Thursday, March 5, 2009

hope that racially mixed areas inspire a new paradigm

[This post, by guest contributor Jessie, was originally published at Duke City Fix, a community website about Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to the US Census Bureau, New Mexico's population is about 44% Hispanic or Latino, 42% white, 10% American Indian, and 3% black. Jessie works as a paramedic. She grew up in rural southwest Virginia, and she recently spent two months in a walking cast.]

Red and yellow, black and white

In all that time off my feet, I did a lot of reading, even for me. As I've gotten my fingers in more pies, my internet time has fallen off, most days amounting to a quick update from my core favorite sites, a peek at my email, and not much else. Being confined to a seated position gave me plenty of time to catch up.

One evening in the midst of all this doing-nothing-on-my-feet, I read most of the archives of stuff white people do (not to be confused with stuff white people like--one is far more giggle-inducing than the other). I don't know much about this Macon character, but his blog gives me the sense that he's young, earnest, and tends toward self-flagellation in the guise of academic inquiry. I went to college with a couple hundred Macons. Nonetheless, he's generally got some fine points to make and/or link to. I can forgive the occasional reach, like when he frames an appreciation of deadpan humor as latent racism or suggests that the Obama jack-o-lanterns that populated my neighborhood last October are symptomatic of racism and not a simple convergence of enthusiasm and a squash billboard.

I'm about as white as they come, and I grew up in an overtly, unapologetically racist environment. We're talking a county with an active KKK membership, where people seriously used "War of Northern Aggression" when referring to the American Civil War, where there was a photo of a lynching still hanging in the courthouse, where "nigger" was a term used unflinchingly and without embarrassment in any company.

I also grew up poor, and that complicates any discussion I have about race. I can't separate the two. The older I get, the more anti-capitalist and anarcho-socialist my politics become, and the more I think about race within this framework. Marketing taught us to equate diamonds with love for corporate benefit; marketing also created the white race for corporate benefit. Tossing the Irish and Italian and German under the same umbrella and calling it White, calling it clean and good, was capitalist evil-genius at its finest. Were the working poor to unite, we might have been a force for considerable change. But as long as the "white" poor can be kept fighting for scraps with the nonwhite poor, the real opponent escapes with reputation intact (he's white, so he must be on our side, right?) and profits still roll in.

Any discussion of race is also a discussion of class, for me. The upper-middle class black folks I encountered when I changed high schools were, to me, as much from another planet as their white socioeconomic counterparts. Certainly, I missed nuances of privilege, but to my perception at the time, class trumped race. Money and parents with letters behind their names gave those kids something (many, many things, actually) that my white skin alone never brought me. I felt a considerably more distinct kinship with poor classmates of any race or ethnicity than I did with rich kids of any heritage. Still do, come to that. I don't pretend to know how many more barriers my nonwhite peers have faced, but I do know that we as the multicolored poor are all pissed upon by those who profit from our labor. The Man and his machine may be the closest we'll come to that beloved American myth of the colorblind society--we're all green to him.

But I still do know that white privilege exists. I see the preponderance of white faces in the media and the corner offices and the history books. I know that I'll probably never be asked where I'm "really from." My color lends me a certain amount of automatic credibility within the dominant society.

I know this.

So now what?

Here's my biggest stumbling block when it comes to race: When an accident of genetics makes me part of a group that has perpetuated inequality and hatred, is there really anything I can do about it? However much I'm able to cull insidious racism from my psyche, my skin will always make me an unwilling participant in the racism of other people. And what in the world am I supposed to do about that?

You know I can't stand feeling impotent. Show me a problem, I want to fix it, or at least believe that I'm not making things any worse. But walking around with white skin in a world that punishes others for not also having it makes me the conspirator I never asked to be. What's a white gal to do about white privilege?

