Harness Tribalism to Combat Racism (Part 3)

There’s no doubt, the words racist and racism are trigger words that elicit some of the strongest emotion’s humans can conjure. Often, these emotions are justified, but just as often, these emotions can misconstrue reality and hinder what could be used as a learning experience. The words racist and racism have fluidity, yet we treat them as if they do not. These words have become so toxic that people, especially white people, fear any admission of truthfulness will land them in hot water. These beliefs are not unfounded, as they often do. Other white people believe, wrongfully, that calling out others they view as racist makes them incapable of being racist themselves. Some believe that simply because they’ve never called another person a nigger means they couldn’t possibly be racist. Others believe that because they have a black family member or friend, this makes any and all racist claims against them completely meritless. From first hand experience, I know that these beliefs are mostly nonsensical. 

There’s a famous picture of Hitler hugging a six-year-old Jewish girl, Rosa Bernile Nienau. At a birthday party thrown for him, Hitler discovered Rosa shared the same birthday, and even though her mother was Jewish, Hitler began an unlikely friendship with the girl. They went on to become pen pals, until his private secretary Martin Bormann cut off contact between the two. It’s recorded that upon hearing this news, Hitler stated, “There are people who have a true talent for spoiling my every joy.” Is this proof Hitler wasn’t racist towards Jews or that the holocaust was just a big misunderstanding? Of course it’s not, and anyone who claims so lacks knowledge and exudes ignorance and racism.

Women who are habitual victims of domestic violence at the hands of their spouses are often the fiercest defenders of those spouses. Do these defenses make the domestic violence less severe or erase the fact that it happened? No. Victims of rape often keep it to themselves, or if found out, deny that it happened because the rapist is often somebody they know and care about. Does this mean that persons not a rapist or the rape didn’t occur? No. Not all pedophiles molest children. Yes, you read that correctly. There are in fact pedophiles that have the urge to molest children, but don’t act on that urge because they’re able to mentally reason and control what physically they cannot. This doesn’t mean they’re not pedophiles, because they most definitely are. What it does mean, is that they realize molesting children is wrong, so they refuse to allow their pedophilia to have a negative impact on society. Racism is no different. You do not need to have publicly displayed racism for you to be racist. On the flip side, similar to Hitler and Rosa, having black associates doesn’t preclude you from being racist either. 

My first memory pertaining to race comes from kindergarten. We were asked to draw a picture of our family. I left the skin of my adoptive family members uncolored and white, and gave myself a darker complexion. Upon seeing this drawing my adoptive mother seemed upset. She sat me down and asked why I had drawn myself different from everyone else. “Because I look different.”, I remember telling her. She had tears in her eyes as she told me I wasn’t different and that in the future I should draw us all the same. This confused me. My eyes were telling me one story, but my mother was telling me another. I’ve discussed this event many times with numerous individuals. The majority of white people I’ve discussed this with have a similar reaction, which is sympathy for my mother. They stress that she meant no harm and was simply attempting to protect me, and I agree with these assertions. However, she was still lying to me, and this was still racist. It’s a perfect example of someone having good intentions, and those good intentions leading to unwitting racism. If I was in fact no different from them, then why would I go on to be called a nigger, and my white siblings not? Why would hostesses at restaurants often not include me in their count when determining how many were in our party, even though I was standing right next to everyone? Why would customers at my father’s business think I was joking when I told them that I was the youngest of his boys? All of these questions hold the same answer. It’s because I was different from them. 

My adoptive mother denying me this truth, well intentioned or not, was wrong, and I repeat, it was racist. What would this episode lead me to believe when I’d inevitably find out the truth of my ethnicity? It would make me believe there was something wrong with being of mixed race, and that it should be repressed and hidden, and I should be ashamed about it and lie about it. This also didn’t end up being a one-off. This was only the beginning of a repeated cycle of racial ignorance displayed by my adoptive parents. “Well that’s not really racist. Well you can’t blame everything on race. Well maybe you misheard them or didn’t understand what they meant.”, were my parents go-to excuses whenever I was dealing with racism not only as a child but into adulthood as well. Upon hearing one such interaction, my grandmother, who was somehow much more progressive than my mother on these issues, pulled me aside afterwards and told me that next time somebody says something racist to me, I better “sock-em in the nose.”, no matter who it was. So I did, and of course, I was disciplined for it. It was then that my mother made the most intelligent and truthful comments to me on race that she ever would. She told me that if I fought every time somebody said something racist in front of or to me, that I’d be fighting for the rest of my life. The same person that repeatedly denied that anything racist happened to me, somehow then admits that a bunch of racist shit would indeed happen to me, and then go on to continue to deny it anytime it did. This is peak hypocrisy, textbook ignorance, and subtly racist.  

