In ancient Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was a kind of maze built at Knossos by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete. It was designed to hold the Minotaur, a mythical creature that was half-man and half-bull. Unlike an ordinary maze, a labyrinth is easy to get into; but once you attain the center, it is very difficult to find your way out again.
Yes, readers, you guessed it. My topic today is race relations in the United States. Take a deep breath and follow me in. I promise you will be able to find your way out again.
In the past few weeks, two stories turning on race have occupied our collective attention.
In the first story, a massively viral video portrayed a campaign to arrest and prosecute Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan guerrilla group infamous for abducting thousands of children and forcing them to serve as soldiers and sex-slaves. Despite being indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Kony has eluded capture and the LRA has spread its activity to a wider swath of central Africa. The video tells a very simple story, but in reality, the long and winding saga is extremely complex.
The video was made for the group Invisible Children by a cofounder, Jason Russell. Four weeks after its release, with more than 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo, it was expected that Invisible Children would mobilize a massive turnout next month for its worldwide united front demanding Kony’s arrest. But things changed as more and more people reacted to Russell’s decision put himself and his young son at the center of a story that turns on American power and heroism, framing it as a tale of white saviors.
Ugandans’ reaction was strongly negative, and many activists, artists, and intellectuals have spoken out, along the way raising questions about Invisible Children’s intentions, fundraising practices, and governance. In a bizarre twist, a few days ago, Jason Russell was hospitalized after a stripping off his clothes for a wild outburst on a San Diego streetcorner.
If you haven’t seen the Kony 2012 video, I urge you to wait a little longer and watch it only after reading this beautifully nuanced and truthful piece by novelist Teju Cole, whose tweets about the video campaign triggered tremendous reaction, pro and con. (You’ll find the original video link inside Cole’s piece, as well as links to several virtuoso analyses by Africans, all providing vital information, and all essential reading if you want to begin grasping this issue.) Here’s a sample of Cole’s penetrating insight:
But there’s a place in the political sphere for direct speech and, in the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the “angry black man.” People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
Cole’s comments on Kony 2012 became even more apt and essential as a second story arose to seize the headlines: by last week, the 26 February murder of Trayvon Martin had exploded into national consciousness, expressing the most recent refusal of people of awareness and goodwill to go along with the charade that racism is over.
Here, too, the thoughtful, feeling-full, informative commentaries are multiplying. Charles Blow’s 16 March New York Times column spread everywhere, helping to ignite response. In a New Yorker blogpost, William Finnegan aptly compared the case to the killing of 14 year-old Emmett Till in 1955, which also triggered national outrage, and which helped to turn public opinion against legalized discrimination. Both celebrities and ordinary people have had themselves photographed in black hoodies to stand in solidarity with the murdered young man. Even President Obama spoke out.
As time passes, people drill further into the nuances of the situation and response to it. For example, Davey D featured a guest editorial from Thandisizwe Chimurenga, a young Los Angeles writer, responding to the twisted accusation that African Americans ignore violence that isn’t inflicted by white people.
One piece that, for me, attains the same power and truth as Teju Cole’s was written by H. Samy Alim, director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. Alim tells stories from his own personal experience, then explains:
For many of us, the Trayvon Martin case has reopened the scab on our souls created by the continual experiences of racial abuse at the hands of our “fellow Americans” and institutions designed to protect us. Every Trayvon Martin case triggers the trauma, reminding us of the fear, pain, suffering, and humiliation that we have long silenced and suppressed. Some of us may share our narratives of racial abuse in private spaces where we feel safe. But far too many of us remain silent, especially in the public sphere. How do we challenge individual acts and systems of racial abuse if we remain silent? Moreover, how do we do so in a society that tells us that we are “overly sensitive” about race? Or that we talk too much about it? Or worse, that we are the racist ones because we “insist” on seeing everything through the lens of race? Or worse still, that we brought the violence upon ourselves because of the way we were dressed?
Sadly, the hoodie now occupies the same space racially that the mini-skirt occupies in gendered narratives that blame the victim of sexual violence. In a society that tells us that we deserve the violence because of our fashion choices, or that we need to stop “crying wolf” over racial injustice, or that we “complain” too much about racism, the tragic irony is that you ain’t even heard the half.
To most observers, I belong to the category “white,” based on my skin color, which I would describe as light olive. Not to hardcore white supremacists, of course, who clump Jews with other “mud people.” (If you want to get a glimpse of what’s crawling around under that rock, google “George Zimmerman,” Trayvon Martin’s killer, and “Jew.” Zimmerman is Catholic, but that is no disincentive to anti-Jewish commentators of all colors.) But to most people who might see me walking down the street at night, say, returning from the store with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles, the label would be “white,” and the odds of my surviving the journey, excellent.
