You’re a racist. Ok?
It’s OK. Take a deep breath. It doesn’t mean you have to be a horrible person. I promise.
For the most part, I’m addressing white American folks in this particular message, because, you know, I’m white. And American. I get it. I grew up here too, in a white ghetto. But no matter what kind of sticky racist programming we’ve been given, I know we can be better people. We don’t have to be terrorists. We don’t have to fear and condemn and imprison our own people. Because the problem is not at all “the Other” we keep lamenting about.
The problem is “us.”
I’ve been listening to tales of “Homeland Security” (I *always* think “Orwell” every time I hear this term used) detaining innocent people for ten years now. I’ve heard of all sorts of people who’ve lost the ability to even *travel* to the U.S. because of our “Homeland Protection” policies (Ok, honestly, it has the ring of Nazi Germany about it, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that. It comes from the same fear-and-terror place). We lost the bid on the Olympics because the whole world knew what we wouldn’t admit to ourselves – we would needlessly harass, detain, and terrorize anyone who spoke a non-American language, had a non-American accent, wore a “different” piece of clothing (those headscarves sure are scary!), or whose complexion looked like anything darker than what a white person would aquire at a tanning booth.
Knowing all of this for so fucking long, I’m not sure why this story of a woman traveling on September 11th who was detained for NO FUCKING REASON along with two passengers who shared her row angered me so damned much. I became absolutely livid. I couldn’t sleep. I went over the scenario in my head again and again.
I realized we, as Americans, had become everything we hated. We had become the monsters. The police state. Because when Homeland Security takes you into custody, let’s face it – you lose all rights as an American citizen. They can detain you as long as they like. Hours, weeks, months, years. You have no legal recourse. That’s what the Patriot Act did, and that’s what we refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for. I did this, just as much as you did, because when it happened we were so fearful for our lives and our jobs and our health that we just let the government do whatever it wanted, because it didn’t pertain to “us,” because we blindly believed that, of course, only “guilty” people would have any trouble, right? I ranted about it, sure, but did I sign any petitions? Did I protest the dissolutions of our rights outside of some bloggy screed?
No. And that non-action is from someone who feels so betrayed by this bit of legislation that just thinking about it burns through spoons.
But what I found even worse about this bit of legislation was that there were, in fact, individuals who do actually support it, and whose actions in support of this legislation cause needless suffering in others. The fearmongering, the terror, the abject biases, and outright racism that leads somebody on a plane to point to a vaguely Arab-looking woman and two Indian men on a plane and say “They look suspicious to me” (because they went to the bathroom? Because they were playing on their phones?) digusts and sickens me. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that the Patriot Act was not some weird anomalous thing done in a vacuum by bizzare leaders. The people who elected them, who put them there, and who sactioned those votes, are the same people pointing to non-white people on planes and saying “PUT THEM INTO PRISON THEY SCARE ME!”
If you’re a white person, you may chuckle along and be like, “Well, you know, folks are just sensitive, and non-white people should understand that it’s just SO SCARY TO BE WHITE” (after all, it’s not YOU who’s going to get pointed to and detained… right?). I would like to argue basic human decency here, but we’ve been so brainwashed into “othering” everybody who’s non-white and doesn’t speak American that I know that’s not going to fly with a lot of folks. Instead, I’ll remind you that in Nazi Germany, it started with the disabled, and the handicapped… then the gypsies, and the Jews, and then suddenly Nazis were invading foreign countries and declaring their populations Other and we were ALL destined for concentration camps.
This is how Othering works.
No one is “safe.” When you attack “other” people, you’re attacking yourself. When you make the world unsafe for others, you’re making it unsafe for yourself.
You’ve become the administrator of your own terror.
Listen, I’m in marketing. I understand we’ve all been brainwashed. When Obama was running for president, my mother admitted to thinking they were talking about Osama bin Laden all the time, because the only tall, thin, dark-skinned guy she was used to seeing on the news was… Osama bin Laden. We’re inundated with messages that Muslims and non-white people are the enemy. Are somehow not American. We live in a racist society, and we have an incredible history of Othering people so we can treat them like shit that goes way, way, back, from the enslavement of African Americans to the decimation of Native American, to the degrading of the Irish and Jews and Chinese and Japanese concentration camps to more modern-day hatred and fear of anybody who looks vaguely Hispanic (“Those lazy illegals are stealing our jobs!” Once again, if the only vaguely Hispanic people you ever see or know are those featured on TV [always “lazy illegals”!] then you’re just screwed. I get it).
I like to think I was doing OK right up until I moved to South Africa for a while. Why then? Well, because every time I turned on the news, or went to a party, I heard about all the horrible things that had happened to people, and I can tell you now that not once did I ever hear of a violent crime committed by a white person. Every single crime featured was somebody non-white. Now, considering 80% of the country was non-white and the vast majority of those were poor, and the old white government had worked very, very hard to promote black-on-black violence (divide and conquer, once again), this wasn’t *really* odd (though there were, of course, plenty of white folks committing crimes. They just got lost in the shuffle). That stuff just doesn’t go away in a generation. And all of a sudden, I noticed I was a lot more leery of groups of black kids walking down the street than I was of white kids. This was bullshit, and wrong, I knew, but it started to sink in, and I fucking hated it. I did spend a lot of time in areas where I was the *only* white person, and nothing terrible happened to me, so I did use these experiences to draw from when I tried to subvert the racism. “See, Kameron, you’re just racist!”
