Sunday, January 13, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Race Relations 3.0 by Vernon Andrews

Race Relations 3.0: A Black/New Zealand Response to Heterosexual White Male Angst in America
Vernon Andrews

PHOTO: Mike Schinkel

Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of Empirical

Spotlight on Heterosexual White Males

Many whites in the USA–like whites in New Zealand–are weary of dealing with racial issues. Wearing thin of what they see as the continual whining and complaining of minority group members, like the Maori over there or African Americans over here. “Bury the hatchet,” has been the call. The question is, “When will you be happy?” While Blacks and Maori, after bad racial incidents (see the brutal shooting of “hooded youth” Trayvon Martin), echo what Rodney King asked back in the 1990s: “Can’t we all just get along?”

And now there is a new group complaining: white males. Whites ask, “Why do we have to treat white males so bad?”

To avoid the topic of white male dissention altogether would only hold back the progress of everyone else. African Americans must listen and answer even while noting that few listened as many social groups screamed our disapproval of ill-treatment all through American history.

Thus, while people of color and other traditionally disadvantaged groups are experiencing a dawning of opportunities for equality, this gradual national change has signaled, to many heterosexual white males, a twilight of sorts–the end of a prolonged period, hundreds of years, of building, shaping, molding, changing and nurturing a great country that seems to no longer appreciate them. It might even appear to white males that they are despised and hated. That is very easy to understand given all the negative karma thrown your way, white heterosexual males.

Black-White Race Relations 1.0 and 2.0

PHOTO: US Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

No discussion of white male disillusionment–in what many see as a growing multicultural America–is complete without at least some brief historical context. I think we are in a third wave of social interaction between racial groups in the US. The first two waves of race relations frame our social interactions today. And though I highlight black/white interactions given space considerations, it is important to reflect that all immigrant groups have experienced waves of integration/assimilation and their associated problems. Hmong, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and East Indians have all had drama. Likewise, Mexicans and South Americans, and Northern and Western Europeans in the first wave of immigration underwent harsh acculturation, as Southern and Eastern Europeans did later.

We’ve all been through our respective dramas. Native Americans have suffered most, I believe, in wave after wave of broken treaties and encroachment on their territories. “Encroachment” is a polite way of saying “stealing by force.”

The first wave of black-white race relations, let’s call it Black-White Race Relations 1.0, was the slave trade and slavery. This awful period of American history began in 1619 and lasted until 1865, and the end of the Civil War. Subjected to brutal beatings, the everyday rape of women, the separation of families and generations of free labor to help build America was our burden/contribution both before and after the Declaration of Independence. Enough said.

The second wave, let’s call it Black-White Race Relations 2.0, was the period that ranged from 1865-1965. For many, this period represented the true chance for African Americans to be “American” like everybody else. The “Jim Crow” (shorthand for harsh segregation) era was rife with unlawful treatment of black women, men, and children; deep segregation and black codes included racialized drinking fountains, bathrooms, restaurant sections, upstairs (hotter) seating in court houses (as seen in To Kill a Mockingbird), back-door entry into hotel accommodations, banishment from unions, general second-class citizenship, preventative voting ordinances, and, yes, murderous lynchings.

PHOTO: US Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

Over 10,000 lynchings occurred during the period 1890-1900. (My grandfather was born in Louisiana in 1890.) A lynching is when they tie a rope around a person’s neck and hang them from a tree. Lynchings involve rope, a tree, at least one black target, alcohol, anger, flame, white men–and sometimes women and children–picnic baskets, cameras, and laughter. (Most whites I ask have never seen other whites pose for photos at lynchings.) As Billie Holiday noted in a famous jazz song, the remnants of lynchings–the black men hanging from trees–was “Strange Fruit,” indeed.

In some sense, this 2.0 Jim Crow era–this second wave–was even more treacherous than the 1.0 slavery. That’s because the Jim Crow era saw many more black deaths than in slavery–you rarely want to kill free help on the farm. There was also the continual raping of black women (legally 3/5ths human, like black men) who were considered “chattel” and no more than farm animals.

This–all in the face of the supposed freedoms everyone else was experiencing around them as granted by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, blah blah blah. Many of us could be counted as cynical when we hear it implied that black people are now doing the same things to whites.

But nobody’s pain or suffering should be considered trivial or laughed at as insignificant. And many whites have suffered over the years in ways some never speak about. This is a lost art in America–giving ground but a common trait among New Zealanders. In heated arguments when a good point is made by the opposition, common folk and even politicians are given to saying, “Fair enough,” and “Good point,” and “Well said.” These ground-giving statements are what people do when they are concerned about getting to the truth. Bad things happen to good people. There are people of all colors who will steal your lunch money. There are many black neighborhoods, restaurants, and bars white people understandably do not feel comfortable in. I wish it weren’t that way.

