I have heard many times that “everything isn’t about race”, and that perhaps people, or groups, who try too hard to find racism where it does not exist, are today’s primary cause of racism, or at least the primary cause of perpetual racial issues.
I get it. I understand where they are coming from and I hear what they are saying, but for the most part… naw. That isn’t our problem today. Not any more than any other annoying and possibly wrong headed thing any number of any population is predisposed to doing. Like double parking, or talking loudly on a cell phone in close quarters. It might make you nuts but it isn’t a real problem. But I know what those people are saying because that is what I used to think.
Then I moved to Atlanta.
In Atlanta everyone and everything was black.
The people were all black. The billboards, Santa Claus, the tv shows, the churches, commercials, the bus driver, the street vendor, even the grocery isle. I had never even seen or heard of chitterlings or collard greens and the grocery store had two isles of that stuff. Ox tail soup? This was all new to me. I couldn’t get a good hair cut. I didn’t have a car and being limited to public transportation I visited every salon and barbershop within a two hour radius of where I lived and never found anyone who knew what thinning sheers were for. I stopped arguing with barbers about how I didn’t need to be lined up or how my part doesn’t need to actually be shaved into my head and started getting haircuts from a friend in my kitchen. This was all amusing and eye opening for about three months. After that it became exhausting.
More wearying than the inconvenience of living in a world that wasn’t built with me in mind, was that same conversation I had over and over and over again. The one about me being white. Till this time I had never thought my color was all that relevant, it was never a big part of how I saw myself. I had never really discussed it with anyone and after three months of having my whiteness pointed out to me by every single person I met, I was tired. I was sick of it. Even the police questioned my race. I was stopped regularly by white officers wondering if I was lost. On more than one occasion after telling the officers I actually lived “right over there,” I was called stupid and told I was on my own when they (the black people) decided to kill me. I lived there two years.
I had never felt so white in my whole life. Every hour of every day it was all anyone could see or wanted to talk about. It didn’t matter what I wanted to talk about, or how I saw myself, everyone else decided for me.
But that was just Atlanta. I guess maybe it could have been parts of the Bronx, or Chicago, maybe Oakland, but I’ve been to those places and none are as broadly and deeply black as Atlanta was then. The place is unique that way.
It is unique and I have never relived that experience because America is largely a white space. There is talk of the browning of the United States and predictions of a majority minority nation in the years to come, but those predictions forget that to outnumber the white, every other group must be lumped together to squeak out a majority. America may have adjusted some, but it was originally, and is for the most part still, built for people who look like me.
So is everything about race?
Well, no, unless you are black, then kind-of, yes. It isn’t like every issue or interaction is race-ist, or that race is all that everything is about, but it is always there.
Sometimes I illustrate how this can be true by personifying math. For instance, lets look at the simple formula 2+3+1=6.
The digit “2” is only one of four digits. So maybe we could say it is at most 1/4th of the total digits, or if we wanted to dive inappropriately deep into things, or “try too hard”, we could say the digit 2 is at best 1/6th of the equation. The equation isn’t all about the 2.
Unless you are the 2.
If you are the 2, you cannot escape that you are 2. No matter where you are plugged in, things change. 2 is what you are. I suppose you could try to lessen yourself and become two ones, but you are a digit and not a quantity. If you are part of an equation your 2ness isn’t everything, but it will always be something.
But this is an imperfect metaphor because we are not our race. Race is a social construct and its relevance is something painted onto us by society.
For instance, let’s use the equation 3(5-4)=3
The digit 2 has nothing to do with this equation. If 2 is blackness, or race, then race has nothing to do with 3(5-4)=3. Now here is how race really works. When race is inserted into an equation it is an exponent. 3^2(5-4)=9. When race is added onto any digit, it changes everything. It isn’t everything, but it always matters.
Maybe race in America is 5+5+5+5+2+5=27. The 5s don’t think 2s are a big deal, they are barely a blip in the equation yet those annoying 2s won’t stop caring about 2s. I mean come on, there is a digit “2” on both sides of the equal sign, that is a lot of representation, 2 needs to chill out and just try harder to be a 5. Perhaps the 2s don’t really need to be angry all the time, but maybe they would be less likely to be upset if the 5s would just realize that 2s are 2s and understand that they factor into the equation differently than 5s.
Can I stop now?
I once knew a guy who was convinced the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had racist overtones because everything negative had hip hop references (Shredder) and all the good guys were European renaissance artists. He was a little bit too much, but his inserting race into a cartoon was much less of a big deal than double parking. He isn’t the cause of mass incarceration, racial profiling, the achievement gap, and income disparity.
When you look into American history you have to realize that race has always been there. You might think the Constitutional convention wasn’t all about race, sure, but how many of the men who participated would have been able to do so if they didn’t have slaves at home planting crops? How many of those men would have been educated if the schools hadn’t been in large part been funded by the selling of people? In all of those years when the American equation was being built to accommodate the “5s” we need to know that the “2s” were here the whole time. Not off on another land mass, here.
In the end, race does matter. It matters a lot and in America, it always has.
Happy Black History Month