Monday, April 29, 2013

Race Remains at the Core of America's Woes

Time to end racial injustice

Race. It’s a four-letter word that can cause reasonable people to conjure unreasonable thoughts and actions. Or inaction. More and more I’m realizing race is at the root of so many of the economic and social woes we suffer – in this community, across the state, and around the country. Here’s one big reason.

I’m one of the millions from my generation raised on a steady diet of sitcoms and Disney. Programs displayed idyllic ways of living. Through it all was the flavor of the day: vanilla. Still is. The problem though is that I am chocolate. African American. What does TV (and for that matter film and even grade school text books) have to do with race problems in America? They are all forms of mass media that speak to familiarity.

Being familiar with something, seeing it over and over, contributes to how a person views their world in a major way. How we come to see (or not see) things is a function of the images and experiences known to us. Along these lines, we all come from a place of what’s becoming known as ‘implicit bias.’ That is, attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious way.

Like driving past trees on the road, people of color can melt into the background, becoming essentially invisible to white people. But the reverse isn’t true for people of color. White people can choose not to see. People of color see whites everywhere, even in the privacy of our homes (think TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.).

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, there were few African Americans in print or on television. When we were, we were mainly placeholders; positioned to literally provide color to the sea of white faces. When we weren’t in the background, we served as plot points to drive a white character’s story. Portrayals were unbalanced at best and derogatory at worst. We were largely depicted as down and out, soaked in liquor, drugs. Pimping or hooking was a common backdrop. We were hard luck cases that needed saving from one great white hope or another. Or we were the loyal servant maid, butler, gardener, or cook.

That’s the lens white people largely viewed people of color through... over and over again, episode after episode, year after year.

It’s those unflattering images that people of color were, and often continue to be, inaccurately portrayed and unconsciously embedded into America’s collective psyche, thank you very much. But this isn’t about calling out media villains or exposing closet Klansmen. Instead, it’s about coming to terms with the implicit bias that permeates society.

The majority of people on all sides of the color spectrum consider matters of race and racism as they would a rotten apple. To get at its core, America would have to eat a lot of crow and that’s hard to chew on. So we don’t take a bite.

Much of the institutional racism that exists was written right into America’s founding documents, perpetuated through intentional governmental policies (ex., slavery, Jim Crow), capitalism-gone-wild discrimination practices, with court rulings time and again upholding it all. And the band played on.

Why would anyone want to sink their teeth into something as putrefied and disgusting as the age old topic of race? Instead of looking at race as a rotten apple, look at it more like an onion. It’s cocooned by layers upon layers of truth and fiction, joy and pain, and pride and guilt. We may not be responsible for the insidious and often invisible systems still in place but we’re all are accountable.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Disabled People are Whole Human Beings

Able. Nuff said...
What was it Ronald Reagan said in that 1980 presidential election debate when his opponent brought up old accusations? “There you go again.”
That now famous line is glaringly appropriate as I reflect on an educational series I recently began participating in. That two-day conversation of sharing and learning focused on issues related to persons with disabilities and oppressive practices known as “ableism.”
My understanding of ableism is that it’s a form discrimination, intentional or not, directed toward persons with mental and/or physical disabilities. Attending that training was, at least in my mind, more a refresher course in overall intolerance and acceptance than a space where I’d learn anything new. Boy was I ever wrong.
As I waited for the session to start, I confidently recalled countless other trainings, seminars and learning labs I’ve attended, each designed to up my IQ on topics ranging from racism and poverty to sexism and LGBT issues. And each time I completed a training, I felt adequately prepared for whatever would come up at the next round of work. (I can just hear my social justice allies muttering, “There you go again.”)
From the beginning I felt out of my league. This was going to be about more than wheelchair access and impolite stares. Nearly half the people in the room had a disability. That got me thinking about how our ‘abled’ society has done a superb (I use the term with disdain) job warehousing, marginalizing and just plain ignoring disabled persons, rendering them for all intents and purposes invisible.
The group brought up issues almost immediately that let me know just how superficial my understanding was about this important human rights issue. Early in the session, a bearded guy with cerebral palsy shared his experiences as a disabled person. He unnerved me as he spoke and here's why.
I've been around persons with cerebral palsy before and was familiar with its effects on the human body. What rattled me was the fact that as I listened to him speak; it took an incredible amount of effort for him to communicate – at least from my perspective. As he slowly but surely expressed his thoughts to the room, I found myself lost in a self-centered fog over just how much privilege I have. I am able to communicate with people without even thinking about it.
I make my living as a communicator; writing and speaking is what I do. As I sat there I thought, what if I was in his shoes? For a time I tumbled down a bottomless pit of self pity, racked with shame and guilt. Why? Because it was hitting me in the face none too subtly that all of my life I had taken for granted my ability to do things that for others might be an incredible challenge.
Me – with all my racism training and reading about sexism and working with organizations focused on poverty and studying about gay rights – possessing near ignorance about what it truly means to be disabled in American society. There I go again.
Fortunately, with the help of the bearded guy and others, their sharing, along with mine, I climbed my way out of that dark emotional hole. I’m still a work in progress, but have an emerging insight into the disabled community and its rich, complex reality. I also have acquired a great deal more understanding about the insidious nature of ableism. One thing I know for certain is there’s a lot I still don’t know but look forward to learning. I plan to get that knowledge through books, the educational series I’m participating in, and meaningful conversations.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bring on the Backyard Barbecues

