Everything I’ve read and heard in my attempt to better understand race and race relations, coupled with my life experiences, has led me to two distinct (and precarious) conclusions about what people really think – and maybe what’s wrong with everyone.
Most of the time people told me what they thought because they were speaking with anonymity. Others thought they were speaking to someone they perceived as having a similar ideology. Still others readily identified themselves, and their opinions, with pride.
I have no reason to disbelieve any of them. Who lies about their hatred for Jews or having sold their house the minute they found out a Mexican family was moving into the neighborhood?
The first conclusion I’ve drawn is that American whites, who once hated their white brethren when they showed up on America’s shores as whatever they weren’t (we were Hungarian, but they were Italian; they were French, but we were Irish – no doubt a carryover of the Old World where a country’s borders were synonymous with battle lines), are now generally tolerant of all peoples European, whether they’ve entered America legally or not. They’re still not sure about the Russians, and aren’t hot on anyone hailing from the east and south sides of the Mediterranean, especially if they bear any (perceived) physical similarity to Osama bin Laden.
An influx of millions of illegal immigrants of the European persuasion would probably not raise as many white American hackles as the current millions of immigrants of non-European persuasion. To be sure, white Americans of America’s early days brutally facilitated the influx of many millions of blacks – the “legality” of their status having never come into question because they were regarded as cargo, not human beings. To this end, white America seems to take little issue with blacks from any part of the world entering America – again, legally or not.
Many white Americans seem to have broadened their circle of acceptance to include Asians, Islanders, and Africans. South Americans are still iffy on the white-y-meter because of their (perceived) resemblance to Mexicans. Frankly, this cracks me up after I’m done feeling sick about it. American-born people in general, regardless of their heritage, have the most bizarre lack of recognition. A non-white American who can’t tell a German from a Norwegian — and says as much — sounds just as ridiculous and ignorant as a white American who says s/he can’t tell a Japanese from a Tibetan.
The second conclusion I’ve drawn is based on a common theme prevalent (in my research and experience) among non-whites, the idea that, “Whites cannot relate to my experience as a (insert race/nationality here).” This has manifested itself in many ways, but is best represented with the most overused slogan on the planet: “It’s a (insert race/nationality here) thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Whites don’t understand the non-white experience. Now what? Much like the skittish man who desires that which he fears most (intimacy with a woman), some non-whites seem to rely upon the very thing they most decry.
One finds a similar dynamic in the recovery of an adult survivor of child sex-abuse. S/he struggles to reclaim a life they’ve never known – one free of abuse, toxic thinking, and self-degradation. Even when physically removed from the situation, the survivor grapples with his/her self-image as if it were the enemy itself. To be free, the survivor must first recognize the falsity of that which is reflected back to them in the very mirror placed by the predator.
They must then have faith that shattering the mirror will save them, or feel so bad about themselves that they don’t care what happens when they shatter the mirror. Either way, freedom — from the constraints placed by someone else and fed by the false self — is inevitable.
For many a survivor, though, the mirror seems so real (it is, after all, the only thing they’ve ever known) that the very idea of shattering it is tantamount to suicide. As much as they dislike it, they think they can’t destroy it without also destroying themselves. Too, there is some comfort to be had in the familiarity of the pain itself – a comfort that would be shattered right along with the mirror. The difficulty with getting an adult survivor of child sex-abuse to recognize the falsity of the predator’s mirror is comparable to getting non-whites to recognize the falsity of white history’s mirror.
The civil rights movement of the '60s was noisy and dangerous – mostly because of the shards of glass flying around from all that shattering of mirrors. Martin Luther King, Jr knew (or at least hoped and believed in) what lay beyond the reflection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, too, leveled many punches into the reflections held up to them as reality.
The question is not “Why do some whites dislike and mistreat non-whites?” To ask that question is to have need of the answer – a craving that self-degradation feeds upon to further build a foundation of hopelessness, forever trapping the person in the role of victim.
The question is “Why do some non-whites care what some whites think?”
