Tag Archive: African-American


Micro-Aggressions

On my way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a much needed spring break, I heard a new term on the radio: micro-aggressions. The term refers to the many little ways that people, in particular white people, most often privileged white men, continue the legacy of racism with snide side comments and little asides thrown out carelessly, denigrating African-Americans and their accomplishments. It’s almost as though these insecure people seek to cement a privileged position and are afraid, on some level, that giving another race equal treatment under the law will somehow take away from their rights.

There’s that famous cigarette ad saying from Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and when it comes to civil rights we have indeed come a long way in the last fifty years, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have much work to do. Racism is no longer socially acceptable so I find people making derogatory remarks under their breath, usually among peers who don’t dare confront them or disagree.

At the same time, we have the dilemma of the well-meaning heterosexual white man who has inherited a position of privilege, and may indeed feel guilty about having certain birth rights, but doesn’t know how to start or continue a conversation about race and racism. I’m thinking in particular about a friend named James, Gentle James of a previous post, who doesn’t feel comfortable making much of any comment on race and racism for fear of speaking out of turn, or God forbid, not being forward-thinking enough.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently tried something radical in having his baristas, also known as partners, write on random coffee cups the term, “Race together.” I think theoretically it’s a great idea to try and start a national conversation on race relations, and indeed the coffee community would seem like a great place to start, but I’m not certain that the average Starbucks customer wants to have any kind of meaningful interaction at 7am while waiting for that first cup of coffee. Perhaps if Starbucks had framed the conversation, saying that on Sunday afternoons, baristas will be approaching people to talk about racism, the whole project might have had better parameters. The way it played out, as I was driving out of town, one of the Starbucks employees who is a casual friend of mine named Dominique, waved at me through the drive-thru and asked about my weekend plans, while another employee, a black man named Marquise who I really don’t know all that well, rushed to the window, seemingly in the effort to raise the profile of the African-American community. Is it really fair to put the onus on all the minority employees to insure that they are noticed and appreciated? How does Howard Schultz contend that his employees respond to someone who might very well react in a racist fashion? Is it enough to say, “We don’t need the business of close-minded people?” So I guess my point is, I give Starbucks an A for effort in its attempt to redress the wrongs of recent racist flare-ups, but only a B minus for the way the company has executed its “race together” campaign.

Black Lives Don’t Count

My best friend in the world is an African-American woman who teaches at a city college in Chicago, and when I asked her what she thought of the verdict in the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, charging that he used an unlawful amount of lethal force against Michael Brown, a boy who stole cigars from a convenience store, she said with some bitterness, “Black lives don’t count.” She later called back, and tempered her response, still not negating what she had previously said, but acknowledging that we need to find a peaceable way to protest injustice.

The fury driving minority communities seems to be the recognition that they are not seen as fully human, deserving of the recognition afforded any white citizen in the community. Shortly after the verdict, President Obama spoke to our citizens, saying, “We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.”

Indeed, we have come a long way since the 1960’s, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have miles to go still, seeking equality for all in terms of how we are treated. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, in his lengthy statement, never once mentioned that Michael Brown was unarmed, and his whole presentation style came across as belligerent, self-serving, and inflammatory. While any decision of this kind doesn’t justify a violent response, it’s pretty clear that people who are not so privileged as to be born white are frustrated with their second-class citizenship status.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks met on twenty-five occasions over the period of three months, but it seems to me that the system is still fundamentally broken. Watching the tear gas canisters spread through the crowds made me feel that I was in a different time or even in a different country. I don’t know how many people reading this remember the black and white images from the sixties of black men and women being sprayed with firehouses or having German Shepard dogs sicced on them, but suffice it to say that things got out of control, and fast. There were 61 arrests in Ferguson for burglary and trespassing, and again, I in no way condone that response, but I understand the feeling that we are simply not all equal under the law.

Officer Darren Wilson made an impulsive decision in the flurry of the moment, and no doubt, given the public outcry, he probably regrets the degree of force he used. He will have to live with his decision to take a life over a couple of stolen cigars, but I personally believe in the Maya Angelou dictum: “We do the best we can, and when we know better, we do better.”

Let’s hope that Michael Brown’s death wasn’t completely in vain because I fear it was.

Spooked

I’m not sure why people are still sometimes afraid of that which is different. My friend Rosie and I recently toured Ireland, and the trip was, for the most part, a great success, but one incident stands out in my mind and continues to haunt me.

Rosie and I ate an amazing dinner at the Market House restaurant which is adjacent to the Abbey Hotel in Donegal, but the restaurant told us that to use the restroom we would have to head over to the lobby of the hotel. I myself have the bladder of a squirrel, and had already made two trips to the restroom during our extended, leisurely dinner on one of the longest days of the year, but after I paid for our meal on what happened to be Rosie’s birthday, she excused herself, and I followed her over to the hotel.

There was some kind of emergency medical technician arriving on the scene, and the hotel clerk looked at me and said, quite distinctly, that the Abbey Hotel was having a “spook” alert. I’m quite certain I did not hear her wrong, and I stood in silent shock, first hand witness to true Irish racism. Rosie is African-American, and I am white, but I’d never before been confronted with true hatred based on one’s skin color. I have, while in the midst of a gay neighborhood, been called a fag by a passing car, but most of the time, I live out my days without directly confronting prejudice. I think part of the reason the quite recent police shooting of African-American youth Michael Brown stirs up so much controversy and strong reaction is that living with prejudice is a reality for a certain subset of our citizens.

During the first five days of our trip, people kind of assumed that Rosie and I were an interracial couple, and we were greeted on the west coast with a kind of curiosity–we definitely stuck out in the very heterogenous white population–but no one said anything, and we were treated courteously. That changed in Donegal, a small fishing town, and I staggered out of the hotel like a drunk, even though I don’t drink. I’m left reminded of the Robert Frost poem, that we have “miles to go before we sleep.”