Movie Friday: Optimism »« God, Jesus, Dad, and Me (part II)

More than time needed to heal some wounds

Earlier this week, fellow FTBorg Ashley Miller told a heart-wrenching story of being disowned by her father:

He was with me for Thanksgiving, to meet my mom and stepdad and brother and rest of my family.  Except my dad.  My mother, who is much wiser than me and deserves full credit for being right, told me not to tell my dad until she could grease the wheels, but I, who wanted to make the boyfriend part of my family, foolishly overreached and talked to my father thinking that she was underestimating his fundamental human decency.

And now my father has just disowned me.

I suppose I am thankful that he waited until the day after Thanksgiving to do it.  Not that he told me, he made my stepmother his proxy as he was too angry to speak to me directly.  I have been disowned for loving someone my father does not approve of.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Maybe locate some tissues first.

Many people in the comments and on Twitter expressed dismayed shock that such disowning could happen in this day and age. After all, Ashley’s dad’s justification for refusing to talk to or interact with his daughter is that she’s dating a guy… who is black. How could such a thing be possible in 2012? Surely we are a more enlightened society and culture now than we were in the distant mists of our shameful history, aren’t we? After all, racism was so… yesterday. We’ve moved on, into this “post-racial” utopia we’ve been hearing so much about, where people are “colour blind” and racism just isn’t a serious problem anymore.

Anyone nodding their head to that last paragraph probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house unsupervised. They may want to wear a helmet too** Someone may need to gently break the bad news about Santa Claus to them as well.

But the shock at such a dramatic story, while understandable given the extreme nature of someone disowning their daughter, betrays the fact that at some level we do believe that we live in a different country and society than we did in the mid 20th century. To the extent that literal lynch mobs and overt segregation (or, closer to this story, miscegenation laws) no longer exist, yes we have made progress. To the extent that those laws have simply been replaced by Stand Your Ground gun laws (thus giving would-be lynchers the legal protection of “feeling threatened”) and predatory lending practices (thus creating segregated communities by proxy), we live in exactly the same country with exactly the same problems.

This blindness to racism, or at least a willingness to accept flimsy misdirection as progress, is matched by another myth – that racism simply diminishes with the passage of time. This myth would also seem to fly in the face of some new evidence:

Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not. Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.

In all, 51 per cent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 per cent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 per cent, up from 49 per cent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.

This is, perhaps, pretty obvious considering how much poison the Republican Party dumped into the well of the body politic, ruthlessly exploiting anti-black sentiment to stoke not just opposition, but hatred of the President. One might expect to see such coarsening of discourse, and a move to accept anti-black statements as their increasing frequency takes the shock and sting from them, at least to white ears. But those of you who are at the head of the class also know, by now, that liberals don’t get to pat ourselves too firmly on the back just yet:

The poll finds that racial prejudice is not limited to one group of partisans. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79 per cent among Republicans compared with 32 per cent among Democrats), the implicit test found little difference between the two parties. That test showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 per cent of Democrats and 64 per cent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 per cent).

There’s two things to take away from this finding. First, it underscores the general thesis that anti-racists and race observers (myself among them) have been trying to advance for a while: we live in a racist culture. It’s not that there are a few “racists” that spoil the fun for all us good “not racist” folks – racism is as American as apple pie and manifest destiny*. It is a feature, not a bug, of the history of our society, and the sooner we come to grips with that fact, the sooner we can disabuse ourselves of the Barton-esque re-telling of our ‘post-racial’ country.

The second lesson this finding teaches us comes from the first cutaway: “Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008″. Despite many soothing and popular reassurances regarding the “moral arc of the universe”, things can and do get worse. We cannot eliminate racism by simply waiting for it to go away on its own. There will always be those who are willing to exploit our history, hoping to distract people long enough to defraud them. We do ourselves no favours by archly refusing to fight, preferring instead to allow the passage of time to solve the problem.

If we’re going to solve the problem of racial enmity, and I hope that’s something we see as a good thing, then we need to start by taking it seriously. We do not have the luxury of ignoring race, and for some of us this is more true than for others. Without vigilance and resistance, we will begin to lose the gains that we have made, and see tragic stories like Ashley reassert themselves as the new normal.