The child sex-abuse survivor gets nowhere taking the predator’s opinions of his/her worth into consideration. (Those who would assert that I am comparing white Americans to sexual predators need only recall the dynamics, not the person.) The survivor will never get past any of the roadblocks outside his/her control (e.g.: laws that accommodate the predator’s protection and people saying things like “That happened 20 years ago. Why are you bringing it up now?” or “He is a good man who would never do that.”) if s/he doesn’t take over the reins of that which s/he does have control: his/her own self-image, self-respect, pride in self and work, and eventually setting this example for others.
Knowledge is power. If all you know, or all you want to know, is how victimized you are, then that’s all the power you’ll ever have. Survivors of any crime, tragedy, or injury know surviving isn’t enough. They must actively acknowledge the strength of the person they were who survived and then seek to thrive. This requires abject dismissal of any concern for what is perceived as the predator.
Some stereotypes die hard, though – and even the mistaken beliefs we have of those who stereotype. Some whites still feel uncomfortable when they find themselves the only white in the room, on the bus, or in the elevator. I am reminded of the joke made by a black comedian who said that when he stepped onto an elevator, the only other person there, a white woman, clutched her purse when the doors closed. “Even if I took your purse, lady, where would I go?” he justifiably joked to his audience. The woman on the elevator wasted no time clutching the wrong conclusion. So did he by underestimating the extent of her fear: had an unsavory type snatched her purse away, her paralyzing fear of him — evidenced by her feeble attempt to protect her purse — would likely have allowed him to leave with her purse and without event as soon as the doors opened.
So what’s wrong with everyone? From the white guy who hides his prejudice behind a catchy phrase like “One Nation, One Language” to the black guy who insists ”No one but a Black person knows what it is like here,” we find a way to shut others out or shut ourselves in – and then wonder why our doing the same thing over and over doesn’t get us what we want.
It would appear that no matter what we do, we can’t get rid of each other. Drat it all. Perhaps it’s time to shatter the mirrors of diversity and unity and reveal what we’re really all about: in the same place under the same flag. That’s it. It doesn’t need to get any more specific than that, and it damn sure doesn’t need to get any more general than that.
The mirrors of “diversity” and “unity” reflect back to us an unreasonable expectation and an unrealistic picture of that which will never exist. Human beings are gregarious, period. We like our own — from race and religion to experience and value system — and we naturally gravitate toward that which we recognize as “us.” We’ve all agreed to one nation and one currency. Why isn’t that enough?
“Us” is first going to be anyone who looks like us. That’s not prejudice; that’s biology. Don’t believe me? Call a Chinese infant a racist because s/he prefers his/her mother to your blue eyes or dark skin and see how far it gets you. As we grow, we like or don’t like what we hear and feel – on our skin and in our hearts. We gravitate toward those who share in our experiences and who have similar values. When not enough of the same-looking people share our experiences and values, we have proven ourselves a migratory people, actively seeking those who do – often with little regard for race. Poverty, for instance, is colorblind. Those who think poverty is a lifestyle choice? Just blind.
We aren’t a melting pot – and we shouldn’t be. Whoever coined that term should be shot for humanitarian treason. “Melting” strongly implies dilution and doing away with the purity of self (and the ghastly prospect of “fusion cuisine”). Who would ever be in favor of that? Yet this is the mirror America wakes to each day. America operates under the delusion that there’s something wrong with wanting to be with and of your own, and that in order to accept “them,” “we” must give up something integral about ourselves.
Let’s be clear, though, about what is and isn’t integral. When you have to press “English” instead of “Spanish” at an ATM, that’s not giving something up. If your loved one died in the 9/11 attacks, then you gave something up. Not getting a job because you’re not qualified (and happen to be less opulent than the employer) is not giving something up. Being pulled from your bed and hung from a tree limb because you’re different from those hanging you — that’s giving something up.
No better have we all come to define what makes America great but in our regard for sports and food. How we have come to regard athletes and restaurants is probably the way we should be regarding each other in all other ways: employment, housing, politics, and law. We love our sports, and more specifically we love our athletes without regard for heritage or skin color. Too, we love our food, and stand ready to come to the defense of a prized, neighborhood Italian or Chinese restaurant.
Shatter the mirror, America. Ours is not a melting pot. This is an ongoing potluck after the big game. Follow the rules of etiquette and you’ll be fine: Take what you’ll eat and eat what you take. Sit up straight, don’t reach across your neighbor, and for cryin' out loud, use your napkin.