Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Race with life

What is a girl to write about when she can't write about life?

"From the inside no family ever seems typical," said Sarah Palin in her Republican Convention speech. It was a line, according to one commentator on PBS, about the political news of the week--of a conservative "family values" vice-presidential female candidate with a daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock.

As David Brooks noted, there "is still no policy" in the Republican language--at least not from Palin, who spoke about Obama and McCain in almost equal parts, though not equal tones--especially not if we are to elect someone because he was a brave POW decades ago.

I have no doubt that McCain's experience as a POW was treacherous and that his manner of surviving it and the honor of extending it is more than significant. But am I supposed to choose a President because he was an extraordinary POW?

I put that aside. In fact, I put aside everything but today's experience of being alive--this past 24 hours only--as a human being.

Fact is, when you look at the two candidates you see McCain, a 72-year-old White man, and Barack Obama, a 47-year-old mixed-race man.

Mostly, people will say a White man is running against a Black man.

Yes, it is a historic presidential race, but I venture to say that the day-to-day experience of life is different for these men and that a large part of that difference is based on their race.

I cannot even write about the Presidency without talking about race. And in talking about race these days, I freeze up a bit.

Anyone should be glad of that. Any discussion of race should be carefully considered and words should be carefully chosen; here I just attempt to gather my thoughts--my blog the sifter.

Here are a few of my thoughts on race, as a non-white, sometimes white-looking woman (pass-er) who has been told she would not be welcomed by white people if they were racist, who has been teased as a child because of her race, who doesn't fit any particular category, but who has quietly observed several categories--if people could be categorized, which they cannot. What is the right word? My thoughts:

Racism. Racists. Words that strike a chord and are not labels that most people want associated with themselves.

But what is racism? It's not just the beliefs of people that are so strong they attack people who are of different lines than their own. It's not just swastika wearing extremists or terrorists who belong to gangs and attack based solely on labels of opposites. It's also that subtle institutionalized racism--the racism that causes groups to live in separate neighborhoods or hold different levels of jobs; institutionalized racism is that which has carried on through the generations and will take years and major revolution to change.

And then there is the quiet racism of words. When I heard students tell jokes based on the race of anyone, even their own, I would stop the class and talk about why the power of those words were beyond offensive and even dangerous. I'd talk about how making fun of your own race was sometimes a method of self-protection; participating in self-effacing jokes just to be a part of high school tom-foolery. I'd talk about how making jokes about others could hurt anyone in the room--you never know who is mixed (look at me), you never know who has a best friend that is the butt of the jokes, you never know who is just wise enough to be hurt by those words and know that she wants to make changes, you never know who is pained enough by those words that she wants to disappear.

Racism is as subtle as a cell phone joke, a descriptive word that jumps into 2008 from 1950. That kind of racism is stealthy and sometimes the people participating do not even recognize it as such. But would those jokes be told if a Black person, an African-American, were in the room? If the answer is no, maybe the words should be reconsidered.

These words have power. But if the label racist is also offensive, if one is offended by the implication of possibly being considered racist, then one is either offended or actually thinking about the possibility of change. If one thinks nothing of it, what does one think?

Back to our presidential candidates:

I have actually heard someone say about Barack Obama, "I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but what if he is a terrorist and they're trying to get him elected to the White House?"

I have to wonder if anyone has ever asked that question about a White candidate. I have to wonder if that question would be asked if Obama's middle name were not Hussein. Is it just because he's Black? (It was, I should say, a White woman who posed the question.)

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