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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

My Thoughts on Racism in America

I believe that I have a unique view on racism, or better yet bigotry, in America because I have been exposed to bigotry since nearly my first day in this country and I have been exposed to racists of all stripes for nearly my entire life. I was first exposed to bigotry because I emigrated here with my parents from the Soviet Union in 1981. Within two years, I found myself in the fairly upscale Chicago suburb of Skokie. Once the third graders there found out I was from the Soviet Union, the wrath was unleashed. I was made fun of mercilessly for being a purported communist. (This is of course a ludicrous position since a Communist wouldn't try and leave the Soviet Union but would do everything to stay) The insult that continues to sear in my mind is the Russian pisspot. Throughout junior high and high school, my Soviet roots followed me as a source of everything from fascination to something resembling the freak at the circus to my class mates. A week didn't go by before someone reminded me where I was born and what a peculiarity that was to them.

Because I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago, where Jews like myself were either a majority or large minority, I didn't experience bigotry against my religion till I got to college. Once I got to college I experienced bigotry against my religion. I found myself in a non Jewish fraternity. My frat had more than its fair share of racists and bigots. Much of their racism was directed at African Americans and the N word was common, however they still had plenty o venom left for me. There were plenty of jokes about my "beenie" and other derogatory remarks toward my religion. I objected as often as I could however at some point it became impossible to comment on every single racial slur and inappropriate comment.

I saved my condemnation for my senior speech, one final speech each senior makes to the rest of the frat right before graduating. At our fraternity, the guy that brought us our food was a black guy named Arnold and we had a Hispanic in the frat named Greg Macias. I will clean up the language because I try to keep it clean here, but here is the last twenty seconds of the speech...

One last thing, when I first arrived here, many of you made comments about me being Jewish. At first, I figured it wasn't that big a deal because you weren't that mature, but since its been four years and you still haven't gotten over it. The only thing I can see is that to you I'm just another K%^E, just like Macias is just another S^&C, and Arnold's just another Ni$$er.

By throwing the very derogatory words back in their faces, I turned the tables on their own racism. It was like they were being called the very words that they had so often used to describe others. The reaction was more than I could have ever dreamed. Most of the fraternity either wanted to apologize or explain themselves. I wasn't having it. I said my peace and I challenged their sensibilities and that was the goal. For a while at least, racists had been challenged and they questioned their own racism.

My experience with racists is that most of it comes from an obscene sense of arrogance, or hubris if you will. Most of the racists and bigots I have met, were bigoted because they felt superior to others around them. Most of them not only felt superior to other races and religions but individuals. They didn't just feel bigoted, but they felt they were smarter, funnier, more athletic, and more attractive than those around them. Many of the racists I met came from privileged backgrounds. That may have been where that sense came from. Obviously, the roots of racism takes on many forms but my experience has been overwhelmingly from simple hubris.

What I have learned is that the best way to deal with racism is to confront it, challenge it and condemn it everytime you see it. When I challenged my frat mates and exposed their naked racism, it had a profound effect on them. Some tried to continue to justify their racism to me, but many were genuinely sorry for what they had done. Had other classmates immediately condemned comments like Russian pisspot, the bigotry against my country of origin would not have lasted past the first moments. Had others joined me in condemning the racism in my fraternity, I would never have needed to end my senior speech as I had done.

That is one of my biggest problems with Barack Obama's speech yesterday. He spent much more time explaining Wright's bigotry than condemning it. To me, the roots of his bigotry are frankly totally trivial and irrelevant. Ted Bundy also had a reason for killing. Most child molestors were themselves once molested. That doesn't make their act any less evil. Everyone has a reason for everything. It is much more important to confront, challenge and condemn racism than it is to try and explain and understand it. If we are to deal with our racial divide, then, in my opinion, it is most important that racists be exposed and shunned first and foremost. One of the main reasons I wrote about the racist forum I discovered is because I think it is vital to expose racists wherever they are. Racists thrive because their views are supported by enablers. They find an audience for their hate. From my perspective, if we are to make tangible gains against racism on a grassroots level, then good people can't sit idly by while they witness it against anyone. If racism is to end it must be shunned by society. That starts with each individual taking it upon themselves to recognize, challenge, and condemn it when it is in front of them.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I greatly enjoyed this post.

Anonymous said...

Wow - where do I sign up? :)

Oh, I forgot. I'm white, and I'm from the South. I don't get a special interest group. My redneck cracker ass gets turned out :)

So, interesting story - I end up taking a job in NYC. And given my Southern drawl, I suddenly find myself a prime target for everyone's grievances. Turns out I'm the worst kind of racist, homophobic bigot - cuz I have a drawl, y'see?

But being the light-hearted, good-natured guy I am, I take it all in stride. Oh, those jokes about the South certainly are clever! And politically correct, too. Sure, I'll be your whipping boy - pile it on, folks.

