Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts about internalized white racism with a passing mention of pizza.


Sophomore year of high school I was two years advanced in math, so my class was comprised of like, one other sophomore, a handful of juniors, and then mostly seniors. In New York at the time they had these standardized tests called Regents Exams, that you had to pass in order to graduate with a Regents Diploma. I don't know if this was true, but the pervasive atmosphere was that if you didn’t get a Regents Diploma you might as well not graduate, the other diploma was thought to be essentially worthless.

There was this older Puerto Rican girl who sat behind me who I didn’t know that well but we had smoked weed a couple times together at lunch. She knew I was really good at math and just straight up asked me if she could cheat off me on the Regents because she wanted to get that Regents diploma. I couldn’t see a single, substantial issue with letting that happen, so I did it. She cheated off me and she passed her regents and she was really happy and I felt good I had helped her graduate.

In return, she invited me to her birthday party. That weekend, me and my best friend Juan showed up at her mom’s apartment not knowing what to expect. We walked in and there were her and these two guys we had seen around school but didn’t know, a couple pizza boxes, and so much weed smoke. Me and Juan were definitely PUNKS, and these guys were like, rap dudes or whatever. Is there a succinct noun for that? Like, they wore white, ribbed, tank top undershirts and baggy Mecca jeans and had cornrows and those beaded Puerto Rican flag necklaces that everyone used to wear back then. I knew black kids, Mexican kids, white kids, Jewish kids, Indian kids, but I didn’t really know any Puerto Rican kids, or know much about Puerto Rican culture beyond Big Pun yelling “BORICUA” and that the US was bombing Vieques for Airforce drills thanks to a Crudos interview in MRR.

Anyway, these two dudes were definitely the sort of blustery, hyper-masculine teenage boys with stringy muscles who strut around and make noise at school and act hella tough. I did that too when I was on St Marks place or in a pack of teen drinkers outside No Rio, but in school I was meek and passive where they were loud and confident. My masculinity was constantly embattled whereas their’s seemed self-assured and confident. I went to a big high school, but I remembered both of these dudes from seeing them around the hallways because they were cool looking guys who, though they dressed differently from me, nailed whatever aesthetic they were going for so perfectly that it was almost impossible for a fashion conscious person like myself not to notice. But the point of all this, honestly, is just that they were basically just two pretty normal teenage boys.

Anyway, we smoked a ton of weed, ate all the pizzas, which were slightly undercooked and doughy, but had a delicately flavored sauce and the perfect amount of cheese—objectively flawed but ideal for a "blunt to the dome" kinda night. There was a little stilted awkwardness when we first got there because we were practical strangers walking in on three best friends, but that eased off as we all got so blazed and soon everyone was having a good time.

They were watching Dirty Dancing when we walked in. I expected these two, tough masculine (non-white!) guys to be making fun of it a lot more than they did. In fact, one of the dudes (I’m sorry I don’t remember any of these people’s names, but this was like, fifteen years ago and I have smoked a lot more weed since then) mouthed almost every line. I don’t think it’s crazy to find it novel that a hyper-masculine guy has memorized all of Dirty Dancing, but I also don’t think I would’ve been as shocked had this been one of the affluent Italian boys who drove Escalades their dads bought them and pretended to be gang bangers.

Because for me, even though my best best friend was Mexican, my “crew,” while majority white, was incredibly diverse (thank you New York), I still saw many people of color as two-dimensional archetypes, rather than fully fleshed out human beings. They were characters from New York Undercover or from a Mobb Deep track or a fucking Ralph Ellison novel, even, but they were not people. The fact that this tough, masculine dude knew all the lines from Dirty Dancing, even shed a few tears at the end, is certainly notable, don’t get me wrong. The shock of walking into this rugged, kinda thugged-out girl’s birthday party and seeing just three friends hanging out, eating pizza and watching a movie might be legit too. (What was I expecting, though, the Gin and Juice video?) But in my retelling of this night—which WAS a cute night where people from different backgrounds had fun and smoked weed and ate pizza and watched Dirty Dancing—I found myself emphasizing that these PUERTO RICAN GUYS were watching DIRTY DANCING and one of them EVEN MEMORIZED SOME LINES?! And I found myself telling it mostly to other white people, white people who had much more homogenously white upbringings than I did. And it was this thing that I did and it sucked.