Yabba dabba barbecue!

We’re still a month away but I’ve got summer fever. And with warmer weather comes barbecues. Beginning in late May and extending through early September (longer in more temperate regions), almost everyone hosts or attends a barbecue. Granted, some are more fun than others or offer more variety in their activities, but your typical, apolitically oriented cookout generally consists of family, friends and close coworkers.
               It’s typically held on someone’s backyard deck, but often can be found in such exotic places as a city park or crowded beach. Holidays are the best times to throw barbecues. Ordinary weekends also work, but for the proper festive mood, there’s nothing like grilling on Independence Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day. Since it’s ingrained in the American mind that barbecues should be held on these occasions, you’re virtually guaranteed a decent turnout on these days.
               Why are barbecues held in the first place? Barbecues have always been interesting social occasions filled with food that many times tastes good, conversations of varying qualities and activities that are often competitive in nature (think touch football, dominoes or bid whist). Since I tend to be a bit on the analytical side, cookouts to me are more than just another get-together. I don’t accept the participant simple claim, “I just wanna have a good time.”
Let's get fired up!
               A closer look at the interactions at the barbecue reveals clues as to their real purpose for people attending. It is a time when modern human beings can reach back mentally and to some degree, physically, to relive their ancestral existence. To me, this link is vital for humanity, which has achieved much technology, but emotionally is still attached to the time just after dinosaurs ruled the Earth and people’s last names really were Flintstone and Rubble.
               Since the dawn of civilization, we humans have used the campfire as a focal point in our existence.  As we have progressed (well, some believe we’ve progressed), the open campfire was replaced by an in-door fireplace, which in turn became a vacuum-tube radio and has since evolved into present day HDTVs. The similarities among these tools are glaringly apparent: they all provide a measure of light and therefore, safety. Plus they are social centers where food is consumed and stories are told. Except in most cases these days, the stories are delivered to our homes on a screen, rather than we telling our own among ourselves. But that’s another column.
Finger lickin' good (but without the chicken)
               Of course, there were different dynamics in play when the open campfire was the centerpiece.  That is exactly why civilization continues to be drawn back to its roots each spring. Now I admit that long conclusions may be drawn between prehistoric lifestyle and modern-day barbecues, but let’s examine the validity of my claim “scientifically.” Take for example the central focus of all cookouts: the meat.
               Now unless you’re attending a barbecue held by members of the Holistic Vegetarian Council, you will have meat on hand – and in abundance. Eons ago, our Cro-Magnon forbearers tangled with saber-tooth tigers and big woolly mammoths to bring home the bacon for the family (usually consisting of several clans). A modern barbecue differs only in how we obtain the meat. But the focus is the same: the meat.
               This process of reverting (in a civilized manner) to prehistoric ties is refreshing, cleanses the soul and satisfies the typical urban man and woman who constantly requires prospective to maintain a balanced life. I find the psychological effect of a barbecue is healthy, the social interaction positive and the nutritional value acceptable. And besides, I just wanna have a good time.