Thursday, January 6, 2011

When Isms Sting

"I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember."
-- Cullen

The other night when I got home from work, my sister-in-law (17 year-old junior, LHS) asked me to try to explain some things she had read on the Lowell Sun "online" that really bothered her.

It took me a second or two, and then I realized what she was referring to -- Topix. Sure enough, she had read a lot of online postings in the wake of recent events that were filled with hate-filled invective towards people of Asian descent. As she pointed out, there were no such comments directed towards white people after the Woburn policeman murder, and calls for deportation don't really make sense when you're talking about American citizens born here who've never come *from* anywhere else.

Still, I felt like she was looking for me to try to explain or at least make some semblance of sense of the Topix commentariat, whether because I was older, a blogger, a white guy, or because I was a mix of all the above.

I think I said what you might expect anyone to say..."That doesn't really reflect the way most people think," "None of those posters would be saying those things in person," "That's a very very tiny number of people shouting loudly but they don't matter," etc. Still, it's hard to take the sting away from out-and-out racism. As Countee Cullen relayed from his experience in Baltimore, words designed to cut against who and what you are, can really leave a lasting sting despite all the above disclaimers.

Racism is obviously a tough subject because it's like a political third rail. Criticize certain people at your own risk for fear of taking on the label. Throw it out against your opponents to instantly squelch all real debate and put them on the defensive.

One truly heretical thinker/writer on this subject is also one of my favorite authors -- John McWhorter. He's subject to endless straw man attacks from people who call him an Uncle Tom and a reality denier, but to boil down the entire book Losing the Race into two sentences, here's what he's saying:

1. Yes, racism in America exists, and it's widespread. However,
2. Racism in America is, in most cases, not a sufficient barrier to any one person achieving his/her goals.

Get it? So what he's saying is, if you are a person of color who dreams of being a heart surgeon, a judge, a Senator, a Fortune 500 CEO, etc. it's all possible. YES, you will unfortunately be subject to things like suspicious looks in certain quarters, stereotyping, labeling, etc. but none of those things is strong enough to defeat you as you pursue your dreams.

That sounds commonsensical to most people, but there are certain pockets of academia and professional victimology that lambaste him with some of the most acerbic criticism you'll find anywhere.

To personalize it a bit, I come back to a very McWhorter-esque stance every time the subject of nativism in Lowell comes up. I don't doubt for a nanosecond that there are plenty of people in this city who resent the whole "mills to martinis" transformation of downtown (even if the martinis side of that equation is less prevalent than sometimes imagined...look at the real stats and see). However, if I go back in time and look at my basic goals when I left Hampton Roads -- finding a place to join a community and *be someone* in it, and to settle in somewhere to eventually get married and start a family (moving every two years on active duty wouldn't have been too conducive towards either goal!) I'd have to say, "Check...and check." I will come and go for work, and possibly for school, but this remains the stake in the ground where base camp remains. To wit, I'm not denying that there's nativism (though I'll stick to my guns about how the people most conscious of who did or didn't draw their first breaths on the banks of the Merrimack are often us 'grow-ins'), but I most definitely AM saying it's not a sufficient barrier to people's basic goals.

But anyway, back to my original point -- that's the message I tried to instill in Paula when she asked the question....a few idiots who post on Topix may be venting their *real* feelings, yes, but that's not an excuse for selling your own dreams and hopes short!


C R Krieger said...

I'm with you on this.

There are jerks out there, lots of them.

But, there are also folks out there willing to give you a leg up.  Build on the positive and eschew the negative.

And the way things change in these United States you can go from an out group to an in group fairly quickly.  For sure allowing someone else to control how you act is going to hurt you in the long run.

Go for it, Paula

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Cliff, as to your third paragraph, I offered up that before, during, and after the Sam Meas campaign.

Yes, there are probably some small pockets of GOP primary voters in the MA 5th CD who are resistant to someone *else* being nominated, but for every ONE of those people, there are at least two more who would support such a candidate, if all other things were equal.

And the rapid historical swings are well-precedented in our history.

kad barma said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and reasoned response regarding thoughtless and senseless invective. Perhaps in the same vein as my recent blog post, I've long ago concluded that the least productive and most dangerous members of society are the ones who spend the most time railing about others' perceived productivity and lawlessness.

It's perhaps worth pointing your sister-in-law towards histories of various immigrant groups to this country, and the stigmas and discrimination they've endured and overcome on their way towards their progeny becoming the source of this kind of hateful bile.

Boggles my mind that these folks will daily ride past the Wang Towers and never reflect on what they've ever done that could compare. (Of course, it also galls me that Sam Meas, of all people, would want to roll up the welcome mat behind himself, but that's another story for another time).

I try to remember that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, and I try to toss rebuttals against such screeds whenever I run across them. It may give your sister-in-law some peace of mind to stand up for reason against irrationality, or she may prefer to quietly let her life speak for her. Either way, here's to living the better example.

Corey said...

Don't forget that those that post on Topix are often a very vocal and disgruntled minority that in many cases isn't even making sense (calling the Constitution into question to defend the illegal arms dealer in Pawtucketville because he's white, but screaming deportation every time a minority gets caught with an illegal weapon!?). Reasonable discussion with reasonable people is dead there because of the shouting. I think it's a huge black mark on The Sun that they allow it to happen.

JoeS said...

Rather than racism, I think that we must recognize ignorance exists in America. For the ignorant, racism is their attempt to level the playing field for themselves.

Renee said...

It never really cross my mind that any would be unreceptive to Sam Meas in the district due to his ethnicity. It did concern me he lived way up in Haverhill, a town that has only been a part of the district since 2002. If Sam Meas lived in Acton or Littleton, it would of helped the campaign. It's an hour drive from one end to the other side of the district, even with 495.