Like, why did it gotta be crazy to me that a Puerto Rican guy could like a really good movie? I guess because I saw Dirty Dancing as a "white people thing." But then like, when my punk friends who weren't white liked "white people stuff" I wasn't shocked because they were punks and also because I saw them as fully-formed, complicated people who had a plethora of interests that might seem out of the ordinary to some small-minded square, but not to me. And like, the fact that I was way into rap music and like, reading Black Feminists didn't seem suspect or weird because like, I am a fucking extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent individual and I'm just trying to make sense of the world, right? BUT THESE TWO PUERTO RICAN DUDES LIKE DIRTY DANCING?!!? 

And as the years went on and I'd find myself telling this story, the narrative began to change, as narratives often do. Suddenly these kids were Latin Kings. They were drug dealers. They were stick up kids. And here I am bumbling white punk, gaining access to their sensitive side or whatever. And like, I knew actual gang members in high school, which made it easier for me to fill in realistic details. I was friends with some folks who were in that world. But the thing is, I didn’t actually know if these two guys were in a gang. They just "looked like they could be," whatever that means. (We know what that means.) And it made the story better, right? So why not exaggerate. Hyperbole never killed anyone.

Except that kind of hyperbole just did kill someone. You get what I’m saying?

I’m saying the kind of logic that makes it seem like benign hyperbole to change these two normal teenage boys into gang members in a story that I’ve told in order to improve the dramatic tension or whatever is actually the same pernicious misconception that allowed an adult man to turn a teenager buying a bag of skittles into a menacing bad guy who needed to get dealt with. It allowed six adult women to let that adult man walk free. I made the same fundamentally racist logical leap as those people, the consequences just weren't as bad when I did it.

And I like to think that I’m one of the good white people! It feels good to think that. But check this out, this is next bit is important: I am still racist. And other white folks, y’all are still racist too. And creating this “us” and “them” mentality where “us” is non-racist regular white people who don’t judge anyone based on skin color (although maybe we are pragmatic about certain issues, or maybe we do a certain voice when we imitate certain brown people to other white people, or maybe we change normal teenagers into gang members when we tell a story) and “them” is the racists, (who are like, people who live elsewhere or maybe your shitty libertarian Uncle, but it’s never you or anyone you’re actually close to)… creating that mentality helps to further entrench your racism, it helps to obfuscate your own racism so that you never have to deal with it. AND THAT IS FUCKED UP, OTHER WHITE PEOPLE! Cut it out!

So instead of doing that, try just dealing with it! Be critical of why you think certain stuff, why you find certain things funny, why you draw certain conclusions. Accept the criticism of other people in your life without getting defensive. If the goal is to not be racist anymore, actually work on that goal instead of just pretending that the racist shit you do or think or feel is okay. It isn’t that hard.

Also realize that no matter how completely you wipe out racism within yourself, you are still complicit in a white supremacist culture and unless you are working actively to dismantle and destroy it you're still part of the problem. ;)

19 comments:

  1. i think it was more that the kids simply looked tough that them digging Dirty Dancing was such a big deal. if you went in there and Rickie Vasquez from My So-Called Life were sitting there mouthing every word to Dirty Dancing, i doubt your first reaction would not have been 'holy shit! this puerto rican kid LOVES Dirty Dancing?!?! how bizarre!'. or would it have been?

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    1. I think I addressed that when I mentioned that it would've been easier for me to process if they had been tough white kids. ALSO the point is that I transformed them from just regular tuff teens into straight up actual gang members in subsequent retellings and THAT is the core racist issue at play here.

      But for real, good job knowing Rickie from My So Called Life's last name.

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  2. This piece was awesome. Nice job.

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  3. Great piece! Love the sentiment! However, Zimmerman was just defending himself while he we getting jumped and his head bashed into a curb.

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    1. You have every right to that dumb fucking opinion, you gutless coward, but it says a lot that you lack the courage to attach your name to it.

