This is a guest post by plastiknoise, who writes by way of introduction,
I am a freshman in college, and although I'm originally from Pakistan, I have lived in the United States for more than 16 years, and in Texas for more than 10. I have also mostly lived around minorities for my entire life. My academic and social justice interests center around anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and neo-Marxist theory, as well as resistance to globalization, and domestic efforts to promote peace, tolerance, awareness of privilege, and combating racism. I have a blog, where I post about left-leaning critical theories and high fashion. I'm a lot more fun than this description sounds.
With this post, I'd like to ask swpd readers for tips on dealing with situations such as this, and for advice on how we can foster dialogue about race relations within communities that may be resistant or apathetic to it (for example, college students in a Southern university).
The other day, one of my teachers messaged everyone and linked an editorial on the Virginia governor’s effort to promote a holiday for the Confederacy, or whatever it is that he wants to do. Roland S. Martin, an African American journalist, was defending himself after a lot of backlash for an initial piece that he wrote, in which he equated people who celebrate the legacy of the Confederacy with people who celebrate Nazis.
In this new piece, Martin argues that we cannot turn a blind eye to the action of the Confederates -- who so many are defending as just "doing what they thought was right, and defending their homeland, which is noble. Slavery was not the point of the Civil War, it was not the only issue at hand" -- and yet also maintain that Islamic extremists are terrorists. He says that both parties justify their opinion the same way, and use violence to extend political and moral goals.
Read the article here, if you’d like.
In class, we discussed whether or not we thought Martin was accurate. As soon as I saw this message, I really dreaded this topic. I attend university in Texas, but in a minority-majority city and college. That specific class is about half minorities and half whites. I was dreading this topic because I knew that all the pocs would be sitting there thinking, "ok, this is kinda wrong. I have XYZ personal experience with racism, and some of it is due to slavery and how we treat foreigners in this country."
But I also knew that few would say anything, and that the white folk in the room would talk about how the Confederates were also defending their state and their interpretation of how a government should work, that they were fighting for their land, and that that is honorable.
I further sensed that I would say something using my background in critical race discourse, and it would go over everyone’s heads. And that of course, I’d get frustrated that people can gloss over the whole, owning HUMAN BEINGS thing, and focus on, "oh they were just doing what they thought was right."
And that’s exactly what happened.
Many of the white folks emphasized cultural relativism, maintaining that although slavery was a horrible thing, the Southerners didn’t know any better, and that we cannot judge them. They were just trying to protect their economy -- look at how the Southern states plummeted when slaves were taken away. They were also defending themselves against invaders, against pillagers, and defending their land. Wouldn’t you do that?
There was a student, who was black, sitting there and waiting to speak. It seemed like the discussion was making him uncomfortable. When he spoke up, he addressed how you could never justify slavery and that states’ rights were well and good, but how come everyone keeps forgetting these Southern folks had slaves?
One white kid said, well racism doesn’t really exist anymore. Neither does slavery. So it’s ok if we honor Confederates. They can’t do any more harm. Another guy said, oh well, you know General Lee was anti-slavery, but he did what he did because that’s what his people wanted.
The professor herself (a real nice gal, and white), started out the discussion on what I thought was a loaded statement. She talked about how anthropologists would study native populations or hunter-gatherer societies, and how if a child was born disabled they would kill it, and how the WHITE EUROPEAN anthropologists thought this was really terrible. She talked about the Nazis, and how some people thought Hitler was doing what was good for Germany. How far, she asked, should we take cultural relativism?
This was a horrible place to start the discussion, I thought. First of all, in regards to the hunter-gatherer societies, she did not even explain why they would kill people who were old, disabled, or unproductive. Many of these communities are acutely aware of the carrying capacity of their land. If every member cannot contribute, or if some member must be taken care of and will consume resources and not output anything, then the entire community is at risk. This is logical, for those societies, because they understand how fragile and scarce resources are for them.
Of course this doesn’t mean Americans should do this, or anyone else, but she didn’t even try to explain these claims. Even though she’s lovely, she once described a process where certain urban populations leave and certain others move in -- she was talking about gentrification. When I asked her, "Is gentrification what you mean?" she answered that gentrification isn’t all bad. Maybe those people don’t want to live there anymore. That’s why they move, not because rich whites come in and mess with the property values because they think poor pocs are "urban blights."
When I spoke up a few times and said, well I think you guys are forgetting that POCs are still really oppressed and face systemic discrimination all the time, and celebrating the folks responsible for promoting this discrimination will not help matters at all -- no one spoke to that. The white folks especially would jump around the issue of race. They did not acknowledge that the South is still facing de facto segregation, or that injustice still exists. They did not acknowledge that ending slavery was a major outcome of the Civil War.
I told them, if it was only about their economy, if they didn’t care about the slaves at all, then why did blacks have to deal with Jim Crow laws? Why are there still segregated proms in Mississippi? Why do people of color still face discrimination if the origins of this country had nothing to do with race?
I also mentioned, and this did indeed go over their heads, that the pattern of European and American conquest, the process of colonization, the idea of slavery, is not just, hey let’s force some people to do our work for us. These things are all about preserving a racial order and hierarchy. The South was operating on an economy that completely depended on Africans being exploited, not just anyone, but Africans specifically. This doesn’t change things, this doesn’t make the oppression any less real. Just because maybe you think white people in the South didn’t know any better doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt people.
Someone mentioned, we cannot judge people from history based on our values. And I said, sure. Morality evolves as humans evolve. But you know what? The subject at hand is, do we celebrate these folks NOW, in states that have large and marginalized populations of POCs? How are they going to feel? What are they going to think? Can I start celebrating Bin Laden because he’s a great event planner, and just say, "oh, those three thousand people that died, that’s pretty bad, but that’s not all that happened!"
But no one spoke to this, or even mentioned that yeah, I guess it is true that whenever Europeans take over, they place themselves at the top, that oh yeah, there are POCs in these areas -- wonder how they feel?
The last thing the professor did was point to a black girl who had not spoken, and was sitting there looking kind of depressed. “What do you think?”
The girl looked a little shocked that the professor had called on her. I don’t know if she was thinking about how the professor was probably only doing this because she's black, and she wants all these white people to know how a real live black person feels.
The girl just muttered the same thing, "no I don’t think its right. We can’t celebrate them…"
While I disagreed that the Confederates should be considered ‘terrorists’ as defined in the status quo, I said there's absolutely no way should they be celebrated, even if they were stupid ignorant folk who don’t know better. This suggested celebration is offensive to the millions of people who worked and still work against white supremacy and the mess that white imperialism has left behind, and to the millions who died and suffered because their exploitation was justified on some political level by whites.
To say that is not to make a personal judgment on the people who were caught up in things they couldn’t control, which is what many white people dwelled on. Instead, it's a judgment against the claims that we should promote things that normalize racism, that we should promote the idea that oppression is acceptable on some level, and that we should promote the idea that colonial powers do not conquer others and establish racial hierarchies.
I don’t think any of the white people understood this. When whites fail to understand how emotional and real oppression is, they cannot blame POCs for always looking at them suspiciously, or for being "radical" in thinking that major change needs to take place, and that whites need to be knocked off their pedestal.
If they don’t understand that we suffer, even if the causes are unintentional at times, if they don’t realize the implications and effects of their legacy on non-whites, then how are we supposed to not feel resentful?