Sunday, November 22, 2009

Started off a blog ended up a kind of rant (I think)

by Mike Knowles

I had an interesting experience last Sunday at the gym. It was one of those things, that as a writer, almost never happens for me. Let me preface what I am about to write with the admission that I am conversation eavesdropper. I admit it. If I hear two people talking and the subject matter or their diction is interesting, I will focus on them like I’m trying to bend a spoon with my mind. Usually I get street lingo I didn’t know, or a bit of ethnic slang. Sunday I got a big serving of racism.

I’m not a racist by any means, and that has actually shown itself to be a problem for me more than once. I don’t mean that I think there needs to be more racism in the world; it has just been hard for me to write a character who has those feelings because I don’t. Writing racism is hard, because it’s hard to get into a racists head. I can write women, kids, criminals, and cops pretty well, but racism has always been tough for me. It's not like writing mean or angry (those I can do). Racism is a lot different and harder to get a hold on. I think this might be because racism doesn’t really exist. It’s not it’s own thing; it’s a hybrid of concepts like brunch. It gains meaning and identity as a sum of its parts. Racism is really a mix of crazy and stupid. Case in point—the gym.

I was finishing my workout and there were two men beside me having a conversation. Already you should know that these two are douche’s because they’re at the gym to talk to each other, but that is another post for another Sunday. So I’m lifting, and I hear Racist # 1 say, “So I tell my kids, I don’t care how nice they look, or how big they smile. They’re not your friends. They’re not. They’re just not. My wife thinks I’m brainwashing them, but she don’t know how they are.”

My ears picked up and I suddenly began working out on autopilot. I don’t even know if the weights moved for the next three minutes.

Racist #2 leaned in close and mumbled something. I was worried that he had the common sense to chide his friend about his caveman views.

Racist #1 eased my fears. Whatever his friend said spurred him on. “They’re at my kid’s school. I don't know how we keep letting them into the country, but they get in; probably from The States. I don’t know how they afford it. But they’re there. And, you know what? They want to wear those hoods all day long. My kid can't wear a hat in school, but they can wear those things? C'mon ”

I was up to speed after that. Racist #1 didn’t like Muslims.

He went on. “They say it’s their right to wear those hoods, and if the school don’t let ‘em they get offended. What about me? I’m offended all the time by them. Who cares about me?”

Racist #2 had something quiet to say about the hoods which I can only assume are hijabs (I may be wrong, I'm not fluent in dummy).

Racist #2 then saw me staring in the mirror and he nodded towards his friend. Both men looked in my direction and I laughed at them. I put the weights down and left them to argue over who gets to be Grand Dragon. If you're going to ask why I didn't start a ruckus it's because I am a strong believer in free speech, even the bad kind. Even racists should have the right to spout off (sucks but true).

The argument was great because it was everything I thought it would be when I pictured racism in my head. There was no real reason for hating the Muslim kids who went to the same school as the children of Racist #1. There was no common sense behind it. But for the sake of argument, let's pull what we can from the man's words to make sure.

Apparently the people in question can't be trusted no matter how much they smile. I'm guessing this, at its core, has some relation to 9/11. Most of the simple minded racism I come across is rooted in this event. The man who shot up Fort Hood didn't do the Muslim community any favors either mind you. But it seems that 9/11 reinvigorated the concept of water cooler racism. I’ve noticed that after 2001 there are pockets of the community who’ve decided there’s a green light for hate speech in public so long as you aim it at the Middle East. So if we follow the logic of Racist #1, the blood shed on 9/11 makes others who share some element of the faith perverted to achieve the attack part of the conspiracy. It doesn't matter if the people he hates smile and treat him well, he's sure that he knows their real agenda even if everyone else doesn't.

Racist #1's paranoia about a hidden agenda is a side effect of the crazy and stupid that comprises racism. I've seen Racist #1 around for years and he's been a loud talker forever. I know where he works, what he drives, even how much his clothes cost. In terms of social standing, he occupies the spot of stupid upper middle class white guy. His ancestors have been in the country just long enough for him to forget that his family were once immigrants and whatever place they emigrated from has its own share of blood that has been spilled. Racist #1 is self-involved and has strong feelings of entitlement. With those feelings comes a feeling of irrational persecution. He feels that his social standing is constantly under attack from all sides from upwardly mobile immigrants. He thinks that there are people out there who are committed to knocking him off his perch. He doesn't see it as something that can be shared—apparently the upper middle class is already cramped like the back seat of a Chevette. So Racist #1 feels he is doing a public service when he speaks out in public. He doesn't see the irony in trying to keep the spot he attained on the backs of people who were once just like the people he is trashing while he holds a dumbbell.

The method in which Racist #1 trashes the Muslims is a window into the stupid and crazy that has taken the wheel in his head. He uses words like "they" because he doesn't really know who he hates; he just knows he hates "them" and that seems to be enough for him. He questions the intentions of ethnically different people even though according to him the people he warns his kids about have been nothing but nice. Racist #1 also questions how "they" afford to send "their" kids to the same school as his own brood. This is the most telling part for me. Immigrant kids attending the same fancy private school as his upper middle class white kid’s means the pressure is on for Racist #1. The immigrants he hates so much have already equalized their children with his own by sending them to the same school. So, in response, he attacks the religious freedoms of the children and speculates on the legitimacy of the source of their tuition. He can't let anyone catch up to his lead so he resorts to cheap shots and speculation. This proves there is zero rationale for his feelings. If there really was something to protect himself from he would easily be able to articulate what it was. Think about if you tried to call the cops to tell them that “they” are out there and "they" are trying to harm your way of life. Imagine how fast a squad car would show up and figure out who would eventually be leaving in it.

