National Public Radio (NPR) Fresh Air host, Terry Gross, recently interviewed comic, author, and TV host, W. Kamau Bell. As host of United Shades of America, Bell spoke about his insights from an interview with White nationalist, Richard Spencer, and reflections on racism experienced in the south compared to the north.
Bell broadly described southern racism as, “they (White people) don’t care about how close you get as long as you (Black person) don’t get too high.” In contrast, racism in the north is where, “they don’t care how high you get as long as you don’t get too close.” This end-to-end kind of beguiling and insidious form of bookend racism traps many people of color into a fortress with incredibly high walls and treacherous moats with few options to escape. Racism is exhausting and deafening.
Bell’s description of racism in the south and north distinguishes ugly nuances in the quality of experiences and geographical location. In 1963, James Baldwin also openly contemplated the difference between racism in the north and south during an interview with famed black psychologist, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark:
“There’s no difference between the north and south. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact.”
These experiences with racism are no longer geographically bound as much as they may have been once before. Considering how many people move fluidly across the country for career and other personal reasons, the cultural manifestations of racism can be easily transferred with them. We also carry the legacy of our culture, lugging around the inescapable richness and poverty, that race and racism bestows on all of us.
To illustrate Bell’s point, imagine attempting to rise through the ranks, building relationships, tooling and retooling to ensure you possess the critical skills, experiences and knowledge to prepare you. You take steps to advance up the ladder or keep your job, which is a common struggle most of us would identify with. The problem with bookend racism is that it saddles a person of color into a specific place or position regardless of the barriers the person attempts to conquer and live through. Their best efforts never seemed particularly effective to turn the corner and find the right investors, job and educational opportunities, professional and personal mentorship, and other critical milestones that shape our lived experiences.
A reasonable person would presume that if they build close and intimate relationship with others, whether friendship or romantic, the closeness and confidence that results would lead to receiving acceptance and encouragement. We’d relish in sharing the opportunity to fulfill our greatest aspirations. However, bookend racism in the south would not permit it. Jealousy, discomfort, fear, denial, and rationalizations would permit people to question the person of color’s success. A person of color’s judgment, education, experience, personal character, family values, and everything under the sun is questioned, maligned, and diminished in overt or covert ways. It becomes a strategy to tear down a person of color ultimately because racism closes the window of opportunity because it was somehow undeserved and cannot be allowed.
In contrast, northern bookend racism works in similarly subtle ways but differently. For example, in a person of color’s work environment with their white colleagues, they would work hard daily, build relationships, participate in celebrations like housewarmings or birthdays, and go about their work as one might expect. Professionally and socially, the person of color would experience high levels of success climbing the corporate ladder and/or building their business. In general, there may not be much more to complain about compared to anyone else except that those professional and personal relationships seem to dramatically lag behind in their level of intimacy, particularly with White people.
Despite accomplishing their goals in one arena of their lives, a person of color finds life can be lonely and disconnected from White colleagues. White friends, who may have once celebrated their success, grow distant as time persists due to ongoing barriers. The barriers allow White people to be outwardly approving of the person of color’s success, but, for some reason, it simultaneously becomes a wedge. On the surface, it would not be socially acceptable to disapprove or badmouth the person of color’s success. Privately, resentment, frustrations, disagreements, and differences in perspective are a few of the reasons it is difficult to move beyond friendly banter and passionate time-limited engagement.
Missing from the equation is an in depth understanding and intimacy that provides appreciation, closeness, and deeper knowledge behind the veneer. It manifests through color-blind attitudes ignoring race or an inability to develop a more robust and developed understanding of race and its impact on our everyday lives. Instead, race becomes an obstacle to avoid and get past oftentimes diminished as an inconvenient condition that can be ignored or brushed aside. At the same time, the universal expectations of White cultural norms limit the quality of the relationships a person of color may have with their White colleagues.
Although the challenges described can be unwieldy, uncomfortable, and, potentially, insurmountable, there are conditions, if successfully implemented, that provide a guide for moving through to deeper racial consciousness and fluency to navigate past the barriers. The result is being able to tell your personal story honestly and frankly without negating and minimizing the role of race. Elevating race would not negate other aspects such as gender and ability; however, the primacy of race allows a person to purposely discuss race instead of treating it as invisible.
Telling your story requires appreciating that these events do not fit neatly into a container, opened briefly, shut up and sealed to never be revisited. Meaning, a personal narrative is not like a film with closing credits, but an ongoing story, developing and expanding with new understanding, growth and insights, and opportunities for healing, when needed. Hearing and telling these personal narratives are also uncomfortable and disruptive at times requiring the ability to maneuver through feelings of guilt, shame, terror, embarrassment, accountability, disconnection, anger, distrust, rage, frustration, and series of other emotions and thoughts.
There is a tendency to solely focus on changing behavior, which neglects the emotional, spiritual, and mental toll these racist experiences can take on people and how they may change the ways we feel, behave, and think. There may also be an inclination to get wore out with these experiences and seek premature closure because we can be left feeling bare and raw. We can do more to ensure that we buffer against the impending emotional, physical, and intellectual burnout that comes with battling racism. Being thoughtful about and seeking out resources to help sort through the layers is critical to surviving. Although hearing these experiences about race and racism can be self-affirming reminding us that we’re not alone, they can be incredibly stressful and spirit numbing that requires people to recharge and take a reprieve to manage the stress. During these breaks to avoid burnout, connecting with and being surrounded by people and places that refresh our faith in humanity and the work to transform must be anticipated.
This work is not for the faint of heart and no one should underestimate the challenge. Building the skills, awareness, and insights will help to negotiate the turbulent waters to chart a lifestyle course where participating in conversations and solving for our biggest challenges on race become the norm.
Also published on Medium.