A Game of Categories
I have this thing that I do just for fun. I divide people into camps based on an observable everyday variable. It’s not meant to be serious. Cilantro or not? Sweet tooth or savory palate? My favorite one is whether you park into a spot backwards or forwards. I make assumptions about you; back parkers are planners, front parkers live in the moment. Stuff like that. It’s not something I do to judge you one way or the other. It’s just fun. It never evokes defensiveness. It just is.
In this iteration of Black Lives Matter, I have been dividing friends and family into camps and it’s not so fun. I had been outraged over all the previous incidences of senseless murder of black men and women at the hands of police or vigilantes, but it is different this time around. I feel it differently. I’m more angry. I’m more impatient. Yes, I suppose I’m more judgmental. And I’m categorizing people. Racist or antiracist?
So I get into these “conversations“ (if you can call them that) online (for now). I just can’t stand it when I see a friend’s racist post. And I doubly can’t stand it when they don’t even know it’s a racist post. And I am triply pissed when they get defensive when I reply in a way meant to enlighten them. I seriously want to know why they don’t get it. Since they don’t seem to be able to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, if I try to empathize with them, will I find the answer that will turn on that light switch?
Racist or Antiracist?
Ibram X. Kendi (Author of How to be an Antiracist) says that if you’re not an antiracist, you’re a racist. Wow! That’s tough. In other words, you have to take sides. And if you really do care about equality and justice, then you need to be an antiracist. And if you are not an antiracist, then you are a racist. Ouch. So that is the lens I am using now. Before learning this perspective, I was content to just consider myself not a racist. But am I? I don’t know anyone who is an openly white supremacist racist, but I do have friends who are avid Trump supporters and Democrat party haters.The posts that disturb me the most are the ones in the family of All Lives Matter, the friends who insist they are not racist because they love everybody, they treat everyone equally and claim it’s racist to put one race (blacks) above the others. They know in their hearts that they would never look down on someone because of the color of their skin. Yet, their posts tell another story.
The Post in Question
Example: Post shared by a white female former colleague with words instructing us to read it all before you react. She also says it is meant as “no respect (sic) to anyone,” and that it was non-partisan. I was going to share the meme here but I find it so offensive that I will just tell you about it. It’s a photo of an Asian girl playing in sand at the beach. She looks like me when I was a toddler, or my niece, like many little girls in my family. The words (typing in their formatting): SHE OWES US AN APOLOGY FOR PEARL HARBOR. And underneath, it says: You know what? At first I looked at this and I said, “Whaaat?” But this is a great point. It’s ridiculous to blame this child for pearl harbor just like it’s RIDICULOUS to blame ANYONE alive today for slavery, stolen land from the 1800s, or any other crime from hundreds of years ago. It’s JUST PLAIN STUPID.
Someone had suggested that my friend research generational wealth. She responded that she’s not making a statement, just sharing a meme! When something strikes me, I usually let it pass and if it still bothers me, I’ll get back to it, especially if I think of the perfect tactful response. But this time, I reacted immediately. My trigger — I don’t see why people share things they don’t agree with. Me: “Sharing has meaning. It reflects who you are. It is a political statement and you apparently agree. If you’re not a racist, then why share such racist memes?”
Apparently, I accused her of being a racist because her response to me was to defend herself. “I am not a racist!” The gist of her response was the “bootstraps” argument, that anyone can do anything they want through “honesty, integrity, and dedication to their goals.” A friend of hers also leapt to her defense saying to me “either you can’t read, or don’t want to read all of it.” Her friend goes on to say: “it clearly states that it is ridiculous to blame anyone alive now for something that happened hundreds of years ago.” Oh and she tells me to “chill out and stop being so reactive.”
How do you offend me? Let me count the ways
Let me count the ways I am offended by the post, by you, and by your friend.
I am offended because the post uses an image of a girl who looks like me to advance a point of view that seeks to weaken the case for racial justice that we are dealing with as a country now.
I am offended because the post attempts to denigrate the claims by Black and Native Americans that past injustices need to be addressed.
I am offended because you think the protestors are accusing you personally when the protests are about seeking justice from the system.
