Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Being Human

It has all the makings of a bad joke – a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost walk into a bar… Being Human, my most recent TV addiction.  While the BBC version is far superior to the American, I have to admit that I watched both this past year. I found something so poignant about the story of these three friends, none of whom have chosen their current condition, finding each other and trying to live as normally and “humanly” as possible. Longing to be human is a common theme in literature and modern sci fi/horror stories; Pinocchio, the Frankenstein monster, Data, the Cylons, and Neo’s enemy “machines” are just a few examples of non-human entities wanting to be human, or at least wanting to emulate certain human qualities, such as love.  Even the Borg, in their quest for automaton perfection, relied on a very human-like queen to keep the collective running.  In many of these stories, it’s the humans that actually caused all the problems between themselves and the artificial intelligence they created, by maintaining their dominance through oppression.  (Trek fans will remember that even Data narrowly escaped becoming the progenitor of a new slave population in the episode titled, “The Measure of a Man.”)

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. Sadly, the world of fiction is not the only place wherein human status was sought by some and denied by others.  Historically, one did not have to be a cyborg, or a machine, or supernatural in any way to be denied human status. For example, the Atlantic slave trade was justified, and slavery was allowed to persist for centuries, based on the supposed belief by whites that slaves weren’t really human. An essay I read the other day reminded me of a scene from the miniseries, Roots, where the captain of the slave ship weakly suggests that the slaves be treated a bit better, since, they are, after all, human beings.  The first mate, responds, “Of course they’re human beings…and if we’re to profit from this enterprise we’d best convince them and everyone else that they’re dogs or mules, anything but human beings.”  (I searched youtube for a clip of this scene to no avail – if anyone can find it, or can post it, let me know.)  It was necessary for whites to convince themselves that slaves were some sort of subhuman species, that they didn’t have the same feelings, desires, needs, hopes, etc., that we normal white human beings had, in order to justify the horrors of slavery.

Once again we can shake our heads and say, how sad.  Boy, those people were crazy back then.  I’m so happy that I’m part of the enlightened 21st century.  I think it’s interesting, though, that the being human theme persists in literature about race.  I see it in two of the most prevalent “antiracist” texts still used in classrooms today: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Both are still read in my kids’ high school.  I’ve written before about the continuing debate about Huck – whether or not to leave the racial slur “nigger” in the text.  But what’s interesting to me is Huck’s gradual realization that Jim, the runaway slave, is actually a human being, with human emotions.  It’s this realization that prompts Huck to help Jim (albeit ineffectually) in the end. Mind you, never once does Huck view Jim as an equal, or as an adult, but at least he admits that he’s human. Of course, for Huck human meant white, and in order to justify saving Jim from slavery Huck tells himself that Jim is “white on the inside.”  I guess that was big stuff back in 1884.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everybody loves that book/movie, and many would argue that Lee’s work has led many whites to realize the pain and devastation caused by racism. But what does the title mean? “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Atticus tells his son, because, a white neighbor explains, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”  Obviously there’s a metaphor at work here.  Who are the mockingbirds in the story, the innocents that “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us”?  African Americans, of course!  Inexplicably, Lee chooses to compare African Americans to the little birdie that sings in the tree, not very bright, not good for much, but so entertaining with its sweet little song.  It’s enough to make Archie Bunker join the NAACP.

These two examples are from texts written by whites (and still, arguably, the most popular “multicultural” texts out there…hmm…coincidence?). I could give lots of literary examples of how the withholding of human status has wounded the psyche of people of color.  The theme permeates the realistic and fictional slave narrative, both historical and present day. Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, is viewed by himself and others more as a monster than a real human being. Walter Dean Myers follows up on this theme in Monster, the story of an African American teen on trial for murder.  Sherman Alexie’s protagonist in The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian has 42 teeth, “ten teeth past human.”  And for a really devastating read about a teenage girl fighting for humanness, there’s Push: A Novel, by Sapphire. 

So, I’m not sure where all this leaves us.  I guess what I want to stress is that when we think about race and racism, it’s important to remember that recognizing people as human, both legally and emotionally, is something that whites gave themselves the authority to do centuries ago.  It’s part of white privilege. And, like all aspects of racism, it can’t be changed until it is faced.  It’s the human thing to do.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Good People

Good People: I’ve heard that expression used many times to describe many people. The neighbors who take your mail inside when you’re on vacation are good people. The mom who drives your son home from soccer practice because your younger child is sick is good people. The teacher who enters your daughter’s name in a district drawing contest, the sales clerk who gives you the discount even though the coupon has expired, the friends who help you move (again) – these are all examples of good people. 

