Tag Archives: racism

Small town living’s fine, except for the white people

I don’t mean to sound racist, but I’ve got a problem with white people.

Lately I’ve realized that, living in my rural area, the people who drive too slow in front of me, the construction workers who (as I write this) blast country music toward my house, and the voters who made this guy my county’s sheriff are, almost without exception, white people. Also, the drunks, the racists, and the racist bullies out here are mainly white. (What’s uniquely stupid about rural racism is that it’s based almost entirely in the abstraction of difference, rather than in actual experience with people of various races, because these experiences simply don’t happen often in rural towns.)

I usually say this as a joke to my friends and family members, most of whom are also white, but I think the reason that this seems to be a joke is because so many of us rurals think of whiteness as being the default, so much so that we often aren’t even aware of our whiteness (our skin color, but also our cultural choices, not to mention our privileges). I suspect this is why some of my white conservative acquaintances sneer about “political correctness” — white people out here are so used to only talking to other whites that they don’t often think how their words and statements would feel to people of other races. My grandma didn’t think calling my wife a “dago” would offend her, but by pointing out my suburban-born wife’s difference from my family’s ruralness, my wife did feel hurt.

This is partly why I found this recent video, which points out the weirdness of what so many white people think is acceptable, so amusing and enlightening:

I particularly enjoy “You must listen to that rural music, right?” and “You don’t sound like a dumb hick at all!” (which, of course, a lot of my fellow rurals can’t carry off).

My serious point here is this: All too often, national discussions of poverty seem to fall into the pattern of a white guy like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan diagnosing poverty as being a problem of nonwhite people who live in cities. As Ryan said this spring:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said.

Of course, as rural areas in general lack racial diversity but do not lack for poverty, the rural poor ignored in Paul Ryan’s quote are mainly white. In fact, if Ryan wanted to address the largest racial group of people in poverty, he’d be talking to white people. This U.S. Census report from 2012 (located at a link from this site) shows the raw numbers of our population in poverty:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

More than 19 million whites were considered to be in poverty in 2010 and 2011, millions more than the poor of any other race. And while people of nonwhite groups can show how they’ve been harmed economically by a history of discrimination (as pointed out here), white people can’t offer a similarly systemic cause for their poverty. So, what’s the reason for white poverty, white people? Is there also a culture of poverty among poor whites? And can we include country music in this “tailspin of culture”?

White people, huh? Privilege, normalcy, and racism

“Go home!” was the shout I heard as I stood outside a grocery store in my rural Illinois town on Friday 16 September. I looked up in the direction of the shout to see two white boys in a red pick-up truck drive past a girl who looked as though she may have been Latina. The two boys were wearing the jerseys of the local high school American-football team.

I reported what I had witnessed to the high school’s principal, who emailed to say he’d look into it. A week later, I’m not sure what came of his investigation. Had the boys not been wearing football jerseys, I wouldn’t have been able to pass along any identifying information, but since they were wearing the jerseys, their actions appeared to grow out of the sense of privilege that’s all too common among white male football players in small towns.

These boys were acting like idiots, of course, and may not have been as truly hate-filled as some other local racist speeches I witnessed this summer. These young men can perhaps be taught that they were making a hasty judgment based only on someone’s looks, and that they were then acting in a hostile and aggressive way towards this girl. These boys can learn that they were bullying her, and perhaps these boys may gain a sense of sympathy towards others — or at the very least, they can learn not to shout racist shit while driving through the main road in town.

The more I thought about what I saw, the more I thought that these boys’ “go home” shout comes from a place of privilege, an idea I had been considering since reading this article. These white male athletes may not perceive of themselves as “privileged” (which word they would probably interpret as meaning “wealthy,” which these boys likely were not), though they do get attention, praise, and favorable treatment as athletes in what has come to seem the most-popular sport in the community. These boys likely think of themselves as “normal,” as “traditional.” Their families have lived in the U.S., or, maybe even in the same town, for a hundred years or more, which the girl’s family may not have. Of course, everyone in the U.S. who is not descended fully from Native Americans finds themselves here because of immigration, but the boys did not probably think of themselves this way. Had a person of Native American ancestry told these white boys to “go home,” they probably would’ve missed the point and laughed the comment off–part of being privileged is being able to laugh off criticism (and their own bad behavior), knowing that there are few if any consequences for bad behavior of those who are privileged.

These white boys probably do not even think of themselves as “white.” Many times I’ve heard white people tell stories where the race of the persons involved is mentioned only when the person’s race is not white–white is understood to be the default, or “normal,” racial background.

If a person perceives his own attitudes and actions being the norm, or “normal,” then differing attitudes or actions are “not normal.” If his belief in his own normalcy is acknowledge, consciously or not, by most of the people in his community, he may feel empowered to make judgments about those he considers “not normal.”

To be more precise: If I feel that I’m normal and that others who don’t do what I do are not-normal, then I’m a member of the privileged class. For example, if the language I use at home overlaps greatly with “Standard English,” then I don’t have to be aware of “code switching” when I meet other people. My speech is Standard, is normal, and I don’t have to adapt it. But if my home language is not English, or is a nonstandard dialect thereof, I must make the extra effort to learn the standard language, and I must switch to the standard language when I am in public or speaking to members of the standard group.

And if one speaks Standard English at home, one doesn’t even have to be aware that there are other ways to speak. If I happen to encounter a language that isn’t standard, I may consider it “wrong,” when it’s merely “non-standard.” When my grandmother asked me not long ago about why a certain group of people used language wrongly (in her opinion), I suggested to her that it’s not wrong but just different (and I didn’t point out the non-Standard English she was using). And of course, “Standard English” has been defined by those who already speak it as whatever their native, natural dialect is, and so the circle is completed.