I know how exclusion feels. Yes–there are some places you can’t go, some people who will see your skin color and begin stereotyping, and some people who simply will not trust you–just because you are white. Many women feel this way about men. Many homosexuals feel this way about heterosexuals–more on that later. But for now I want to apologize for the many times you may have felt excluded in your own country by people you have worked to hire, befriend, or love. My brothers and sisters have been burned and have developed/earned some deep distrust and insecurities around whites, both male and female. We are, like you, a work in progress. Your white cousins down through history have not been kind.

The hypocrisy of the 2.0 period (Civil War to Civil Rights) was overwhelming for more than African Americans; it was also a difficult time for women (until suffrage), homosexuals (severe beatings or even death in many corners of America if anybody found out you were “funny”), Asians, and many, many others. Eventually the Civil Rights Movement involved many disenfranchised and marginalized groups who banding together with righteous white people in the late 1950s and through the 1960s–special props to Jews–who wanted to see America live up to her high ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”

Post-Civil Rights America

PHOTO: Nathan Forget

Our goals as Americans were high after 1965. Black people sensed the country was finally moving forward. Yet, the outcomes have never quite lived up to the dream. For black people, scoring three percent or five percent of one hundred jobs is seen as a miracle. We count our lucky stars. But for many whites, it appears that anything less than one hundred percent of everything is cause for alarm. I get it. Until the 1940s, every professional basketball, football, or baseball player was a white male. Until very recently, every head of a Fortune 500 company was a white male. Most hockey players, last time I checked, were white males.

On the contrary, you might say, “Check out the NBA–or the NFL: blackness. And there is a Black president.” Yes, there is that. Yet, until 2008 every president and vice president in the history of America was a white male. Let that sink in.

Still, it is a point worth taking: there has been progress in race relations and many more opportunities for blacks and other non-white male heterosexual people post- 1965 (many new opportunities due to laws rather than social altruism). There has been slow but steady progress in integration in every institution since 1965. And that is a good thing. But before you say, “We should therefore only hire the most qualified–since you’ve made it to the top now,” I want you to examine that statement. For that statement implies that throughout history only the most qualified were ever hired, really, for any job. Until, of course, post-1965 when “other” people started applying; then things got all screwed-up.

The major problem white males will have is truly understanding that many of the most qualified never got interviews because of some unchangeable social status they occupied, whether female, black, or gay. And that many, many, many under-qualified white males were promoted ahead of and above women and others who were far more qualified. This still happens–daily. So stop it. Stop implying that things were perfect until now.

As a test of this theory of jobs and meritocracy–the idea that only the most talented are hired–I ask my students to finish the end of this sentence for me, and I will ask you now: “It’s not what you know, it’s ____ you know.” What does this sentence imply? It implies connections to people on the inside are what gets one access and, with some luck and pluck, hired. Well, who likely has had more “connections” than any group in this country? Just guess!

PHOTO: photologue_np
A large “problem” that is arising is that when someone who is different from a heterosexual white male gets hired, the natural implication is: “They are an affirmative action or Equal Opportunity Employment or ‘PC’ or ‘disadvantaged’ hire. They likely could not compete and qualify up against a white male. This is just wrong. Something is wrong in America. And it just started to be wrong.”

No! It has been wrong for centuries–and you are just starting to feel what others have felt for decades on end, without end.

I imagine–and this takes a bit of imagination– that to see every “sure” white advantage being chipped away can be traumatic. I will not try to diminish your pain by telling you that others have had it bad in the past. Your pain and suffering and feeling picked-on is very real. I know how you feel. Jobs are scarce. I know. “Others” are taking jobs you once got. You can no longer count on hiring people who look like you without a fuss. Heck, you might even have to work for someone who does not look like you. I know.

Working for the Man? Maybe not 

My first adult male black mentor to give me advice about the business world was a black brain surgeon who lived in Anderson–right next door to Redding, California. Before I left college I drove to visit him. He mentored me before I went to work at Hewlett-Packard. He educated me on being around white people in an institution. He said, “Buy a classy old car like an MG. They will respect you more. Get a conservative hair-cut. Don’t buy flashy clothing. Notice what shoes your boss is wearing. Wear those. Notice what suit he is wearing. Wear that.”

Of course I didn’t listen to a word he said. I bought an old company fleet clunker,a Ford Grenada. I got a high-top fade hair-cut. And I was definitely refusing to wear shoes like my boss.

My boss wore a skirt and heals. She did not wear “wing-tips,” as my brain surgeon had anticipated. And there you have it. The world had changed by the mid-1980s. For everybody, in every institution, the world has changed. Men work for women, “abled-bodied” work for the “differently abled,” heterosexuals work for homosexuals, Christians work for atheists; whites work for blacks, Asians, and Mexican- Americans; and Republicans work for Democrats.