And let's not forget that living in New Mexico adds an interesting dimension to this issue. Living in this state, I don't see only my own skin color reflected back at me everywhere I turn. I would love to say that the experience of having a preponderance of nonwhite bosses and neighbors and coworkers means that white privilege is slipping a little here. But the problem is that New Mexico, as multi-cultural as we are, is still part of an always-on America. I don't know that seeing so many brown faces in positions of respect and authority here in our little town can compete with the sea of white faces that barrage us from television and film and billboards and book covers. My technically minority status here might not make one lick of difference.

I know that folks like Macon criticize white people for only examining race with nonwhites. I know that people of color don't have to be the canvas upon which white folks work out their problems with race and privilege. My logic tells me that Vermont could just as easily be the incubator in which we foster a new paradigm. But might New Mexico not have a special advantage? With so much of what makes this state special coming from its non-white history, couldn't this be the place to change how historically minority populations are acknowledged and celebrated? Could a new sort of America start here?


  1. macon.. you are the privileged one though you may not appreciate it... you have an gained understanding that many whites will not dare to investigate because of fear...
    i have lurked your blog for a while and i appreciate your point of view.. you remind me of my best friend - everyone black who meets her takes me aside at some point and points out that ''she white'' i reply.. ''so.. and your point is?''
    i live in the uk so it may be different here.. the stiff upper lip racism still exists... england came to power on the back of slavery too as you know - england really ramped up the trade for sugar and cotton and made it what it became.. i work in the 'city' - the equivalent of your wall street.. lloyds is down the road, i recently found out that the hospital that i am being treated at was founded on a bequest by a slave owner and sugar trader.. a couple years ago a building down the road went up and they named it 'plantation place'.. i have never and will never step foot or work in that building - when i mentioned this in passing to a work colleague they looked at me with such confusion and asked 'why not?' i told them why and found out that they didn't know what a plantation was... they were not taught about the slave trade in class.. smh..
    i felt sorry for them.. such ignorance about their own history..
    i digress but what i am trying to say is that it will never go away.. however the more people like you we have - of every hue - the better off we will be...

  2. Nice thoughts, Jessie, i think you're on a good path. If you're answering quesitons here, is there anything about New Mexico besides its high racial diversity that makes it promising? Are minorities there actually treated any better than elsewhwere? Are the white people in general more enlightened than elsewhere?

    I think you are on a good path (away from a less conscious white version of yourself). but I think white people should especially look at themselves and their communities critically, as much as they want to look instead at racially mixed populations as the new paradigm for the future (that IS the future--whites will no longer be the majority soon, tho not soon enough).

    And YES to more discussion of race plus class. Lot of white people have more in common with some PoC than they do with some other white people, that's for sure.

  3. "Tossing the Irish and Italian and German under the same umbrella and calling it White, calling it clean and good, was capitalist evil-genius at its finest."

    I'm old enough to remember the times when a lot of groups now considered white weren't, and when you never heard the word 'Judeo' with the word Christian - or Catholic for that matter. Amazing now how JFK barely got elected for his religion.

    I expect the next tactic will be for a gradual calling us 'North Americans' rather than Americans as they further plunder the US, Canada and Mexico and make us one country.

  4. I hope I'm not off topic. But, Macon D how do you feel about the Freemen bureau law issue? The five civiled tribes of America will not let descents opf Freemen, like myself, to be apart of the tribe because they believe the slaves were only black. That isn't true though because they were mix race people. Most of the chiefs and the people in the tribe are mostly white or "white-looking." I'm Afro-american, Cherokee and irish. But I look more black and native american with a hint of red in my hair. But, I believe the tribes would deny me for being too "black looking." Why is it that White America doesn't acknowledge mix race people?

  5. Chrissy, that does seem off-topic, but definitely important--could you please write more to me about it?

    unmakingmacon @ gmail . com

    I'd be glad to respond that way.

  6. In _The Future is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet_, Virgilio Elizondo, the author, expresses a similar hope about San Antonio, Texas: that the close proximity and intermixing of different races will spawn a new era of cultural understanding.

