angel Kyodo williams

can you see me now?

In identity, relationship on March 2, 2009 at 11:52 pm
facebook friends faces

who are your friends?

Just three days after the New York Post’s brazenly racist cartoon managed to slip past all editorial checkpoints to subtly (or grossly) depict the nation’s first Black president as a rabid chimp gunned down by NY’s finest, the online Opinion section of NYTimes ran an article on race. Columnist Charles Blow doesn’t mention the Post snafu, likely because his piece was already written just as the shit was hitting the proverbial NY fan. Publisher Rupert Murdoch hadn’t even taken out his shovel by the time Blow was taking exception to newly-appointed Attorney General Eric Holder’s scathing comment about America being “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race.

Rather than naked racism, Blow draws our attention to the implicit bias that undergirds our national conversation on all things black and white. There’s nothing new about how lopsided the pages Blacks and Whites are on when it comes to perceptions of racial equality. It is disturbing to see in hard figures the six years and hundreds of thousands of peoples worth of data that reveal Asians and Latinas run almost neck-and-neck with Whites when it comes to having an implicit pro-white bias. Fear of A Black Planet is alive and well. Thanks to slippery ol’ internalized racism, a good chunk of Blacks are pro-white too, though they were also the most likely to be neutral.

Well, Black folks kinda knew this through direct experience all along, but how did science get to the bottom of what most of us won’t or can’t reveal about ourselves? A simple 10 minute, 2-fingered test that anyone that cares about social justice should take. Now. Don’t Pass Go. I’ll be here when you get back…
As self-declared activists, allies and agents of social change, many of us will feel sheepish taking the test, even behind the privacy of our computer screens and (mostly) anonymous browsers. With our cool collaborations and coalitions, we’ve taken a certain amount of comfort in being able to self-righteously stake a claim to our good standing on the racial bias spectrum.

We’re mostly beyond the once-too-familiar wannabe-progressive White folks declarative “I don’t see color” claim. (In case you were wondering, this is not a good thing. Since we are, in fact, “of color,” not seeing color means not seeing me. What I hear you saying is you’re trying to see me just like you see white people. Um, no, thank you. On the other hand, the only thing worse than being seen as something you’re not, is being transparent, as in not being seen at all.)

Speaking of “of color,” now that we of the many ethnicities and hues–East and Southeast Asians, Latinas, Middle Easterners, Natives and Blacks, not to mention mixed race, mestizos, and mulattoes–have successfully lumped ourselves together into the One Big Category of People of Color for political purposes, our other-than-Black brothers and sisters often receive a pass to bypass their anti-Black bias by vague reductionist association. That escape hatch leads to a dangerous rabbit hole of weirdness, guilt and confusion for all.

Even Black folks can no longer hide behind the mere fact of birth to escape the taint of racial bias that, while not exclusively American, we’re the best at marketing worldwide.

The repercussions of this are hard to discount. Obviously this is a social change issue at its core because the work for a truly just society for all requires trusting alliances. But it’s even more of an inner change issue because we know that no matter how many campaigns we win or laws we pass, real justice begins right here, in our own hearts and (unconscious) minds.

Look to Cuba where institutional racism was systematically written out of the laws within months of the ’59 Revolution, yet they must acknowledge the naiveté of believing discrimination could be legislated away:

“…we believed at the beginning that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, or racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in 40 years…”
—Fidel Castro

Science’s answer to ameliorating implicit bias? Distinguish. When people are taught to distinguish individual faces of people of races other than their own, the inclination to make cross-the-board associations–negative or positive–is diminished. People are thus returned to their rightful place as unique, individual beings that have to be taken for who they actually are rather than who they generally are or might be.

I went to junior high with an 84% Asian population in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. As a bonafide minority, I couldn’t get away with blending the Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Han Chinese and various Pacific Islanders with a cavalier “they all look alike to me.” I had to see each of them. One by individual, unique one.  Being in real relationship with “the other” closed the bias gap.

But to even get there, we have to look at ourselves first. We have to stop letting ourselves off the race hook and commit to actively resisting the biased waters we swim in by raising our unconscious, implicit fears to the level of conscious, explicitly articulated ones. That’s painful, exhausting, heart-breaking work, but it’s the real work that needs to be done. No less important than your next action, petition, campaign or board meeting. (Those explicit biases could use a good eyeballing here, too.) Plainly speaking, if you’re doing work for change in what’s “affectionately” referred to as AmeriKKKa without a practice of examining race, you’re pretty much adding to the problem.

We can and should do the good, hard work of rooting out systemic oppression and racism at all levels of  society. But not unless and until we address the ultimate system–the inner thoughts, feelings and beliefs that give rise to our implicit perceptions–will we have a chance at the deep change that can–and will–elude all of our political maneuvering.

Take a good look at you so you can take a look at me.

Can you see me now? Good.

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