And in this way, I think it’s all too easy for racial majorities to mistake what is particular or peculiar to them as being normal and/or standard. Then the white Americans can honestly, in good faith, say that they don’t see race or racial problems that non-white Americans can readily see.

So these things, like so many other things, simplify to issues not of truth but of perspective.

In Ogle County, my education, income, and lifestyle make me a member of the elite.  Only 17% of adults here have four-year college degrees, and my family’s income exceeds the average household income of $56,400 — so we’re elite. Clearly, we’re not elite when we’re in Chicago, and even less so in Lake Forest, and if I traveled to a place where I didn’t speak the language, I may face the same kind of bullying that the girl mentioned above experienced.

We sense these differences, we can sense our perspectives change, when we travel to different places and meet different people, but a lot of my fellow Ogle County residents don’t often leave the county, and a lot of people shouting and commenting — with a lot of certainty in their beliefs — about race are like my grandmother, who hasn’t been in an area as multiracial as Chicago in decades.

When we become aware–when we really, intuitively feel–that there are other people in the world whose sense of normal is different from our own, we may sense that our privilege is not absolute, and we may become more cautious in judging others by our own standards. We may realize that we don’t want to presume what someone else’s perspective is, which is what I’ve seen my grandmother do. I know she does not hate people who are different from her, but she thinks she knows what’s best, she thinks her perspective should be normal, standard, and she’s not allowing others the legitimacy of their own perspectives, informed by their own experiences.

A final thought on perspectives and beliefs: We were talking in one of my sophomore English classes about the belief in some of the Greeks myths (such as that of Pereus) that Fate is inescapable. I suggested to students that saying things happen because of “Fate” is about the same as saying that things happen because “it’s God’s will” or “God’s plan” or “everything happens for a reason.” A student said, “but everything does happen for a reason.” I said something like, “that’s what you believe, but not everybody does.”

This awareness of one’s own beliefs, along with one’s own assumptions and expectations, is something that I myself have developed at what, in retrospect, seems a humblingly slow pace. As a white man myself, I have only recently become aware of my own privilege. I didn’t used to realize that I was taking my own perspective as the “default” perspective, as the norm, and judging as not-normal or wrong those who didn’t share my beliefs. I can’t claim that I’ve learned enough, of course, but I do feel that the wisest thing I’ve learned is to not be so certain in my understandings and in my claims. It feels wise when I can accept uncertainty and mystery and that I can accept the legitimacy of even those beliefs that disagree with mine (but that’s a tough one, as when I see things that seem morally wrong, like the bullying I described above).

This idea is something that Pope Francis spoke about in an interview published this week (quoted here):

In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

Hoping it’s performance art

In recent days, I’ve witnessed people saying things so terrible that I wonder if, and I hope that, I’m watching performance art. Maybe I’m seeing a set-up piece for a hidden-camera show like this one , or maybe the people involved are just trying to provoke others. If these things were happening in a big city or a college town, the “performance art” interpretation would be at least possible, but since I’m seeing and hearing these things in rural Ogle County, I’m afraid these people being so stereotypically hateful and racist may not be acting.

On 10 July, at my local diner, two white ladies in their 80s (or thereabouts) were kvetching very loudly about how kids can’t do math in their head, and so on, and they eventually moved on to other topics. One said, “I’m just so angry,” and the other answered, “we all are.”

But rather than accept that perhaps their anger were invalidating any other opinions they might have, they continued to complain: one woman said that someone wanted to bring “Muslims over here,” to which the other said, “we already got 8 million,” and then I missed a few words, and then I heard, “Let’s just hope somebody kills ’em,” which I thought referred to the Muslims, but my wife heard “kills ‘im,” which she interpreted as referring to the current U.S. President.

Either way, the other lady said, “That’s what I hope.”

This was so over-the-top obnoxious, not to mention nearly illegal, that I just started laughing, albeit bitterly. My wife said, let’s not get so angry when we get old. Let’s keep our minds in shape.

And then this morning, as I sat in a local McDonald’s (same one as here), I heard two older white men talking. One, who wore a blue dew rag and had a black leather jacket with patches that read “I RODE MINE, STURGIS ’04” (and 3 patches for other recent years), and who at one point said he was 73 years old, told his friend that he was going to a Tea Party meeting tonight, and after which he said these things:

“Obama’s got sh*t so fuc*ed up, that son of a bit*h … typical ni*ger sh*t … when you get home, google ‘who is Antonio West?‘ That’ll shut things up.” [Snopes says the case is a “false equivalency” to the Trayvon Martin case, as “the two cases are nearly polar opposites.”]

A few minutes later, the old white guy let loose with this: “If they did say it like it was, the damn paper wouldn’t print it … nobody will address it … damn n*****s keep breeding all the time … [we?] can’t keep building prisons … to me, I would say this … to the victor goes the spoils … or, give ’em the option of going back to Africa.”

I feel bad about publishing these words, but I’m doing so in hope that there’s some value in simply documenting things being said out loud in public spaces in small-town Illinois in 2013. Though I was angered by what I heard, I decided that rather than confront this man’s statements directly (anybody who would espouse these beliefs at this point in history seems to me someone who would also be resistant to being criticized or educated), I’d throw these online with the hope of reminding the rest of us that there still are people around who say these things.

And surely not every Tea Party member says things like this, but here was one guy who sympathized with the Tea Party who did. He either fits the stereotype, or he’s just acting to get a rise out of others. But I didn’t see anybody directly challenge the old white ladies or this old white guy.

I’m really hoping they’re just performance artists.