Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Racism: Not Just for Northerners

Here’s what makes the racial tension in Miami different than the racial tension up north. Growing up in central New York, I knew I was enlightened because only southerners were racists.

Forget my seventh grade science teacher, who said there were no instances of absolute black hair in nature, then pointed to where I sat between a black girl and a Chinese boy and said, “Well, maybe that table, but that’s about it,” in a dismissive, let’s-get-back-to-the-point tone. Forget that for me diversity was the two black kids, one Eskimo, and the handful of Asians and Latinos I went to school with. Forget that we few dusky faces came to represent the entirety of our respective races as we were called upon to answer our classmates’ often confounding questions about what, where, when, and how. Forget that co-workers and I swapped “the first time I saw a black person” stories as part of our getting-to-know-you routine (apart from Liz Ramirez, who, when it was her turn, smiled and said, “The first time I saw a white person…”). Forget that our northern enlightenment depended on how effectively we kept our racial populations segregated. Forget reality and learn the “truth.” School taught me northerners like us ended the Civil War and conquered racism, that racism itself was a southern problem.

Then I moved to Virginia. Interracial couples walked hand-in-hand all over the place, and the only one staring was me. I saw a wedding between two white people where the best man and two bridesmaids were black - and it wasn’t a movie. Black people ate next to me at restaurants. They shopped with me and worked with me.

By the way, I don’t know how folks I’m calling black feel about being called black but it’s my shorthand for telling this story. I hate the term “Native American.” I’m not saying dislike; I’m saying hate. I wasn’t invited to the vote that determined when I was supposed to stop calling myself Indian, and I don’t give a damn that the name is based on faulty navigation. That whole wave of political correctness grates on my nerves because the default setting, the given, is American, and it’s meant to be synonymous with white. Therefore I can’t bring myself to use African American, sorry. If we need labels, I tend to prefer “people of color,” but it doesn’t really speak to my point because I’m taking about one particular color.

Anyway, back to seeing lots of black people every day of my life for the first time in my life. I realize I’d been fed bullshit for twenty some odd years. The enlightened, tolerant, wishy-washy lack of racism I grew up with relied on keeping all people of color invisible.

Moving to Miami blew the definitions I’d learned all to hell. Someone who could be identified as African American in a picture would really be South American or Caribbean or European. Ditto the white folks. You might think that girl’s Spanish, but guess what? She’s Greek. Or Indian. Or Middle Eastern. It’s all a mish mash and ultimately it won’t matter, if we keep loving on each-other until no one knows who’s what.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. Racism is a blight on society and it’s dehumanizing to individuals. The world will be better off when it’s gone. But is homogeneity the only solution?

I want my Eskimo families gathered around a seal and ripping its raw flesh to pieces for sustenance. I want my gentile southerners and upper-crust northerners taking cocktails at five and calling it Attitude Adjustment Hour. I want my Haitians speaking English, Spanish, French, and Creole, and I want theirs names to be an exotic confusion of genders and verbs not normally lending themselves to proper nouns. I love our differences, and would prefer we celebrate and not eliminate them.

Places like Miami, New Orleans, Richmond, places where different races lay cheek by jowl, we have to get along. We rely on a rainbow coalition of colors to get us through our days, regardless of if we like each-other, whether or not we want to need each-other.

My solution to end racism? Forced proximity for people of all races. It’s way too much effort to hate the people who live with you.

And if you make that kind of effort, you deserve to die alone.


  1. I feel much the same.

    A piece of perfection will be lost when the individuality, both of physical racial characteristics and of national character from cultural experience and history, are gone through a blending over generations. The non homogenous whole is richer because we are different and can hopefully appreciate,celebrate and encourage those very differences, including faith - together.

    There's no such thing as a 'pure' race anyway, but there are a lot of bigots out there waiting to be slapped.

  2. That's one of the main reasons I love Miami.

  3. Al, I figured a history buff like yourself would appreciate the bittersweet blending of everyone.

    As for slapping bigots, I've got a large palm.

    Stacy, Miami took some time to grow on me. But it's home now.