Wednesday, April 04, 2007


One of my friends wrestles daily with the problem of racism. He sees it in voices and attitudes, in movies and audiences, in economics and every single person's world view. He is logical and clear: it's not a one-way problem; There is a measurable distrust of anything different; Even if that distrust leads to 3% misunderstanding or 5% of taking extra precautions, it is real and it adds up and it can multiply over generations.

5% of mistrust in business over several generations can result in a profound lack of positive adult male role models. That compounds, too, like interest on a bad debt.

I think he is also aware of the "racism double-binds". Crack and flake cocaine are chemically the same. The penalties for posession and distribution, in many jurisdictions, are wildly different. Is it because crack is used more often by poor black folk in the US and flake tends to be used by richer white people? Is it racism? Or is it because for every death associated with the flake cocaine trade (often a user, richer and whiter) there are at least twenty in the crack trade (almost always poor and black)? Would it be racism to treat the drugs as the same and do nothing to prevent these killings? Can it be racism both ways?

Which will do more damage in the long term- the repressive racism of Jim Crow or the paternalistic racism of Affirmative Action? Treating men like dogs or treating men like children?

This puzzled me, especially with my friend, because he is truly extraordinary on many levels. He is largely responsible for me not just drifting in life, distracted by shiny objects. He is succesful and grounded; a celebrity in some circles; fit.. and still experimenting with his art, his mind and his body. He has shattered barriers... and I expect someone who is so himself to no longer see the labels other people put on him. But he does and sometimes it haunts him. He wonders what he and his life would be like without that three or five percent mistrust and with a strong male role model... I'm pretty sure it would suck- he doesn't do 'easy' well and thrives on challenge and being told 'that's not possible'.

Monday, my new boss set an expectation- the training at the end of the month is going to be very 'cerebral' and she really wants me to pay attention because she knows it will be hard. It will be 'academic' and she knows that 'will be hard' for me...

I have a degree. I write articles. I do statistical analysis (including for her) and read about two books a week (just finished two on terrorism and am in the middle of books on labor law, criminal prosecution and WWII history).

All that pales before the fact that I beat people up (completely aside how often I talk them down or how rarely I injure anyone). Yes I teach and design courses for defensive tactics... but I also do it for crisis communications with the mentally ill.

She sees what I do and who I am every day and I really thought I was adjusting and blending in very well- but for just a minute, I felt something similar to what my friend feels every day. No matter what he does, the people he helps, the world he changes, certain people, maybe most people, maybe everyone, will always see a black man and all their interactions, all of their interpretations of his actions will be seen through that filter, even if it only distorts 3%.

For just a second it was clear that my boss wasn't seeing an investigator or a teacher or a writer. She was seeing a thug, someone whose capacity for violence obviously precluded the ability to learn or think. Obviously.


Kodanshi said...

Thank you for that excellent and illuminating article/post. Most people see through various prisms, race forms a large part of one unfortunately. I didn’t used to see exactly how racially ignorant people in my country (England) behaved until I left it for 3 weeks and returned. Then it hit me…

Good luck with your boss’s views on you! I think that mostly comes from most people not actually taking part in any fighting. Most people on the street will never have taken a strike to the face, so forget voluntarily putting yourself in that situation!

Kai Jones said...

I've always had such a sense of being other, myself, that I've worked hard to overcome my tendency to see myself and others that way.

This failure of imagination, both that you might be like them and that you might be different, still surprises me. I can feel a lot more about this rumbling around my hindbrain but I'm too tired for more right now.

Anonymous said...

If 'academic' was a euphemism for 'chickens-' ot 'pompous drivel from an inexperienced big name-' she may have been flattering your good taste.

The Moody Minstrel said...

It seems like more brain power is wasted on deeply ingrained, preconceived notions than on just about anything else.

Aaron said...


I recently stumbled on your blog from a reference left by Mushtaq. Thank you for many, many, many thought provoking posts.

I've run into this kind of mindset from just having people find out I study the martial arts (and I'm not anywhere near a "meat eater"). As near as I can figure out people like your boss have to put a handicap on you in their minds or you become quite terrifying and threatening. "He may be a thug but at least I could out think him" or "He may be able to break people but can he spell antidisestablishmentarianism?"

Because someone who is well educated and possesses those "thug traits" is not only scary but may be better than them. And that's not something they can stand.