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    2. I'm no fan of Zimmerman and thought he was guilty, but can you explain why a half-Jewish, half-Hispanic Obama-voting Democrat is being held up as the poster boy for white racism?

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    3. I have to believe that you didn't read anything I wrote very closely if you are posing this question in response to what I wrote. In this post, I wasn't holding up any particular person as the "poster boy" for anything. I was talking about the pervasive racism that exists in our country and our culture, and the fact that, though I consider myself an open-minded and thoughtful person, I have been guilty in my own life of perpetuating that racism in various "more benign" forms.

      Like, I think it's clear that Zimmerman is a racist and that he holds odious opinions about black men and boys, and that is part of the structure of white supremacy that has dominated our culture from day one. I think looking at this trial and it's fallout as making Zimmerman anything more than a fucked up dude is missing the point. Whether or not Zimmerman stands in for anything more than a man, the fact that he wasn't arrested for 40 days, his entire ensuing trial, and the way it was dealt with in the media, are all examples of the every day racism implicit in our culture.

      The whole point of this post is that Zimmerman shouldn't stand in for anything. He is one man, and he did something horrible, that is undeniable. But the way his horrific action were left completely unpunished highlight the fact that there are fundamental issues in our culture that need to be addressed. Zimmerman is the symptom, not the problem. We are all guilty, every one of us.

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  4. I get what you are saying...my post above was not necessarily in response to your original post, but somewhat of frustration with the way that everything gets shoved into a black vs white prism. Like back when Danny Glover was outraged at not being able to hail a cab...the ensuing media coverage was fully focused on the issue from a black vs white angle, despite the fact that maybe 3% of cabbies were white at the time. All members of our society seem to have varying degrees of negative prejudices towards blacks...even blacks themselves. I absolutely understand how that would make me crazy as a law-abiding african american, but I just feel that the typical mainstream defiant, if not violent, response to any perceived slight is not doing them any favors. If anything, it continues to isolate them from the rest of society and hurts their job prospects because of the perceived lack of respect for authority.

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    1. Jesus christ, homie. I don't even know what to say to that, except that I'm going to bed a little sadder having read it.

      Here are some articles a friend of a friend posted on facebook that may do a better job of explaining what I am too exhausted to try. The first is particularly salient:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/06/opinion/playing-the-violence-card.html
      http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/04/crime_myths.html
      http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/07/15/the-trayvon-martin-killing-and-the-myth-of-black-on-black-crime.html
      http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/the-banality-of-richard-cohen-and-racist-profiling/277871/
      http://www.timwise.org/2004/11/race-crime-and-sloppy-social-science/
      http://www.timwise.org/2008/04/prototypical-white-denial-reflections-on-racism-and-uncomfortable-realities/


      Full transparency: I have not yet read the two lengthy Tim Wise essays that I posted at the end, but I am familiar with Wise's work and feel confident that he will provide intelligent additions to the conversation. If I've changed my mind after I read them in the next day or so, I'll certainly let you know.

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  5. Just trying to engage in some honest dialogue...not trying to make you or anyone else sad. Checked out one link and will read the next tomorrow.

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    1. What do you think of this Chris Hayes segment?

      http://gawker.com/watch-cord-jefferson-discuss-the-white-culture-of-viole-975400723

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    2. I think it was funny...but then again what does my opinion matter, whites in California will be the minority within six months. The better question is how the Latino majority will leverage their buying power and political clout to raise the plight of the black population.

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  6. SliceHarvester, you are a gifted, insightful writer. And you love pizza. Great combination. Keep being honest and doing your thing.

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  7. I have always been proud to be your high school friend of color. JK!

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    1. It has been an honor to be a white friend of yours for all these years.

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  8. The comments were almost as good as the piece. Wonderful to know that youre not a real racist, i feel like it would be impossible coming from your whole cbgb, punk/rap background. Good work man, thanks for it!

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  9. The amount of information I found in your article exceeded my expectations, so I have only one thing to say: great job!

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  10. Great piece! Love the sentiment! However, Zimmerman was just defending himself while he we getting jumped and his head bashed into a curb.

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