Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Driving in the Rain (and Talking about Race)

It was raining this morning as I drove in to work. Not too bad - a VERY light rain. The kind of rain where it's almost better for my vision to not even turn the windshield wipers on at all. And yet - everybody around me was driving like idiots.

Alright - so that's my opinion, but everybody really seemed to be driving like we were in the midst of a typhoon. They were driving ten or even more miles below the speed limit, constantly slamming breaks for no reason, and being so tentative and defensive in their driving style that it was outright dangerous.

And this wasn't the first time this has happened. Oh - no. I live in freaking Portland, Oregon and even though it rains almost every day through the late fall, winter, and early spring - people always drive like this in the rain. Defensive. Slow. Dangerous. And a little bit crazy.

It doesn't make sense. There's no reason for it. You'd think the regularity of the rain would change something. But it doesn't.

And it's almost the exact same way when talking to people (I mostly mean "white people" here, but it can somewhat be attributed to everyone) about race. Seriously.

Otherwise liberal, well-educated, grounded people who have no trouble sharing their opinion and having dialogues about a number of other issues completely lose their freaking minds once race gets inserted into the equation. People get dangerously defensive out of nowhere (whether or not any actual accusations have been made) and rely on crazy, shot-through-with-holes logic that they would never accept from anybody else about any other topic.

And it's not like these are people who never hear about/deal with race in their lives. Because, whether anybody admits it or not, EVERYBODY deals with race every single day. For some people, it's as the "norm" and so they aren't consciously aware of it - but it still regularly affects them. And yet, it still seems like this brand-new topic every time it comes up. People are consistently crazy and defensive and uncomfortable about it, even if they've had the conversation 30 times before.

And - just like with the Portland rain and drivers - people seem to have so much trouble changing their reactions every time. They stick to the same damn irrational arguments and assumptions, refuse to acknowledge their own flaws time after time after time. And it's scary. And frustrating. And it gives me "race rage" (which is also pretty similar to "road rage" in its seemingly random intensity and where it leads).

And I know I'm not the only one that reacts this way. It's so damn frustrating because it's completely out of our control. Just like with Portlanders driving in the rain, I can see what's going on and how ridiculous it is, but I can't do a damn thing to make that clear to those falling to it. And so, in my "rage," I find myself getting impatient and wanting to do drastic things that generally just make it worse (or are at the very least increasing the danger of the situation).

I want to scream, "What the F--- is wrong with you!? Didn't you notice that it rains (that you're surrounded by race) every damn day!?? Don't you know that your defensive driving (arguing) is just plain ridiculous and makes it all worse!??

So the question is: why? Why do people do this? And what can I really do to alter the situation (in either case)?

I've done a relatively good job of curbing my lean towards violence in these situations, but I'm still not through half my life - so am I really going to be able to deal with it forever without breaking?

Any ideas?


Anonymous said...


It's anonymous hapa-mam.

I think that Euro-Am people (I'm one) get scared and defensive because of a toxic combination of guilt, denial, and fear.

Guilt - we know deep-down that our ancestors either took this continent from the indigenous inhabitants, through genocide and theft. Or, if our ancestors were in Europe until the 20th century, we have still benefitted from that theft. That's hell to live with.

Unlike the West German education after WWII about the roots and Nazisim and how to keep from doing it in the future, there has been no systematic education in this country about it or a committment to redress the evil.

Same thing w/ how much the US economy has been developed on the backs of Africans, kidnapped from the homes and forced into chattle slavery. I once read a book about race where the author described photos of slaves and former slaves whose expressions reminded her of photos of concentration camp survivors after WWII. There is no Slavery Memorial museum in the USA. It's a huge infected wound in the USA, over 150 years since the end of the Civil War. There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the time (like they had in South Africa after apartheid).

If there is no guilt, then there is denial - denial that these evils happened, or that they have anything to do with our situation at the present time. Somehow there is an idea that of we look away, if we pretend that everything is OK now - then everything is OK now.

So, many Euro-Americans avoid situations that would dent that barrier of denial.

Which leads to fear. Fear that non-Euro-Americans know they have been exploited and killed for centuries by the Euro-American ruling class and that they
are righteously angry about it.

