Creepy Things White People Think It's OK To Say About Race
When members of the Black Lives Matter movement hijacked the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, people got mad. That anger was similar to the anger that sprang up in forums and comment sections all across the Internet after it was reported that a black man had shot at police officers during a peaceful protest in Ferguson, Missouri, honoring the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death.
The general reaction to these events across the Internet was, to me, fascinating. I'd never really seen anything like it before. I don't want to call it racism, but it was sinister. It wasn't horrifying, but it was deplorable. It wasn't loud, vocal hatred and disgust of a race. No, it was a calm, even-toned condescension, the kind a disappointed parent would lob at a mischievous teen going through a rebellious phase. The general consensus could be summed up by saying, "You're not helping."
And that's true, on the surface. Yeah, Bernie Sanders maybe isn't the best protest target.
Look at him. Don't you just want to soak his dentures and make sure he drinks his Ensure?
And firing shots at cops probably isn't going to be healing wounds as much as causing countless new ones. But the reason these things even happened to begin with seems to elude most people. In order to understand the why, you have to understand the complicated reasons people are driven to such actions.
When a society makes a race of people feel like subordinates and has repeatedly shown its willingness to harm or kill them for little or no cause so often that it's best described as "too fucking often," you can't be surprised when some members of that group become angry, maybe even militant. Some overcome the ensuing rage and try to find a peaceful solution. But anger is a difficult emotion to bottle, especially when it's centered around something as stupid as fearing for your life because of what you look like.
Let's put that maddening feeling into stupidly common terms we can all understand: Have you ever been driven crazy because someone didn't understand a very basic idea you were trying to explain? Like you were trying to explain to your technophobic parents how to use the remote control to the 75-inch smart TV they bought for no reason? No matter how you phrase it, they just don't get that if they want to watch Netflix all they've got to do is push the gigantic red button with the Netflix logo right in the middle of the remote.
"It's the big red one, ma! NO! NOT THE LITTLE RED 'A'! DAMMIT, MA!"
The frustration of that builds with every passing second in which your well-meaning parents don't understand that all they've got to do is hit one clearly marked button. One button, that's it! It's right there, dad. Mom, please, the button isn't in another room. Good Lord. Why would you even think that?
Now imagine if that was your entire life. Everywhere you go you encounter at least one person who distrusts or even hates you because of something as simple, uncomplicated, and uncontroversial as your race. Think of the super-human levels of patience and acceptance, the near saintly degree of tranquility one would need to not lose their fucking mind every day.
The lack of understanding when it comes to that one point informs the public reaction to these recent news stories -- stories that have given people reason to be just a bit gross as they hide their true feelings behind the "They're ruining their own cause!" argument. You don't have to agree with their approaches (I don't), but you have to at least understand why people choose to express their anger more viscerally. It's not because they're stupid or they don't know any better. It's because they're angry, more angry than you've ever been, about things you will never truly understand. Ever. Right now, screaming at everyone is the only thing keeping some people centered in the midst of confusion. In every protest movement there is always a faction that believes giving into the easy appeal of anger, rage, and even violence is the best response. It more than likely isn't. But the logic behind it is difficult to argue against: For years we spoke and were ignored. Will they keep ignoring us if we scream and make a mess, if we disrupt lives and precious schedules just so we can finally be heard?
People think hate is only when Hitler is screaming from a podium or the Klan is burning a cross on a lawn. It can also be a concerned, caring tone that masks contempt. It could be a patronizing moral stance from someone who has the right intention but whose life did not prepare them to truly know what they're talking about. Of the two, the second person is the most prevalent right now. It's a group of people who have a macro view of right and wrong, informed by their lives being devoid of a grander form of struggle. To them, right and wrong are clearly defined, because it's all theory, general concepts. It's like zooming way out in Google Maps and seeing a solid digital line showing what has to be a street, but then you zoom in all the way and it's a dirt road that at one point disappears into a marsh.
"I told you we should have made a left at the Mask Of Contempt! Now we're stuck in all this Patronizing Stance!"
Without hands-on knowledge of a person's life, all people end up doing is spouting theory. Have you ever met someone who has experienced nothing in life but insists on lecturing you on how life works? They just like hearing themselves, or anyone, talk about the way things should be. It's psychologically soothing. It makes them feel like there's at least one person who gets it. They're only looking to agree with themselves. If someone likes their status update or gives them a retweet, that's icing on the cake; they go on feeling that they're the salvation the black community has been looking for.
The point is, you can play armchair philosopher all you want, but if you don't understand the tangible, day-to-day experience of a person's struggle, and I mean truly, personally understand, all you're doing is adding to the long line of voices telling them they're doing something wrong.
All of this is summed up perfectly (and remorsefully) by the shooting during the recent Ferguson protests that I mentioned before. It's horrible, right? Disgusting. Why would a black person think the best way to heal all racial wounds is by shooting at white cops during a protest? That's dumb.
Or, it would be if that's even close to what actually happened.
"Everyone went home and hugged each other?"
The story most people heard, especially if they get their news from unsettling Reddit threads filled with those "They're ruining their own cause!" type folks, goes like this: A black man with a gun shot at cops as his way of exacting revenge for all the black lives white cops have taken.
Here's what actually happened, as reported by the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and pretty much anyone who knows what they're talking about: There was a shooting that took place during an otherwise peaceful day of protests. It was not racially motivated. It was not a form of protest. It was not an ill-conceived way of regaining some semblance of power by the black community. It was cops trying to find a guy with a stolen gun, and it resulted in a horribly timed gunfight. This means the gunfight and the protests were separate events that happened to overlap. In the St. Louis County police chief's words: "They were criminals; they weren't protesters."
That whole scenario could have happened at Disney World, or during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, or during your local pumpkin chucking contest. But since the flashpoint of the event could not have happened at a worse time, people thought it was someone trying to start a race war, or whatever paranoid shit people assumed it was. As a result, out came the moralizers who stood atop their digital soapboxes and declared, "Listen to me, black people! I am on your side, but I must warn you: This is not the way! You can be better! I -- yes, I and I alone -- will show you the proper path toward racial harmony! FOLLOW ME!!!!!"
"Trust me. I'm always imposing my unappreciated help on the less fortunate races."
One of the most difficult bits of mental gymnastics a person can attempt is trying to understand the why behind something they don't agree with. It's an exercise in empathy. Can you look beyond the action and see what they were trying to accomplish? And then, even more difficult, can you reconcile the two without belittling their message ... but while also holding them accountable for their actions if need be (and filtering out the actions that aren't actually related to that message)? That is one hell of a tightrope. So few of us will ever learn to walk it without falling.
But that severely condescending sense of self-importance I was talking about? That's not how you walk the tightrope. It doesn't lead to the Star Trek-like utopia of racial harmony you think it will. It leads to Leeroy Jenkins, one of the best examples on Earth of what happens when people charge headfirst into something without understanding what the hell is even happening.
So to everybody taking the "They're hurting their own cause!" stance: Take a second to figure out exactly what you mean by that, because it is a discussion filled with nuance. After some thought, some of you will be on that tightrope doing backflips and juggling swords like a Cirque Du Soleil performer. But maybe a few out there will realize they are Leeroy.
Goddamn it, Leeroy.
Luis promises that next week's column will be a lot less serious. He has something special planned. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, you can find him on Twitter and Tumblr.
For more insight into race relations and protests, check out David Wong's 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters. For more from Luis Prada, learn about his take on pop culture in 4 Harsh Truths It's Time To Accept About Modern Pop Culture.
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