Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dangerously white

A couple of months ago I was listening to someone from out of town. He spoke about many different things, but he started by mentioning (with some discomfort) how white Portland was. 

ETA: With his permission, the speaker was Shaun Lau of No, Totally!.

This is true, and I have heard it many times. My automatic thought is that the suburbs are more diverse, which is also true. I read it pointed out in an article many years ago, and it has only become more true since then. This is something I rejoice in, but I also acknowledge that a lot of people think this area is trashy. Maybe seeing different color faces and hearing different music, seeing clothing with specific cultural and religious associations... maybe that reinforces it for them.

Nonetheless, he mentioned all the white faces, and then he talked about the Chinese Massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in American history. A mob of 500 white and Latino rioters ransacked buildings in Chinatown, attacking and robbing many residents and torturing and killing 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants. Eventually 10 of the rioters were brought to trial and 8 convicted, but those convictions were overturned on a legal technicality.

This was also not completely new to me. I believe it had come up both when I was studying history and violence in the American West, and then came up again when I was trying to figure out what Bret Harte was doing with that one poem, that eventually turned out to just be failed satire. (And he was more focused on San Francisco, but when you aren't finding good answers the search tends to expand.)

I don't know why it was different this time. Maybe it was because I heard about it from someone who had lived in Los Angeles and who had some Chinese ancestry. Somehow, when I was walking in downtown Portland a few hours later, it was different.

I found myself looking for non-white faces. There were several, but there were so many more white faces. It didn't look like a problem necessarily, unless someone gets in the mood to start a lynch mob, and what were the odds of that happening? Except I had also seen pictures of the torch-carrying mob in Charlottesville.

The big revelation for a lot of men through #metoo has been wondering how women ever feel safe; how do people of color ever feel safe?

This seems even more pertinent in light of a recent incident on BART, where a white man verbally and physically attacked Charles Wu, a man who is not white:

I can't blame anyone for being scared in that situation; it was only in May that two men were killed and another injured for standing up to a racist on my town's public transit system. I am willing to think it's good that multiple riders contacted the police (while holding on to some concerns over whether or not that would de-escalate the situation).

It still bothers me that there were more requests to calm down given to the person being attacked than the attacker. It's nice that they all said how wrong it was after the scary guy was gone, but it might have been more useful earlier.

It really bothers me that the one white guy got up and moved away. In the article officials praised him for removing himself from danger, but I can't help but think that for the attacker it would be viewed as a tacit acceptance: yes, you can abuse this guy. I won't stand in your way.

One of the best pieces of advice I have seen recently is to figure out in advance how you are going to react to different situations so that you don't freeze when it happens. I don't want to freeze.

I also don't particularly want to be attacked, but even more than that I do not want to be part of a crowd that passively accepts the will of white supremacists -- whether it is a deeply held ideology or just accepted as enough license to be abusive and assert dominance -- I do not want to uphold that.

I realize this post - from the title on down - may be causing a lot of discomfort. If you are feeling that I am wrong or at least overstating, but you have continued reading, I commend you.

Our country elected the candidate most popular with the Nazis and KKK. There are other factors contributing, but he still got a lot of votes and they were from mostly white people and they were not a majority of poor people so there are no excuses there. During the campaign hate crimes rose, and they are still rising. I can't blame anyone who isn't white for getting nervous when they are surrounded by whiteness.

That vote was an important choice, but it is not the only choice. We choose what we laugh at, what we awkwardly ignore, and what we call out, whether we do that humorously or with clear non-verbal cues or with an actual statement.

We choose what legal issues we care about and which ones we decide don't matter because they don't affect us.

We choose what we complain about. Some people only ever play devil's advocate, which is an interesting choice in itself.

And we choose how we react when faced with naked racism. I'd like to tell you that in this day and age we're past having to worry about lynch mobs, but there are too many signs that we're not.

But before that, there is a lot of testing the water. There is name-calling and stereotyping and boundary pressing of how much one can get away with. Resisting here may do the most good. Maybe it can turn the tide.

We need to think about it. We need to think about what we see and what we hear, and how we respond. We need to think about the things that aren't in front of us but are still happening.

Most of all, we need to think about what we will do.

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