Sunday, February 19, 2012

On silence and invisibility

I'm going to do something today that perhaps I shouldn't...write about something that I'm still in the process of figuring out. But its what's on my mind these days and perhaps some folks who read this can contribute to my understanding.

Let me start with a story that is actually embarrassing for me.

For most of the 1960's I lived in a town in East Texas of about 40,000. I don't know what the racial breakdown of the town was at the time, but what I do remember is that there were two high schools - one for black students and one for white. Of course I attended the white school. All of this was after Brown vs Board of Education but just before our schools were forced to integrate. So I never knew or talked to any black kids in town.

Just a few years ago I pulled out my old high school year book for some reason and started looking through it. I was shocked to see how many black students actually attended the so-called "white school." It wasn't near parity, but there they were!

What was difficult for me about that is that I never saw them. Let that sink in for a moment...I never saw them. For me it was as if they didn't even exist. It is only in retrospect that I can imagine their stories - what it meant to chose to go to that school and why they would do so.

But I have to ask myself how that happens. How is it that a living, breathing, thinking young girl can go to school with black students in the 1960's south and not know that they exist?

The only answer I have to that so far is that it was some powerful conditioning - most likely on both our parts. I wasn't taught just that black people were inferior. I was taught to not even see them right in front of my face. And they were taught to lay low enough so as not to be seen.

There are other examples of this silence and invisibility that shaped my racial thinking. For example, I now know that all around me the terrorism and violence of Jim Crow was taking place - especially as the Civil Rights movement was underway. And yet I remained blissfully ignorant about it all. I heard nothing about Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam or Medgar Evers or Loving vs the State of Virginia or Fred Hampton. I do remember hearing that Martin Luther King had been shot. But that was usually paired with talk about how he deserved it and then dropped.

What I'm still unpacking is to identify what forces were at work that kept me so blind - whether it was to actual people around me or historic events taking place. I don't think it was me. One of my strongest traits - especially as a child - was to be an observer. Instead I'm thinking that this was all part of what it meant to be white in the south those days. Its what segregation and Jim Crow were designed to do...keep black people and their lives silent and invisible.

I'll invite you once again to watch this video of Jonathan Odell talking about his experience growing up in Mississippi.



Here's how he ends:

It's the silence and invisibility of black people in America today, and how that gives us white people our privilege. Its the silence.

Perhaps this gives us some idea of why President Obama is such a threat to racism - whether he talks about it or not. It is impossible to maintain the silence and invisibility when a black family lives in the White House.

It also points the way for those of us white people who want to know what we can do to combat racism...start seeing and hearing.

25 comments:

  1. In your case, could it be be that you just didn't see people thru the lens of race? One of my favorite music videos is of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder singing together. Someone else pointed out to me that they are both blind. It was an "epiphany." I used to live with a man (jazz pianist) blind from birth, so I just hadn't consciously realized it.

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    1. If that was the case I would have at least known that those black students existed. Its not just that I didn't see their race - I didn't see them at all.

      As you can imagine, that's a very painful admission for me to make. But I think its important to figure out how/why that happened.

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  2. The admission is what is glorious. I grew up in a family that used a derogatory ethnic word. I feel within myself that I transcended it - I did several things to make that happen. Listen up (saw this on DailyKos):

    I stared in the burning pools of your eyes.
    I respected the rage in your face.
    You almost spit. You said 'Fuck this shit'.
    As you sat down with white girls
    to talk about race.
    It took a lot for you not
    to walk out of the place.

    But you stayed, and we waded
    through anger and shame.
    Through passing, and privilege, and power and pain.
    Humiliation, defiance, survival and blame.
    And the struggle to get up and keep trying
    To face the racist lying.

    Wish we could all be like that. As to the rest of your story, yes, it's true, and so terribly sad.

    Love,
    Ro

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    1. Thanks so much for that poem Rhoda!!!!!

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  3. rhodawr@optonline.net
    In case you want to discuss; too hard online.

    If you want, I'll also email you my phone number.