Fear of where that anger might lead.

Then there is what Barbara Erhenrich (sp?) called "Fear of Falling". If Euro-Americans sense that the good life that they have is based on the unfair advantages that their white privilege has given them, then if those advantages are removed, then they will fall into poverty and powerlessness. That is what lies behind so much dislike or "affirmative action." I think that is what lies behind a lot of anti-Jewish and Anti-Asian sentiment and action.

So - where does that leave the Euro-American who wants to be an anti-racist?

It's hard because it's not as though we don't have our own guilt and fear, even if we have been able to dismantle our denial.

So, I try to work on getting beyond the denial and towards appreciation and justice.

Back in February 1992, I gave some serious thought as to what Black History month means to me, as a non-Black American. I decided that it was for celebration and an attempt to think and act on the knowledge that just as I am the heir to the Concord Transcendentalists, the sweat-shop workers of the industrial Northeast, the women of Senneca Falls, I am heir to Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass & the founders of the NAACP.

I'm also heir to people who benefitted from chattle slavery and Jim Crow. So, that celebration and appreciation must always be tempered with the acknowledgement of my own present privilege.

As an anti-racist, I have to not only see that guilt, denial, and fear - but also know that in my own soul - I too am poisoned by the guilt and fear.

So, all we can do is talk, and do what we can do promote fairness and justice.

If you are religious (which I am) we can hope and pray for redemption, and in the words of a very old version of the Book of Common Prayer:

"We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us"

We can be penitent, work to redress wrongs where we see them, and firmly resolve to do better.

Kate said...

I absolutely agree with the above comment. I have to deal with the fact that I am privileged because others are not. I am (comparatively) rich because people who looked and talked like me stole land from Aboriginal people. I live a life of (comparative) ease because others, today, do not. The things are intimately related, and that is scary as hell. The options are to take that on board or not. And taking it on board is hard not only in the short term but in the long term. You can't just say the words and then everything is better.

But over and above that, once you DO take it on (or try) it gets trickier. I am constantly getting deep into a conversation with someone who ahs a much more intimate knowledg eof racism than I do, and then, just when I am too far in and being too mouthy to back out, think 'oh s**t. I hope that didn't offend them/doesn't sound arrogant/doesn't make me sound like a condescending white bitch'

Because racism is so much about power, for me to have those conversations, I have to deliberately give up/not use some of the power I have as a white middle class person. But that's no way to have a conversation! Then it isn't a conversation, it's me asking you to tell me what race is about. Because of course you represent everyone who doesn't look like me. Which is, I think, more offensive than just right out treading on your metaphorical toes.

Part of the problem is tha ta conversation requires two or more people. And people are inherently difficult - someone is going to offend someone else with or without meaning to. Someone else is going to get offended, rightly or wrongly. It's inevitable. And I am trying to deal with the fact that, if I am going to have these conversations, I am going to have to look like a dickhead a lot of the time. I think it's a fair trade, really.

Just... if you have to tell me that I'm being a jerk... could you try not to be a jerk about it? I really appreciate it. :)

Ms. Sis said...

it is always really good to hear white people process racism, and i think that is necessary and important and has great potential.

As far as worrying about what to say, i think oftentimes white people would be better served if they spent more time listening rather than talking. An aspect of privilege also includes how one takes up space in comparison to others. White people need to learn how to better share space, on the planet, in regards to resources, as well as in day to day situations.

An example: I wrote a letter to a "supervisor," (a person in a high ranking capacity where i worked though that was not his actual title) explaining how isolated i felt as the only Black person around. It was several pages and while it was straightforward, it was not disrespectful. I thought, he can't know how I feel if I don't speak m mind. I wanted to give it a chance rather than just be angry. He took me out to coffee, cause he was "concerned". Then, he spent the whole time talking about how many ways he wasn't a racist, citing all the possible things that would point away from the possibility of him having any prejudiced-ness in his nature...
He didn't really give me an opportunity to say anything at all. I was so frustrated.

When white people approach a conversations with nervousness or feeling they have to prove they are not a racist, they probably already have their foot in their mouth. If they are worrying about what they might say and how that might look, rather than genuinely listening, chances are high that they might miss the whole point. Which leads to the awkward, uncomfortable, unsatisfying conversations that you mentioned CVT.

