An Introduction to Racism: Mine, Not Yours
I am an old. Not the oldest old, but an old. Last summer, the summer of Ferguson, I was on Gawker. Ferguson reminded me of the Harlem Riots of 1964. The Harlem Riots happened when I was an infant, so I had a kind of Death of Ivan Illyich moment. Could it be that as a country we have been going downhill when we imagined that we were going up? Before Ferguson I would have said that we had made great progress on race during my lifetime, but last summer it seemed like we hadn’t made any progress at all.
Now, Gawker is a cesspool. Nick Denton wants his money, Kinja is a failure as a blogging platform, and the site has been overrun with stupid. That said, there are still lots of great sub-blogs and great people on Kinja, and even though crazy conspiracy detractors think Denton is a White House operative, he wanted his platform to foster discussions on race, and I think it has.
You may be too young to remember all of the breathless hype of the “New Media” revolution. If you read Wired in the early 90s you would have thought that every social ill would be cured by now. Most of the hype was bullshit, but there was an exception. All of the new platforms are more diverse than old media. It’s obvious, but it’s one of the best things about the Internet. The people of the borderlands can speak on the tubes. The disenfranchised get to have their say.
In perfectly voyeuristic fashion, I have been feasting on what Americans of color have to say. I almost never comment on issues of race. I’m trying to listen. I am a fan of Kara Walker’s art, so I was particularly interested in this article:
After waiting about 20 minutes in line, we were in. I assumed the Domino Sugar Factory would smell like sweat and…gawker.com
Which is a great article. Now read the comments. You will see a full range of reactions: people are having their say. Good people, bad people, ugly people, funny people, the hateful and the wicked, they are all having their say. Stephanye Watts hangs in there, some Gawker stalwarts like MizJenkins weigh in, and in the end, the back-and-forth is something that did not exist when I was a kid.
[If you are interested, there was a great article on Medium about Instagram at the Kara Walker exhibit. You will notice that there is no discussion. 57 “recommends” but no responses. No shitshow. No back and forth. It is a shortcoming of this platform. I like the lack of trolls and spammers, but I wish that ideas could be discussed.]
by Emma Shakarshy and Cordelia Nailongmedium.com
When I read things like The Audacity of No Chill I am often tempted to comment. Really, I’m tempted to troll. I try hard not to. What do I have to say? My reaction isn’t the important one. I am very much the man, and discussions about race are often not about me or for me. Perhaps I should shut up and listen. But, fuck, I like to talk.
One thing that the Web makes clear every day is that our personal experiences are not normative. The life I lead turns out to be peculiar. There are lots of people who do things differently than I do, who experience life differently than I do, and who think differently than I do. Many of them are happier than I am. Maybe sharing for the sake of sharing is good. Should I share? What do I have to share about race? How about my racism? Should I share that?
Let’s Start With the Fact that I Don’t Have Any Black Friends
A while ago, there was a meme that asked “how many people of color do you have in your contact list” and my answer is “none”. Wait, are we counting Asian, South Asian, and mixed race people? If so then… well… none. You might say, but Gutbloom, you live in a part of New England that is less than 5% minority. That’s true, but I have lived in Richmond, Virginia; Boston, MA; New York, NY, and the Navajo Nation. Still, none. I even lived in “black” sections of Richmond. I lived in Church Hill (not the nice part) and Jackson Ward, but didn’t manage to strike up any lasting friendships. Why? Racism (I’m not kidding).
Reparations Are in Order
Most of my family comes from potato famine Irish. Almost all branches of my family tree came to this country around 1850. The one exception was my maternal great-grandfather who deserted the British army, came to America, and set up a textile factory in New England.
I had a crazy uncle, now dead, who told me that my great-grandfather’s first million dollars came from cotton speculation. He bought a large amount of cotton, World War I broke out, the price of cotton skyrocketed, and he was able to sell the goods at higher prices. He was “lucky”.
If my uncle is right, my mother’s family fortune was partly created by turn-of-the-century cotton (some other time I will discuss the exploitation of Italian factory workers in our non-union shop, if you like). The money my mother inherited paid not only for my private high school, but college and graduate school. I had no student debt.
