Thursday, February 02, 2006

Racism: If They Won't Change, Change Your Mind

by Max S. Gordon
Sapience Magazine
February 2006

Niggers are made.

Several months ago, I went to see a friend’s play. I arrived at the off-Broadway theater a half hour early because I hadn’t yet reserved a ticket. When I got there, two men, both white, stood together going over some papers behind a small makeshift desk. Neither acknowledged my presence. I waited patiently for a minute and a half as they continued to converse. Since I was the only one waiting in line, I finally spoke.

I said, “Good evening. I’m here to see the play. This is where I buy a ticket, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” one of the men replied. “You’re in the right place. We’re just finishing up some paperwork.”

I adjusted my bag, nodded and waited. The men finished their conversation several minutes later, exchanging an elaborate goodbye as they gathered their papers and separated. The man who hadn’t spoken to me lowered himself into a chair behind the desk. I pulled out my wallet, expectantly. He pulled out a cell phone. I watched in disbelief as he held the phone to his ear, listened for another few minutes, and then concentrated on the tiny screen while typing in a text message.

Time stops for me in moments like these. I am having one of my “this-can’t-be-happening-yes-it’s-really-happening” moments. What I need is a committee, a hotline I can call, someone I trust to tell me whether I am experiencing racism in this moment or not. It definitely feels like racism: he is white, I am black, he’s the ticket seller, I still don’t have a ticket in my hand. It would be insane to wish for the days of the Jim Crow South, but it must have been easier then to recognize racial hatred when it occurred. If the response to “I’d like a ticket please, Sir,” were a growling, white Mississippi face, purple-red and barking in mine, “We’re gonna sell you a ticket when we’re damn good and ready to, boy!” it would at least have ended any speculation on my part about what was happening to me.

As he continues to type in his message, I imagine the look he would have on his face if I were to draw my hand back, and with a supernatural malevolence, slap the cell phone right out of his hands. As the phone explodes into pieces against the brick wall beside us, he stares at me with abject horror. I gather his shirt in my fist, lean over carefully and whisper, “There. Your message has been sent. Now are you ready to sell me a goddamn ticket?”

I think of my friend, Paul, and anticipate his reaction when I recount the story to him later. “You need to stop taking things personally,” he says, with a perturbed, we’ve-been-through-this-before frown. “That guy was just rude, period. He would have behaved like that with anybody.”

But I’m not anybody. I’m a black man, he’s white and I’m on the other end of his rudeness, which makes it something different. Paul is black, gay, from a West Indian family, and has had a cultural diversity of romantic and sexual partners as have I. I am thankful for his friendship as we can talk about our homosexuality, racism in the gay community and the issues that have come up for us as men of color when we’ve dated white men. Paul understands that having a white male partner doesn’t mean I have thrown in the fighting-racism towel, or that I expect anything less as a black man in terms of equality and fairness. (My oldest male cousin, somewhat of a black nationalist Don Juan and the first person in my extended family I came out to as homosexual, might have disagreed. He shocked me when during an intimate drive together, he completely skipped past the gay disclosure part of my confession and uttered in disbelief and even greater disappointment: “You mean you’re dating a white guy?”)

We’ve had the argument often, Paul and I: he thinks I’m too sensitive to racism, I don’t think he’s sensitive enough. A few times the conversation has become so heated that we have had to say goodnight or risk irreparably damaging the friendship. We try not to generalize about the other’s ethnic group. He thinks that African-Americans are caught in a poor-me complex and that we refuse to get over the injuries of oppression; we invent racism even when it isn’t there, eager to find it, in fact, in a sick need to justify our personal failures. I project onto him a stereotype of West Indian pathological self-sufficiency, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps refusal to acknowledge victimization because of the shame that often comes from feeling powerless; a blaming of the victim in order to avoid the grief and depression that racism engenders.

The reason why fighting with him is crazy-making is that, no matter how much I argue, some part of me worries that deep down he is right. I do see racism everywhere in America, and I do consider myself a victim, a survivor. Paul and I both know that he’s been successful in business for himself and has had money, six figures a year, and I have not. When I asked for his financial advice once, he told me flat out that until I forgave white people and stopped being so aggressively stuck in the past about racism and have-not-ism, I’d always struggle to make enough money. I might be young, gifted, and black but I was destined to be black, bitter and broke until I got my shit together, stopped whining, and finally faced the truth about capitalism and how it works.