What should happen is a movement towards recognizing that folks of color have invaluable insight, perspective, wisdom, understanding, talents, histories, goals, intentions, ambitions, experiences, ways of seeing, etc... etc... that if more white people would step back form their self-centered society which reinforces their superiority at every turn and instead acknowledge every one else's importance we might really have some transformative dialogues.

Being a person of color in the face of white supremacy means that there is an inherent depth of awareness and experience we have, that white people will not generally understand without work. Essential, rewarding, trying and difficult work. Part of racism is the way that white folks aren't held accountable to understand, study, research or act on the interests of those that are other than them.
So to consciously approach that is essential yet not always obvious to white people. So I would hope white readers and white people in general, would take up that work with passion and vigor and determination to not back down from the challenge of dismantling racism. And I am for massive reparations in the form of debt forgiveness, vacation time, free plane tickets, etc...other hook ups and of course land and dollars are perfectly acceptable too.

And that if white folks want to truly be allies, they would help create spaces where we are not always the island in a sea of whiteness without feeling threatened by us gathering in numbers without them. . And it is true that the lack of a public acknowledgment of the various historical acts of violence waged against folks of color in this country sets a bad example where accountability, apologies and altering racist behavior are not valued.

For folks of color, I think it is essential to have networks where we support each other, eventually we need to have more of our own stuff and create spaces where we can be more comfortable and represented positively in our various environments- work, school, etc...

Lxy said...

Personally, I think that the time for talk is long over. America has been having a conversation about race for DECADES, if not longer.

Been there. Done that.

I think peeps of color in the USA need to do two primary things A. Work to create their OWN institutions and independent centers of power. B. Work to undermine and ultimately end White hegemony and related systems of oppression.

If these two things happen, White people will have no choice, shall we say, but to listen (among other things).

L. said...

I think people do this (regarding both rain and race) out of fear. They've been taught that when there is the threat of danger, then they should counteract defensively. It's about keeping what you already have and not messing up what you could have in the future, whether it's a car, a life, or privilege.

Regarding the race discussion, if somebody starts popping off at the mouth, then calmly ask what evidence they have to support their argument (if they even have one). Ask as if you're really interested in learning more about their line of thinking, and when they come up with a bunch of crap (or better yet, nothing at all), throw all types of sh*t at them. Bring in people who've lived it and can attest to the realities of race. You have to challenge their realities with your own and those of others, but in a way that respects all of it. Then that person is left with the choice of accepting their flawed logic and letting go of their fears or going down with a sinking ship. And if they choose the latter, realize that they can't be helped and move on to the next one.

I don't know what to tell you about the dummy driving. I'd say just keep switching lanes until you get to where you're going, but I don't know how traffic is there. Me, I'd be switching lanes and dropping knowledge all day. Hell, I'd even throw a pamphlet at that ass when I pass by.

hopkimi said...

I think about race every day. I'm obsessed with how it plays out in my life. I try to live according to this principle: racism exists, but who I am and what I bring will beat that every time.

If I fail or there's something I lack, then I take the position that I'm responsible for it. Basically it comes down to giving up the conversation that I'm a victim.

I think that philosophy has served me well. I'm black and I work in the tech industry. I've done well and I'm confident that I will continue to do so.

But there's something wrong here. I feel absolutely terrified to talk about race. I'm afraid that I'll end up being overly emotional and end up sounding like that victim that I strive so hard to avoid being.

I notice that (non-black)coworkers and friends want to talk about Obama and how much they support him. I try to change the subject. I don't need Barack in the Big House to validate me. Hell, I voted for Hilary anyway.

But I don't want to talk about race at all with non-black people. I think that's because I have a fundamental belief that they just won't understand where I'm coming from, so having that conversation is going to be frustrating and pointless for me.

Also, I think it's because I'm afraid that somewhere in the conversation, I would reveal how angry and frightened I am being a black male in this society. So I keep those cards held tight to my chest and cling to my pretense that I have it all under control.

I know I'm being an idiot, but I'm afraid of the rain.