    Having grown up in a fairly racially balanced though very much racially divided region--NE North Carolina-- myself, I have my doubts about this assertion.

    And though "The Man and his machine" (capitalism, I'm assuming?) may be seen as the great equalizer, it often hinders a straightforward coming to terms with white privilege ... Give a few tokens a few top-level positions, and everything--on the racial relations front--is supposedly right with the world.

    Generally, I'm an optimist, and I'd be happy to be proven wrong in this case, but until the normative script of accepted economic inequality is questioned, fraught racial relations, in my opinion, will continue to linger as merely a symptom of a larger problem.

  7. Thanks, Macon, for the post. And thanks to ya'll for reading. Sorry it took me a few days to get back to the computer to respond.

    fred, to answer your questions about NM: I've only got my previous homes for comparison, but I can tell you that NM is more integrated than anywhere else I've lived. There are far more Hispanic folks in prominent positions of power or authority, from the governor down through the ranks of state & local politics, and including other very public figures, like news anchors and business owners and such. Living here, brown faces pass legislation, enforce the laws, tell you the news, and sign your paychecks, in addition to mowing your grass or clearing your plates. I think that's pretty significant right there, and changes what's "normal" in a pretty fundamental way.

    But is racial prejudice still around? Of course. In Albuquerque, the neighborhood everyone calls the War Zone (despite City Council's official name change to the International District) is primarily people of color; the very wealthy neighborhoods are still significantly whiter. In my job, I have to interact with the police on a pretty regular basis, and I see a pretty consistent bias in how people are treated based on their skin color. I don't hear "nigger" any more, but I do hear "beaner" on a pretty regular basis.

    But there are neighborhoods that are pretty evenly mixed (some more harmoniously than others), and I've been to quite a few parties & dinners that looked like Benetton ads. Most companies of any size seem to be pretty well integrated, including much of the management. There's still more to be done, but New Mexico seems to be ahead of the game in some ways (and so far behind in others...our poor stats on poverty and child welfare and so forth speak for themselves).

    Are white folks here more enlightened? I don't know. In some ways, yes. Most of my white friends and acquaintances are bilingual, and direct their volunteer work toward working with poor, Hispanic populations. But this opens up another can of worms... is it insulting or pandering or racist to undertake such work? I've asked these same white friends if they don't think they're fetishizing people of other races with their work. (I tried to have this conversation with a white acquaintance who for a long time declared she would bear no children of her own and instead adopt only children of color...didn't go so well.) I don't know what the answer is, but it plays back into the larger question of how one is supposed to be white and not be an asshole. Working with communities of color could be pandering or interfering or controlling, but standing apart could be arrogant. I don't know what the answer is.

    Something I do find interesting is the layers of racism here, if only because I'd never before encountered a more than two-dimensional racial environment. Where I grew up, race was really only a question of black and white. Here, the dynamic is more complex. There's your sadly average white-vs-everyone-not-white racism. Then there's the light-skinned brown people vs the dark-skinned. Then there's the Hispanic vs Native. Then there's the large population of folks who are as pink-skinned as I am, but have Spanish surnames, identify as Hispanic, and declare brown pride. There are the Hispanic families of Mexican derivation who have been in NM on the same land for generations, and their beef with the newly arrived immigrants from Mexico. Then there are the smaller populations of black folks, and people of various Asian ethnicities. There's a lot to see and live and think about here when it comes to race. That diversity has made me grateful to have lived here for a while.

  8. Thank you for stopping by, Jessie, and thanks again for consenting to the cross-posting. NM does sound like a different place in terms of race, in several ways. It's good to hear of not just a mix of whites and PoC, but also of PoC in positions of power. As Jackson Brown points out, though, it's hard to imagine that (often-hidden) class inequities are all that different there. Hopefully, the dislodging of whiteness from its normative centrality will nevertheless help to counter such inequities.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code