Friday, September 2, 2011

The Color of Fear.

Last night was the first night of one of my two classes this semester - Cultural Competency. The regular teacher was unable to be there, so my adviser took the class on. Usually, when that happens, we get handed the syllabus, pointed to the homework, and booted out the door early. I had mixed emotions - we'd all be less then human if we didn't want to get to go home early to our spouses and our lives. And yet, for me, this class is one I've been looking forward to since I joined the program, so when the teacher announced that we were going to watch a movie and discuss it, I was happy. She then went on to say that it was uncomfortable to watch and to brace ourselves. All right...

What she put on the screen for us was "The Color of Fear", a documentary on racism by Lee Mun Wah and it was absolutely stunning. Filmed in 1994, it documents a group of 8 men plus Lee himself as moderator discussing and confronting racism. There were two Latinos, two African Americans, two Asians, two white European ancestry, and Lee himself, who is Chinese. It was stunning. Filmed 17 years ago, it was frighteningly relevant today, making me wonder have we made any progress at all? Here is the trailer of the documentary...

It is an undeniably tense movie. Its not easy to watch. It seems to enrage white individuals who are furious with the charge of racism and privilege. I wanted to stand up and cheer as I watched it. It was powerful and  painful and honest, and its impossible to watch it and stay neutral.
After we watched it, we discussed it in small groups. One of the women in my group was African American, and she bluntly affirmed the basic truths of the of her earliest memories was of not being allowed to play with another little girl who was of course, white, and when she went to her mom and asked why, her mom had to explain to her, they don't want you to play with her, because you're black. And thats just one of a life time of experiences. She is an intelligent strong woman in her field, she's in graduate school, and every day she says she goes home to her home and her husband and family and feels like "Whew! I can be black, now." The question was put to her by other members of the group, was she possibly just letting that experience from childhood color her perceptions, and she said no, because that wasn't the only time that something like that had was a life time of experience after experience, an over all cultural overlay...I spoke up and said, its the very air you breathe, everyday. She nodded immediately and said, thats it.'s the tragedy.
Segregated, not allowed to play with white children as a child, only feeling free to be herself at home. A life time of old do you think she is?
Even older?
An older woman returning to grad school who remembers the decades of the 50's and the 60's and the racial violence, surely.
She's 25 years old, born in 1986...half my age!
Racism hasn't gone away, or finally become a thing of the past. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has not been fulfilled, though no one can deny that steps, some of them huge, have been taken.  Instead of ending with the civil rights movement, racism merely took on a more covert character. Instead, its just changed, become more subtle, more pervasive. In someways, more dangerous. The theory of multicultural pluralism seems to wish to honor diversity, but instead, draws lines and divides and above all refuses to acknowledge the past or the fact that what happened in the past still continues in the present, just quietly, subtly.
No white person in America, however clearly they see, however honest they may be, however self aware they have become and fought against racism, totally escapes the deep down taint of white privilege - and yes, I include myself in that statement.
No person of color, regardless of ethnicity, in America, however successful they may be in their careers, their lives, their friendships across the ethnic spectrum, ever totally is free of the deep down fear and scarring of being denied their humanity simply because they are not white. And many, many whites who are totally well meaning, who would deny being racist - who truly believe racism is wrong, don't get it, will deny it, will resist it, will become enraged if confronted with the fact that these things are true.

David, one of the white men in the video, resisted with all his might and heart - in pain, fighting to not admit what he saw and heard before him. David said (and go look at this link, please)  that the block against the black man or people of color is put there by themselves, not by white men. His journey of selfhood and self revelation is painful, and agonizing to watch. His powerful admission to a past that shaped his perceptions is stunning and beautiful to behold. He gets there, in the hardest way, kicking and screaming, to declare himself an ally against racism, that he has been guilty of it, even when he truly thought he was not.
Towards the end he brought up the penalties his white daughters faced entering college due to quotas for people of color - I braced myself for the explosion from the room around him. But each of these men, nodded and agreed with him, supported him, did not deny the validity of his experience, It was amazing, and in doing so, they supported him as fully they expected to be supported.

I sat and watched it,  of course, through my own lens - every person in that room translated it through their own lens, we cannot NOT do so.  And my thoughts were, that I could take every word in this film, and with only minimal changes, fit them perfectly to my experience as a gay/trans identified individual. The heterosexual gender binary is every bit as pervasive as white privilege here in my culture. I am denied my basic existence, my basic humanity, my basic rights. Except in a few places far from where I live in America, I may not marry. There are laws in effect where I live denying me partners benefits. I may not hold hands with my wife in public because of fear. My presence in bathrooms is questioned simply because I do not "look" right - I do not fit the concept of "woman" in the women's restroom, my presence in the men's room is illegal and punishable by arrest. A GLBT individual was murdered for being gay a mile from where my wife worked. Even people who are not in their own minds "homophobic" stumble over the word "wife" with us, struggle with the concept of transgenderism. My teachers constantly talk about the one man we have in our class in the program (its a women's college - women only in the undergraduate program, men are allowed in the graduate programs, but they tend to be few and far between) and ignore the fact that they have a Female to Male transgendered man in their classes - me.  Its in the very air I breathe every day, just as racism is  present every day in the air my classmate breathes.
What can we do? How do we combat this?

I will let Lee Mun Wah speak for all of us in this...

In the end, its personal. When you get to know an individual, listen to them, accept the validity of their personal experience, their lives and perceptions, then stereotypes, misconceptions, myths and power over abuses must fade away in the light of each persons validity and power as a person - real, and whole.

More to come, as I am sure this class will generate much food for thought as the semester goes on. 


  1. Sounds like this is going to be a powerful, powerful class.

  2. I keep coming back to that fact that you are not addressed as male in class. I keep thinking that part of the problem is your name. You have an incredibly feminine first name, which is also a social cue. Your name negates your identity and makes it virtually impossible for peers/teachers to identify you as male. I know for me, I only manage to give you male pronouns when I think of you as Cameron. That is a name and identity that my culture, my history and my experience allow me to translate male.

    I don't think of myself as racist, and yet I've been called racist in the past. In grad school, twenty years ago, I offended a black grad student. I've never pieced together what went wrong that day, but over the years I've come to realize something in my white experience shaped a comment that she took exception to. I'm sure she was right, and my comment was racist. But to this day, I don't know what I said or what I should have said. I've thought about it a lot over the years. I've offended a coworker, who doesn't appear to be entirely mentally stable, and I've wondered if she believes me to be racist as well. Sad, if so. But I do question, often, how much my white privilege shapes my world, my thoughts and my interactions without my realizing it.

    In the GLBT community, I deal with "ism" all the time. I only "appear gay" when I'm with you. I pass as a heterosexual woman and have all the privileges of that passage. To combat it, I out myself frequently. I do my best to talk about my "partner" the way I once referred to "my husband." Yet if I walk into a gay bar, women wonder what that straight woman is doing there. Gay women don't make passes at me, but heterosexual men do.

    The older I get, the more I find paradoxes and shades of grey. And the more questions I ask without answer.