The ‘Common’ Problem in Misunderstanding Racism

The American cultural memory seems to have lengthened.  At least as far as social media outlets are concerned as well as the blogosphere and the plethora of e-media sites.  As we still are affixed under the shadow of a “post-” era of Ferguson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin et. al., every new moment we experience is often seen through that lens.  By the time hip hop rapper Common, complete with his Academy Award went on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and made his infamous comments concerning race, many still remembered both Pharrell and Raven-Symone in interviews with Oprah Winfrey offer up this “new Negro” ontological commentary that made many bristle.

I don’t feel the need to rehash that conversation in that light, especially because the history of black entertainment stars and their relationships with race have always existed in a post-racial mythic Ozian land.  But as this country grapples with race as it enters the news every cycle, seeing stories from Lorretta Lynch to the state of Texas wrangling about license plates and the Confederate flag making it to the U.S. Supreme Court, many people, like myself, are waiting to see if this latest metanarrative on race might be the struggle that acts as a tipping point for making significant changes in the ever prevalent race issue in this country.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity came under fire after a recorded chant that included the n-word was uploaded to a public social media site.  The criticism was quick and swift at Oklahoma University which almost immediately disbanded the chapter on their campus.  Subsequently, the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity chapter at North Carolina State has been suspended just this week once a pledge book containing overtly racist and sexist written comments surfaced.  Unfortunately these occurrences amongst white male college boys isn’t uncommon.  While there are hundreds of individuals in these organizations who don’t subscribe to this mindset, at this point, it is safe to say that there is a cultural mindset that allows for this type of pervasive thinking.

On March 25, Levi Pettit, one of the SAE members at Oklahoma offered up a statement that included an apology.  That in and of itself isn’t that interesting to me, especially because the statement still had an air of “I’m sorry because I got caught” to it, but rather that he was surrounded by black faces behind him.  MSNBC reported that his statement included:

anastasia pittman

Pettit, who met with black civic leaders and pastors prior to the press conference, delivered a prepared statement in which he expressed regret and asked for forgiveness.

“The people I met with have opened my eyes to things I wasn’t exposed to before this event,” Pettit added during a brief question and answer session, saying he hadn’t understood the hurt his words caused. “I think I knew they were wrong, but I never knew why or how they were wrong.”

He would not discuss the chant, however, or say where he learned it or who taught it to him.

“I’m not here to talk about where I learned the chant or where it was taught. I’m here to apologize for what I did,” Pettit said.

Aside from the fact that no one believes that he was unaware that the word nigger in the context in which he used it was wrong or why and how it can be hurtful, I’m more concerned with the fact that black civic leaders felt the need to surround this college boy and assuage whatever guilt he may currently be feeling.  Pettit was not contrite enough to expose the culture of racism that this came from because he didn’t indict the people from whom he learned the chant.  The optics of this press conference left me unsettled given the current climate of the country.  Where were the white civic leaders flanking Martese Johnson, the UVA student that was beaten and bloodied by local officials trying to enter a bar on St. Patrick’s Day?  Front and center was Oklahoma State Sen. Anastasia A. Pittman who thanked the media for “giving us this opportunity to introduce Levi Pettit to the world.”

The metaphorical sound of a record scratch occurred in my head as I read that a black state senator along with other leaders chose to associate themselves with this.  Personally, I try to always give people the benefit of the doubt because often times intentions may deceive perceptions.  In light of the comments that Common made, this has got to be one of the worst ways to address the problem of racism in this country.  I was fueled to this opinion by the following op-ed piece by Robert Bush of the Dallas Morning News:

It would have been so easy to turn demagogue over the gross racism that erupted on a fraternity bus at the University of Oklahoma.  It would have been so easy for a politician to use it as a wedge, to fire up the community, to gather some cheap support with a call to us-versus-them.  There’s enough us-versus-them in this country as it is.  State Sen. Anastasia Pittman of Oklahoma understands that. She understands that wounds need to be healed and pouring salt in them isn’t the way to do it.

If you don’t yet know who Pittman is, you should. She is the woman who saw a 20-year-old man who had said horrible things about her and her community and reached out to him with grace, dignity and forgiveness.  She is someone who saw an opportunity not only to heal him but to help him heal us. From what we see in this incident, she is a person in the best tradition of the leaders of our country.

Yesterday, Pittman stood arm-in-arm with Highland Park’s Levi Pettit as he extended an apology for leading a racist chant on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon bus at OU. The young man standing before a crowd of people he had slurred looked like a much different young man than the one swaying and singing on that bus. He looked both shaken and grateful.

It is Pittman to whom he most owes his gratitude.

Before Pettit apologized publicly, Pittman had spoken to him. He wasn’t a racist, she concluded, but someone who made a terrible mistake. And she extended to him the opportunity to make right on his mistake.  All of us will make terrible mistakes in our lives. All of us will fail. We probably won’t do it in the way Pettit did, and it probably won’t be as public. But it will happen.

We need people like Anastasia Pittman in our lives – people who will extend to us forgiveness and remind us of the possibility of redeeming ourselves.  More important, perhaps, we need people like Pittman in our public life. We need leaders who are willing to unite us, who are willing to see past our mistakes and our differences to see that we can be something better than we are. And we need leaders who won’t leap to every opportunity to point out how wrong the other guy is to show how right they can be.

Levi Pettit did nothing to earn the chance Anastasia Pittman gave him yesterday. His earning is ahead of him now. He has a debt. He seems to understand that. But it’s a debt he can pay, thanks to a woman he didn’t know, who few of us knew, but who we should thank today.

