Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

None so blind

Jellyfish Joe Biden's recent macaca moment reminded me of an amusing (in a black comedy sort of way) inicdent a few years back. I don't think the protagonist in the Barack Obama role in this story would mind my telling it, but I haven't had the chance to ask him so I'll change his name to Ezekiel. I forget the name of the Joe Biden character anyway so I'll call him Mike.

I was hired by a small city to a minority needs assessment study, and Ezekiel, who managed a social service agency, was appointed chair of the committee that oversaw my work. There were plenty of issues concerning the schools, the police, municipal hiring, etc., but we also paid attention to community attitudes and private behavior. People had been complaining that a local night club discriminated against black and Latino patrons, barring them for alleged dress code violations that were not enforced against white customers. So Ezekiel and I went to meet with the night club manager.

We sat with Mike in a booth in his club. Mike put his hand on Ezekiel's shoulder, and pronounced the magic incantation that summons inexorable doom. "I'm not racist at all." Ezekiel and I exchanged the subtle here-it-comes cringe. "I mean, I see you sitting here in a suit and tie, you just seem like a normal person. I don't even think of you as black."

"But I am black," Ezekiel sighed.

"I know, but I don't see you as black, I just see you as a normal person."

Ezekiel asked me to please explain to Mike what was wrong with his attitude, and I tried, believe me. I was constructive, I was patient, I tried to take it one step at a time. Mike was making a distinction between what he apparently regarded as normal black people, and normal people. He was implying that if Ezekiel was not wearing a necktie, his blackness would make him abnormal. He was presuming that black people in neckties were somehow deviant as black people, but achieved honorary whiteness. He was stripping Ezekiel of his blackness, making him into somebody he was not, in honor of his necktie.

None of these points made any sense to Mike. "But Ezekiel, I'm paying you a compliment. I'm sayin', I'm not racist. I just think of you as a normal person." He could not be swayed. He deserved credit for his open-mindedness, which we were twisting into a perverted blame.

For people like Mike, and Jellyfish Joe, racism is so deep in the structure of their mentality that they have no perspective from which to look at it, they cannot step off of it to examine it, it is foundational. There are many other common delusions that are as deep in the souls of many of us, of course. Perhaps we can mature as a society and bring more of them to the light of day.

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