Thursday, April 03, 2008

That dialogue on race: The hard part

-- by Dave

Well, it's become painfully self-evident by now that when it comes to having that actual "dialogue on race" Barack Obama tried to help inspire a couple of weeks ago, sincere people of good will are just going to have to go it alone.

The media aren't going to be helping much -- they're obviously only interested in the issue as a means for bashing liberals, and Obama in particular.

And conservatives, even more obviously, not only intend not to join in, they're only going to head in the opposite direction.

Which leaves those of us actually interested in a real dialogue hanging alone out there by ourselves. And that, really, may prove to be the most difficult part.

A crystalline example of the obstacles ahead can be found on the Kent State University campus in Ohio, where a debate has been raging about black-white relations since the publication of an interesting column in the student paper by a young white woman named Beth Rankin wrote a provocative column about her own difficulties in trying to overcome the racial gap in her own community, particularly in her dealings with the Black United Students organization, beginning with her attendance at a BUS-sponsored concert when she was a freshman:
From the moment Justin and I entered the ballroom, the tension was palpable. We received puzzled stares from students sitting around us, and though we couldn't put a finger on why, we felt incredibly unwelcome. I left feeling uncomfortable and unable to make sense of what had happened.

Back in Tri-Towers, when I told my dorm mates where I'd been, I received similar puzzled looks. You went to a BUS event? Hasn't anyone told you about BUS? They don't want white people attending their functions.

I didn't believe it. Even as I heard the exact same dialog from every non-black student and coworker I discussed BUS with, I had a hard time believing that a group fighting for equal rights would covertly push away other people fighting for the same cause.

A couple months later, as a member of the Stater editorial board, the forum editor and I had a small meeting with BUS leaders. The Stater and BUS have always had a notoriously rocky relationship, and my editor thought that by hearing from BUS itself about the group's goals, we could help bridge the gap.

Boy were we surprised when we were informed by then-leaders Teddy Harris and Demareo Cooper that BUS's goal was not equality, but to advance blacks beyond that of whites. The goal was black-owned, black-operated businesses and universities. When we said,

"... but that's racism ..." we were told that as the majority, we were unable to feel racism. We just couldn't understand.

Indeed, it is not just hard, it's practically impossible for a white person to understand the resentment that young African Americans feel after a lifetime of having doors slammed in their faces and being treated as second-class citizens. Even seemingly sincere efforts by other whites to reach out are often seen (and not always incorrectly) as self-serving attempts to make themselves feel superior, to other whites, if nothing else.

It's not clear that Rankin understands this. But it's also obvious that she's very sincere about wanting to overcome the obstacles, and so she issues a challenge worth making:
So this is what I say to you, current members and leaders of BUS: Tell me again. Tell me again what your goals are. I certainly hope they differ from those expressed to me in 2004.

Tell me what you are doing to reach out to non-black students who support your cause. As a straight girl, PRIDE!Kent has always welcomed me to their meetings and functions because they knew I supported their cause. I want to be able to attend BUS functions and feel the same love.

Racism is still a problem in this country, and it will never be solved if we continue to divide black from white. I have been called names and ostracized for the color of my skin, and I have been ridiculed for sharing my life with a man who is not white.

I am not a white bitch. I am a straight, white girl who will always do everything in her power to support the plight of all minorities.

I don't use the color of your skin against you, so please do not use mine against me.

Please, BUS: Tell me how you plan to use your powers for good. I want to hear your voice, and I want to become a united front in the fight against prejudice.

I am not a white bitch. I am not whitey. I am not a cracker. I am not the man.

And I never want to feel ostracized because of my race ever again. Don't you feel the same?

If nothing else, Rankin's efforts spurred a real dialogue on the Kent State campus in which both sides were able to clear the air:
Carla Smith, a former BUS executive board member, said students need to challenge themselves and step outside their comfort zone. They should not be afraid to be different.

"Take it beyond a conversation," she said. "You're responsible for yourself."

As blacks, Smith said, it's natural instinct to stick together. She asked people not to hold blacks accountable for not recognizing other races who attend their events if the person him or herself does not take the initiative to talk.

And just as a reminder to everyone that taking these kinds of steps produce difficulties on all sides, some white supremacists chimed in as well:
But her March 13 column found its way to a white supremacists' Web site, where some readers posted comments that she was ''groveling'' at the feet of blacks, and worse, she said.

''A couple of them said they wanted to kill my family in front of me and then me,'' said Rankin, a former student correspondent for the Beacon Journal. ''They thought I deserved to be punished.''

An FBI officer in Cleveland notified Rankin on Wednesday that her column — headlined ''I am not a white bitch'' — had attracted the attention of white supremacists.

She called KSU police, who turned out for a previously scheduled meeting on Wednesday with Black United Students, or BUS.

I recently read Randall Kennedy's excellent new book, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which focuses on the difficulties black people face when they adopt political positions seen as inimical to black-community interests. As someone who also has been accused of being a "race traitor" by white supremacists, I pondered chiming in at the Firedoglake book salon with the perspective of a white person who deals with similar issues, but decided not to, since I wasn't sure it would be constructive.

But now I wish I had.

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