While I couldn’t possibly deny fiscal irresponsibility at times in my life, I defended African-Americans as a group against the myths that have been perpetuated against us, that we have not been successful entrepreneurs and business people in American history. I’ve often heard the argument that other groups of immigrants have been able to own businesses in this country and that American blacks haven’t been as prosperous because we are lazy. I remind him of the relentless violence against blacks in the South and the North, the centuries of lynching and torture that sent a message to generations of blacks not to compete with whites, how black enterprise had often been sabotaged, undermined - its architects dragged through the streets, its stores burned to the ground. Blacks were so not lazy, in fact, that the fruits of unpaid black labor could be found anywhere one looked in the United States, and that if the conversation about reparations ever seriously began, we would be talking about billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars owed to the black families of slaves; that it seemed grossly inconsistent for anyone to be against affirmative action and reparations, because one or the other had to be fair. And that if black families were given even a fraction of the money they were owed, and were able to bequeath that money to their children as inheritances and trust funds like many of America’s wealthiest white families, more blacks could attend colleges with costs of thirty and forty thousand dollars a year without financial help.

I can tell by the look on Paul’s face that he thinks I should stop worrying about ancient-history lessons and start learning how to invest in mutual funds. And he’s right about one thing: I’m not financially savvy enough at this point in my life and it is a problem. No matter how unfair racism has been, the older I get the less cute it is for me not to know how to manage my money, the more disingenuous it is to call ignorance about money “activism”. But even if one day I do make as much money as he, even if I am able to step over homeless people in Penn Station, wearing Prada and not Payless, I’m not sure that my personal abundance will change the unfairness of what other people face every day. Perhaps that is the whole point of constantly focusing on the success of millionaire, billionaire African-Americans: as long as they are doing well, the rest of us can sleep at night, tucked in and dreaming of our imminent wealth, while denying the social inequality that rules too many black lives - the lack of healthcare or fair wages, food insecurity, and massive debt.

As I stand there, thinking about Paul’s reaction, thinking about the ticket I still don’t have in my hand and the surreal trippiness of moments like these, it crosses my mind: this is all my fault. I should have dressed for racism today. It’s the courtroom jury “what were you wearing that night” rule-of-thumb applied to women who are sexually violated. Because of the shame that discrimination carries and because being made to feel invisible in a society is intolerable, one often chooses to forgive the perpetrator and bear the onus of the exchange oneself. (Since you can’t control the situation, to keep from feeling completely victimized, you control the interpretation, even though it is against you.) I’m dressed comfortably in summer slacks and a tee-shirt with an open collar, but I’m thinking, if only I’d worn a suit and a tie, this man would know that I’m not just any black person, but the rich kind, the kind to be reckoned with. A black person with millions of dollars in the bank, six doctoral degrees, thin and beautiful, who could say, “Young man, I personally know the owner of this theater, and I will be contacting him this evening about your extraordinarily rude behavior.” Deep down I know, of course, that being wealthy hasn’t stopped some of America’s brightest black luminaries from being locked out of exclusive designer stores, mistaken for clerks as they are handed luggage or car keys in five-star hotels, or from being pulled over in cars that someone believed they should chauffeur rather than own.

Now I imagine myself as an alien from another planet, a professor doing a study on the planet Earth. My colleagues have assigned me the United States. For research purposes, I have the ability to morph myself into anyone in the culture I choose. I walk out of the theater in that moment, exasperated with the experience of being a black man. I return moments later as a white woman in a fur coat with a tiny poodle under my arm or a white man carrying a briefcase and wearing a tie. I report my findings at an interplanetary conference and describe the profound difference in attitude and service I encountered the instant I became a white person in America.

