Sunday, June 5, 2011

It's Not About Race!

In her book, Colormute, Mica Pollock talks about dilemmas we face regarding the way we think about race.  For example, she says, "Race Doesn't Matter, but It Does."  In the high school that she researched, Pollock found that race was either talked about too casually, among students, or not at all in public, by teachers. Both were problematic because too easy talk about race took attention away from the serious analysis needed to determine race's roll in students' education. On the other hand, Pollock claims that teachers and staff were colormute, not colorblind, because they did see race (it was impossible not to) but chose not to talk about it with the students (they did talk about it with each other). This approach was damaging because, Pollock says, "The adult habit of deleting race labels from most discussions of 'discipline' actually left the question of race's relevance just festering within all student-adult conflicts" (46).  In other words, the issue of race was there, everybody knew it was there, but the adults didn't want to admit that it was there, probably due to the fear of being called The R Word (racist).

I've just finished reading Richard Wright's modern classic, Native Son.  Devastating!  The main character, Bigger Thomas, seems to have no redeeming qualities.  Throughout the story he's followed, haunted, by images of whiteness -- snow falling, a white cat, a blind woman dressed in white.  The story takes place during the Jim Crow era, when oppression of blacks by whites was stark, in-your-face, brutal.  Bigger is oppressed to the point where he doesn't feel human.  Squalid but expensive living conditions in apartments owned by rich whites, lack of work, poor education, social segregation, and the shame and anger of  continual "othering" by the white population take their toll on Bigger and convince him deep within that he is less than human.  He feels like a monster, so he begins to act like a monster, and like a trapped monster, at that.  (Caveat for those who read YA fiction -- I recommend Walter Dean Myers' MONSTER as a companion to Native Son.)  Anyway, Bigger, feeling no connection to the human race, kills two women to save himself from falling into the hands of whites. His capture and subsequent trial are fascinating, as the prosecuting attorney vacillates between the "it's all about race" and "it's not about race" arguments.  "Your Honor," he says, "I regret that the defense has raised the viperous issue of race and class hate in this trial." Read:  this is a murder trial.  This person killed and must be punished.  It's not about race, it's about human decency and responsibility! Next paragraph: "Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!" (408, 409).  Hmm, kinda sounds like for this guy it is about race after all.

Now, back to present day.  A good friend of mine mentioned that she was reading Sharon M. Draper's YA novel, Tears of a Tiger for a grad class.  It's the story of the aftermath of the accidental drinking and driving death of a high school basketball star.  So, it's about death, guilt, identity, relationships, etc.  All of the main characters are African American, attending an urban school, while some of the teachers and counselors are white.  When my friend analyzed the role of race in the novel she was warned by her prof to be careful not to come across as racist in her paper.  Did my friend write, "These characters are all losers because they are black!"  Of course not -- that would be racist!  She simply pointed out some obvious elements of the story that dealt with race -- the white teachers' low expectations toward the black students, the African American dad's desire to be accepted by whites in his business dealings, the belief of the white counselors that "Black kids are tougher that white kids.  They'll get through this," etc.  These were obvious points in the text, clearly there to stimulate readers' thinking and conversations about racism.  But this grad school prof (a conservative, Christian, white, woman, btw) insisted that this novel was not about race and should not be construed that way.  "Be careful," she warned my friend.  "You don't want to come across as racist in your paper."  In this prof's eyes, I guess, Tears of a Tiger is a story about kids who "happened to be black." (It always cracks me up when white people say stuff like this.  They'll say, "I went to dinner with my friend who happens to be black."  I picture that person falling out of bed in the morning, looking in the mirror, and saying, "Wow-- I happen to be black!").

So, being colormute, whether because of fear or something else, is nothing new.  Confusion about the role of race in human relations is nothing new (as Wright illustrated in 1940).  Failure to recognize the role of race in a book that clearly explores the subject is nothing new, either, but is sad for the missed opportunity it represents. Talking about race does not make one racist and not talking about race does not make racial tensions or inequities go away.

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