The Problem of Race (And why we can’t escape it)

After a few conversations in 2014 and 2015 with people I knew about the topics of race relations and the effects of race as a concept on social and political reality in America, I felt as if I was more or less alone in my opinions and understandings of the concept and its effect on people and their identities. Being a descendant of various ethnic backgrounds with generational ties to places in Western Europe, Western Africa, and the Caribbean, I was privileged with the perspective of not being able to singularly identify with any particular “race” while still being just as much of an American as anyone else in this country. I also felt it would be shameful to choose between racial identities, and it would be some sort of disgrace to the family I have in whatever line of ancestry I decided not to claim. It may be that because I can trace my ancestry several generations back to both the Napoleonic wars and the Haitian Revolution that I have a grounded perspective of my lineage, something that cannot be said for many people of different racial distinctions in America, but, being a descendant of “mixed race” New Orleanians since before the American Civil War, I feel as though the knowledge of my ancestral roots have not changed my perspectives on race, but further confirmed my attitudes and feelings towards this form of political classification.

The following is an attempt at a spoken-word piece I wrote back in either late 2015 or early 2016. I felt frustrated with the lack of mutual understanding, and sought to vent my frustration with expressions of perspectives and mindsets I felt were being voiced in futility by many people, followed by a version of my own perspective as a response to the two expressed before. The piece transitions through three different voices and racial identities, detailing different perspectives in ways that I believe not only highlight the differences, but also the similarities between them, showing the end conclusion as the literal culmination of the dialogue. Excuse the crudeness of the language, but I believe censorship of artistic expression is a bastardization of the ideas and emotions from which the manifested creation is drawn and inspired, no matter how potentially biased or personal the expression may be. Following the piece, I will explain in detail the perspectives I attempted to relate through the work, describe the information, perspectives, and ideas which are the foundation of my understanding of race as a concept with which people identify, and demonstrate to the best of my ability why I believe “race” is an unsolvable problem in our country.

You don't know what it means to be black. Cause you never been held in chains or had whips on your back. You never been hung from trees or fuckin' shoved to the back. You ain't been shot dead for wearin' hoodies or choked for sellin' cigarette packs. You don't have to be afraid of cops, they always watchin' your backs; or worry 'bout the system holdin' you down just to keep their fat stacks and feed their fat cats. You don't know what bein' black is. Your fuckin' life is artificial. Your white "culture" is fake and evil, your ways are deceitful, you people disgust me. You're a part of the problem. You sit there and benefit from the evil your fathers committed. The fuck is that, man?! You will never know what it means to be held down by society. To have to fight the world you live in. I just wanna know my history. I just wanna love my people, recognize my idols for shining despite all this shit. 'Cause we were a proud people. Our culture was rich, our families strong, our history long. But we are suffering. We're a lost people robbed from our homeland, brought here as slaves, and we're still trapped in the system of chains. You can't deny me my rights and then tell me what's right 'cause-

You don't know what it means to be white. Because you've never been the blight. You've never put people in chains and tortured their families at night. You never held others bellow yourself just so you could pretend to be high up, creating lies that they're corrupted and you're so perfect- righteous even. You've never seen your family swinging people from trees or forced them to bend their knees and obey. Even if you don't blame me for it now you still hold me accountable, like I'm the slime who shot a man 9 times in the back. You want to talk slaves now? You have no idea what it means to have been robbed of your culture by the country your fathers built just to work for their corporate deals and eat fuckin' microwave meals. You don't know what being white is. My fuckin life is artificial. My white "culture" is fake and evil, my ways are deceitful, my people disgust me. I'm a part of the problem; I benefit from the evil my fathers committed. The fuck is that, man?! You think I can't understand this shit? You will never know what it means to be the villain of society. To have records in your house of the "numbers" you sold to slavery. I just wanna know my history. No it's not clean; like yours, theres a lot of shit missing. But before we were sent here we were a proud people. Our culture was rich, our families strong, our history long. We weren't so wrong. Now, man, we don't even know what side we’re on. We're a lost people who've forgotten our homeland, stuck here as slaves in a system that our past had crafted. And you can't make resistance my choice then deny me my voice cause-