Bush seems to use Sen. Pittman as some trope from the land of “magical Negroes” whose soul purpose is to save white people from their overbearing whiteness.  She seems to function as some female version of Will Smith’s character in “Legend of Bagger Vance,” or Hoke Coleman from “Driving Miss Daisy” being the personified vehicle in which white guilt is assuaged from shame into thanksgiving.  Having an editorial review board thank a black elected official for not pouring salt in an open wound is insulting and borders on the paternalistic. Pittman is quoted as saying that she does not think Pettit is racist.  Be that as it may, because Pettit did not implicate the persons and place he learned the chant, he’s certainly aiding-and-a-betting racist motives.  In this dynamic, to be silent on the issue of racism serves as a tacit support of it.

One of the common problems in misunderstanding racism is the belief that the individual has the personal agency to address the problem.  This misunderstanding assumes that there is a sole love-hate dynamic that exists, e.g. white people who hate blacks are racist.  For what it’s worth, this was certainly a rallying cry of the the modern civil rights leaders with strikingly powerful quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Another famous quote from him is, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.   I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”  Those quotes embody the moral struggle that many saw the modern civil rights movement situated.  While I think there are some moral and ethical overtones to racism that are worth exploring, the ethical and moral dilemma is not what is doing the most tangible damage but rather the very real ways in which institutional and cultural racism manifest.

When it comes to the white people who went on camera saying that they would not vote for Barack Obama in 2008 as president because he was black, the ethical and moral (personal) approach to racism has a clear appeal.  It makes sense to appeal to a person’s humanity encouraging them to actually talk with and interact with black people, moving them from the subjective to the human.  But when discussing the police brutality case of Martese Johnson, or the Confederate flag on Texas state license plates, this approach appears laughable because to do so would ignore the systems and the power dynamics at play.  For Bush and the editorial board at the Morning News, Pittman becomes a scapegoat for having a conversation about the ways in which social, political and economic structures support racist ideals.  My litmus test for a conversation on race is determined by just how disaffected white sensibilities are.  If white sensibilities are well intact and they leave just as comfortable as they arrived then it’s clear that no progress has been made.  When those sensibilities are upset and knocked slightly off kilter, it stands to reason that the conversation has shifted to discussion privilege and power structures.

Robin DiAngelo of Westfield State University published a 2011 journal article “What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” recently and it couldn’t have been more timely.  In an interview with Alternet DiAngelo was quoted as saying

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts,” she said. “This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not ‘doing.’ In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, ‘What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.’ It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.”

DiAngelo frames the conversation around white fragility which she says came about as

[doing] atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.

Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism

Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.

I’ve often talked about this notion when it comes to affecting the sensibilities of white folk and through the lens, it’s clear that Sen. Pittman functions as a black face to protect white fragility.  As DiAngelo elucidates in her interview one must the question to white people who’s sensibilities are infringed what are the rules for persons of color to give feedback about racism and where did these rules come from.  Most importantly whom do they serve.

While the term “house Negro” I think does more harm than good because it fails to ignore the shared plight that both the “house Negro” and the “field Negro” are both enslaved, I can’t help but be bothered and agitated by the optics of Sen. Pittman and her colleagues teaming up with Pettit.  House Negroes, stereotypically speaking, protected the well-being and the sensibilities of their white masters in the ante-bellum era.  To label Pittman one would be to assign her baggage that I’m not all that interested in doing, but it bears saying that whether intentionally or not, she functioned as a black face that protected the fragility of a white community.  Pittman et. al. were so safe that they garnered a thank you from an establishment organization that sees racial protests by blacks as “pouring salt in an open wound” and inflaming the “us vs. them” divisions.  This goes for Common as well.  As a black person in this country, the onus of responsibility for racism in this country is not on me, but on the white people.

The clearly unsettling and uncomfortable fact about racism in this country is that we can’t love it away, pray it away or magically wish black people would stop talking about it and ignore it away.  Racism is grotesque.  It has transmogrified our social landscape for the worse.  That is a truth that we as a country have to accept in order to move forward.  It will take a dismantling of many of our ideals and lifestyles as well as revolutionary restructuring of age-old institutions such as the criminal justice and educational systems.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, we don’t need more elected officials like Sen. Pittman because all that will do is ignore the past sins without any repairing of the wrongs that were done.  To move forward at this point would ignore the severe inequalities that exist in these systems that privilege whites and penalize blacks.

Keep it uppity and keep it radical, JLL

3 thoughts on “The ‘Common’ Problem in Misunderstanding Racism

  1. Thank you. Reconciliation does in fact place a burden on those whose actions (past or present) negatively impacted others. For those whom Manifest Destiny (decreed by God) encouraged using others to promote themselves, it just still feels right and just to continue being advantaged by the ‘privilege.’

    Sin is defined best by those sinned against.

    To acknowledge that one’s advantage is due primarily to disadvantaging ‘others’ is quite a difficult place to explore, recognize, and ultimately acknowledge.

    When will we ever learn? For one to recognize humanity in ‘others’ is to acknowledge one’s own self as being human. History matters, as does its consequences; education matters because as human beings, we can (and must) to better to save us all.

  2. I have grown tired of racism, those who condone it in their silence…and even moreso, those who do not see the path of destruction, on which Blacks are headed. We will continue to debate the issue, as another 50, 75, 100 years clicks by…leaving our children, children’s children, etc., to deal with the obvious. WE ARE TOO DAMN LAZY AND AFRAID, to admit “this will not work and our destruction awaits.

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