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Recognizing Racism

You have to be taught to hate and fear.
You have to be taught from year to year.
It has to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You have to be carefully taught.
song lyric Mike remembers from long ago

Mike Kernahan

I read with interest Tim Wise' front page article in last month's PNL (School Shootings and White Denial). My initial reaction was to take offense at what seemed to be gratuitously insulting rhetoric. Certainly, no one enjoys being told to pull their head out of their ass. On reflection, though, I think I can handle it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it refreshing to hear such talk on these issues. God knows we can get the other stuff by the long ton from the prostitute-in-chief currently impersonating our president. But the issues raised by Tim Wise, racism and violence, are so pervasive, so pernicious, and, I think, so comprehensively misunderstood or roundly ignored by most Americans (all media blather to the contrary), and particularly by white people like me, that a "dope slap" of this order of magnitude is entirely appropriate. I'd like to pass along some thoughts on one of those issues, racism, that Tim raised.

I have some credentials on this subject. I happen to be a racist; come from a long line of them, in fact. And I hasten to add that, aside from my honesty on the subject, I am not the slightest bit different from the vast majority of Americans of all races, most of whom would be scandalized to hear themselves so described. If you were born and raised in the United States or, for that matter, any part of the world influenced by US culture, or many other cultures of which racism is a central element, the odds are overwhelming that you are a racist as well. The appropriately-named American Heritage Dictionary defines racism as "the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability." Apply this definition honestly and I can conceive of very few Americans of any color who don't fit the bill to some degree. And I know a lot of folks who consider themselves ultraliberal, progressive Green types and who would be self-righteously spring-loaded to point their fingers and say "Shame on you, Kernahan you racist so-and-so," but who are themselves racists. It would put them deeply into cardiac arrest to be so informed, but they are. Nor is racism a disease isolated to the United States or to "white people," although we have distinguished ourselves in some aspects of its practical application.

This is not some guilt-ridden white boy's mea culpa. I identify myself as a racist neither to shock, nor as an apologia. My racism is not something I'm proud of. I wasn't planning to put this on my resume. But I don't plan on feeling guilty about it either. It's just a fact which I now recognize through the lens of age and certain experiences.

Because, Abe Lincoln notwithstanding, this nation was conceived not in liberty but in racism. Our sunny, Reaganesque ignorance of the ubiquity of racism in this society is, I think, a vestige of that expansive, immensely self-satisfied post-WWII US mentality, a fundamental component of which is the blithe assumption that, warts and all, the US is somehow inherently, manifestly, just the greatest place on earth. As Tim so elegantly puts it, "Well bullshit on that." Many subsequent experiences have led thinking Americans to utterly discard that notion. Unfortunately, as a society, our education in that respect remains stunningly deficient.

I was born and raised in a rigidly racist society known as the United States of America of the 1950's and 1960's. I grew up in a racially segregated neighborhood; still do live in one, actually. Most people in this country do, and even in so-called "mixed" or "changing" neighborhoods, there is usually little substantive racial integration. I'm a product of a racially segregated school system. The segregation was accomplished by far more subtle means than other, more up-front methodology, but was no less effective for all that. The first black person I ever had even passing personal contact with was a senior in my Catholic high school the year I was a freshman. He graduated and I never saw another black face in that school while I was there. The next time I had contact with black people was during the riots in Asbury Park New Jersey during the summer of 1968, and they were trying to burn down the store I worked in after school. I vividly recall the summer of 1968 when hundreds of police from surrounding communities as well as New Jersey State Police (whom you may recall have raised racial profiling to a fine art) poured into the city to protect the local merchants from black rage. Only the state police carried shotguns and in the course of the riots 45 black people went to area hospitals for treatment of shotgun wounds. The head of the state police blandly denied that his men had fired a shot and that was the end of it. A lot of white people looked sidewise at each other and smiled at that. What more eloquent civics lesson could you arrange for a junior high school student sorting out for himself just who stood where in this society? My next contact with black people after that was in the army, and they wanted to beat the crap out of me because I was white. To be sure, there has always been plenty of white activity of that nature against blacks. The point is that none of this is particularly conducive to racial tolerance. In the words of a public service ad from the sixties, "you have to be carefully taught to hate and fear." I sure was. So were you.

To expect, then, that I should arrive at the ripe old age of forty-something and be something other than a racist, would be the equivalent of planting corn and expecting to harvest turnips. Of course I'm a racist. I acknowledge it. Can you?

