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Saturday, May 24, 2008

what we say and what people hear

I'm reading everything I can find regarding the Friday remarks of Sen. Clinton and her reference to primary campaign history as she invoked the memory of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Once again, Keith Olbermann's special comment is spot on and covers the issue quite thoroughly.

But beyond the hub-bub, it made me think about what we say and how it is heard by others. Sen. Clinton insisted that she was referring to history, etc. etc. Others heard it as a veiled assumption that in case something goes wrong it would be good to have another nominee in the wings. Obama supporters have a lingering concern that their candidate is a target for our most scurrilous political outfall - assassination. Sen. Clinton insists that was not her intent. Others insist it is what they heard. This is how we get "bogged down" in political correctness. For how can I say anything without the fear that someone will hear it in a negative context?

My take on this is shaped by my experiences of living in my neighborhood, as someone whose very presence invokes being heard differently by my neighbors. We could learn something by being sensitive to the notion that people will hear our comments through their own lenses and come up with different conclusions. White people who try to say sympathetic or endearing remarks in a situation that they see as unjust to people of color sometimes are heard as being condescending. Sometimes it is heard as something hostile or inflammatory by the very people it is intended to aid. Well-meaning intent does not overcome the hurt that people hear. The same goes for people of color. When they speak of oppression and racism, white people hear it through their lens (or ear). If that includes some racism, fear, distrust - then they will "hear" the remarks with that assumption first.

Sen. Clinton could have just been straightforward and said, primary races have lasted until June and named the contests. Raising the specter of assassination was incendiary and either she knew it and tossed it out there like a bomb or she is incredibly naive - which seems unlikely for a politician of her acumen. But sometimes we actually say things unwittingly that are heard as completely insensitive. How do we accomplish the communication we intend?

I had a conversation this weekend with friends and we were talking about poverty, judgments, and politics. The issue was whether people can overcome their own prejudices about poor people and the associated judgment about why people are in poverty and how this translates into race relations. One friend noted that she was poor as a child and held some harsh judgments of poor people today (based on her own disdain for being in a poor family). She recognized her own foible. The question then became how that judgment gets extended to others - moving beyond the bounds of poverty. My friend is white. She grew up poor. As an adult, she does not want to be poor. She found that being able to point at other poor people now was a way to elevate her own esteem and position. That if someone was "beneath" her, then she was not at the bottom. Needing someone to be "below" you on the status ladder means that someone or some group will bear the brunt of your judgment. We got to the point to in our conversation that prejudice against people could be traced to our own fear of not wanting to be at the bottom. Putting blacks and other people of color into that "lower" category of people gives whites a cushion of superiority - even if only in their own mind.

The upshot of this exercise is that prejudice is very hard to overcome because if you are not on the bottom, you have a vested interest in keeping other people there. And it may not be enough to only have the homeless, bag ladies, sweatshop workers, and others of that ilk beneath you. What if they win the lottery, get straight and get a job? They may pass you by. Therefore, it behooves anyone not on the bottom to have a permanent group of people that will forever be below you, preferably according to a category that will never allow them to change positions with you. Hence, race becomes a most convenient classification tool.

My friend could not accept the likelihood that she participated in such a system, mainly because she was certain she could treat people as individuals and not as a group and that she was not caught up in the material race to the top - even though she did admit to not wanting to be poor.

It is this last point that really identified the conundrum of race and prejudice. The notion "I don't have anything against black people" is held separately from "I don't want to be poor." We think there is a difference and there really isn't. What we mean is that we don't have anything against black people unless they are a threat to our status. Imagine if tomorrow a new Bill Gates emerged on the scene and he or she was black. Imagine that this new mogul decided to share their fortune with a cadre of black persons and a new strata of super wealthy blacks emerged overnight. They begin creating corporations and jobs and investments that opens doors to many more black people - because they are not likely to discriminate against people of the same race. In 5 years there is a complete reversal of today's demographics - blacks as a group are now wealthier than whites as a group. If you are white and are reading this, you know what you are feeling. I'm white. I can go there with you - you reaction is from mildly to greatly concerned - because you are now seeing how you could be on the bottom and somebody else will put their thumb on your neck to keep you down - just to keep themselves on top. It's what we do. We assume others would do it to us if given the opportunity.

