Monday, April 17, 2006

More On Christian Cox, Racism, Oppression and America

BTW - Karen - the way you are in the world is a demonstration of what it is to live gracefully. I learned from you to model the behaviour I expect from others. And this is the most powerful resistance to wrong-doing there is.

There is a difference between prejudice and oppression. And while both are unacceptable, one has a larger more devastating impact. I do believe Ms Cox has experienced prejudice. However, she is inappropriately linking her experience to larger, ongoing historical issues relating to very specific people and the overlay of institutional support systems for keeping them oppressed. And it is this that I take issue with.

Let me explain.

Back in my youth when I did a lot of diversity work, we used to play a game with workshop attendees. We’d ask for people to stand up if they were a member of a group. We’d call out Black, Asian, LBGT, Female, Physically Challenged, Not Rich, etc. With few exceptions, by the end of the list, everyone was standing. We’d have everyone look around and see the way in which everyone else was also not part of the Dominant Culture.

These are your allies. We would say. These people have similar political objectives to your own.

Often, this caused something of an uproar. For example, People Of Colour would complain that they can’t hide their skin. Other groups had similar comments about the way in which their oppression was more difficult to endure than others. The exercise made it obvious that the tools used to target their difference varied from group to group.

But - the fact that each group had experienced prejudice remained the same - regardless of the tools used by our larger dominant culture to oppress them...meaning to systematically enforce their position as less than.

At this point, we would bring out the handy-dandy oppression equation.
Power + Prejudice = Oppression

Prejudice is to judge someone based upon their colour, culture, religion, etc., but, without the institutional support for any actions based upon that belief.

When someone has the power to take action on their prejudice and has the support of institutions to enforce those actions, then they oppress another.

For example - most African-American men live with the understanding that they can and most likely will be stopped for driving a car. I’m not talking about speeding or driving recklessly. I’m talking about driving a car which seems to be the wrong make or model for them or even driving at a certain time of night. If stopped, they also understand that if they do not adopt the exact behaviours necessary, they may not survive the encounter. Finally - there will be little or no sanction against the police officers who unjustly stop them, kill or maim them.

The issue of racism involves both the prejudice of individuals and the systems in place to support those beliefs through action. This issue of race is usually based upon skin colour or ethnic heritage. (That is an entire different discussion - because there is really one Race - the Human Race. And the idea of humans as different races is a new concept defined in the American courts not even 200 years ago.)

Ms Cox says Anti-Americanism feels like racism. But, it can’t. Americans are not a Race. And furthermore, there are no global institutional support systems devised for oppressing Americans. And that is what anti-racism work is about - continuing to break down the systems which allow people, groups and organisations to take actions against people of different races based upon their prejudices.

She could have easily said it feels like sexism. In that a woman who breast-feeds in public can be harassed and segregated. But, then even this is inaccurate because (in many places) the breast-feeding woman has no institutional support protecting her from discrimination based upon this function of her gender.

I’m not denying that Ms Cox has experienced prejudice. I don’t deny the pain she feels. I have experienced myself - in multiple ways all of my life. However - those experiences do not have the additional layer to them that the larger issues of racism and sexism inherently contain.

An analogy - living life as a member of a group which experiences racism everyday is like being a pond over which there is a slick oily film. Ms Cox is aware that some British folks don’t like her. But - there is not the additional layer of understanding that these people are supported in their discrimination by the police force, the courts, and the government.

And I’m not saying that Anti-Americanism is right. What I am saying is that many members of oppressed groups learn to adapt to prejudice and discrimination at an early age. We learn behaviours, attitudes and coping mechanism to minimise the prejudice we expect to experience. We learn quickly to diffuse potentially dangerous situations. We learn to somehow get along - or at least try. Code switching means finding a way for others to see past the surface and relate to our deeper self. 

She could do well to learn these coping mechanisms. I had a tense situation I diffused recently using humour. I left the person involved laughing and saying, “I like you. You’re funny. Maybe you Americans aren’t so bad. “ It reminded me of my school days when the girls would say, ‘We like you. You’re not like a Black person at all.” Racist? Yes. Hurt my feelings? Definitely. Change their perception a bit about Black people? Absolutely. And there is the difference - shifting perceptions rather than reinforcing them.

Claude McKay's poem illuminates these complexities.

by Claude McKay

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

1 comment:

Karen James said...

One important lesson I have learned from our discussion is that we must be cautious of our word choices especially when choosing words that are so loaded with meaning and emotional significance. To use a word such as racism without considering the proper context in which it belongs is to risk trivializing the meaning and power of that word to those who know it intimately. Thanks, Christina.