The reason I am writing about this racism and its lack of a coherent underlying thought is because I've had an editor tell me that the racism I tried to portray in a story didn't seem to have much behind it. Experiences like the one I had at the gym make me want to say, "Yeah you're right, it doesn't because real racism has nothing behind it. It's thinking gone wrong." Racism is just irrational paranoia with no real reasoning applied or needed.

But it is not all bad, there is the use of the words of Racist #1 as material of course. I'm going to go green with the hate and use every bit of the racism I heard. I will be like the natives I learned about it grade school who used every part of the buffalo down to the intestines. I am going to absorb everything I heard and reappropriate it. Don't be surprised if you hear Racist #1 in a book down the road. And don't be surprised if Racist #1 doesn't make it to the end in one piece.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Very nice little essay. I live in a place where there are 200,000 Middle Eastern people and many more African-Americans. Color trumps country of origin in attracting racist comment though. But I can hear conversations like this on every corner. It is so disheartening.

Jay Stringer said...

Great post, and one that fits with something i've been discussing a lot recently with some of the DSD crew and the world best agent (not a phrase i use often because of royalties owed to the Weddle)

I've been working on a story that has racist characters in it, and struggling to write them without coming across as either attacking them or pandering to them. I think i'm just about finding the balance, but it's not a comfortable place to write from. Which is good.

Racism itself is one of my bugbears. Ive grown up enough now that i can let most things go with a shrug. But racism i still react to. Its interesting; i moved to Glasgow three years ago and 'racist' here is different to 'racist' back home. Glasgow itself has a long history of immigration, workers for the docks, ireland, weirdo's like me. At the same time, in terms of the ethnic integration issues of the modern age, muslim, sikh, hindu, the city is probably a generation behind where i come from. I hear people on all sides saying things casually that would not get said 6 hours south.

It's been facsinating to watch, once i got over myself and my knee jerk reactions, to see a city learning to live with itself again. A quick learning curve in the difference between people who know what they're saying and people who just haven't had the experience to understand what they're saying.

I heard a teenage girl on the bus recently saying that "they should all be deported before they try and blow something up again." And the words angered me, but i realized she was saying it in much the same way she could have said "my dad says the offside rule in football is silly now and fifa should change it." Is she racist, or is she just not getting the experience she needs?

Thats not really a debate that I'm looking to sidetrack the post with, just an example.

One thing that i'm finding very interesting is that accent and dialect seems to difuse the situation quite a bit. It seems people are more willing to accept someone of a different colour if they have the same accent.

You're dead on with the editor; making racism into something that can always ben explained away logically is to do the issue a disservice.

John McFetridge said...

Good post, good topic.

I think you've got it with the sense of entitlement. It's that feeling of superiority the racists have, the feeling that they are actually better than other people and the natural order has been disrupted by... well, this is usually where the conspiracy theories come in.

These are good characters to explore but often the problem is that they aren't really very layered or complicated. I think you have to be careful when trying to get "something behind them," because there often isn't, there just shallow jerks (educated, sometimes, and well-spoken sometimes, but shallow) and not very complicated.

Ha, this will sound trite, but they see the world in black and white (ha ha, sorry about that).

Chris said...

I think many people who don't spend a lot of time living outside their little circle of friends and acquaintances would be shocked by how rampant racism really is, just as racists are shocked when their racism is called on them (queue the "I'm not a racist some of my best friends are black/hispanic/asian/indian/etc.! comment).

What I am always taken aback by are people that I get to know, and they are otherwise smart, warm, intelligent . . . and then suddenly drop some kind of racist word bomb that just blows my mind. I shouldn't be so shocked anymore, but I always am. It's disappointing.

Dana King said...

Your editor is off the mark to say the racism in your book didn't seem to have much behind it, and use it as a criticism. Most racism doesn't have much behind it; if the racists thought about it, really examined the issue, they wouldn't think that way.

Few racists have a personally damaging experience with a group they hate. They're afraid something will be taken from them, or that the other group is getting something for nothing, or they need someone to feel superior to. At its simplest level, what I think of as casual racism, they've just been exposed to racially intolerant attitudes so much they don't think twice about using offensive language, even if they don't really mean much by it. I grew up in a part of the country where there's a lot of that, and I'm not proud to say , as a young man, I said a lot of things I wish I hadn't said now that I have a little more experience and perspective. It just didn't seem like a big deal in that time and place. It didn't really internalize itself with me until I realized a lot of people were willing to act on these sentiments, and it wasn't just talk, that I began to consciously distance myself from them.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Awesome post, Mike. Racism is the one thing that pushes my buttons in a big way, too. I was raised Jewish and will never forget a classmate calling me a "Dirty Jew" - in the 2nd grade! It hurt to the core and I'll never forget it.

Racism is easy, ignorant and dangerous. We need to be aware of it and call people on it when we feel so inclined. (This doesn't necessarily include eavesdropping at the gym or wherever, which is one my favorite hobbies, too, btw.)