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  4. I can only give my own experience and maybe by knowing what yours is not, you can see your own clearer. My school experiences were in small white towns in Indiana. I graduated in 1966 -- no black students in my school and not in my town either until I was in HS. Then there was 1 black family. My mother was a cook and she worked with the father, a sweet man who was also a cook. Our HS had one black girl bused in from Indianapolis to integrate our school and everyone I knew made a big effort to make her feel welcome and talk to her.

    The KKK was very big in Indiana from the early 1920's. They marched in this town when my mother was a child and also when I was in grade school. I remember them marching through town and standing shoulder to shoulder around the courthouse square. I walked over to them and walked around the square looking every one of them in the eye and giving them a dirty look. I grew up hearing the N word from the males in my family and their ignorant view points.

    I certainly noticed blacks when I went to Indianapolis and sympathized with their cause. My family watched Walter Cronkite and I can remember watching the news and seeing how blacks were treated.

    I tried to put myself in your position, where there were a lot of blacks in your town and school and thought about your situation. I graduated in a senior class of 132. Were you in a big class? I think in HS kids have their own groups and often don't even know students in other groups. My impression is that blacks knew how to protect themselves and their families as much as possible by finding ways to get along with whites -- to not provoke them. So if there was a social balance in your town where race just wasn't spoken about, then I think a student could be in their own group and not notice. I remember watching Edward R. Murrow when I was in grade school and then Walter Cronkite. These were men with integrity who were on the leading edge of telling the truth as much as possible. If your parents didn't watch news like that and your newspapers didn't cover it, where would you have learned about it?

    The racism was front and center in Indiana and still is. I heard it and saw it when I was growing up and thought it was so unfair. It wasn't just against blacks, it was an attitude that whites, especially white males were entitled and better than any other cultures, animals or nature. It made me angry from childhood. Maybe the situation in Texas was more accepting of a status quo and unfair treatment of black people was there, but just not spoken about. I must admit your story surprises me because I would have thought racism Texas would have been even more visible than Indiana.

    This kind of sharing and the loving intention of seeing the good in diversity, the beauty in each person is a path that I'm so glad to walk with you and all who seek it. I appreciate you very much. @>----

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  5. Confirming that Ellison's Invisible Man should be required reading for all Americans.

    I'm lucky to have had the parents I had - making up for fail school system.

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  6. I think you have a good point about a black family in the white house. I was astonished by the vile hatred that I hadn't heard in public in a long time. People can't not see the first family.

    When people call President Obama arrogant I think it is because he dares to look them in the eye. In the late 60's I was a married student who lived in public housing in Seattle. I had many black neighbors. One the things I noticed from one elderly woman was that she wouldn't look me in the eye. She was cordial and would chat about children and such, but didn't trust white people. That behavior helps in not being noticed by dangerous people.

    Back when I was in 2nd grade I lived in a little town, about 23,000 back then, in Eastern Wa state. The mostly black school was closed down and the kids were bused to other grade schools. I sat at a table with all black children but me. I didn't think any thing of it at the time but in retrospect I think two things were going on. One they were still segregated in an integrated school. Two, my mother, another teacher was a known quantity who won't complain. By time we were in high school other kids were very much aware that we had black kids that needed to be protected t the other all white schools at sports competitions. Just a few years later when my younger sisters were in high school and I'm guessing because of greater awareness or resistance to the unfairness of the situation there seemed to be more anger in the school.

    People could be right about separation of groups in

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  7. I think you have a good point about a black family in the white house. I was astonished by the vile hatred that I hadn't heard in public in a long time. People can't not see the first family.

    When people call President Obama arrogant I think it is because he dares to look them in the eye. In the late 60's I was a married student who lived in public housing in Seattle. I had many black neighbors. One the things I noticed from one elderly woman was that she wouldn't look me in the eye. She was cordial and would chat about children and such, but didn't trust white people. That behavior helps in not being noticed by dangerous people.

