Tina K. Russell

August 28, 2008

Tina talks about race, again

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 11:17 pm

America Needs To Have A Superficial Conversation About Race | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source
Like it or not, the U.S. needs a stupid conversation on the issue of race relations. Perhaps more importantly, we need this stupid dialogue to be couched in the most self-righteous, know-it-all attitudes on the part of those involved, as if they have no idea whatsoever of how much more complicated the issue is, and how little their one-dimensional approach to it brings to the table.

It’s our duty to put aside the complexities of cross-cultural communication and focus on the first idea that comes to mind. Then, after we’ve wasted 20 minutes discussing whether the term black is offensive, we can repeat the first idea over and over until we have alienated all listeners who did not already agree with us at the beginning.

I do think we need a national conversation about race, but this op-ed (it’s great! read it) from The Onion, America’s finest news source, has a point. So many of these conversations result in trite sentimentalism and daggers drawn at the first hint of offense. (As someone who–I may explain this later–has been in college for-freaking-ever, I know how this works. Someone who doesn’t mark every one of your ideological check boxes is a racist hypocrite.)

But, I think part of that has to do with our heightened emotions and sensitivity. We have to air our stupid ideas if they’re to be corrected and improved. I worry, sometimes, that anti-racism can bury people’s legitimate concerns, even if they’re ill-informed. You can’t correct an impression that’s unspoken, buried deep in the hearts of Americans.

Bill O’Reilly’s remarks that black people aren’t so bad after all, while hilarious, reflect a preconception that I would guess is fairly common among whites who are only exposed to black people through MTV rap videos and late-night local-news scare stories. On a similar subject, those who try to slip in rumors that Barack Obama is Muslim are not coming out and saying Muslims are bad, but are exploiting a vague unease that non-Muslim Americans often have about the faith; that Muslims must be good people, but what about the head coverings and stonings and such? It’s hard to correct these beliefs if people are too afraid of being branded “racist” to express them. (To be fair, this is a straw-man argument. I suppose I should instead say: never be too quick to vilify someone, and perhaps make a friend by presenting your view as well.)

Then again, I think we’re too often afraid of being branded as “racist” to express what we really mean; and what’s most embarrasing is when people are so defined by this fear that they begin sentences with “well, I’m not a racist, but…” (thus making it clear in everyone’s minds that this person is a racist). I’ve seen people get really mad about the animated version of The Boondocks because the creator, black cartoonist Aaron McGruder, somehow “shouldn’t” be making these bold criticisms (22 min. video) of black people and black culture when writing for a mostly white audience. What, so he shouldn’t be allowed to speak his mind, or he should be socially shunned from doing so? Should white people continue to see a false unified front of black people, a monolithic “voting bloc” with no dissention in its ranks? Should America’s view of “black television” remain one of vulgar comedy routines, ghetto sitcoms, and BET’s gyrating rear ends? Should white people valiantly ride in to save black people from themselves? Will us white people ever have the humility to admit that black people are individuals and may not always need the help of whites? (And can we say this without casting off our responsibility as Americans to repay, solemnly, the debt that black Americans are owed?)

Surely, there are a billion holes in my argument, but these are just random musings. I’m just concerned–and no, I can’t back it up–that people are too afraid to muse like this, and so we’re not able to attack those kinds of prejudices that us liberals are so worried about. (Who can attack the holes in my argument if I’m afraid to make it?) The Onion once had another article on race, saying that our noble efforts to fight racism have resulted in a lethal strain of “super-racism,” a far more powerful strain harder to see and harder to fight. We may have driven it underground… and that’s hardly progress.

So, yes, try not to vilify people you disagree with, or boil an issue down to slogans. That Onion op-ed spends some time making fun of conservative viewpoints, too, but I’m a liberal, so I’ll stick to talking about my crew for now. It’s hard to have a dialogue on issues that are merely simmering below the surface.

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (PDF)

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