Monday, September 01, 2014


Racism has become far too chiaroscuro:  black and white. 

In the first place, few people are unmixed nowadays. 

In the second place, this whole race thing is polarized between only TWO races when -- assuming you accept the concept of races -- there are dozens, hundreds, of groups of people interacting, few of them purely anything biological or even cultural.

In the third place, much of what purports to be about race is really about an urban/rural split or maybe only an urban/urban split.  The issues of country people, the racisms of small towns, are not addressed, though they have much to do with economics.  So long as survival is about money, it will be about potential for getting it.  The one thing that makes it easy to get money is to already have money.  The stigma of have/have-not is gaining -- could potentially change the terms of what we’re now calling “race.”  Or even nation.


So in the fourth place, I’m beginning to wonder how much racism is a red-herring.  The real issues -- as always -- are things like education, jobs, marriage, social conformity, health, and even religion.  The real issue is survival in spite of competition for limited resources.

But the most dominant factor, the most dynamic factor, is stigma.  Stigma is deeply biological and erupts through culture volcanically, both the creeping lava kind and the explosive dust kind.  Stigma is a reflex that has in the past served survival, or it would not have survived itself.  Stigma is a domination reflex.  Grabbing the lesser beings by the back of the neck.

One counterweight is pity.  If we feel pity for the stigmatized -- whether lepers or babies born out of wedlock or minorities or the disabled -- then we will tolerate them, even make allowances for them, but if they show any signs of anger, resentment or -- worst -- POWER, all pity is gone and we try to eliminate them.  Uppity women and n. . .   (Don't even think it.)  This is a reflex, below conscious control.  But it teaches people already hampered that they are powerless and dependent.  This is called "demanding respect" even when your drunken father shouts it at you.

Separation of territory is a biological factor.  Groups form when they are separated by a river, a mountain range, or the languages they speak.  One form of separation is exclusion.  Push people onto reservations, into special schools, into ghettos, into menial nighttime jobs like cleaning, into junk housing on marginal land.  Worst: incarcerate them.  Even worse than worst: incarcerate them in a foreign country.  (Solitary confinement is the same thing.)  Know as little as possible about them.  If they come on your territory, drive them off.  Deport them.  Wall them out.  See them as animals, as machines, as zombies.  Contagious filth.

If you can’t exclude them, fort up.  Walled housing projects, red-lining, patrolled universities, controlled-access shopping malls.  Invitation only.  Lock the church doors.  If this makes people angry, say they are vandals, rioters, terrorists.  By then they probably are.  Or in small towns the strategy is to set up athletic competition so intense that rivalry becomes resentment, maybe active hatred.  If you lose the game, overturn the bus with them in it. (Romeo and Juliet relationships are against separation.  War dissolves internal separation in a common cause.)  

Disconcertingly, the world with connections to the former British Empire where same-sex relationships were stigmatized and even criminalized in order to keep lower classes from entering upper classes through the bedroom, has now discovered that gays were NOT separate.  Everywhere they are individuals among us in families, jobs and classes.  When we realize how many and how “normal” they are, the stigma weakens and the laws relax.  Now the gays themselves want gays to be normal -- at least conventional.  

Many people cannot tell “pity” from love, esp. men.  Most women cannot tell “awwww” cuteness from ownership.  These little problems of distinction combine in “compassion,” which makes demands on those able to provide protection, patronage, and other survival-based contributions that maintain separation.  That is, until the receiver of “compassion” begins to feel entitled and confronts, which is a form of connection, so that separation in terms of intimacy resorts to violence.  Separation in terms of welfare safety nets flips to withdrawal and punishment.  Blame.  You'd have a job if you'd accept oppression. 

These dynamics are part of producing and raising children, who ideally DO become separately empowered in spite of parental attempts at control and merging.  This is also biological.  If the crucial biological forces of stigma and compassion are allowed to overwhelm any cultural counterweights -- which sometimes become aligned with those raw biological drives and enflame them -- the result is war: gang war, territory invasion, terrorism, economic “pencil” death, and the general destruction of culture that the dystopic books, films, and theories vividly illustrate for us.

My experience with stigma and compassion has shaped my opinions.  When I came back to occupy this marginal old house so I could write on a very low income, I was interpreted as needy, weak, and pitiful and so people gave me food.  I only accepted it from people who were established long-term friends BECAUSE it marked me as weak and stigmatized.  On the other hand, people who believed I was a writer said they were in awe and meant it.  A few took me out to supper at the nicest place around.

I was respected by people who remembered Bob Scriver because he was famous.  (Though one old farm wife said, "He wasn't THAT famous.  He wasn't Charlie Russell."  In her eyes, that was failure.)  When I showed power by telling what I knew in books -- "an exposé of the Western art world", said the only honest reviewer -- I was re-stigmatized as a bitter old ex-wife.  

As an English teacher I was respected as a representative of propriety.  As an animal control officer I was stigmatized as a persecutor of animals.  As a friend of Blackfeet I was both stigmatized by locals and given status by romantic liberals.  As a former co-writer with Tim Barrus, I was stigmatized except by the other people who love his writing and vids.  I don’t align with the compassion people either, because Tim's work proves daily that even boys pushed out of the system are not powerless.  It is their brave work as observers and interpreters that aligns us.

A sharp issue (indeed, "cutting") arose when the clergyman next door to me refused to see me as his equal -- we both attended the U of Chicago Div School -- and insisted that I was a needy old woman who should be grateful for a gift jar of jam and could be freely dominated if my tree interfered with his desire for a suburban lawn (status).  We ended up in a stigma standoff.  All compassion blasted.  (Much laughter around town -- deserved, I admit.)  We are the same race.  He has more money since for much of his career he was a veteran’s hospital chaplain on salary.  He feels it is an achievement to have children, though his wife did all the work -- as usual.  Religious affiliation can be racial even when color is not involved.

In the interest of self-preservation, there are people in this village whom I actively avoid.  I move on quickly, try not to “see” them.  They are too curious, too eager to find a weakness to exploit, if only by gossip.  There are other situations -- church, school -- that I avoid because I am socialized to a world so different from here that we can’t read each other’s signals.  I was asked to judge a speech contest when I first returned, and discovered that I’d given the highest ratings to those the other judges gave the lowest ratings.  I valued personality, creativity, uniqueness.  They wanted conformity.

Of course, identifying with the rez towns -- Browning and Heart Butte -- does me no good in Valier and it IS color-racial.  In the larger world, I have a hard time not stigmatizing many people in my former denomination and profession.  They seem like a different privileged race, perpetual children so confident of their entitlement that they are inadvertently cruel, greedy, and stigmatizing of any difference.  

It surprises me that they complain they are powerless, since they are not, though their power is a little atrophied and they turn it on each other, like the recent attack on her own seminary by a social activist used to attacking "bad" people.  They won't award her a diploma though she has completed her course work.  She is SHOCKED.  Of course, it means she won't have to candidate for a pulpit and do that daily drudgery or that weekly sermon.  

But she's not used to being gripped by the back of the neck, nor did she realize she would be stigmatized. The world cares about her predicament about as much as they care about the rez kid thrown out of the local high school for being a pain in the butt.  Not only do the two kinds of ostracized students not care about each other, each thinks he or she is unique, just trying to survive.  Neither knows the other exists.  Would it help if they did?

1 comment:

Donell West said...

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