    Back when I was in 2nd grade I lived in a little town, about 23,000 back then, in Eastern Wa state. The mostly black school was closed down and the kids were bused to other grade schools. I sat at a table with all black children but me. I didn't think any thing of it at the time but in retrospect I think two things were going on. One they were still segregated in an integrated school. Two, my mother, another teacher was a known quantity who won't complain. By time we were in high school other kids were very much aware that we had black kids that needed to be protected t the other all white schools at sports competitions. Just a few years later when my younger sisters were in high school and I'm guessing because of greater awareness or resistance to the unfairness of the situation there seemed to be more anger in the school.

    People could be right about separation of groups in

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  8. I was raised by a very bigoted white family that continues their ways to this day. I remember not seeing others because I was punished if I mentioned them or looked at them.
    I noticed. I also am thankful that I am the black sheep of the family... fighting for equality for all those people who didn't exist. That includes all non-pure white blooded folk who weren't fundamental christians.
    Funniest thing to me, I am adopted and they made sure I knew it growing up. I was listed as white when I was born. I am over a quarter Native American. They had taken an "un-white" person in and raised her as their own.
    So glad the hate lessons didn't catch hold on me.

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    1. That's a very interesting point about being punished for "seeing" others.

      I was never punished for anything like that. But part of the conditioning was likely very subtle messages about what was acceptable and what was not. I think what I'm trying to do here is to figure out how this stuff was programmed in - even when it was done covertly.

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  9. Good VERY late eve'nin, Ms. Pants

    You, of course, know I'm more a fan of what one may well do and be about NOW. Having said that, a question...

    How important in your family was it to "please"?

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    1. Oh yes, my main goal in life at that time was to do whatever I thought would please those around me. That's how Poisoned Candy's comment above was helpful. No one ever had to tell me overtly or punish me for a misstep. But I clearly got the message.

      I don't focus on this as a way to feel guilty now. That doesn't seem productive at all. I'm just trying to sort through how it happened. Its still a bit of a mystery to me.

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  10. I grew up in a small town in Missouri. I graduated from high school in 1962. One day many years later, I told my mom how amazed I was that we didn't have any black people in our town. She looked at me like I was crazy. She said "we had black people living in our town." I said "but there weren't any black kids in my school." She said that's because they had to go the the black school in another town. That town was a 20 to 30 minute drive. I never remember seeing one black person the whole 4 years we lived in that town. I know exactly how you feel. I'm embarrassed for myself as well.

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  11. There is so much I want to say here, but cannot yet. But maybe this for now: I remember when I first saw this Odell video and thought him a sensitive and honest man, thankful I was for his courage because I think there is hope for this country in that kind of rare enlightenment. I couldn't understand then why I was so enraged at him. "What? Our silence has validated his privilege? Which silence, the silence with the gun at our heads, the dogs at our breasts, the howls of hatred at our doors, the white man forcing his way into our beds? The silence of The Help? The silence which would have saved Emmett Till? How much of our f*cking blood--loud, unsilent blood would be required to free you of that awful burden of privilege, Mr. Odell!?"

    You know, I know, I shouldn't even be trying to do this now. I know he doesn't mean to blame us. I know I have a light complexion because of some unknown, white, perhaps rapist ancestor who not only crept into my gene pool, but left his progeny here in the silence of the "promiscuous" Black woman.

    And maybe I should have been silent when I awoke from an overnight stay in a white friend's house to a Black maid wanting to know where she should start cleaning "Miss Alice's" bedroom and I asked her last name so that I could call her Miss Motherauntgrandmamasister, while my bedmate called her by her first name. My friend, Alice, told me I had embarrassed the woman and should have remained silent. We were 17, we were friends, she was Jewish, all her parents friends had "girls" old enough to be my mother to clean for them, we lived in Queens, NY. We were friends until I told her I thought I might be gay. But that's about another kind of silence, of course. Maybe I helped free her from heterosexual privilege by speaking.

    Oh, so much, Smarty--funny, I usually say Ms. Smarty and can't at this moment somehow. I do admire your courage and honesty, and unwillingness to be silent.