These are some of the tools of the oppressed and the powerless; dissociation, voices in the head, violent revenge fantasies, fairy tales and bedtime stories - anything to avoid the pain of another humiliating incident. I know what is happening here in the theater seems like such a small thing, negligible, in fact, when held up to world wars or starvation, and I can understand why someone like Paul would think I should just “get over it.” But incidents such as these are like holograms, each fragment containing the whole of my experience, the totality of the racism I’ve faced my whole life. I’m forced to assess whether or not what I’m experiencing is real or perceived, and I’m starting to feel confused, always a sign that the mystification process of oppression is working: once the self-doubt, self-destruction microchip is planted, no one has to deny you opportunities anymore, you begin to deny yourself. You become depressed and want to stay in bed all day. You don’t care whether you are underpaid at work or not, as long as you can buy your lottery tickets and have enough money left over to get and stay high for the weekend. You eat garbage fast food and exist on carbohydrate sugar highs and excessive salt, inviting hypertension and diabetes, to manage a constant low-grade depression. The truth is, I really don’t feel like being “black” right now – I just want to see a play. But I am my parent’s child and I will not walk away from this confrontation. And so the transformation starts; in order to get my ticket, I have to become supernigger.

I say niggers are made, because in order to protect myself, I sometimes have to become what society most fears; an angry, raging black man, a Superfly cartoon, a savage, King Kong. I bellow, blow steam through flaring nostrils, grow sixty sizes larger, towering above the theater and say: “Are you going to sell me a ticket to this play or not? I’ve been standing here waiting almost five minutes to be acknowledged by you and this is completely unacceptable.”

The man looks up from his phone, as if I had only just appeared before him in a puff of genie smoke. He seems slightly embarrassed, perhaps less by his own behavior than by my emotional outburst. There might be the tiniest smirk of recognition on his face as he has probably dealt with my kind of black man before – furious, irrational. If I were a woman, I might be called hysterical – another voodoo word that triggers insecurities and encourages silence. “Sorry,” he says. “I was just checking my – sorry.” He takes my bill and hands me a ticket. I say, “thank you,” and snatch it from his hand, walking away from the table.

He goes back to his message, distracted only momentarily by our exchange, like someone who is eating at a picnic and brushes away a fly from his plate. Meanwhile, I’m angry enough to kill. I’m mad at myself, for falling in the trap, for being loud and obnoxious, which is what a nigger is characterized to be, and for having no choice in the matter: if I’m angry, then I’m defensive and confrontational, but if I don’t speak up, I’m an idiot with no ticket, and I might as well be invisible or dead. I rehearse the experience again in my head, as I am never satisfied with my behavior in these moments. I should have just walked away at the very beginning and said, “Well, I guess this is one ticket you won’t sell tonight!” But then I would have had to explain to my friend why I missed his show, and I would have gone home without seeing it, and racism would have won in my life once again.

I have friends who won’t go anywhere with me anymore. Robert, who is also black and gay, says I have “Restaurant Karma” - whatever that means. He says if there is something wrong anywhere, I’m the first to find it. When we meet for brunch and step into the dining area of the cute little overpriced breakfast nook on the Upper West Side, the hostess immediately walks over and says to me in a hard peremptory tone, “Step back behind that line, sir, and please wait for me to seat you.”

I take out the handy little “fuck you” I keep in my purse for such emergencies and tell her, “Don’t you talk to me like that. You weren’t here when we walked in and there was no sign anywhere, so I didn’t know where to stand.” She mumbles something and adjusts her menus, waiting for a table to clear. When I look at Robert for confirmation, he stares straight ahead.

“Let’s get the hell out of here and go somewhere else,” I say.

“We’re staying right here so just calm down. She asked us to wait to be seated. It’s no big deal.”

At the table, Robert opens his menu with anticipation - the food is supposed to be very good here. My brunch, however, is practically ruined, and I haven’t touched any food yet. These days any experience can trip the anger switch, and pain from all my other experiences is suddenly unleashed. I’m doing it again – fantasizing that I am half of a white couple - the man in a jogging suit and carrying a Blackberry, the woman with a cute little blonde baby on her arm. I imagine them stepping over the line accidentally and anyone talking to them like that. The smiling hostess, who looks like a woman I went to high school with, leads a group of people to a table.
“You shouldn’t let it get to you,” he says.

“Look.” I choose my words carefully, because what happened is not Robert’s fault and I shouldn’t take my rage out on him. It’s just too complicated, and I can’t find the words to catalogue all the ironies. She looks about my age; I’m sure she doesn’t think she’s racist; she probably even had to write a history report on civil rights in her fifth grade class as I did; she might have been a black-studies major in college with liberal, activist parents. I’m not allowed to blame her. No one is racist anymore in America, so where the hell is all the racism coming from? Maybe contempt for black people is in the air, no one to blame really, just free-floating until you catch it in your throat, like smog.