I was born on third, but will die on first. My grandfather died young, and my mother’s branch of the family sold their stock in the company decades ago. Most of the inheritance was chewed through during my childhood. I have been downwardly mobile for over 40 years. Still, the power of a good bit of money can’t be underestimated! When my mother died, I was able to put $33,000 into a college fund for my son. By my reckoning, that money is blood money from Jim Crow sharecroppers in the South three generations ago. Their kids should be the ones getting help with college. Why will another generation profit from their exploitation? Racism.
We Climbed Over Black People to Get Out of the Ghetto
As I said above, almost all of my family is made up of famine Irish. My profile picture is really one of my paternal great-grandfathers who was the first member of his family born in America. He was born in Boston in 1855.
This is a picture of a crew of Boston Water Works employees. He is the guy in the left with the mustache and bowler hat. If you look closely you can find two African-American workers.
My great-grandfather advanced his career by taking adult education classes at the Free Evening Industrial Drawing School, offered through the Boston Public Schools. He was taught mechanical drawing. Here is an example of the work he did:
I was able to find, through the Boston Public Library, a photograph of an Evening Industrial Drawing Class. Here it is, my great-grandfather isn’t in it.
You know what’s odd? There are no black people in the photograph. Didn’t any of the black men at the water works want to advance their career? How is it that my family that came to Boston in the mid-1800s did so much better than the laborers of color that they once worked with?
If you know the history of the Irish in America then you know that there was direct conflict with black people. Leaders like James Michael Curley, the Irish Marion Barry, was a race-baiter and fathered the reactionary, anti-progressive, South Boston and Charlestown Irish who, a generation later, turned out in droves to throw rocks at buses during integration.
My family was on the other side. My family was decidedly “progressive”. My grandmother helped integrate the first pre-school in Boston. There is a lot of Irish self-hatred that courses through our folkways, but my point is that we benefitted from the institutional racism that surrounded us even as we condemned it.
My family climbed out of an Irish ghetto three generations ago. There are some remarkable men back there, but they stepped on the backs of black people to climb out, not individually but institutionally.
I Grew Up With a Black Woman
We had help when I was a kid. A woman, whom I’ll call Berta, came from Barbados when my youngest brother was born. She lived with us for five or six years. She is a wonderful person.
Lots of books, essays, and movies have described what it is like to have the sanest person in the household be a maid or servant who belongs to a different class. That was the case in my house with Berta. Her room was a refuge. We were not allowed to go into her bedroom. My mother made it clear that that was her space and we should not bother her, but sometimes, when my parents were out, she would invite us in to her room watch Tom Jones on the TV while she hooked rugs and sang along. She kept her room warm. She was kind and funny. All of the smells were different. It was magical.
I once got mad at her and in my anger pointed to a cast iron skillet and said, “You’re as black as that frying pan.” My mother, who I didn’t know was standing behind me, cuffed me the minute the words came out of my mouth. Berta threatened to quit. It was a big mistake. When she did not leave, nobody talked about it.
I learned my lesson. You know what the lesson was, don’t you? The lesson was, think all the racist thoughts you want, you can even voice them with us, but don’t let that shit out in front of black people themselves. That’s a big mistake.
I’ve Said Some Racist Shit in My Life
I went to boarding school. It was a complicated experience. The institution no longer exists, and that is probably a good thing. The schoolboy culture, if you could call it that, was just amazingly sexist, racist, and homophobic. It was part of a larger context of transgression, but, of course, the racism was different because some of the practitioners are people with real political power today. You can’t imagine how bad it was. Really. I don’t even try to talk about it with people who were not there. The place is dead. It should be buried.
Some people of color, women, and gay men still come to reunions. I can’t fathom what they went through. There were apologies long ago, not that they make any difference.
If there is any divine justice I have plenty to answer for.
There Is More, But I Won’t Go On
One Gawker commenter, it may have been Grabby-Sauce, said something like, “I can’t help white people. White people have to heal themselves.” I don’t know how to do that.
Racism is the poisoned root of the American experiment, and it is still threatening to kill the entire tree. I love America, but not Ferguson America. Not America without black people. If you want to chop the tree down, you know you can’t count on me to hand you the ax, but I may be more relieved than you think when you shout “timber”.
If you think that something I wrote here is fucked up, please feel free to set me straight. I am a seasoned troll. If this whole thing comes off as a narcissistic white wash then let me have it. I promise I will read what you write.
Thank goodness for the Internet. I give Medium a lot of shit, but if Medium is one of the places where we can have a discussion, then maybe it’s not as bad as I often say it is.