So when well-meaning whites say they want to help poor people or they want to stand in solidarity with black people or others of color, you must apply the aforementioned litmus test. Does this mean you are willing to forgo your own status (though not your income and quality of life) to make this happen? Are you willing to be the person at the bottom? Most people will not be willing to go there. And, thus, the offer of assistance to the poor and the oppressed is quite empty, for it says - I am willing to help you as long as it doesn't diminish my standing. Or worse, it says, please accept my help for I am confident you will never surpass me. And please, in a competitive, capitalistic world, don't even try to throw out the - everyone is able to achieve based on their own qualities rhetoric, or worse, we could all be rich. Think about it - rich has no meaning unless there are poor.

We must consider that what we say and what people hear are often very different, depending on who we say it to and where they are in relation to the speaker. I have no doubt that there are those that will read this and have a very different hearing of my words than I intend. That's ok. Let's continue the dialog to ensure that what we say is what people hear.


Xavier Onassis said...

Once again I feel compelled to chime in and at least partially and respectfully disagree.

"In 5 years there is a complete reversal of today's demographics - blacks as a group are now wealthier than whites as a group. If you are white and are reading this, you know what you are feeling. I'm white. I can go there with you - you reaction is from mildly to greatly concerned - because you are now seeing how you could be on the bottom and somebody else will put their thumb on your neck to keep you down - just to keep themselves on top. It's what we do."

Not my reaction at all. I don't have any fear of being "on the bottom". I don't need to view anyone else as "beneath me" in order to get through the day.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are people who do feel that way. I have a vivid childhood memory of my aunt and uncle from Louisiana visiting us. We were watching Johnny Carson and Dizzy Gillespie was a guest. When Dizzy took the stage, my uncle became physically ill at the site of a black man on national TV and had to leave the room.

I'm also not blind to my own reactions that sometimes seem to "bubble up out of nowhere" that are clearly bigotted, much to my chagrin and shame. All I can do is to recognize them as such and deal with them. So, yeah. I'm not exactly in denial.

But this gap between the haves and have not's doesn't need to exist and we can have a much more even playing field for everyone.

There are enough resources, and money, and food, and energy on (and around) this planet to provide a sustainable life for every living human and more.

It's just a matter of will and priorities.

We are spending $720 million dollars a day in Iraq killing people and trying to keep from getting killed.

Imagine if we were spending $720 million dollars a day repairing urban infrastructure, demolishing abandoned buildings, cleaning up illegal trash dumps, providing universal K to BA education, universal physical AND mental healhcare, developing alternative, sustainable energy sources (wind, geothermal, tidal, terrestrial solar, orbital solar, kinetic, biological, nuclear, waste-derived bio-fuels, etc., etc.).

Having someone "beneath you", whether it's an individual or a class of people, or an ethnicity or a nationality, is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is what is responsible for 99% (I made that statistic up but I stand by it) of the violence in the world. From petty theft to world wars.

If everyone in the world had their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, education and good health cared for, and if they stood just as much chance as anyone else of achieving anything they want beyond that, then the need for most violence would be gone.

My biggest source of shame stems from the fact that the richest, most powerful country this planet has ever seen is not leading the effort to achieve this vision.

If America's #1 Priority was ensuring that everyone on the planet had the same opportunities as the wealthiest Americans, I don't think we would be so universally despised.

And I'm not talking about gunpoint diplomacy or inflicting American democracy on countries who don't want it or couldn't adapt.

I'm not among those who think that the "Evil Doers" hate because of our "freedom".

They hate us because we stomp across the glolbe like bullying, oppressive, arrogant jerks (respecting your blog by not being as descriptive as I can be).

No, I'm talking about saying "You have people with no sanitary drinking water, no electricity, no communication, no transportation, no roads and no food. How can we help without interfering and taking over? You tell us what you need and want and we will give it to you and then we will go away. No strings. You don't owe us...we owe you."

The world doesn't have to look the way it does. This country doesn't have to look the way it does. Kansas City east of Troost doesn't have to look the way it does.

We have the resources to make it right.

We just lack the will.

Nightmare said...
This comment has been removed by the author.