When religion clashes with secular values »« Reaction to the G8/G20 summit

Roger Ebert gets it EXACTLY right

Some day, if I keep at this writing thing, and work really hard, I may become as good a writer as Roger Ebert is:

How would I feel if I were a brown student at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona? A mural was created to depict some of the actual students in the school.

Roger is, of course, talking about a recent event in which a mural depicting a brown-skinned child in Arizona was “lightened” because his skin tone was deemed “too dark”. The justification for the decision was that the shading needed to be fixed, so it would look like the child was “coming into the light.” Of course, that brilliant explanation was somewhat at odds with the reports of people driving by the mural in their cars and screaming racial obscenities at it.

Dear people of Arizona: paint cannot hear you, but the children working on the mural can.

Of course this all happens in the wake of an unguardedly racist immigration bill, giving police the power (and, in fact, obligating them) to demand documentation from any person on the street who “seems” like an illegal immigrant. If the suspect doesn’t have proof of legal status on them, they are arrested. Besides being in direct violation of the 4th Amendment (the one banning illegal search and seizure; we have a similar statute in Canada), it is essentially de facto racial profiling – requiring people who don’t “look American” to carry documentation, while those who do “look American” are fine. I don’t imagine it’s a huge stretch to imagine who will and won’t get arrested. For more reaction to the bill, I’d suggest you check out CLS’s blog. This post is about Roger.

Mr. Ebert pivots this story into a recounting of his own experiences growing up with race and racism in the United States:

This is not a record of my reading but of my understanding. I don’t know if you can understand what it was like in those days. Racism was ingrained in daily life. It wasn’t the overt racism of the South, but more like the pervading background against which which we lived. We were here and they were there and, well, we wished them well, but that was how it was.

I’ve made my stance on this pretty clear before, but any time anyone says to me “I’m not a racist” I immediately roll my eyes and brace myself for a veritable storm of racist ignorance. The phrase “I am not a racist” means only one thing: I am completely unaware of the history and pervasive nature of racism in society, and I believe that by simple force of will, I can undo hundreds of years of racialization. Those who fail to recognize the role that racism plays in our every day lives are the ones who will be the first to say or do something completely racially insensitive (well, maybe the second ones, after the handful of overt racists out there).

Mr. Ebert does nothing of the kind; he recognizes that race existed for him, and had the insight to recognize how it changed for him over the years. He talks about his wife, expressing his experience of her race:

…when I looked at her I saw Chaz. Chaz. A fact. A person of enormous importance to me. Chaz. A history. Memories. Love. Passion. Laughter. Her Chaz-ness filled my field of vision. Yes, I see that she is black, and she sees that I am white, but how sad it would be if that were in the foreground.

This perfectly echoes the sentiment expressed by John Legend, which I talked about some weeks ago. It’s not a crime to see race; the problem lies in how large racial identity looms in your mind when forming opinions about someone else. Roger and Chaz don’t love each other despite their racial difference, it just doesn’t play an important role in their relationship.

Finally, Mr. Ebert arrives at his original subject matter:

What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life? Were you raised as a racist, or become one on your own?

It’s here where I step off Mr. Ebert’s track. Race and racism aren’t mysteries, they aren’t baffling quirks of humanity that have no explanation. Racism is ingrained in our culture, so much so that we don’t see it. We’re doubly-cursed because we are told that we’re not allowed to talk about it. As a result, we don’t know what racism actually is, except when it’s too obvious to ignore. Then we distance ourselves from “those people” and comfort ourselves by saying “well I’m not a racist, because I would never scream obscenities at children.” It’s a dangerous downward comparison that shields us from having to address the issues in our own lives, rather than admitting our own faults and areas where we can improve.

If you haven’t clicked on the link and read the whole article, I urge you to do so. It’s an amazingly poignant relation of a white person’s experience of race and racism in a modern context, and provides a rich historical context. I wish more people had the courage to do what Roger has done – talk about race in an open, honest, and vulnerable way. I can only hope that some day I will reach his level of Word-Fu.