologize. Those who say those things do not know Truth and are deceived.
I don't believe we will ever see an end to racism. It may change. Tolerance may increase, but people are going to always have hate and sin. It's not an excuse. It is humanity. However, I can do something. I can choose not to allow racism into my home. I can choose to teach my children differently. And just like with everything else, doing my part will make a difference, even for just one other person.

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