Y’all both need to shut the fuck up about all of this bullshit. I can't believe you don't understand it. It's fucking outstanding. You're both trapped in a fight neither of you wanted to continue but when you say you're on one side you're saying you have no life besides the one this crooked-ass system set aside just for you. And what about me? My blood is 50/50. My family's got history as racist as the wars of this oh-so free country. And if that 30% is all you choose to reflect your heritage, then do I pick white or black when I'm discussing my kind of finer shit. I'm on the border of your races screaming "these fake lines don't exist". Tryin' not to get too into shit like what kind of lives there is. Tryin'a balance Living Colour's rock with Slim Shady's rap and shit. My cousin's a copper, but my homie's income is quite some shady shit, and he's a cracker. A jack ass, “free love” motherfucker, and I love the dude like he was my only brother. My skin is brown, my hair curly, and my nose is round but not so wide, but you hate me, don't you? Sometimes I feel so wise cause y’all got me past the lies when y’all treated me like I wasn't black too. And these fuckin dicks in high school think I’m black as tattoos. Why is this shit so taboo? See you taught me that I liked my racist, white "friends" more than the idea being black and THAT'S a problem! Cause if I'm still staying true to this claim that we're the same, I can't preach this shit and not try to live it the same way. If y’all are both fighting the system then what's the fuckin beef for? Dude, why can't we just talk more? Why can't we open doors to discover ourselves as equals. Lord, I swear, you people get caught up way too much in shit that always seemed like such an inherently problematic aspect of a fake-ass society. My eyes can see it. Will YOU realize that you can beat it? You're just different people living different lives, but you're still human, an’ I'm still choosin' to do this knowin' it'll be confusing as a method of showing you what you're doin' and how it's all the same. But the fact that you're suffering doesn't null other people's pain. And pride is for the one who has fragile ground to stand on. You both internalized the trap that the system’s been ran on. And even if you did hurt somebody it doesn't mean that you're the villain. Sincere remorse will get you your honest sins forgiven. You know damn well what the problem is but you refuse to accept it. The only difference is color, and that's as deep as it gets, shit.

Analysis

The first section details the perspective of a young, black individual who’s enraged at the violence and conflict that occurs as a result of the systemic disenfranchisement and lack of political response to or social concern for individuals and communities afflicted by well over a century of oppression and neglect stemming largely from the foundation of American slavery. Because many black people feel that their racial identity is such an integral part of who they are and the foundation of their culture, many of the atrocities and crises targeted at and afflicting black individuals around the country are perceived as grievances and attacks against black people in general, which in some cases may not be untrue. As a result, solidarity amongst people in black communities is typically high when it comes to social conflict that appears to be racially motivated or a result of systemic oppression that was originally justified with racist arguments. The perspective and judgment of many black people is not perfect however, and there are many conflicts which are inappropriately labeled as racial conflicts or consequences of racism that are only marginally, if at all, related to race. Conversations about race and socio-political conflicts, if it can even be reduced to that, are in some ways hindered because of the nature of the perspectives of the conflicts themselves. It clearly involves a certain kind of moral distinction about how individuals in societies and communities ought to treat one another and the individuals who may or may not be a part of one’s group identities, but to frame the conflicts and socio-economic problems of systemic injustice as something that is purely a problem on the level of the moral responsibility of individuals is to discredit the impersonal, systemic injustice that was long ago rooted in the philosophy of status-quo American society, the consequences of which are still being played out in our contemporary political and social reality. To reflect and reinforce this point, allusions to lines from Kendrick Lamar’s The Blacker the Berry are used throughout the entire piece as references to the hypocrisy of wanting to maintain peaceful social environments and relations but having to face inter- and intra-racial conflicts that put every individual in a position of having to justify wanting to help “their people” but also not wanting to be explicitly tribalistic in the conflicts we face on a regular basis, even when that tribalism is one in which your people is no longer a racially categorized culture but instead one’s family. This leads many people to misunderstand the arguments of black people and interpret them as purely racially motivated, whereas many black people feel that that race is merely the medium in and excuse for which the injustice is perpetuated and that these are indeed issues of human and civil rights.