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  12. Mo'nin', Ms. Pants

    I watched the Odell clip.

    It's good that Mr. Odell is waking up at this point in his life. But, at least as far as his insight is concerned, and, indeed, if this, hopefully, is an ongoing process for him, he CERtainly has quite a bit to go.

    Ms. Anon up above my comment makes THE point about our "silence".

    The "silence" was the end result of understanding how you had to be if you wanted to live.

    His privilege is the end result of a relentless, ruthless, organized and systematic, and aMAzingly BRUTAL approach. Pretty much began when that guy from Spain landed here.

    I suppose Mr. Odell, what?, believes that Native Americans, "self deported" themselves to reservations?

    I sincerely hope Mr. Odell keeps going. He stillll, as Ms. Anon points out, and at the time of this filming, seems to be trying to blame us for not being "loud" enough.

    And, yet he speaks of a twentieth year commemoration of Dr. King's DEATH. How, would he suppose, THAT occurred?

    He gets the end result. But, in my experience and it seems to cause the difficulty when we try to cross culturally talk about this matter, that this continued and consistent level of violence and brutality by "good, Christian" men for their own self agrandizement....

    He has a ways to yet go.

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  13. Anonymous and Blackman,

    I can certainly understand both of your reactions to Odell. If I didn't know more about what he says and writes - I would have reacted the same way.

    And yet when I was thinking about all that I wrote about here - it captured things for me so perfectly. Believe me - Odell has delved very deeply into what Jim Crow meant in Mississippi, moreso than just about any white person I've ever known.

    If I may, what I take from what he said here is not about what Jim Crow did to African Americans. I know that is the most central part of the story. But if we white folks are ever going to really deal with ourselves about it - we have to understand what it did to us. It was in our hearts and minds that we heard silence and saw invisibility. That's what I was trying to write about.

    In my experience there were people all around me and events taking place that I never acknowledged, heard or saw. I think that is the privileged condition of many white people to this day. Its not that Black people are silent or invisible...its that too many white people don't see or hear.

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  14. Ms. Pants

    Firstly, if you would be so kind, go further up, to my initial post because a question was asked. Miiiight be a factor in terms of why you didn't see your black class mates.

    Re: my second post. I am, in addition to talking about what American Aparthied did to us, AM talking about what was fueling the "good, Christian" white men - starting with Columbus.

    I'm saying that, jussst based on this clip, he says not one word about what was fueling the arrogance such that he took from that good Christian old woman that Mr. Joe wasn't a mister at all. He wasn't even really human. And, it made SENSE to him. For YEARS.

    Didn't connect the dots. Didn't, in this clip, challenge himself to ask who REALLY wasn't acting "human".

    'I got to be at the top of the heap because black folk were silent' he, in essence, seems to be saying to me, as he starts to note the PRICE for being there (and good on him for this).

    The silence and invisibility were an end result demand. No. That's really not accurate. DEMAND!!!!!!!!! (that's more what it's like). Because, if you aren't, WE WILL KILL YOU (and, they did).

    The historical evidence is readily available. He, again in this clip, seems to not question hundreds of years of conquering carnage. The apparent belief that, as a white, Christian male, it was a given RIGHT to initiate and sustain this brutal, global imposition. WHAT is going on in a heart like that????

    Indeed, you're more familiar with him. And, I'm trying to give him the benefit understanding that this is but a snippet. And, I know how snippets can be.

    But, if he isn't talking forthrightly about the entitled violence (that the Southern Strategy STILL attempts to stir i.e. - some of this latest bile from Santorum re: PBO) that instilled this system that ALL of us - and that includes you, Ms. Pants - have to contend with (keep that aspirin handy, Ms. Pants - HEAVY sigh and eyeroll here) I repeat....

    He has a ways yet to go.

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    1. Blackman - I answered you up above and am very interested to hear where you take all that.

      Yes, I am more familiar with Odell and this is but one snippet that spoke to my own personal experience. Perhaps I shouldn't draw any other conclusions from it than that.