First let's deal with the recognition. The best way I can illustrate what I mean about recognizing racism in oneself is to use a military metaphor that probably won't be popular in this venue. When I was in the army I was temporarily attached to a West German unit on maneuvers in the Black Forest one day when there was what you might call a break in the festivities. I had been awake for nearly 40 hours straight and one of my most immediate needs was to find a place to defecate. I wandered tiredly off into the woods, found a likely spot, dug a cathole, and commenced filling it. Suddenly I thought I heard laughter from somewhere behind me and a heavily accented voice said "Whew GI, what do they feed you?" I looked around and couldn't see anything at first. At least, nothing I didn't expect to see in the woods: trees, bushes, a few rocks. But as I continued to hear laughter it occurred to me there might be something else there, so, with that in mind, I took a second look. This time I thought I saw the outlines of a helmet, then a blackened face beneath it grinning at me. Then I began to see dozens of such faces. Then the outlines of vehicles, gun emplacements, and other objects became clear to me. To my intense embarrassment I had chosen a position in full view of an entire platoon of camouflaged West German infantry. And once I began to see what I now expected to see there, these objects seemed so obvious that I couldn't conceive of how I had missed them before.

The point is that you see what you want or expect to see. Camouflage does not, strictly speaking, seek to hide things, but to blur their outlines sufficiently so that the brain is helped to the conclusion that other clues have predisposed it to make. "Racist" has become an enormously charged, highly offensive epithet these days, conjuring images of hateful, armed, white-robed men with torches and pasty white faces lit by firelight. Hardly anyone thinks that applies to them. But that doesn't mean there are any fewer racists around these days. As usual in this talk-happy society, the language is way ahead of the reality. The language has been molded to fit, in fact, not reality, but what we wish was reality. If most white people, indeed, most people raised in the US, took an honest second look at themselves, I expect they'd find racism. How could it not be there? The very culture lives and breathes racism, for most of us no subsequent reeducation has counteracted it, and a tenacious and cunning propaganda campaign from the right has attempted to plant the attractive idea that racism is all gone now. Don't feel guilty about it. It doesn't mean you are evil, just human. But you must recognize it and educate yourself to counteract its' effects.

Thanks to that thorough early training referred to above, when I look at a person of color, I see just that: a person of color. Not a person, but a person of color. Maybe it's a subtle distinction to some of you but it's a vitally important one and it is precisely at this point, I think, that the disconnect is occurring. Because, for white people, "person of color" (or whatever term one prefers) is an entirely different category of creature than simply "person," with an entirely different set of expectations attached, which are the accretion of all those years of comprehensive societal racist conditioning. Subsequent life training has taught me to automatically adjust that unconscious classification from "person of color" back to "person," where it belongs. But that is a learned, and not yet entirely natural behavior for me. Human nature being what it is, if I am surprised or frightened or tired or angry at the time, I may fail to make that adjustment, despite the fact that it is often precisely the time when it is most essential. This accounts for the cynical observation by black people that, when push comes to shove, all white people can be depended on to revert to racism. They're right. When racism is so tightly interwoven with your roots, and stress causes you to revert to those roots, it's inevitable that the racism should surface.

Changing that mechanism will require, first and foremost, recognition that it exists. Sigmund Freud said that a problem recognized is half solved. Instead, we're denying it. Many on the right even have the temerity to claim that racism is all gone, a thing of the past, that it's "time to move on." I find it difficult to properly express my contempt for this notion without employing Tim Wise' elegant "Well, bullshit on that."

For my generation, reeducation is necessary to help unlearn years of prejudicial conditioning. We're doing almost nothing about that. Most importantly, we need to be putting our children into an environment that tells them unequivocally that people simply come in all colors. We're doing nothing of the sort. Even if we could accept the necessity of doing so, we are busily destroying the best tool we have for changing our culture at a time when we need it most. Ironically, despite all the bleating from the right about respect for the family, the juggernaut of laizzez-faire capitalism is destroying the white family as relentlessly as slavery once destroyed the black family in this country. Distracted working parents struggling on the consumer treadmill are often led to pass the buck to the school system, the most recent fashion being so-called "character education." For good measure, we tell teachers, "Here, you do it, and you'd better not screw it up or we're gonna punish you."

When I say that education is the answer, I use that term inclusively, to encompass all of the cultural influences, including but certainly not limited to the formal educational system, that are shaping succeeding generations. In the final analysis, racism is, at best, simple ignorance, and at worst, a sign of low intelligence. It is essential for a truly intelligent and learned person to possess an appreciation of the infinite beauty and potential that is each human. Such an appreciation is profoundly incompatible with a half-wittedly simplistic belief system that classifies humans solely according to their most superficial aspects; that says all blacks are x, all Chinese are y, all Irish are Z, etc. ad nauseam. We will be the great civilization many of us claim we already are when we have redefined intelligence to exclude the uttermost stupidity of racism.

Mike builds farm fencing at Commonplace Land Trust in Truxton, NY. he also regularly contributes the Peaces page for this publication.

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