Friday, July 5, 2013

What's more shameful than the "N-word"?

Gee, Paula Deen used the "N-word" -- in a joke -- once up on a time. Yeah. Let me think: a white Georgia-bred 66 year old got fired for being a racist because under oath, she admitted to this error of judgement. Now, I'll admit, I haven't read the full testimony nor do I condone the use of that or any other pejorative label in any circumstance, but the whole overblown Paula Deen scandal is scapegoating a much larger, more prevalent, and far more troubling issue in America.

That Paula Deen was raised in a racist society cannot be disputed, and one thing brain scientists will explain if you don't know from your own personal experience is: what we learn during early development is seeded deep in the synapses of the brain, below the level of our day-to-day awareness. Sadly, not only was Paula Deen raised in a racist society; so are all Americans -- still, to this day. And even when we consciously want to overcome those childhood lessons (even Paula Deen has expressed remorse), the automind of habit -- especially in conditions of stress -- is much more powerful than rational thinking. It takes more than just momentary effort of will to undo the lessons of a lifetime. It takes constant practice and reinforcement of better behavior.
Children are colorblind until taught to be otherwise
Because we as a society have pretty ineffectually attempted to sweep the detritus of slavery -- and other ethnic disparaging -- under the rug of presentability, insidious racism remains rampant in America. The fallout of the Paula Deen testimony isn't its shameful fact, it's its public witchhunt fervor. Bad Paula: SHE said "the N-word". The thing is: racist words and other slurs pollute the air of every American community. When we hear denigrating terms, we witnesses may mildly deprecate with a weary headshake or dismiss the intent or -- more often -- simply disregard in silent complicity. People may squirm or look away, but no one ever talks about its offense. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reports in The Atlantic, "The ignorance is willful. We know what we want to know, and forget what discomfits us."

Let me be clear: I do indeed think Paula Deen in private still harbors the prejudices of her upbringing, just as a too-large portion of the entire United States does. The loud and zealous societal excoriation of Paula Deen isn't proof of a moral turnaround and it certainly isn't evidence of anyone stepping forward to atone for white privilege. People's reactions show no real movement toward resolution but merely a posturing of indignation, more for the slight of bring up the unmentionable in public rather than righteous repentence.

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” 
~ John Wooden, American basketball coach

It's convenient to denounce Paula Deen, but if we're sincere, where are the protests against the "birthers" and other blatantly prejudiced Obama maligners, like Donald Trump. Where is the censure of legislators who perpetuate jerrymandered districting and voucher education into ghettos of failure. Where are the protests against the Roberts Court, which can admit racism exists yet strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before any mitigating replacement legislation is enacted. Where is the outcry against the torrent of hatred unleashed at the Cheerios ad featuring a biracial family. Why do we attack only one aging southern belle when there is a whole country steeped in white privilege and denial?

In a society with gender diversity and sexual diversity and racial and ethnic diversity, you make those kind of [demeaning] comments, you're failing at leadership. If we can make this point [to take personal responsibility to stand for human rights and not stay silent in the presence of abuse] to powerful men and women in our society, at all levels of institutional authority and power, it's going to change the paradigm of people's thinking.
~ Jackson Katz,  Ph.D, advocate of the Bystander Approach

Society condones the media's willful whitewash the truth. Racism hasn't gone away. Compared to other nations, our diversity is woefully underrepresented in positions of power and influence. America is only equitable, evenhanded, tolerant when convenient. Our practices are far more anchored in bias, partiality, and discrimination than in policies of conscientious, upright, ethical principles. We only talk equality and hope no one notices the disparity of our nation's pervasive reality.

As long as demographics divide the world into Black and White, as long as we force multi-ethnic children to claim one racial identity, as long as prejudice and stereotypes color our assumptions, the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners" will never comfortably feast together at a table of thanksgiving. Rather, each group will continue to glorify inimical oral histories, and neither will willingly integrate in colorblind brotherhood. As James C. Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project says, "We may have knocked down the walls of our own apartheid, but we still stumble over the ruins of segregation."

We need not just to remember the "created equal" concept of our nation's founding; we need to embrace its ideal. We need to listen to the models who have led the way; Nelson Mandela said it well: "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." We need to honor not just memorized rules of equality but the inborn "better angels" of our own empathic hearts.

Until this nation commits to the "absolute equality of personal rights” promised in the Juneteeth declaration of emancipation by Union Gen. Gordon Granger, we are failing our citizens, our national spirit, and our potential. But it's not up to one Southern white woman to overcome the inbred teachings of her past; it's up to each and every American to tap into the heartfelt wisdom deep within -- where we know compassion, where we feel another's pain, where we hold the courage to live up to our inherent values.

We need to rethink the terms we use to refer to others -- not just the epithets we know we should avoid but the demographic labels that pigeonhole divisively. The world is never Black and White and as long as the former is associated with negatives while the latter is considered desireable, slapping such labels on parts of the population will only obstruct equality. We've all internalized the implications; the degradation isn't subtle just because it isn't worn on an armband.

We're all Americans now; the qualifiers only denigrate. If you can't make your point about a person without categorizing in a potentially hurtful way, you're probably trying to make the wrong point. We need to be building respect and enhancing the opportunities for growth in everyone. If we keep that awareness in mind as we form our comments and interact, the world may actually become that better place we each and every one of us yearn for.
MLK Quote: We live in mutuality because of the interrelated structure of reality.
We can't erase the past, but we can stop repeating it. Let's not keep teaching kids to hate those who are different. You can never improve yourself by diminishing someone else.

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