      But I also don't question Odell because I've read things like his book, "The View from Delphi." Its a novel about two women - one black and one white - during pre-civil rights Mississippi. He spares nothing in describing exactly how that DEMAND for silence took place. Its no stranger to him. His next book (out this week) goes back a step further to slavery in this country.

      All I would ask is that you understand that what he was doing and what I'm trying to do is to understand how all of that affected the seeing and hearing of a young white child growing up in the middle of it all. Its hard to come to grips with the fact that what you're saying I now know to be true. And yet I was oblivious to it all. I didn't hate anyone and no one needed to teach me to. It was all much more insidious than that...I just didn't see.

      Now I know that there were many around me who were much more active in the hating and violence. The thing I have to grapple with is that the end result of it all for children like me was that we didn't see or hear. In other words, we really were segregated from it all. As I said, I believe that was the end game. And now we have to grapple with learning to open our eyes and ears. What Odell is saying is that refusal to do so is what maintains our privilege.

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    2. By the way, what Odell did next in the storyline he tells in the video was to go back to Mississippi and immerse himself in the stories of black people. Those stories took hold and he wrote them - in "The View From Delphi" and now "The Healing."

      I'm beginning to think that I need to take a trip "home" as well to see and hear what I can about what I missed.

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  15. Annnd, Ms. Pants (I know, I know....I gotta give you some time to ingest and digest. last point for now).

    That whites don't see and/or hear is one of the desired "benefits". S'posed to be that way.

    Think Systems.

    This thing has been pheNOMinal. Nothing like it EVER on a global scale.

    And, you are quite correct. It's starting to unravel (and you damn sure ain't 18, either).

    Jussst think about how long it's been and what all has had to happen even for us to begin to see THIS.

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    1. That whites don't see and/or hear is one of the desired "benefits". S'posed to be that way.

      Exactly - that was actually my point in all this.

      I'm just trying to unpack how that happened to me and what it is I missed hearing/seeing.

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  16. One more thing...

    What's the point of all this? Here's what Odell says about that:

    The ticket to get into an authentic dialogue about race, is to have a coherent narrative, detailing not only about how race affected you in the past, but how you struggle with it in the present. Otherwise you are a voyeur, no matter how good your intentions.

    His point is that we all have a "race story." What I'm trying to do here is grapple with mine.

    What made the movie "The Help" so popular with white folks is that these days we all wanted to identify with the white heroine and pretend that's our story. That's a lie. The truth is much more painful for most of us.

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  17. Alright, Ms. Pants

    In many respects, we seem to be saying the same thing. Not surprising, actually. Guess I'm confused as to why you're confused. It's pretty clear to me.

    Usually, is it not the conquerors who get to write the history? Or, at least, say 'this is how it went down'?

    What you say about Skeeter in "The Help" and large numbers of whites who want to believe this, is pretty much how it's always been done. This isn't unique to black folk. I mean, after all, Columbus DID discover America, didn't he?? :-)

    All of the violence gets to be sanitized. The cowboys are the "good guys" (and white, too). All the brown people are Godless Savages (I mean, after all...PBO adheres to a "phony theology" donchaknow). The Stars and Bars isn't a flag of treason and white supremacy, it's a flag honoring the grand "Southern Heritage". And, it's taught in homes for generations and in the "history" books with scant mention of anyone else but the conqueror.
    I mean, why bother trying to know or pay any attention to these brown entities that aren't even human (I've never understood how the three fifths number was derived, but it was decided upon right here in down town St. Louis). Also, it was declared that the black man had NO rights that the white man was bound to respect.

    That last sentence I typed was taught directly and indirectly across this great land for generations in a LOT of homes.

    This, through a LOT of effort, was the "natural" order of things.

    Now, I'll tell you what's confusing. It's how you and an increasing amount of others snapped out of this crap and go against this VERY entrenched grain. Sometimes, at impressive expense.

    Continue, indeed, with your process. But, I wanna know what in the HECK turned your lights ON.

    And, Ms. Pants, your lights BLAZE.

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