Bill Maxwell: Race is so familiar, we ignore its harm

If nothing else, the killing of Trayvon Martin has many Americans openly talking about race and racism again. That is good, even though some of our talk is harsh.

But then, racism is harsh.

Many white people simply want the topic to go away. Trust me when I say that most blacks also want it to disappear — but for other reasons. Trayvon Martin's killing shows that the time has come for all decent Americans to commit to earnestly acknowledging the ugly truth about race and racism and banishing the sophistry of denial.

The most powerful acknowledgment of the ugliness of race I have read comes from Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer prizes, Columbia University journalism professor and specialist in race and media ethics. He wrote: "Race — it is America's rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting."

I add the following to Gissler's insight: From birth to death, race is one of the most painfully personal of all human experiences.

As a black person, I live race. I am acutely aware that my race constitutes what is referred as a "master status." That is, in the eyes of whites and other nonblacks, my skin color, my most visible characteristic, is the most important piece of information about me.

This condition is inescapable. The consequences of race can be profoundly hurtful, each encounter robbing you of a piece of dignity, the degree depending on your sense of self-worth.

I vividly recall an experience of 34 years ago when as a professional I became intellectually aware of the degrading effect of my skin color. I was an English professor at Florida Keys Community College in Key West. Wearing new khakis and a crisp button-down shirt on the first night of class, I carried my textbook, a notepad and the class roster as I walked to my classroom.

A white student walked toward me and told me I needed to "mop up the water" under the air conditioner in her classroom. I asked for the room number. It was my room. Not saying anything to her, I found the janitor's station and placed a note on the door. When I walked into my classroom, I recognized the student. She sat in the second row. Based on her startled reaction, she knew she had wrongly assumed her teacher was the janitor.

As I wrote my name on the blackboard, she walked out. I learned a few days later she had enrolled in another section of the course. Her new teacher, a white man, was one of my spearfishing buddies. Over time, we had uneasy laughs about the incident.

I was certain that if I had been white, the student would not have assumed I was a janitor. My colleague agreed. Her mistake was grounded in race. How else could she have overlooked my attire, my textbook and notepad?

No scholar has definitively theorized about race, at least not to my satisfaction. Fancy language cannot explain it. And the voguish genetic and anthropological reports of late — arguments that humankind is one big family — have not generated useful clarity and better race relations.

Race produces racism, and racism naturally enables discrimination from the benign to the horrific. Paradoxically, race appears to be so familiar to us as groups and individuals, we mistakenly assume that we understand it. Therefore, we take it for granted, seeing it as too tiresome a subject to discuss.

The truth, I believe, is that race confounds our understanding precisely because, besides being ever-present, it is subconsciously lived by the victim and by the perpetrator, making it a complex mix of conflicting sentiments and degrading actions, equally degrading reactions and crass evasions. Race is so familiar that many of us fail to see that just as it harms the perpetrator and the victim alike, it indicts us in the same way.

In the United States, race is inevitable, a reality that explains in part why when race comes up, even very smart people begin to either smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, protest or leave the room. Please, not race again.

While most of us view ourselves as being decent and honorable and ethical, the acknowledgment of race shames many of us, reminding us that for all of our laws and claims of believing in equality, we are creatures of racial exclusionism and abusiveness.

Like Sig Gissler, we should have the courage and honesty to acknowledge the ugly truth that race is our "rawest nerve." Only then can we begin to find answers.

Bill Maxwell: Race is so familiar, we ignore its harm 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 4:31am]

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