Subtle Indignities: Why We Should Still “See” Race – Part 1

It's rare to see images of black people that point to their success – in case you're unsure, this is not one of them!
It’s rare to see images of black people that point to their successes – in case you’re unsure, this is not one of them!

It’s been about 3 months since I wrote for our blog. That’s a long time. Truth is, things have been very busy – but they always have been and yet, in the past, I’ve always somehow found space in my life to do this, which I so love. Perhaps it is that I’ve started a new job that draws what I work on (public policy of excluded populations at large) and what I blog about (race’s relationship to socio-economic and political exclusion) even closer than was the case with my previous work (on socio-legal exclusion of indigenous communities and women). Perhaps that leaves less of a felt need to blog about these matters as well – I don’t know. What I do know is that I have missed blogging. And, in my time “off” I have been doing a lot of “participant observation”. Moreover, distancing myself from immediately writing about each experience, I have rather reflected on what I have experienced and seen as a whole. I would therefore like to share a summary of these reflections with you now, with hopes of systematically unpacking them for you (and me) in subsequent blog posts.

Thus follows a four-part blog series on some of the “subtle indignities” that accompany being black in present-day society. By sharing these experiences, I mean to make the argument that the time for colour-blindness is not yet here and we should rather be race conscious and “colour-brave”. That is, we should definitely see colour and race for how it is still the basis upon which some experience privilege (“white privilege”) and others systematic social, economic, political and cultural “violence” and exclusion. We should courageously confront and address these inequities instead of trying to force the ideal that they are no longer there and trying to compel black people to deny the reality in which they live and cow to the rosy (“post-racial”) narrative presented as the alternative. I hope you will track with me through these reflections and share your thoughts and reactions to them in order to enrich the muted social dialogue to which I hope to contribute with my posts.

At the end of August, Dan and I celebrated a year in our new home of Nashua, NH. What a year it has been. Racialised events have taken place both near (signs on the highway telling refugees and immigrants to “go home” because they are “not welcome here” and race-baiting political campaign mailers) and far (Ferguson, MO – need I say more?!) and these have certainly affected me. Yet, I must admit to having wondered if Dan and I would end up blogging about only such public events.

See, I haven’t had anyone insult me on the basis of my race in public since I’ve moved here, and I haven’t had anything happen in which my race has blatantly been thrust forward or thrown in my face. We have a wonderful, loving (almost exclusively white) community out here – and, for that, I am extremely grateful. And with that, I started to wonder if perhaps, other than some rogue, fringe voices, things are generally peachy here in NH and I would have nothing to write about along the lines of our blog’s theme from personal experience now that we no longer live in South Africa.

I have concluded, however, that the time to retire this blog has not yet come.

For instance, attending a dinner as my husband’s companion, I ended up sitting on the right hand of the “main guy”. As is generally accepted to be the polite thing to do, in such circumstances, I tried to make conversation with him; but felt that he did not make any effort with me (he did not ask me a single question over the two hour period!). By contrast, he was a great conversationalist with the white man on his left.

As we drove away from the event at the end, I told Dan that I had felt like an airhead wife with nothing to contribute – just there to provide polite company and support for her husband. This surprised me somewhat because, as a professor, informed and well-travelled individual and Rhodes Scholar, I don’t think of myself as someone with whom an intelligent and accomplished person cannot have a conversation. Moreover, this man and I shared an interest in public policy – if only he had asked me a single question or actually made an effort in his responses to my questions, he would have learned this.

In any case, when people can’t think of anything else to talk to me about (perhaps because they’ve never interacted with a black person or an African), they usually talk about South Africa or Nelson Mandela or whether moving to NH has been a “cultural shock”. (More recently ebola provides ample fodder for converstion.) Regardless, I think I’m able to offer thoughtful and nuanced views on this rich part of the world from which I hail. All of which is to say, if I may dare, that I think his life and mine might even have been a little enriched by his interaction with me, if he had allowed it to be so. But, with this man, nothing! I left feeling very small and inconsequential. In that moment, I suffered a subtle indignity.

The experience was all the more confounding because the very subject of the occasion had revolved around structural inequalities and the need to include those at the social margins. While it is some time since I relinquished the notion that we humans are rational beings whose actions correcpond with our beliefs, I was nonetheless struck on receiving such apparent coldness and dismissiveness from one whom I would have thought a natrual ally in the struggle against inequality – at the very least, he presented himself as an intellectual ally. It just goes to show, as we have endeavoured to point out elsewhere in this blog (taking inspiration from Reinhold Niebuhr) that change only happens in the context of entwined human relationships which society, as it is presently structured, does not naturally enable or support.

This is but one example – and I can’t prove that it was “because I’m black”. Some readers might further doubt that the experience shared shows that, as a black woman in the contemporary world, I bear a particular burden. That’s ok; I acknowledge that it’s not the most obvious of examples. The image accompanying this post – an image that white collaborators proposed to use for a joint human rights project – is perhaps more clearly representative of a race-related “subtle indignity”. I objected to the image’s use on the grounds that there is compelling evidence that black people are disproportionately represented in negative portrayals (something I’ll come to in a later post). This series is intended to tease out, through a series of examples, the “black wo/man’s burden” in an attempt to reveal to readers that subtle indignities as in the social example above are of particularly racial significance and important to attend to long-term even as we address the blatant and urgent discrimination to which incidents like those in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland have drawn mass public attention. In fact, the argument can be made that it is important to address them if ever more obvious discrimination is to be effectively and lastingly addressed. As Brit Bennett articulately demonstrated in a recent article in Jezebel, we must read the instances of police violence and inadequate reactions to it from many sections of even “good” white society in the context of the “invisibility” (especially to white people) of black people – their motives, experiences, suffering … their very bodies.

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