I probably have become petty and monstrous, but if so, I’ve been made that way over years of these kinds of harsh exchanges, these petit-lynchings; psychological murders done politely over coffee and cake. They are sometimes the worst kind, of course, because you can’t see how your self-esteem is gradually being eroded; there is no need to protect yourself because nothing is happening to you. Yet you want to kill yourself or someone else and you don’t know why. It comes from a lifetime of holding doors open for white people without a thank-you because my place in the world is as a servant and therefore there is no one to thank. Of being stopped in stores not because I worked there, but because for some white people, a black person, any black person, is a mooring, a lifesaver to grab in distress. It might be the white drama teacher I had in high school who, when I was fourteen, stopped an entire production number during dress rehearsal and announced to a room full of at least 60 kids and 10 adults, “You are the only black face on that stage, Maxie, and if you forget to sing everyone is going to notice”; the classmate who told some of the cast a “dumb nigger” joke five minutes before our opening-night curtain to relax us; my friend Frank in 10th grade who thought he was paying me a compliment when he patted me on the back after math class and said, “You know, Max, you aren’t scum like most black people are”; the parent- teacher who screamed at me, “Shut up!” in a predominantly white group of students at a leadership camp I attended at sixteen, because she felt I was dominating the discussion. I probably was, but she could have pulled me aside and said, “Let’s give others a chance”; I would have listened. I wept silently in front of the group, and even after she apologized I didn’t feel like talking for the rest of the conference after that.

Robert signals to the waiter and looks curiously at me. “Where did you just go?”

“Thinking about something that happened to me when I was in high school.” My voice begins to sound like I’m pleading; it’s important to me that he not think I’m getting off on this. “Robert, I’m sick of white people who still act as if they own everything and rule the world. I have a right to be treated politely just like anybody else in this place. I’m not going to just sit here and take this bullshit.”

“I’m with you. Seriously,” he says, and touches my hand. He’s learned it’s easier to agree with me on this particular topic than to argue. “Now what do you want to eat?”

I suddenly feel wistful for my mother, and wish I’d understood her better. It was confusing for us sometimes, my sister and me, all those arguments in department stores, the times we judged her for being loud and black and confrontational when she was standing up to some white person and all we wanted was for her to pay for the groceries so we could open the Pop Tarts in the backseat of the car, or get the ice-cream cone she’d promised if we were good. I wish now that I’d asked her more often what it was like when she was in college during the civil rights movement, although I remember we did have the conversation once. I was enthralled by the pure drama and heroism of it, which I’ve never seen fully captured anywhere except in documentary clips; of what it really meant to a black student in the South, to decide whether or not to go to class or to jail, to desegregate a lunch counter.

“All we wanted to do was to sit in Woolworth’s like everybody else and buy a hotdog or a cup of coffee at the counter,” she said. I see her standing outside the windows of a store looking in, not just any black person in a photograph, but my mother, a young woman, with a bow in her hair, standing amongst friends and egged on by the adolescent daring, the terror and thrill of a new movement, the invigoration of resistance. Maybe I was too afraid of her pain, which was formidable, to want to know the exactness of the injuries she suffered. Now I wonder: was she one of the ones who had a pot of coffee poured over her head, was she jerked off a barstool by the hair and dragged into a police car, was she one of those who hugged the side of a brick building as water from a fire hose blasted against her back, pinning her in place? Somebody’s mother was.

I’m told that those days were so long ago, a once-upon-a-time in America preserved in history books. I was born in 1970, and while I never saw a Jim Crow sign, like a fight that ends just as you walk into a room, my generation knew something was still very wrong when we arrived, even if we could only sense it. We were the ones that Dr. King dreamt about, his children who would never know the hurt of the “White Only” or “No Coloreds Allowed” signs. We attended the predominantly white schools, lived in the better neighborhoods where our college-educated parents bought their dream houses, and we became the single black faces in Girl Scouts and Little League. It was bewildering growing up in America after the Sixties, being told by the country that because of the civil rights movement racism was officially over, and yet having racist experiences every day and confronting racist white teachers at school. We never knew what side of the “negro question” our teachers had been on before the movement and all America suddenly agreed now that Dr. King was a national hero - except, of course, the ones who shot him. So we dealt with racism as children, confused because clearly, for all the gains in the country, so much had not changed - no matter what the press releases announced. And today, with the installment of a government holiday, some people are able to treat Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy like a quaint Hallmark card (which often marks the point of canonization), a clever attempt to take the snap, funk and rage out of the civil rights movement and turn King’s message into something trite – enervated, devoid of anger and ultimately useless for future activists; a curio to lay on the coffee table for guests to admire, something genteel. “Happy Martin Luther King Day,” someone says smiling as they cut your black ass off in the line at the local supermarket.