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*Or, for those of us north of the border, as Canadian as poutine and geopolitical irrelevance.

**I am being taken to task for the ableism in this statement. I should have been more careful and thought through what was implied in the ‘joke’. I clearly did not, and I apologize. I will try and be more aware of this issue in my writing going forward.

Comments

  1. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    This is one of the reasons why I read you:

    as Canadian as poutine and geopolitical irrelevance

    Seriously, I can’t help but read analysis of the racism we face today, but I also can’t really face that analysis without some Black humor <— see what I did there?

  2. smrnda says

    I read about Ashley and I felt horrible; if I had a racist relative like that, I would disown them. The events didn’t surprise me that much since I’ve known enough people who felt pretty much the same.

    Something I’m happy you always point out is that ‘being racist’ isn’t an active, conscious state of hostility towards and bias against people of other races, but something that kind of goes on in your mind that one isn’t always consciously aware of. Perhaps the best thing a person can do to avoid being racist is admit that they aren’t immune from it. I notice that many white people get immensely defensive over any suggestion that they might be racist, but if you really wanted *not* to be racist, wouldn’t the first step be to assume you might be, how would you find out, and how would you fix it?

    An analogy I use is to think of racism as a sickness. I might be infected and it might affect me, but I might be unaware of it, but it’s impossible that I’m not getting some exposure.

    My theory on contemporary racism I kind of base on something my brother heard from an older white man – the guy said “I know there’s a them, I just don’t think there’s an us anymore.” I think perhaps some white people are now feeling threatened since they can’t count on other white people to be as prejudiced as they are, or at least not willing to celebrate it openly.

  3. Niles says

    I just think it’s weird how anglo-majority Canadians are all chuffed about not being racists like Americans while saying some of the most racist things in disgusted ‘moral high ground’ tones. It seems like WASP-Canadians aren’t more humane, just regionalized in how they’ve been trained to hate some brown Other so they have uneven mental zones of comprehension and blindness.

    My own prairie region and kin are/were some of the most privileged/blind lecturers on the faults of Others not of their tribe. Best thing I found one can do is not be dependent on them. Easier to do to a few rather than an entire society though. Listening to morbidly amused talk about encounters between cops and people stopped for being brown or even friends of brown is stabby-cringe inducing. Canada has a loooong way to go to anything ‘postracial’.

  4. Hayley says

    When I read her blog post, it was all too familiar in some ways. My family, more so with my grandparents’ generation, is unabashedly racist. My grandfather is constantly picking fights with me about race (for no apparent reason other than to get a rise out of me), and doesn’t believe that “races should mix” or even that white people should adopt children of other skin colors. He claims that he’s not racist because he “has black friends.” Of course, those “friends” are people that serve him at a local restaurant – they’re not friends that he invites into his home for a meal. Before I was married, there were a few men of color that I really wanted to date, but I never did because I knew that if things became serious, I would be disowned. I love my grandfather despite his animosity toward a large chunk of our population, but it is a damn shame that I had to make that decision. A person should never have to choose between their family and someone good that they love (or could love). Maybe if I were a stronger person like Ashley, I would have chosen otherwise.

    The only stand I can make in my family now is to make sure that when I have children, they grow up never hearing such vile things out of the mouths of their loved ones, and that they have the choice to love whomever they want.

  5. sharoncrawford says

    “We’ve moved on, into this “post-racial” utopia we’ve been hearing so much about….”

    The only places I’ve seen the term (post-racial) are in writings denouncing it. In other words, it’s used only to mock the concept.

    If there are sensible (or even semi-sensible) people arguing that a “post-racial utopia” ever existed, I haven’t come across them. I’m open to correction.

  6. says

    It’s funny you should say this: I am just now reading ‘Between Barack and a Hard Place’ by Tim Wise and it is chock full of examples of people either using the term verbatim, or using similar language.