But not all racism is subtle. I have been on the receiving end as well as a witness to various forms of it. I’ve had physical altercations because of racism. I’ve quit jobs over racism. The number of times unsuspecting white people have casually dropped racist lines in front of me, unaware of my ethnicity, I cannot count. Conservatively it’s more than one hundred times and probably approaches two hundred. The way some white people discuss members of other tribes when they think they’re around only their own tribal members is amazingly pathetic. It’s a phenomenon I wouldn’t have the displeasure of experiencing had my skin been a bit darker. I’ve noticed that by the end of every summer when I’ve built a steady tan, I experience this wonderful occurrence with a slower consistency. I’m pushed out of the tribe for a bit. But come winter, as the tan fades, the white snow coincides with my acceptance back into the white tribe, through no choice of my own. This acceptance led to the truck driver getting his rig worked on at my adoptive father’s garage that said he didn’t go to the amusement park because it was nigger infested. It led to the mechanic who repeatedly told racist jokes about black women in front of me. There was the father who wanted me to help his son in football when he thought I was Portuguese but refused to let me date his daughter when he found out I was half black and wouldn’t even shake my hand. There was the customer just prior to the 2012 election who came to buy a part for his truck and responded to me asking him how it’s going by saying it’ll be going better when the nigger is out of office. There have been dozens upon dozens of times where somebody is telling a story and the black person mentioned must be introduced as some fucking nigger, or this fucking black guy. There was the boss that asked me where a certain driver I dispatched was and before I could answer took it upon himself to say he was probably off doing some nigger shit. There was the truck driver I fired because I was on the phone with him and somebody cut him off, leading to a racist tangent too long for me to remember, never mind write. Not only does this list go on, but nothing I’ve learned leads me to believe it won’t continue to grow. Oh, those prophetic words of my mother. Thankfully, these outward racists truly aren’t the norm. The norm is you. The norm is the unwitting racist, and despite all I’ve been through and how much I hate racism and believe in equality and love so much about blackness, I came to realize I’m not completely immune to that norm either.

Relatively recently, I discovered that something that has always brought me joy only brought me that joy because growing up in white society had given me a racist viewpoint. For many years, not much gives me a better feeling then when I meet an intelligent black person. I love it. I cherish meeting anyone intelligent, but I honestly love it more when they’re black. I’ve always known this to be true, but never thought about why. I grew up with a small group of minority friends. There were four of us. I dated one of the only minority girls in our school. Our graduating high school class had 207 students and nine were minorities. That was the largest group of minority graduates in school history. But when your town is ninety-eight percent white and your family is white, being half black, having black friends, and even dating a black girl doesn’t constitute the true black experience. I wasn’t familiar with the type of blackness that most black people experience in the United States. I had listened to the music. I had seen the television portrayals. I’d driven through the neighborhoods. I had rooting interests in their athletic achievements. But I had never been immersed in the culture. Anything I thought I knew about black culture was through the lens of a fogged up, shattered microscope. The media, whether it be print, television, or radio, for many years did a terrible job giving a diverse look at black society and black people. I fell victim to these stereotypes like anyone else does. It didn’t cause me to hate. It didn’t cause me to be afraid. What it caused was ignorance. It’s not that I didn’t think black people were capable of being intelligent. Of our foursome, one became an engineer/architect and another became a college professor. However, neither of them grew up in black society, and this is not the type of intelligence I’m referring to, because it was a white community that helped them achieve those heights. 

The type of black intelligence I came to fall in love with stemmed from things I couldn’t find in the white community I grew up in, and therefore, really couldn’t appreciate until I experienced it myself. I’m talking about the freestyler in the barbershop, who will never be famous, but whose raps are so intelligent, under different circumstances they could’ve been a renowned poet. I’m talking about the kid from the block that’s so brilliantly and relentlessly funny that your abs hurt the day after smoking a blunt with him. I’m talking about the young girl who overcomes severe poverty to get her college degree, and comes back to her community to open a business that will help raise it up.  I’m even talking about the drug dealer who’s able to accurately keep seemingly countless tabs in his head so the police don’t catch him with a ledger. The woman who braids hair into such tight, elegant patterns that it should only be considered a work of art. Covert racism hid these examples of black intelligence from me as a kid, so as I started to see them, I thought they were abnormal. It turns out they’re very normal, and that I just had a viewpoint that was shaped by racism. This is an integral point that both black and white people must come to terms with. I was not racist, yet I had a racist point of view. These two truths can coexist, and it’s OK to admit it. Progress will continue to come at a snail’s pace if we continue to deny and ignore this. The day I realized I have also been a participant in covert racism, was actually a great day for me. I embraced this epiphany. I was humbled, intrigued, disgusted, and euphoric all at once. I knew it was a moment of growth that would never be undone. I had exceeded a level of knowledge that knocked away all prior levels and established a higher foundation to fall back on. Those examples of black brilliance are the norm in black society, but they weren’t the norm to me, so when I saw them, they seemed abnormal. There was no malice. I’ve never said a racist word towards a black person in my life. I’ve experienced racism and been called a nigger myself. Yet, I still couldn’t fully escape the ignorance white society creates towards black society. Trust me, if this can happen to me, it has happened to you. You can continue to deny and ignore it, or you can accept it and go to work on becoming a better person.

Racism doesn’t have to be intentional. Racism doesn’t have to be malicious. Racism can be and in fact often is without malicious intent. This can be the most dangerous type of racism, because it has permeated society at such depths that we don’t even realize its racial foundations. The acceptance of this truth not only from white people but from all races, is an important step in the process of recognition, understanding, reconciliation, and progress. A more thorough understanding of our natural tribalistic tendencies will aid our ability to accept these facts and diminish our fears of admitting our faults. To move forward, we must change our current societal environment in which it’s extremely dangerous for a white person to admit to ever having a racist thought. We must understand and accept why a minority might show a level of mistrust or angst towards white people. The societal placement of minorities in America, their depiction in the media, the reinforcement of negative stereotypes, ignorance of history, especially black history, and of course all these things topped off with tribalism, create an equation that almost must be answered with racist misgivings by whites. The constant barriers aided by these misgivings, along with four-hundred years of inequality, systematic oppression, consistent societal mistreatment, and straight up abuse if not often murder, in turn make it difficult for minorities to trust, feel fully accepted by, or even respect white people. This isn’t fair to either side, but this is where we stand. Too many of us simply don’t have a good grasp on what racism is, means, and does. If we don’t understand it, we can’t help society correctly deal with it. The first step in alleviation must be unabated honesty from all sides, without fear of chastisement or rebuke. If you want to be listened to, you must be willing to listen yourself. Let’s start listening to each other.

Part 4 Coming Soon

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