I am offended because the post has taken issues of war and sought to apply it to an issue that is irrelevant to the issue at hand. It’s a false equivalence. Apples and oranges. Effects of international war in which treaties were signed and measures for peace were taken vs. effects of historical wrongs that are still playing out in the present time.
I am offended because you don’t realize that your beliefs about hard work and a clean slate is not afforded to everyone equally, which is what this struggle is about.
I am offended because of the condescending tone, which is marked by the language, such as “either you can’t read or don’t want to” and calling the argument for justice RIDICULOUS and PLAIN STUPID (in caps). Imagine if someone was hurt, say by verbal abuse, and you told them that they were ridiculous or stupid for feeling hurt.
I am offended because of your use of CAPS but not where it’s supposed to be — in Pearl Harbor.
Me trying to understand you
Now comes the part where I try to put myself in your shoes. I get that you are offended because you think I called you a racist. For the record, I just said, “If you are a racist, don’t post racist memes.” Okay, I admit, it’s a fine line. And I see that the post is not racist in the blatantly white supremacist way, that it is only racist in that it is not antiracist, and because of the implications I describe above. So, from your point of view, because you don’t have an antiracist perspective, I see how you don’t understand why I would have a problem with that meme. Perhaps I should have started the conversation with a question to find out where you stand, something like: So, I guess you don’t agree that our country has a racial injustice problem.
I know that life has not been easy for you. You are a single mom and have done a great job raising 2 children by yourself. You’re taking care of an elderly mom like I am. You have chosen a noble profession which does not pay well. You pride yourself in loving children of all races. This is a point of pride for you. You believe that all your students have potential to achieve their dreams, no matter their circumstances. They just have to work hard. If you start to make excuses for them, then they will make excuses for themselves, and you can’t let that happen. Nothing is stronger than the human will. You are a patriot, and believe in the “American Dream” and you try to convey that to your students, especially because so many of them are immigrants. This, to you, is your contribution to making the world a better place, to encourage students to work hard, and believing in them. You just can’t let anything enter their psyche that is going to cause them to have doubt about their chances for success. If they are going to blame society, there is no hope for them, because then they won’t work hard.
I think your perspective is understandable, and even commendable. It was mine at one time. I know it comes from a good place, a sincere place of wanting what is best for your students. I had to stop and think about what my argument is against this sincere stance that you and your friends are holding onto.
The importance of history
For me, it is about the importance of history and how history informs the present. I hope you agree. You posted one of those memes about how getting rid of the symbols of the Confederacy is an attempt to erase history, and we need to always remember our history. You get the part about honoring history, but not the part about the history of racism. Especially as educators, we need to realize our role in perpetuating an incomplete history. Perhaps it’s too painful for them, or for you. And so you do nothing, you change nothing, you continue to think you know better than those who are seeking justice. You make a choice to promote the narrative of a race-neutral, traditional view of history.
You may think you are being neutral, or that you are taking the higher ground. You know you’re not a racist because you love everyone based on the “content of their character and not the color of their skin.” And you could care less about antiracism which sounds too liberal for your taste.
But you are not neutral. You have chosen not to give credence to the protests, to the charges of racism, police brutality, discrimination, generational poverty, mass incarceration and other effects of systemic racial oppression. If you did you wouldn’t have posted that meme and you wouldn’t have been so defensive about it. You have chosen not to support Black Lives Matter. Does that make you a racist? A white supremacist? Note: I am not name-calling, I am asking. If you continue to insist you are not a racist, then please try to empathize, and understand why I am offended, why I reacted, why it matters to me. Can you? If you can’t, what does that say about you?
Why does it matter to me whether or not you are a racist?
I know you are a patriot, I know you vote. My guess is that you will vote for the people who echo your views. If you remain resistant to the facts of racial injustice, you will vote for people who also refuse to address this. You will vote for people who demonize the protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement. You will refuse to see the white supremacist movement organizing to maintain power.
This is your right. Who you vote for says something about you, just like the posts you share say something about you. There is no neutral. Make a choice. All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter. Racist or Antiracist. White Supremacist or Egalitarian. Injustice or Justice. Egotism or Empathy. What are your values? What candidate aligns with your values? I hope you are not a racist. I hope you will not vote for a racist. And if you do, I hope that there are more of us than of you.
Diane Aoki is a writer who explores other modes of creativity as her intuition leads her.