There’s a new kind of black person that’s supposed not to complain about racism anymore because it’s considered un-American and a downer, who can comfortably be a warmonger, an enthusiastic capitalist at any price. In some contexts, to talk about racism these days is almost as rude as eating with your mouth open or farting in public. This new black person can easily vote for Bush, can talk about making money and not flinch about where the money comes from, can be gay and conservative, and can have contempt for other black people, calling them lazy and unwilling to work. He believes the only problem with our schools is black children unwilling to learn; she convinces herself that the reason for an economic crisis in America is poor people who aren’t willing to face reality and help themselves.

Things are so twisted now, I could be going crazy. I certainly wouldn’t be the first; homeless, addicted black men abound in New York City, shouting their “motherfuckers” to the open air, parting the crowds as they kick-step and jerk their way to their destinations, rangy and blurry-eyed and jabbering to no one and everyone, riding subway cars with bags over their heads and picking through the trash for dinner. I’m fascinated with their insanity and where the line of demarcation is, when someone is finally broken in half and wakes up crazy, what it really means to go from just being “mad” to going mad. How many incidents of racism does it take, and how can you know how close you are? Am I even halfway there? Paul definitely would have thought so the time I stood in line at the deli on the East Side, the one near where I used to work and where I felt I had to wait until all the white people were helped before the guy behind the counter finally saw me. We eventually had it out when he told me that no, he wasn’t going to put honey mustard on my sandwich because I forgot to ask for it when I ordered and that if I wanted some mustard I could get packets from beside the cash register. I refused to leave the line because everyone knows that honey mustard isn’t the same as regular mustard, and when he asked the woman behind me, “Can I help you, Ma’am?” I began half singing, half screaming, “We Shall Overcome”, while holding a half-opened sandwich. I probably made an ass of myself, but I got my honey mustard.

Or that time in the bookstore on Park Avenue when that white woman in the sable coat couldn’t remember which black man had been helping her and saw me reading at a magazine rack with my back turned. She tapped me on the shoulder: “Weren’t you able to find it, young man? You were just helping me a moment ago.” She scrutinized my face and then dismissed me with a wave of her hand, as a bald black man with a store nametag around his neck walked up to her with the book she wanted. I followed her up to the line and said loud enough for the store to fall into a hushed silence. “For your information, Madam, every black person you encounter in a store is not a salesperson. And when you interrupt someone, it is polite for you to say excuse me, and when you discover you are mistaken, to apologize.”

“What have I done now?” I heard her say in bewilderment as I stormed out of the store. But I heard it as, “What do they want now?” – as if to say, weren’t civil rights enough? Like those people who get impatient when they find out that the word for blacks has changed again, when colored became negro, which eventually was changed to black, and then, of course, there was that “people of color” phase which was soon replaced by African-American. I’m sure they feel that before they can get used to the last one, there’s some new black nomenclature to memorize. You can see the older ones stammering, the ones who have lived for generations: “He was a very nice colored man, er, I mean, negro, er, black, that is, African-American….” Or as my friend Deborah joked, “You know, we could make a lot of money. Some white people out there would probably love a phone number they could call or a website, like those stock market ticker-tapes on the bottom of the computer screen, that would tell them what we are calling ourselves now. I’m sure some of them are probably thinking, if we don’t stop all this nonsense, they’re just going to go back to calling us niggers and leave it at that.”

What I really need more of are friends like Deborah, who has an extraordinary gift, like the great blues singers, of taking the pain of racism and finding the absurdity in it, finding the irony. When Roots was being shown again on television, I asked if she was planning to watch it; and after offering her a self-righteous lecture on the need to remember our history, she replied drily, “I don’t have to watch a movie about slavery to remember I’m black, honey, all I have to do is go to Neiman Marcus and have my credit card declined.”