The second section is from the perspective of a white individual who’s reacting to the apparent vilification of white people and culture and the framing of whiteness as the root of racism and systemic oppression. Like the black individual, the white individual has to reconcile their individuality and personal feelings with the history of racial conflict and disparity that has social, political, and economic effects on the entirety of American society while acknowledging that it is not explicitly the case that all these conflicts are purely racially grounded or motivated, despite the fact that much of the past conflict and current conflict are integrally associated with the prevalence of race identification and classification in America. The white individual knows that he/she is not personally guilty of any of the injustices, but by the consequence of his/her existence and identification with race, they assume an unavoidable amount of influence and responsibility in all matters involving race. Like the black individual, the white individual is identified with a constructed political classification that serves to divide populations along racial parameters. The cultures of these demographics were manufactured from the remnants of the cultures which the groups within the racial classifications retained throughout the reinvented socialization and Americanization of the country. Particularly, “whiteness” was reinvented as the status-quo American majority identity and all European culture was marginalized in the 1920’s with the Americanization program which sought to unify the nation’s populace under a singular, national identity. This program marginalized not only European cultures, but also black people and culture as being un-American and not in line with the status quo or mainstream national identity. This was done with the intent of creating a strong, unified populace, but it also consequently secured race as a predominant and necessary political distinction in American society, cementing racial identity and racial classification as social parameters from which one could not escape without being explicitly counter-cultural and anti-status quo, even if the intent of the individual was to escape or solve social and racial conflict.

The third and final section is a criticism of race and racial identification itself. This third, “multi-racial” individual states that both perspectives and individuals are hypocritical in wanting to escape and end social conflicts stemming from injustice predicated on racial classification and division without wanting to forsake racial identification. The history of America is obviously mired by the evils and ills of past centuries, but the prevalence of the consequences of those evils are no justification for carrying into the future the ideas by which those evils were justified. This individual’s perspective is based on the notion that in order to end racial conflict, race itself must be done away with as it is the battleground on which the conflict is perpetuated. Being “multi-racial” but foregoing racial identity, the individual belongs to neither black nor white culture and accepts neither a black nor white identity, but instead chooses to act and exist outside of racial classification so that he/she could never be the medium of racism of the past or present, nor be personally insulted by racism except in regards to the denial of human rights. This individual seeks to select a position which necessitates that all conflict be reduced to ideological and ethical conflicts of differing cultures, rather than social conflicts predicated on and motivated by racial distinctions. From this perspective, people can find true solidarity with more than those who belong to their own culture and together fight against the systemic disenfranchisement and injustice perpetuated as a consequence of neglect and disregard for the suffering of others. This individual highlights the notion that when race is not a factor of social conflict, it is as if it is not even a factor in social reality except in superficial cultural differences; and, not only is race physically non-existent, as there is no manifestly real or legitimate justification for the conceptual distinction aside from skin color, but also the identification with race alone is enough to perpetuate racial conflict since there will still be people foolish enough to believe in racist ideologies, and one will have to defend one’s race against racism whether it is social, political, or economic. But while the problems may be institutionally rooted, it seems to always play out on the level of individuality as people can’t often escape the cycles that the system sets to condition people into, whether it be the school-to-prison pipeline in disenfranchised black communities or economic enslavement to corporate rat-races for middle-class white people. To reinforce this notion, an allusion to Jermaine Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only was used as a reminder that the systemic issues of injustice we face have serious personal consequences for people who become victims, through no fault of their own necessarily, of the hard-to-see “traps” of the system that take advantage of social disparity, economic disparity, and inter-/intra-cultural conflict.

Conclusion

As stated before, race could be reduced to a socio-political “trap” which systematizes racism as a necessary aspect of socio-political reality, creating both the conflict and the rationalization for it by way of racial categorization and division. Unfortunately, America is far from being a “post-racial” society seeing as though race is such an integral aspect to our political reality and our various cultural groups. Since racial identity is as integral to our socio-cultural identities as religion, political ideology, sex and sexuality, and socio-economic prosperity, it is incredibly unlikely that as a society we will ever completely eliminate racism, especially since these categorical distinctions are hard coded into our civil rights. Despite the fact that racism is clearly immoral and those individuals who are racist are threats to the stability and prosperity of society and all communities and cultures, so long as race is a dominant factor of our social environment, racial conflict will also be with us.

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