And that label, apart from my age, gender, or other characteristics, would confer a deeply entrenched benefit of the doubt. If the category were “black,” it would confer the opposite, a presupposition of danger. In American society, these meanings are holographically encoded in racial categories. Many things can intensify them, as our recent national conversation about hoodies has shown. Many things can disrupt them: a black man in an expensive suit getting out of a chauffered limousine is not going to be viewed with alarm; neither is a black woman wearing the authority of a teacher as she shepherds her second-grade class into the museum. But strong or weak, the meanings endure, infecting the lives of all who are perceived to fit maligned categories.
There is not a single dark-skinned resident of this country who has not had experiences like those H. Samy Alim describes—challenged by authority figures, invidiously stereotyped by strangers, subjected to assumptions that falsify and contaminate reality—experiences that can easily escalate from discomfort to persecution to terrorism, as Trayvon Martin could testify if he had not been murdered.
There is no woman who has not been objectified, condescended to, infantilized, frightened, or harmed on account of her gender. There is no Asian American, Arab American or Latino American who has not been treated as a stranger in his or her own home community. There is no Native American who has not been addressed and handled as a living artifact.
Reading Cole’s tweets about Kony 2012, Nicholas Kristof seemed to feel that his own good motives as a humanitarian were challenged by Cole’s characterization of “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Teju Cole wrote this in response: “I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers.” Cole is walking the razor-thin line that separates a categorical statement from a personal one.
And here is a big part of the challenge. Not one of the commentators who’ve weighed in recently espouses a crude form of racial thinking that equates good or evil with the color of one’s skin. Unless blinded by prejudice, how could they? As individuals, we learn very little about each other from our outward appearance, while even a brief acquaintance with the news shows countless examples of people in all shades extending themselves in kindness and compassion to those of other colors; just as it shows the opposite, people in all colors victimizing those different from themselves.
But there is a big difference between our individual choices, behaviors, and relationships and the aggregate, structural impact of that complex of conscious policies and unconscious habits that has woven racism through our social fabric. Here is Cole’s second tweet in the Kony series: “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” It speaks a truth that is not nullified by the existence of many individuals who reject the behaviors it describes. Nor is it nullified by the fact that not all those do who fit the description are white.
It doesn’t matter if Jason Russell’s promulgation of the myth of America’s power to heal the history it has helped to make is grounded in naivete or knowing cynicism: the effect is the same. Just so, George Zimmerman has to be called to account for his self-appointed role of executioner whether he was in the grip of a fear rooted in his own damaged mind or the embedded racism of our culture.
Nothing is simple. But at the center of the labyrinth, it all comes together. All of the truths about race and power that have been told with special vigor over the last few weeks co-exist. All of this is happening at the same time, and none of it cancels the rest. And we have to let it in. I don’t know of anything other than truth—lots of it, in many voices, spoken from whole and broken hearts into the open ears of hearts willing to hear—that can heal the supporating wounds of race in this nation. I don’t know of anything else that can lead us out of the labyrinth, into a place where no one feels authorized to judge a person’s value by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, orientation, ability, and all the rest of the categories.
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, said it beautifully: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” Every faith offers the same answer. In the Hebrew bible, Chapter 10 of Deuteronomy contains an account of what is asked of human beings, including the exhortation to love the stranger. There is a curious phrase at verse 16, “circumcise your heart.” As a spiritual intention, this means to cut away the membrane of ego and defense that restricts the flow of love into the world and back. Just so, both the Qu’ran and the Confessions of St. Augustine contain the entreaty to “open the ears of my heart.”
I don’t see this revolution as comprising only a turn toward compassion, although the Golden Rule would go a long way toward putting things right. It also has to include that act of self-surgery, removing the impediments of narcissism and ignorance that keep us from seeing how often our own indifference has enabled the actions that later acts of charity are intended to fix. Listening is hard, but it’s only a first step. At long last, can we take it?
Ruthie Foster’s version of John Martyn’s “Don’t Want to Know” can help align the spirit with that intention, but I couldn’t find a video. Richie Havens’ version is worth hearing too.
I’m waiting for the planes to tumble
Waiting for the towns to fall
I’m waiting for the cities to crumble
Waiting till I see you crawl.
Yes it’s getting hard to listen
Hard for us to use our eyes
Cause all around that gold is glistening
Making sure it keeps us hypnotized.
And I don’t want to know about evil
I only want to know about love
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know about love.
I was noticing how it is easy to get stuck with one of the numerous truths that — as you note, actually coexist.
Personally, I have been a bit stuck with the thought that the problem has more to do with bad outcomes for black males in America than lack of justice. WBEZ ran a series on the financial burdens placed on people in the criminal justice system. http://www.wbez.org/story/cook-county-costs-catching-case-97233
Process and outcomes are always related, but it is complex. The outcome? Not ambiguous at all.
So, it is really helpful to try to view one’s own perspective as simply one of many that aren’t really competing and none of which is really presented as the whole truth.
Thanks, Nick. Interesting link. The Thousand Kites project (http://www.thousandkites.org/) is full of documentation of things like prisons profiting on sales of soap and TP, or charging double or triple for phone calls. Another facet….