And, this is the thing, you guys. If you want to NOT be an asshole, the first step is to admit you think racist stuff. Just say it, “Yes, I am a racist! I freak out when a man in a turban sits down next to me on a plane or when somebody starts talking in a non-European language! It scares the crap out of me!”
But now what?
Now we start the “how not to be a racist asshole 101″ thing.
Because you don’t want to be a terrorist, right? You don’t want to cause fear and terror in others, right? And get innocent people detained for no reason? And throw innocent people in jail?
Here’s how to combat that:
STOP ACTING ON YOUR RACIST BULLSHIT.
Find some positive examples of the very signifiers that scare the shit out of you. If you live in a neighborhood full of white people who all look and talk the same as you, you have a long uphill battle. If you’re scared to go places where there aren’t (or are very few) people who are “like” you, then it’s time to crack open a fucking book. Go learn all about Islam. Follow some actual Muslims and non-white people on Twitter (and LISTEN to them. Please, DO NOT talk to them at this point. If you’re at this point in your journey, you are just going to look like an ass). Find positive portrayals of non-white people. Go watch Bend it Like Beckham. Study the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Come to terms with the fact that we have a non-white President, and get to know more about his family. Read books with non-white protagonists. Is it “the gays” who freak you out? While you’re at it, go read books with positive portrayals of gay characters, and non-white gay characters (and as you start to be more accepting and less judgmental, I guarantee you’ll discover that you do, in fact, already know a lot of gay people. If you were actively hostile in conversations about gay people, this is not a fact of life they’ll share with you. It’s the same with your racist bullshit. If people feel like you’re afraid of them, they’re going to be a lot less likely to approach you).
And this, of course, this re-conditioning process right here, is why we need to promote more positive portrayals of non-white protagonists in our fiction. Because when we’re confronted with racist thoughts and images, there are whole swaths of people who have absolutely no counter examples that they can pull out to combat it.
If you’re convinced that all Muslim women are oppressed, go read some books by Muslim feminists (yes, they exist! I know!). If you’re convinced that all Hispanics are lazy, go read the actual stories from people who worked their fucking asses off to give their kids a good life and are just as American as your anglo-loving self. Go get to know people who are not “like” you, whether because they’re of a different social standing, from a different country, or whatever. Just… ANYTHING that is different from what you’re used to. Half the time people just freak out because they’ve never been exposed to anyone or anything outside their narrow little peer group. If you don’t want to be a racist jerk, you’re going to have to move outside your comfort zone. At some point, you may even be able to get on a plane and travel somewhere besides North America.
The alternative is to become a terrorist. And you don’t want that, right?
I know there’s such a thing as a white ghetto. I grew up in one. I know the media is racist. I know how marketing works. But goddammit, you don’t need to be a fucking asshole manipulated by the media. You have a goddamn brain. You can circumvent your conditioning. We can be conditioned to do any damn fucking thing, including not being racist. You just need to choose to fight it.
Know what I do when I sit down on a plane and a guy with a turban gets on? I take a deep breath, acknowledge any knee-jerk racist thoughts I might have (less and less these days). Because I don’t personally know any sikhs and the media is still all about Othering people who look “different”, I think instead of the father in Bend it Like Beckham, and what a great guy he is, and how people discriminated against him, when all he wanted was to get the best for his daughters and play in a cricket league. Is this simplistic? Absolutely. But does it work? Every time. And when I find myself making assumptions about the woman in the headscarf who sits down in a restaurant near me and starts speaking Arabic with her friend, I think of all the powerful voices of the Muslim feminists I’ve read and followed, and I remember that each of us is a complex individual, and assuming anything about her and her choices and her faith and who she is is not at all my place. I put the positive, individual stories ahead of the negative, racist ones I’ve internalized, and slowly but surely, bit by bit, I get fewer and fewer knee-jerk assumptions about people.
And, more importantly…
I don’t fucking call Homeland Security because a couple of non-white guys on a plane are using the goddamn bathroom.
Because I can tell you right now. WE ARE THE PROBLEM, YOU GUYS. Not “them.” Not “the other.” It’s all of our freaky scaremongering crazy that is turning our own country into a police state. We are doing it to ourselves. We are letting divide and conquer work YET AGAIN.
But we don’t have to. We can take positive steps to combat our conditioning. We can do better. We don’t have to be racist assholes who ruin people’s lives. Because whoever these folks were who freaked out on this woman and the men in her row and the 50 other people who were targeted by scared, freaked out people on September 11th just because they chose to GET ON AN AIRPLANE are the actual terrorists.
We are the terrorists, you guys.
And is that really who you want to be?