Thursday, March 03, 2016

Racism, close to home

Kam Chancellor (Seattle Times)

I'll freely admit that I don't really follow sports, but the headline "NFL Star Visits Gym He Wants to Buy, Employees Call the Cops On Him" caught my eye because it happened in my hometown of Redmond. Growing up, I walked past the RAC (the gym Chancellor was looking to buy) frequently on my way to QFC or Starbucks or the Bella Bottega movie theater -- a part of the landscape I thought of as home. The recent event with Kam Chancellor puts into stark relief that racism, too, was -- and is -- part of that landscape. 

In his monologue at the Oscars, comedian Chris Rock repeatedly asked, "Is Hollywood racist?" He finally answered his own question with the line, "You're damn right Hollywood's racist...Hollywood is 'sorority racist.' It's like, 'We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'" What he termed "sorority racism" stands in contrast to more obvious and extreme forms of racism, like burning crosses in someone's yard or making vast and unsubstantiated criticisms of minority populations (cough Trump's "they're not sending their best...they're sending...drug dealers, rapists" cough). 

You could just as well substitute "Redmond" or any other similar suburb for "Hollywood" and get the same answer. Because the thing is, the folks I grew up, and their parents, would never attend a White Pride rally or fly the Confederate flag or advocate segregation in our schools. In fact, every year, we had an assembly to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, with students of all ethnic backgrounds trotting out touching speeches and poems and songs. 

And yet in this same place, I heard white boys in the hallway greeting each other with bro hugs--and then the N-word. A tenth grade classmate broke up with her Caucasian boyfriend after he wore blackface and sagging pants to dress up as a "thug" for Halloween. We (and I say "we" because I was guilty of this too) tossed around words like "ghetto" more than the brunch ladies of this Saturday Night Live sketch without any consideration of the problematic context of the word (Clutch Magazine: the word "has become synonymous with...stereotypical black, urban or hip hop culture"). 

What makes all of this so hypocritical is not just that we purported to be educated and smart and good, the types of kids to take AP classes and do great MLK assemblies and vote for Obama. What makes how we behaved hypocritical is that we all benefitted from everything we implicitly disparaged. We laughed at Ain't Nobody Got Time for That and Motherfucking Bootleg Fireworks and Hide Yo' Kids Hide Yo' Wife -- and somewhere in between our laughs, eked out, "That's so ghetto." We could use phrases like "Yaaaasss queen," call someone's "eyebrows on fleek," even do a wall twerk at a party and it would be "cool" and "hip" instead of "skanky" or "ratchet." I have never been followed around a store, stopped by a police officer, or worried that my name would be a liability on a job application ("white-sounding" names are 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview).

Simply put, the rules are different for white and Asian kids in the 'burbs. And somehow, we never found ourselves pushed to confront this uncomfortable, unfair truth -- at least, not while I was in high school. Sohum Chaudhary, who was a grade my senior in high school, shared out the link about the Kam Chancellor incident saying, 

"Many still think Redmond can't be prejudiced since a lot of minorities are moving in to the area. Even minorities here express anti-blackness and believe in the stereotypes pushed by the media. I hate to call out the robotics club that I put countless hours into back in the day, but when I went back to mentor at Exo, I was appalled. Some kids were throwing around the word nigger like candy, laughing at black things because they're "ghetto" or some bullshit, remaining completely ignorant to the struggle of POC largely in part to living a comfortable life in this white-washed suburb. [...] One time a black man in a suit was walking down the street near Redmond Town Center. An Indian man walked by him and told the black man that it's his fault that the Indian man gets pulled over often. My brother at the time was 13 or so and witnessed the event. He went up to black man immediately and told him, "I apologize for my people," and they had a good laugh at the irony of a minority telling another minority it's their fault for getting pulled over. An employee that I work with made a joke a month ago (mixed Asian). I couldn't find my headphones in the employee storage space. He said maybe a black guy stole it and chuckled. I said why black. He said do you ever see anyone other than black people stealing stuff on the news. I explained that it's the media that's pushing the stereotype and that's not the case in reality."

At Berkeley, an African-American student-athlete posted in one of the largest student Facebook groups about having the police called on him while he was sitting in his parked car. He powerfully called out the student community for cheering on black students on the court or on the field, then calling the cops on them in their neighborhoods.

And frighteningly, a thrift store in downtown Redmond owned by a black businesswoman, From Rags to Riches, received a bag containing a KKK robe and rope. The owner's son said in the Redmond Reporter, "This isn't the South. For this to happen here, it's crazy."

Racism isn't over. Saying the N-word "ironically" doesn't make you a cool hipster. Our use of language cannot exist outside of our world's pre-existing structures of power, which are still inextricably linked with countless things -- gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, nationality, and the color of our skin. And when you use racist language or dress up as a "thug," you don't challenge those structures. You reinforce them.

Time and time again, I have reinforced existing structures of power. Probably, at some point or another in your life, so have you. None of us are perfect. Much of our prejudice is learned over the course of years of absorbing unquestioned influences. But identifying the insidious kind of racism that exists behind the white-picket fence and the picture window is the first step to building the kind of world that doesn't see Kam Chancellor as a threat.


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