What a crazy world we live in. Get used to it. This is what you signed up for. You have bragged and boasted to any country who would listen (and especially to those who would not) about America as a bastion of freedom and liberty for all–and equality of opportunity. It just took awhile for America to get there. But we still aren’t quite where we need to be–or will eventually become. But I do know how you feel, white heterosexual male. It must be confusing. It must challenge your ego. You must feel frustrated. If you drop to the floor in frustration, curl up in a ball and let loose years of pinned-up anger and resentment at social “change,” then we can now truly say you have arrived to the America everyone else has been living in.

White Men Desperately Seeking Advice

Robert F. Kennedy
PHOTO: Library of Congress

And just WHO might be the best people to give advice to whites–white heterosexual males in particular–as to how to navigate the rocky waters of diversity, inclusion, and social change? Where on earth should white men go when they feel alienated and backed against a cultural, racial, and “PC” wall? Why, the very people who have had to wait patiently in line for these many years for diversity and inclusion and “liberty for all” to take hold.

If you are a white male and are facing difficulty at your job–if you think someone got promoted over you because they were “different,” this is what you need to do: say to yourself, over and over, “It is not about race. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to work twice as hard.” Never think it is about race –even if it appears so. Always take the high ground.”

Always seek to increase your knowledge. And for God’s sake, learn something about the “Other.” Learn about groups different from you. Invite people to join your local Rotary Club or Toastmasters Club–or Kiwanis, or bowling, or poker group–who are different than you. Invite women. Start the process. Begin to think outside the box of “It has always been this way–and it has always worked for me. Why are we changing?” Know that this change is all American and good. So, get back out there and learn some stuff.

It will take time. I have spent the past thirty-six years listening to white music, on occasion dating white women, befriending white guys, listing to white professors lecture me, watching sports with white people–and I still have little idea of who white people really are. And I have put a LOT of work in.

All I know is this–if you want help, come to us. Come to women–they will tell you how to better cope with being passed-over in jobs or explain how to cope with being underpaid. Talk to gays and lesbians–they will tell you what it is like to have to hide their identity while “straights” of all races and religions joke about “homos”; talk to someone in a wheelchair about being patronized and talked to as if they are deaf (or people patting them on the head or shoulders); talk to an abused woman about what it is like having to lie to family, police and authorities about an abusive relationship–while everyone gives men (of all races) the benefit of the doubt and blames her problems on her. We are all here–waiting with open arms to invite you into the hard luck club.

You are the last possible members. Everybody else gained membership many years ago. We’ve all been in this non-exclusive club for centuries: Gays, women, blacks, Mexicans, Indians, Jews, Muslims, “the differently abled,” the transgendered, Africans, Asians–everybody, except able-bodied, heterosexual, white males. But membership doesn’t mean we are perfect and without fault.

Hard-Luck Club Membership Implies Imperfection

PHOTO: Fibonacci Blue

The Hard-Luck Club: for Americans who have perpetually been dissed. Come on in, but be warned. We’re not perfect. The religious folks in here still fight with one another, gays and lesbians can be racist, blacks can be homophobic, sexist and misogynistic; women can be racist, homophobic, and righteous in their Christianity–hey, we all got problems in here in The Club that we are working on. But we have one common denominator, when we step back and reflect–we’ve all been marginalized. And sometimes we resent that fact–and take it out on ourselves. And we take it out on you. We apologize for our displaced aggression.

While some may think that you have not truly earned your way into the “hard luck club,” just the feeling that you THINK you belong is good enough for me. You see– and feel–that there has been a change in the workplace.

As I would tell my students in my “Managing Diversity” course–which for them, really, was signing up for a course they thought was–“How to Manage Those Other People”: “You will never get a chance to manage difference unless you can be managed by difference. That is to say, when you leave college, odds now are very high that at some point during your career you will be managed by a woman, someone gay or lesbian, black, etc. If you don’t learn about the other–i.e., get tutored by someone about what jokes not to tell, how to be respectful of other cultures, and how to rid yourself of the stereotype that those “others” aren’t just as smart if not smarter than you–then you will never get promoted to have the chance to manage others. You will likely be fired. We can help with that tutoring.”

Race Relations 3.0

So what is the third wave of race relations–the 3.0–comprised of ? I have a perspective on what I think should happen on the individual level. I will leave the institutional level discussion for another time.

As I have risen from the ashes of a deep and devastating journey into the abyss of pain, self-doubt, confusion, and anger since being back in the USA, I have come out the other end with nothing but love. And respect. And a desire for more knowledge and growth. I think that is the next wave of successful race relations: those people who truly open their hearts to learn to love the other as their equal, who endeavor always to respect those who are different without judgment and stereotyping, and who continually seek to obtain more knowledge as they grow their circle of friends–those will be the winners.