Then I end up at an office party - everyone's drinking... Suddenly this guy I hardly know walks up and violently shoves me. He'd had ENOUGH - and it was high time he took a stand for "his people".

What the... ? Being shoved, I didn't take much notice of his race - I just shoved back. And having had too much to drink, he stumbles backwards, knocking over half the people in the office on his way down -

And WOW! The next day, I was even more racist than I'd ever been. Even got pulled into my boss's office - almost fired :)

It was then that it dawned on me that it wasn't a joke. These people were serious. They weren't kidding.

No, these people were the most bigoted group of folks I'd ever met - and that's saying a LOT for someone who grew up in Dixie.

Oh, and did I mention? I had a drawl. The fatal flaw that instantly transformed into possibly the ONLY "type of person" that, apparently, it's OKAY to hate. I'm a bad "people".

So if you are a member of a special interest group - and you ever care to invite me to your pity party...

Please understand that - not only am I NOT invited to the party -

Apparently, I'm the guy who caused all your problems in the first place.

Stormwarning said...

There is bigotry of many kinds, almost anywhere that you look for it. Some of it is transparent, and some of it is more overt. I grew up in a lily white suburb of NY City. It was all "hunky dory" for the Catholic kids to leave school early to attend catechism classes, but if my Jewish friends and I had to leave a little early for Hebrew school or for one of the Holidays, whoa!

Today, I live where white people are actually a minority, but in a community of tolerance. Yet, one recent comment was interesting...a guy who I've known for a few months said to me, "You mean you're Jewish?" I ignored the comment (it came from the same young man who had asked another gentleman in my office with a last name ending in "stein," "is that Jewish?" - - - it came from the same guy who strangely ran his finger over the mezuzah on the office door of another of my friends).

Even some of the most intelligent people are ignorant. Racial and religious bigotry exists. Its a simple fact...unfortunate, but simple.

Anonymous said...

Whine Whine Whine.

I'm short.
I'm ugly.
I'm poor.
I'm funny colored.
I have an accent.
My teeth are crooked.

Everyone is born with advantages and disadvantages. Get on with life and stop whining.

mike volpe said...

That is quite possibly one of the most dimwitted comments I have ever read. This piece is about racism in America and how to deal with it. We are at the beginning of what was a good and productive discussion before chimed in with a totally nonsensical statement. No one is whining. We are sharing our thoughts on racist experiences and hopefully also coming up with ways to combat racism.

People don't deserve to be demeaned because of their skin color, religion, or accent, and we as a society need to find ways to confront such hate. That is the point of the piece and the comments. That was until you chimed in.

Anonymous said...

Bigotry is not tolerable in my grandmother, my pastor, my wife or my president. If I tolerate it in anyone I associate with I am either a coward or a bigot myself.

Anonymous said...

Most everyone has a story or two to tell about bigotry and racism, and its a good thing for our country to a larger conversation, but in positive climate. The hypocrisy of Obama on this matter, if he leads the conversation, will lead to a polarizing discussion, in fact his campaign about unity is now about race, so the polarization has begun. In a polarized world any comment is met with the response, "you must be a racist." Because of this climate that Obama has helped create he made himself unelectable, he lost the Reagan democrats and created doubt in many others regarding his judgment and character

cadad said...

I don't believe a prior anonymous comment was non-productive or dimwitted. We do need to get on with it.(life, relations,and making them better). The fact is that there always have been, are, and always will be racists. Some racists become that way because of injustices done to them or "their kind" in the past. Others have had their asses whupped by someone getting even for past racism. Some are plain ignorant. By this point in 2008 everyone has an imagined justification for preferring their own to "the other". Obamas Rev. Wright problem is illustrative that reverse racism is alive and well in America. I agree that at every turn racism must be confronted, challenged, and condemned and Obama by doing none of the above shows us that he is not the uniter that he would have us believe he is. It may feel good to vent anger and blame others for your lot in life but you will never improve it and we will never unite as one people. I think it is up to all who have been offended to rise above it and as Dr. King suggested to judge by the content of character. We need to listen to the uniters not the dividers. And yes it is time to move on. Thanks for your post.

mike volpe said...

Cadad, I agree with all your sentiments, except the one that proclaims that those that shared their stories of racism were whining. We shouldn't just accept racism. We absolutely must confront it, and sharing stories about it is a way to start. The stories shared here weren't meant to draw sympathy just examples.

Stormwarning said...

I could easily argue that those who hide behind "anonymous" are the ones we all need to look out for when walking at night.

There is a difference between bigotry and racism, however. Racism is easy. Black, white, red, tan, olive etc. are skin colors. Bigotry comes in many shades. Most of the time, it is also accompanied by ignorance and fear.