  7. says

    IME, much of the ‘post-racial’ rhetoric comes from rightwingers and accomodationists (or ‘moderates’ and ‘independents’ as they often like to style themselves), usually in the course of arguing that we should abolish Affirmative Action, or that the problems of minority (especially Black) communities are entireluy their own fault, and we shouldn’t help, because ‘post -racial.’ So no, there are no sensible or semi-sensible people talking about it, but a lot of ‘serious’ people are.

  8. lirael_abhorsen says

    I’ve never heard anyone use that actual phrasing. But I’ve heard my dad, for example, say [paraphrased] “I think affirmative action was an okay idea when it was first suggested, but now we’re at a point where we don’t need it anymore and it’s doing more harm than good.”

  9. lirael_abhorsen says

    Oh, and somewhat embarrassingly, I bought into a version of this myself when I was a college freshman/sophomore (8-9 years ago now). I had moved from the South to Massachusetts to go to college. It was the first time I’d lived in a liberal area, and the environment that I was in was far less overtly racist than what I’d seen growing up and seemed very inclusive by my standards at the time, with people of all different races living together and being friends and nobody acting like that was strange. I didn’t know how to recognize other forms of racism (e.g. subtle racism, ironic hipster racism). So I went around for a good two years or so believing (and opining, a few times) that wider society might have a problem with racism and sexism, but we in our little enclave didn’t, and so, for example, bad satire, wasn’t a problem, since we were beyond that stupid racism.

    Yeah. All I can really do there is wince in retrospect and put it down to lack of cultural competence/sophistication (and be better now that I know better).

  10. says

    “Anyone nodding their head to that last paragraph probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house unsupervised. They may want to wear a helmet too.”

    …wow.

    I’m sorry. I just couldn’t get past this ableist steaming pile. That’s really out of line.

    Bet it never occurred to you that you have disabled readers, at least one of whom ACTUALLY SPENT TIME IN AN EPILEPSY HELMET, eh?

  11. what's Tom short for says

    Anyone nodding their head to that last paragraph probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house unsupervised. They may want to wear a helmet too.

    Semi-regular reader, first-time commenter, delurking because I can’t find a way of interpreting this paragraph with the helmet wisecrack as anything other than a “retarded” joke, and I really don’t think that’s cool.

    (And while the sample size of developmentally disabled people whom I’ve heard talk about race relations is admittedly a lot smaller than the corresponding sample of non-developmentally-disabled people, I’ve really only ever seen the latter group talking any of that “racism is over” shit…)

  12. trinioler says

    “Anyone nodding their head to that last paragraph probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house unsupervised. They may want to wear a helmet too.”

    This is MAJORLY ableist Crommunist. Could you please change it?

  13. peterfran says

    It’s been over 20 years since having any contact with my father. The last time we spoke, I told him to go to hell. So technically I’m the one who did the disowning. No great loss. As my toilet has more integrity. But it took me years to discover this.
    My father’s people were among those who fled the pogroms of Russia, while my mother’s lineage stems directly from Irish peasantry; lucky me, the white trash of both the Jews and Christians. Plus to top it off, I was the white patty honky of the black and proud as a kid in a mixed working-class neighborhood. Never mind that I’m first generation freeborn on my father’s side, and my mother picked cotton and tobacco right alongside every color.
    It wasn’t until after moving out of the neighborhood that I could see my father’s own arrogant disapproval. Not because I was white, but because my mother was a non-Hebrew lowly Irish bastard (Jews must be born of a Hebrew mother) this bigotry, not so black and white since my father was an atheist.
    Without an ounce of religious teaching all I knew was that I was related to the bunch of Jews killed in Europe, that the bible was an open policy for murder, and that you don’t speak of such things. The only ‘Jewish encounter’ I had growing up was with a small group of kids talking about some special holiday. Curious, I asked them about it; stating I too was Jew. They became all smiley and friendly until discovering my mother wasn’t Jewish, then turned and walked away.
    It took 30 years to realize that this was true root of my father’s indifference; this, combined with the fact that I’m an Irish bastard, the white niggers of Europe.
    If treated with disregard, you end the abuse or you’ll never own self-respect.

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