I need Tim, the black gay man I worked with years ago, who, when asked at the company’s diversity staff meeting for the best ways to handle racism, replied, “I don’t need to handle racism, it’s not my problem. I’m here, I’m living my life, I exist. Let the people who can’t deal with me handle it themselves.” I need Kelly, the black woman who lived on my dormitory floor in college, who used to tease me when I didn’t feel like studying and wanted to blow off my classes. We had a running joke between us, but there was pain and truth in it. I see Kelly, standing in my door in her pink robe with her arms folded as I put on my coat to leave, delivering one of her famous sermons. Kelly was my age, nineteen, but somehow she had the countenance, stature and voice of a sixty-year-old black female preacher: “Oh, so you gonna go to the movies instead of work on your paper? And it’s due tomorrow? Well, when you walk down the steps on the way to your movie, you make sure you take a good look at the black blood on those steps, and remember all the people who died so that you could get an education, all the slaves who were beaten, sold, and even killed for trying to learn the alphabet, just so you could write a paper. But since you don’t feel like it, you have a good time at the movies. What you gonna see by the way, a comedy? Why not treat yourself to some popcorn – in fact, how about a little extra butter on that? Nothing like a good movie to keep us distracted from the ancestors who brought us here and a history we can never forget.” Although I gave Kelly a murderous look in these moments, we both laughed when, vanquished, I went back to hang up my coat.

When I am dealing with oppression and can’t face the world, I may have to go somewhere and isolate. My friend Cherylyn calls it going “incognegro.” I may lie down in a quiet room and meditate to a song by Brandy (her voice is so filtered these days it’s practically New Age - she’s the black Enya), or I’ll watch In the Heat of the Night, the film in which Sidney Poitier plays a black detective forced to stay in a racist Southern town and solve a murder. When he questions the town’s most powerful white man and insinuates that he is a primary suspect in the investigation, the man slaps him across the face. Without missing a beat, Sidney slaps him back. The man says, with tears springing to his eyes, “There was a time when I could have had you shot.” If I want to hear the black experience expressed through musical genius, I’ll listen to Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” If I need a love story, I’ll watch Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones in Claudine. If I need to weep I’ll play almost any song by Donny Hathaway. Or I’ll watch scenes from the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me, where a twelve-year-old Laurence Fishbourne runs through rainy city streets yelling over and over, “They killed Cornbread!” His screams fill the neighborhood, making it impossible to deny the crime that has taken place, to cover up the fact that the police, having mistaken Cornbread’s identity, have murdered his hero and friend. Later in the film, Cornbread’s father, played by Stack Pierce, watches as witness after witness lies on the stand, fearing retaliation by the police. He finally confronts the officers in the court room, one of the few scenes captured on film of a black father’s grief over the death of his child, raising his tight fists in an expression of futility: “You killed my boy! Would you have killed him if he was white?” If I need faith, I’ll play the episode from Good Times that reminds me of my great-grandmother: Esther Rolle as Florida Evans faces the eviction of her family because of unpaid rent after an emergency hospitalization. The landlord sends two men to move their furniture onto the street, while her husband James is out looking for a way to get the money. Her son Michael asks her, “You gonna make them wait for Daddy, Mama?” Florida walks over to a picture of Jesus that hangs in their home and says, “Not the father you’re thinking about,” as she closes her eyes and prays for help.

If I need strength, I’ll look at the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine who desegregated an all-white school in Arkansas in 1957. Eckford walks purposefully through a racist mob in her dark sunglasses, her schoolbooks in her arms, physically threatened and spat upon, and eventually blocked by the National Guard sent by Governor Faubus to impede her entrance. If I want poignancy, I’ll watch the episode of The Richard Pryor Show, taped in 1977, where Maya Angelou guest stars as a woman whose husband, Willie, comes home every night, drunk and defeated. As he lies passed out at her feet, she weeps: “And then you lost your first job, and then you lost your second job…and then your called yourself a nigger, and I said, oh honey, don’t call yourself that, and you said no, no, it’s an affectionate term. I can use it but nobody else can use it. And then you called me a nigger, Willie. And then if there was ever any affection in it, it disappeared, because you started using it to curse me, to curse yourself, to curse the whole race. To curse life!” Pryor was, as the film critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1982, “the only great satirist among our comics.” In his filmed concert, Here and Now, as a heroin addict who offers his dying words, he intones: “If I come back, I hope you motherfuckers get this shit right. Cause you done fucked it up this time. You wasn’t sensitive. You run over people. You put them in a position that they can’t do nothing in it. Then when they can’t, you say, ‘See?’”

