Friday, January 30, 2009

Race (Gasp!!!)- No, you can't talk about that!

Well, I am.  

I was watching a TV show with a number of my Jesuit brothers today.  I don't remember what the TV show was called, but the main actor was one of the main writers from Seinfeld.  He was a strange mix of George Costanza and Jerry.  Well, anyway, this was the first I'd ever watched the show. Larry David?  I think that's his name.  

Well, in this episode, Larry is walking with a friend by the beach.  As they are conversing, a friend of the friend Larry is walking with happens to jog by.  They do the whole hey-it's-great-to-see-you-how-are-things-going spiel, while Larry, of course, smiles awkwardly at the person he's never met.  He's a dermatologist, and he happens to be black.  

So, the friend introduces Larry to his jogging friend, sharing with him that he is a dermatologist.  Then Larry I think says something like: "Oh, even with the whole affirmative action thing?" 

Dermatologist gets angry, Larry apologizes profusely and says he was only joking, Larry needs his help later for a skin prescription for his wife later on in the episode, etc.  You can imagine what the episode was like.  

Now, I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about race.  Sure, I picked up a few things here and there as a sociology major and taking a race and ethnicity class.  But, by no means do I feel I have some authority on the subject as a result.  I do, however, have my observations and own lived experience as a Filipino-American, which no doubt are shaped by that college degree. 

When I was working at Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane, WA, I had a lunch session with the diversity students about the issue of race.  I wrote on the board the major categories that we tend to classify race here in the United States--white, black, native, hispanic, asian.  Then, I asked them to list stereotypes or things you often associate with each "racial" group  

White stereotypes: uncultured, uptight and/or paranoid, good with money, preppy, suburban, "bourgeois"

Black stereotypes: 'gangstas', criminal, rappers, dumb, watermelon and fried chicken, fat ladies with fashionable hats and a big voice, gospel and soul, sports

Native Stereotypes: drunks, casinos, indian feathers, voodoo dancing, "whoop whoop", pipe smoking, pow wows, in unity with nature

Hispanic Stereotypes: border hoppers, takes away American jobs, gangs, tacos and enchiladas, can't speak English, religious

Asian Stereotypes: math nerds, knows kung fu, ching-chong, "model minority", passive/compliant, stingy, dry cleaners

Now, I'm not really interested in going into much detail about the validity of these stereotypes or how these general categories conglomerate very diverse groups of people into one . Some may be grounded in reality.  As far as I have observed, it is much harder to come up with 'white' stereotypes then the other ones.  Even if they aren't real, if someone thinks they're real, then the effects of that thinking are quite real.  

I watched a musical here in NY a number of years ago called Avenue Q.  One of the songs in the musical was: "Everyone's a little bit racist." I think it's silly to think that we are not racist at least on some level.  And, I'll admit it, I'm a little bit racist myself.  When I walk down Fordham Road (which is primarily African and Latino), I can feel a lot more uncomfortable than walking around Upper East Side Manhattan. Sometimes, I don't like riding the subway--makes me feel uncomfortable going into the Bronx.  

Of course, I don't feel like I choose to think these things.  It would be nice to not have any of these feelings.  If I had the choice, I would choose seeing every single person, regardless of skin color, as someone worthy of God's love.  I would see them as I believe God sees everybody. But, I realize that I have to mentally work hard at thinking differently.   

I don't think it's impossible for our society to get to that place.  But we aren't there yet.  We have all grown up with stereotypes of other people.  I don't believe in the stereotype, for example, of latinos as illegal (it's absurd), but the concept is in my mind nevertheless.  It's real in the sense that the idea has been transmitted to me.  

Clearly, we are making progress in the area of racism--Obama's election is indicative of that. But let's not kid ourselves.  We're all still a little racist (maybe a lot racist for some).  

When I'm on the subway feeling racist, I try to acknowledge that I'm feeling racist. By being self-aware in this manner, I become able to think that I don't want to feel these feelings, and that I am able to ask God to help me see His people with the same loving gaze that He sees all. I become able to challenge myself to think differently than I sometimes habitually do.  I think if we are honest with ourselves, and with one another, we can make real strides in the area of racism.  I don't think it's helpful at all to pretend otherwise.  Using Ignatian language, the dark spirit wants us to pretend.  The Holy Spirit wants to bring it into the light so that the process of healing may begin.  

Well, I feel I could still write a lot about this, but then I'd probably be rambling.  Maybe another time.  Maybe.  

(It would be rather funny if I was asked to shut down my blog after only one posting.  I don't think that will happen.)

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