Thursday, January 2, 2014

Deuling Pianos

Ever been to a piano bar with dueling pianos?  Can't say that I have but I love the idea.  Especially the idea if it's based in the roots of dueling pianos, which is old fashioned rag where two pianists try to play faster and better, each trying to outdo or one up the other.

Dueling pianos is a musical marvel, a chance for an audience to hear fingers dance and create a frenzy of jazz.  Not so with race relations.  In our modern world, with a 24 hour news cycle, what should be a stage for meaningful conversations on race instead turns into a malay of trying to prove who is right and who is wrong much like a set of dueling pianos set on proving their "rightness."

Aisha Harris sparked off a crazy firestorm in the media by writing "Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore."  Fox's Meghan Kelly quickly replied that he was indeed white, just like Jesus.  Paula Deen lost her cooking empire based on her comments on race.  And Phil Robertson, while originally criticized for his stance and crass criticism of homesexuality, also made the headlines for his comments on being black in Louisiana in the 50's and 60's.

It seems as if there are two issues preventing American from having the kind of dialogue that would actually be beneficial and both are about the inability or unwillingness to consider the perspective of someone else.  For many caucasians, the term "racist" carries heavy connotations.   In a lot of ways, being called a racist means being lumped into a category with other vile offenders.  Child molesters.  Wife beaters.  Racist.  So when a person of color asserts that the reason Santa is traditionally white is because of racism, most white people recoil and bristle because they feel like they have just been called a racist.  For most white people, racism is about calling names, physically harming someone, or discriminating against someone by refusing to hire them, rent to them, etc..   That is not who most white people are or who they want to be associated with.  Harris renames white privelege as "white by default" and for many white people, the idea that the world is set up in a way that encourages life to be "white by default" is a bit foreign and certainly not teh racism they understand.

While overt racism is always wrong, white people often find themselves stuck in a murky no man's land, where they are darned if they do and darned if they don't.  Step up the plate and say that you love all kids regardless of color by daring to adopt transracially and face the fire of the critics who say you can't possible raise a black child.  Recently an MSNBC host used Mitt Romney's black grandson as political fodder on her show.  I personally thought her comments were in poor taste, not because the baby was black, but because he is a baby being drawn into political grudgematch.  That said, many felt that her comments were an affront to transracial adoption.  Others saw her comments as an opportunity to talk about transracial adoption.  In Kieran Romney and the Paradox of Transracial Adoption, white parents are urged to consider how their whiteness might get in the way of their black child's identity and their child's ability to understand what it means to be black in America.  While the author is not against transracial adoption, can you imagine the outrage if a white person dared to ask if white parents really are capable of raising a black child?  That person must surely be maintaining the old tradition of keeping whites with whites and blacks with blacks.   Slap-there goes the racist label being applied yet again.  

In the same vein, whites find themselves unsure of where they should stand on controversial issues like immigration reform, stop and frisk, or the causes of poverty in inner city America.  If one asserts that these issues are about something other than racism or skin color, then you are simply out to oppress a minority group.  Even identifying someone by race, becomes a big question mark for whites.  Is it racist to describe someone by their skin color when, dependent upon the situation, that might actually be the most discernable feature of that person?  And let's not even get into the conversation of what you should call someone who has brown skin.  Calling all Hispanics "Mexican" is wrong.  Using the n words is wrong.  (Even though plenty of black people seem to use it when with their peers or in music.)  But should you call a black person "black", "a person of color", or "African American?" 

I am not saying this in a "pity the white man" voice; what I am saying is that the current racial climate leaves peach skinned people longing for some solid footing.  What would be helpful is for black people to understand that there are a lot of white people who are trying but who fear the backlash of doing or saying something wrong.  What would be helpful is for white people to be given grace rather than instantly accused.  What would be helpful is for there to be real, grown up conversations where we all don't have to agree and where labeling (and name calling) is discouraged.  What would be helpful is for black people to not expect all whites to have a uniform and clear view of what constitutes racism when black culture struggles to define the very same thing.

Likewise, most white people have had the privelege of being white.  They can go into a big name box store and find shampoo and conditioner for their hair type.  (Just an FYI, when I first adopted our kids, there was a section of about 5 products available at the big stores in Lincoln.  No wait.  Actually, the products were only available at one big box store, Walmart.  And this was in Lincoln.  A town of 200, 000 people with a decent black population.  This has now improved and Target and Walgreens carry a pretty decent selection.)  White people have band aids that match their skin type.   White people can easily find dolls that represent their children.  (Try finding a black baby doll that is a boy at a Target, Walmart, or Toys R Us.  You might find a black baby girl.  You will for sure find a variety of caucasian dolls, primarily girls but certainly a few boys too.  But a black baby boy?  Good luck.)  As Harris points out, the Macy's Day Parade features a white Santa.   (Perhaps because Santa has historically been white because of his origins as St. Nicolas?  But that's another discussion.)  

On television and in books, the last 30 years has seen a huge shift in what is available featuring black characters.  But even 20 years ago, Little Black Sambo was still a Little Golden book and the majority of television shows and books featured white families sans the Cosby's.  In fact, the majority of roles for blacks on television were stereotypes.  I just saw an interview with Malcolm Jamal Warner who played Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show where he described his audition for the part. Essentially, he went in as a 13 year old who tried to act "black."  As in the "black" that was being portrayed on tv.  Bill Cosby pulled him aside and asked him if he would talk to his own father like that to which Warner replied, "No."  Warner re read the part then, not as a black teen trying to be "black" but as a black teen trying to be a teen and got the part perhaps because he was able to take Cosby's redirection.

Most white people will never question if the reason they were not hired was because of their skin color.  (Or question if it was the reason they were hired because of affirmative action.)  Most white people have never walked into a room where they were the only person of their skin color.  Most white people have been stared out but wondered if they had toilet paper on their shoe rather than wondered if it was because they were the wrong color in the wrong place.  Most white people have not moved and worried that their new neighbors may snub them because of their race.  But most whites can appreciate how those things feel because even if they haven't experienced them in connection with their skin tone, they have been passed over, felt socially awkward, or had neighbors who were hard to get along with it.  

And that is the rub:  white people have to start accepting that the black experience is not the same as the white experience. (And that there is not a singular black experience.)   A black person's perception of an experience belongs to them, and in their mind is reality.  (Just like anyone's experiences of rejection, hurt feelings, or mean people are his own and what forms his reality.)  You don't have to agree with their perception.  It is not about agreeing.  It is about sympathizing with someone, about recognizing that they were hurt or disappointed or angry and responding with a nurturing loving heart rather than a dismissive one.

So let's step away from the piano and quit banging on the keyboard.  All we seem to be creating is noise.  Could we instead focus on loving and understanding, on being the change we want to see and avoiding the clanging and dischord?  No matter how wise we might be or how right, "If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."  (1 Corinthians 13:1)

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