Good people help each other out. They care about the welfare of others. They give of themselves unselfishly for a greater cause. Right? The person who runs the bake sale, the car wash, or spearheads a charity collection – good people, through and through. But is outward activity what makes a person good? Can someone with racist attitudes still be a good person? Maybe racism is a cultural thing, to be excused or at least explained with the words, “that’s just the way they grew up. They’re still good people on the inside.”

A few cases in point:  Remember To Kill a Mockingbird, that classic of children’s literature that kids have been reading in school for decades?  Or maybe you remember the movie, with the amazing Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch.  Remember how he bucks the white, blatantly racist, status quo by defending Tom Robinson, an African American who’s falsely accused of raping a white woman (the story is set in the South during the 1930s, when apparently the accusation itself was a death sentence)? Well, something about good ole’ Atticus jumped out at me during a recent re-reading of the novel. Tatum says there are three states of being regarding racism – you’re either actively racist, passively racist, or anti-racist. As much as Atticus Finch fought the racist legal system of his day, putting the safety of his own children on the line, he was, in my opinion, passively racist. What does that mean? The passive racist doesn’t go about spewing racial slurs or telling racist jokes. The passive racist is silent, maybe doesn’t approve of racist behavior, but doesn’t say anything about it, doesn’t confront the racist. I think of the passive racist as sort of a racism enabler. Now, one might argue that Atticus was fighting racism by defending Tom Robinson, and I guess, in part, that’s true (although the text makes it clear that Atticus was assigned the case – he had no choice in the matter). What bothered me was that throughout the novel Atticus excuses the racism of his community to his children. “No matter how bitter things get,” he tells his daughter, Scout, “they’re still our friends, and this is still our home.”  As a result of this conversation, and following her father’s instructions, the next day Scout fails to confront the racism of a schoolmate, walking away from a fight for the first time in her life.  Later in the story, Atticus tells Scout that their neighbors are “entitled to full respect for their [racist] opinions.” Even more troubling is Atticus’ attempt to define the term “nigger-lover” to Scout, telling her it’s “‘just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves.’”  Huh? Snot-nose? That’s a watered down explanation if I ever heard one. I was so frustrated when I read this! I wanted more from Atticus. I wanted him to say, “Hey, you freaking racists!  Get a grip!”  Okay, maybe that’s a little strong, and certainly it would have been culturally out of place. But at least he could have told his daughter that people who use that term are racist, and that we must do everything we can, short of physical violence, to show them how wrong that kind of thinking is. But, alas, Atticus never confronts racism head-on, not even in his polite, southern-gentlemanly way. To him, his community is filled with good people who just have an unfortunate opinion about something.

Another example – remember the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, of a few years back?  Eastwood plays a character that is so over the top racist that it’s actually funny (at least it was to the all white audience in the suburban theater where I saw the movie). I won’t go into any detail here, but, of course, the Eastwood character, who might be described as “a racist with a heart of gold,” winds up redeeming himself in the end. I remember being a bit disturbed by that. Was this movie trying to say that it’s possible to be completely hateful on the outside and still be a good person on the inside?  Can a lifetime of racism really be swept away by one sacrificial act at the end of one’s life?

People are complicated, I know, and to suggest that they are either all good or all bad is simplistic and fatuous. I know people who are good in lots of ways, people who would do anything to help a friend in need, people who are very religious, but who, truth be told, harbor racist attitudes. I’m not suggesting that we write them off as evil and have nothing further to do with them. I’m not even suggesting that we call them “racist” to their faces – as I said in my very first blog post, calling names never helped anyone. But, if we really care about these good people, I am suggesting that a conversation is in order. I tried to explore this idea in The R Word (there it is!) through Rachel’s eyes, as she grapples with the racism she sees in the good people (friends, family, neighbors) around her. “What do you think we are, monsters?” Rachel’s grandmother asks. No, they aren’t monsters. In many ways they’re very good people, just like the good people I bet many of us know. But that does not excuse them of racism, nor does it excuse us from holding them accountable.