I named this article If They Won't Change, Change Your Mind, not as a call for an end to activism, but to acknowledge the fact that for those of us who are still hoping for America to drop its racism and improve, in the words of Dr. King, “We can’t wait.” At the time of this writing, we have a presidential nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, who once belonged to an organization in the Eighties called CAP (Concerned Alumni of Princeton), created to challenge and prevent that university’s efforts to become multicultural and less sexist by increasing enrollment of racial “minorities” and women. When asked during the confirmation hearings about his participation in CAP, Judge Alito replied, “I really have no specific recollection of that organization.” Now, I can remember the cupcakes that Suzie’s mom brought for her birthday to our second grade class, but this man who may be appointed to the highest court in this country can’t remember an organization he belonged to a few decades ago and put on his résumé. Where is our outrage? Condoleezza Rice made the press circuit last year reassuring everyone that Katrina had nothing to do with race, as the war machine continues to grind on, claiming more lives of color in our military and its conscription through poverty. After all the civil rights marches in the Fifties and Sixties, after the deaths of Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman, after the work of activists, white and black, who went door to door to register black voters in the South and in some cases lost their lives so that black Americans could vote without retaliation, after all those popular Sidney Poitier films portraying black male dignity on screen, after Americans made The Cosby Show the #1 program in the nation, and had the Huxstable family in their living-rooms for eight years, things were supposed to have changed, and the disenfranchisement of blacks in the election of 2000 should have been inconceivable. But what it told us was that nothing had changed at all, as we were betrayed first by the state of Florida, then by the rest of the country, and eventually by the Supreme Court. If you ask some people, we have overcome, yet our communities continue to cope with the constant grief of back-to-back deaths through violent crime or AIDS, not having a way to articulate the heartbreak of watching the news last year and seeing people of color beg for food and help - not on the streets of far-away Calcutta, but New Orleans.

Perhaps I’ll personally know a better America one day, a less brutal America: until then, we have to turn to each other. It is hard to talk about children who are killed by adults frustrated with poverty and hopelessness, parents who one day just “snap”, but it happens all the time. We must get involved and protect our children, even when agencies and the government let us down, as in the case of Nixzmary Brown, beaten to death by her stepfather, César Rodriguez, last month. (In an article published in the Daily News dated January 20th, 2006, reporters Lisa Muñoz and Tracy Connor wrote, “Although he had beaten her for years, Rodriguez said his patience with Nixzmary finally ran out last month after he was fired from his job and money became tight. ‘I felt like this,’ he said, wrapping his arms around his body. ‘Everything was just closing in.’”) We need not be ashamed when we feel we can no longer cope with our family and personal responsibilities, when the pressure feels overpowering and we have to ask for help from a health professional. We don’t need a list of reasons or abuses: seeking therapy because of the stress and damage done by racism alone is justified. We need to know that while every promotion overlooked or raise denied at work isn’t discrimination, some are, and that we are able to confront employers and file complaints if we have been treated unfairly. We have to explore the link between substance-abuse, racism and despair and the desire to “party” all night with drugs and alcohol – letting go of our fantasies that we are getting high to “have a good time” or “relax after a hard week” – and face the reality that we may actually be suicidal or that we’ve given up. We must continue to resist popular images that degrade and devalue black life, that eroticize and sensationalize violence against women, or portray street life (drug dealing, aspects of the sex industry, random shootings) as an exciting adventure, rather than the horror that it often is for those unable to escape it.

It’s time for the conversation to change; to take the anguish we feel when people, black or white, decide they don’t want to drop their racism, sexism or homophobia, and put our pain to better use. Of course, it is always wonderful when people do decide to change, and everyone is welcome to the party. But with the state this country is in, and the leadership that guides it, it is time to turn that power instead to those who are willing to listen, to those who are struggling, and to take our resources, which are vast when we are not wasting them on self-destruction, and say to the young gay person, the addicted lesbian friend, the black mother or father who is overwhelmed: “Hey, I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through. Maybe I can help.”

© 2006 Max Gordon
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