Sunday, March 29, 2015

Confessions of a Lifelong Racist

I went to an excellent talk at this EARCOS Conference by Anne Sibley O’Brien. The title was: The Formation of Racial and Cultural Identity and she came to it from an unusual perspective—her story as a minority white American growing up in Korea. Though a minority in one sense, she also had the entire history of white dominance and privilege in the background that allowed her to read books and see movies and watch TV where she was the norm. That certainly made her experience quite different from say, a Chinese American growing up as the only Chinese family in town (as the main character in Lisa See’s China Doll or my childhood friend, David Quon did), with Charlie Chan showing in the movies and no one in the school books resembling them.

Her talk unleashed a stampede of wild horses which I’ve been trying to corral into coherent thought, but it’s hopeless. The needed discussions are so profound and so various and so complex that each thought is a chapter in itself in a book I will never write. But after a few more remarks here, I’ll try to at least house each horse in a bulleted corral for future consideration.

Ms. O’Brien talked about her own wild horse stampede when she went to a talk titled “The Neuroscience of Bias” and the realization that we are genetically programmed to note difference (apparently 6-month old babies can already distinguish race) and make judgment of “the other.” Makes sense as a survival strategy. Without it, we couldn’t distinguish between the dangerous tiger and the harmless house cat, the delicious blackberry and the malicious poison oak. But then comes all the cultural practices that get set in motion and solidified as “the way it spozed to be,” from scientific theories of racial inferiority concocted to allow slave masters to sleep peacefully at night to clitorectomies in various West African cultures or bound feet in China or homophobia just about everywhere. Now the plot thickens and not happily so.

Turns out we are all biased, each and every one of us and even the best-hearted amongst us, unconsciously driven by old biological and cultural programs. What the culture feeds us has enormous impact. Growing up with David Quon, George Gonzales and Bill “Lump” Blackshear, I already was crossing lines of separation and finding friendship in human qualities independent of race and cultural origin. But on TV, images of Tonto, Amos and Andy, José Jimenez, Charlie Chan were being imprinted on my young brain. I feel my friend and colleague from Ghana Kofi Gbolonyo like a long-lost brother, but still I grew up watching Tarzan and reading Little Black Sambo. I have two strong, independent daughters who beat me in basketball, Boggle and baking, but still I watched Betty Boop. One of Ms. O-Brien’s missions is to enlarge the imagery of “the other” through children’s books, both as an illustrator and an author and I’m convinced this is essential.

The good news is that our brain’s wiring for bias is the starting point of the discussion, but not the end. It is not an excuse to shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well. Guess that’s just the way it is.” But neither can we leap over the rough terrain of difference, both biological, cultural, perceived and otherwise, into the lioned and lambed beauty of our common shared humanity. The only antidote is increased awareness, consciousness and of course, intention to widen one’s world to include all. It requires questioning assumptions handed down, working through fear of the other, refusing the invitation to feel superior— and working to create a new culture for our children that will save them some (but not all) of this difficult work. I love it when the kids at school see some old movie portrayal or hear history’s stories and respond with puzzled looks, “What was wrong with those people?” And most of what was wrong was far beyond any one person’s control or choice, simply was the air we collectively breathed passed down from one ignorant generation to another.

People like me spend some time defending, either to others or ourselves, that we aren’t racist or sexist or homophobic. How could I be, with a gay African-American Orff mentor, a mixed-race granddaughter, teachers and students from some 45 countries who I enjoy, admire and even love? And yet these images and assumptions still live on in my brain and influence my perceptions and ideas, whether I’m aware of it or not.

I do think it’s worth being less glib by calling us all racists (though admit it! That title caught your attention!). That’s a charged word and I suggest that there’s a large divide between just about everyone I know and General Custer, Sheriff Clark or Hitler. “Bias” is a more accurate term and applies to us all equally. And really, I complete understand why racism is mostly a black and white issue in the U.S., but it’s time to enlarge the discussion. My childhood friend David Quon says that the black kids in my town insulted him the most and some of historical American black culture’s issues with women, gays and even Africans need to get up on the table along with everything else. Though a victim of bias will elicit more sympathy and understanding than the perpetrator, it’s still not okay to carry other biases forward without challenge.

One of the biggest takeaways from Ms. O’Brien’s talk is that even as I yearn for and accent and aim for the shared humanity end of the whole matter, I will never wholly understand what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, to be a minority constantly under judgment, disdain, marginalization and yes, real danger, as recent events so depressingly affirm. I’ll always be the boy on the basketball team who is simply a player on the team, never the one girl on the team who will always be “the girl” on the team, with every action and reaction under surveillance as the “other.” Even if I lived the rest of my life in a remote Ghanaian village, I’d still carry my male privilege, see images of a white Jesus Christ and be somehow connected to everything the British brought in when they colonized Ghana.  

So much for the corrals. I’ve let horses run freely around and that’s fine, it’s a start. I’m looking forward to investigating more about the neuroscience of bias and keeping the discussion alive. Thanks to Ms. O'Brien for her work and stimulating presentation. Let’s keep it all moving forward, people! 

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