Friday, February 10, 2012

The Maude Complex

April Scissors is a writer and cultural critic. She works to explore and uncover the historical and present implications of faulty representations of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups in politics, popular culture, and media. Find more of her work at aprilscissors.com and on Vocalo.org 89.5fm in Chicago where she is a frequent guest and contributor.  

Despite what my bio says, I am not just a cultural critic—simply put on this earth to analyze, inform, and hate on all the things that make you happy. I am actually something much more prolific than that. I have been granted a special power that absolves and heals white guilt. Yes, it’s true: I am a race priestess. By divine blessing, I have the power to not only attract white people who need to confess their nonprejudiced, nonracist frame of thinking, but my very essence heals them from the pain and awkwardness that comes with being white and knowing that some white people have done really horrible things to people who look like me. 

There was the older white woman who approached me in the “African-American Literature” section at a liquidated Borders. After telling me all about an episode of Oprah with Terry McMillian, she segued into a story about how she’d always been quite liberal and never had a problem with Black people (or gays!). 

There was the man at a suburban library who noticed my copy of bell hooks’ Killing Rage: Ending Racism and shared with me his experience of working with young Black men in the army. He explained, “I’m not prejudiced, but I was hard on them because they wouldn’t listen. They saw me being tough as being prejudiced. I don’t have a prejudice bone in my body. I don’t have a problem with black people. Black people are humans too; you all put your pants on one leg at a time…just like the rest of us.” 

There was the college professor who chatted me up in the locker room at my gym. She wanted to know my thoughts on why Black people in the 60s didn’t like blues-influenced white rock music. She blamed it on the Civil Rights Movement because, according to her, it taught Black people to be self-sufficient and segregate ourselves. 

*My personal favorite* Though he wasn’t quite looking to defend himself in race court, an elderly man saw my friends and I sitting together at a local Red Lobster (I know, but it was my birthday) and was struck by the fact that “all three races [Black, Korean, and Jewish]” were “sitting together at one table!” He’d “never seen that combination before!” Like unicorns and leprechauns, racial integration is such a rarity in America that when one stumbles upon it, he must stop and marvel. 

Finally, there was a woman who called in to a radio show I contribute to and expressed her frustration with Black people being so resistant to letting white folks ask them questions about race. Her interest in wanting to right so many wrongs and getting shut down made her feel like “damn if I do, damn if I don’t.” 

There are two common links that run through these stories. First, in each of these conversations and dozens of others like them, the white person walks away with an air of self-satisfaction because they have just created an opportunity for themselves to lighten the heavy load that is pretending as though race doesn’t exist and secretly knowing it does. The second link is age. In many of these stories, the individual was past the age of 40; they and I are part of conflicting generations. (That is not to say young people don’t commit racial microaggressions because they do…a lot.) Discussing race as openly as we do today—outside of our close family and friends or liberal arts classrooms—is relatively new. So while these people tell me how they’ve never had a problem with Black people, or what they really think of Black people, or how moved they were by The Help, the root of their narrative(s) is that because it’s now less taboo to talk about race publicly, they are in search of forgiveness for those many years of silence. Unfortunately, for me and many other Black folks, we hold the key to their absolution…or so they think. 

The Norman Lear sitcom, Maude, lightheartedly encapsulates these experiences. She is well intentioned, but in her eagerness to show what a great and accepting (white) liberal she is, she highlights her own prejudicial thinking. To get to a shared space of healing, love, and acceptance—of ourselves and the history we are all unfortunately a part of—I would ask white people (or any other ethnicity that’s not a part of the one they are trying to learn more about) to do a few things:
  1. Stop referencing The Help. Ultimately, it’s fiction. Stop citing it like an Encyclopedia Brittanica.
  2. If you’d like to know more about race, Black people, or a particular moment in Black/American history, read a nonfiction/history book. Visit your local library or log onto Amazon and find some books that use citations! The Help may have been your accidental starting point, but you have the power to not let it be the end of your journey to discovering the Black American experience.
  3. Do not engage Black people with conversations about race, if you do not want to hear what we have to say.
  4. If you are only looking for reinforcement that “you is kind, you is smart, you is important,” please limit your storytelling to other white people.
  5. EXPERIENTIAL VALIDATION EXPERIENTIAL VALIDATION EXPERIENTIAL VALIDATION EXPERIENTIAL VALIDATION. If you so choose to engage a Black person in a conversation about race, please remember those two words. It is key to building racial harmony. There is truth in our experiences; use them as a lesson, not an act of finger-pointing. If you didn’t do it, most likely no one’s blaming you for it happening.
I am obviously not a race priestess. However, I am one of many, many folks who have made a commitment to fostering dialogues about race productive for all parties involved. I know Hollywood has led a lot of people to believe in the Magical Negro, but none of us are actually magicians. Though it would be nice, we can’t erase the past or make you feel better about what happened. It may sound shocking, but that old man at the library was right. Black folks are human too—we’re just trying to browse the bookstore, workout, and eat cheddar-garlic biscuits like everybody else.