I admire whites who step out and say, loud and clear, “We, as whites, have had–and continue to have–social privileges we are not even aware of. Like a fish swimming does not notice water.” Stephen Lennstrom, a student at Simpson College in Redding, California, beautifully elaborated on his experiences as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) male: “An unfortunate byproduct of our current social system is that those who receive privileges for their race (like me) often cannot see the oppression of others. We don’t experience the sideways looks. No one crosses the street when they see me coming toward them. This creates an out of sight, out of mind mentality for White America which arrogantly and blissfully scoffs at the minority who cries out for attention. ‘We’ve dealt with you before,’ says White America, ‘We’re past issues of race.’” Beautiful.

The way forward for all groups–blacks included–is to continue to seek to genuinely love and know the other. And while we as African American, Asian, transgendered have become weary of explaining who we are, we must redouble our efforts as ambassadors of culture and communicate openly with those who genuinely seek to understand. We can sass them as necessary when they step out of line, but with a gentle hand that recognizes that the learning process is slow. It took me years to figure out white people have about twenty shades of blond hair. Who would of thought?

I love America. I implore white males to love her, too: the new America that is taking shape. She has been battered, she has abused others, and she definitely has her faults. But this is our only country, and love of our fellow Americans–young and old, new immigrant or recent, of every shade, can never be a bad thing. Like they say, dance like nobody’s watching. Love like you’ve never been hurt before. And apply for that job like you are God’s gift. If they don’t accept you, walk away with your head held high. You should know that you will, in the end, get the love in return at some point in time.

Burning Man sculpture "Bliss Dance"
PHOTO: Jennifer Morrow

Follow the path set out by Stephen Lennstrom at Simpson College. He has been added to my list of exemplars–of people I will interview as I write about those white role models who show the way for all of us about acceptance. Whites, when they do stand for equality, inclusion, and diversity, are the biggest rock stars in the universe. (Tim Wise and Joe Feagin, both “white” whiteness scholars, are my biggest heroes in this field.) Go to the Burning Man Festival sometime: you will see tens of thousands of radical inclusionists hell-bent on accepting everyone regardless of their social markers. When white inclusionists speak about the esteemed qualities they see in non-whites they speak from a space of giving away the power–and few of us in the hard-luck club will ever have to give up as much as whites do when they concede, “Yeah, we’ve had it kinda good, come to think of it. We need to ensure everybody can feel as good as we do, which might diminish our life-chances a bit, or maybe not. Maybe we’ve been missing out on the pleasure of other opinions, foods, cultures, and ways of seeing the world that others might bring to the table. Maybe there is enough for everybody to prosper.”

Exemplars of Inclusion

I collect stories of exemplars–white males and females primarily–who are shining beacons to others of love, insight and altruistic inclusion:

Those whites who helped in the civil rights movements to register voters: exemplars.

Those whites who worked as abolitionists and in the Underground Railroad to ferry black slaves to freedom: exemplars.

Those whites today who acknowledge advantages, social structural privileges, and that other groups face a far more difficult walk up the social ladder: exemplars.

Christians who fight for the rights of and inclusion of Muslims and Jews: exemplars.

Men who fight for women’s rights and against sexism and violence: exemplars.

Blacks who fight for the rights of Native Americans or Mexican Americans: exemplars.

Straights who fight for the rights of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals: exemplars.
Those who volunteer for the underprivileged of all ilk, who help the homeless, who donate to social causes, who help when not even asked: exemplars of altruism and selflessness. 

You will never hear the above white people saying, “I wish I were black–they get all the jobs!” Just like you will never hear any of the above saying, “I wish I were in a wheelchair–I’d get a good parking space at the grocery store.”

If you see someone of a different “background” get a job over you, know that with that job comes the “wheelchair” of their past existence. You can’t have the “space” without the accompanying social experience of having to live as an “out-group” member. To de-couple the two, to want “the space”–or some small accrued social advantage–and not really the drama of the “disability” is the crux of where the problem originates.

But with love, respect, knowledge, and growth, you’ll get ahead in the new America. That is what the third wave of Race Relations, 3.0, is based on: 1) love and openness, 2) respect for others, 3) a deepening understanding and appreciation for the experience of groups other than yours, 4) the ability to continually adjust, change, and grow in your knowledge, and 5) a grounding in the knowledge that there is more than enough for everybody–if not in this application or that job, then in the next. Lord knows I have learned that now.

Hold your head high, white heterosexual males. You are living in a country far closer to realizing its original high ideals of inclusion, diversity, and justice for all. New Zealanders would be proud of our future egalitarian and meritocratic culture. And my mother always loved white exemplars–the people who “got it.”

Be sure to visit the Empirical website to subscribe!

If you are a writer and are interested in writing for Empirical, check out this link to find out how to submit.

No comments:

Post a Comment