Walter Rhett

Oppression is a Many Splendored Thing

In Arts, Education, National Affairs, Perlo on January 7, 2011 at 6:52 pm
Protesting Congress Denial of Women's Rights. Photo, Library of Congress.

Protesting Congress Denial of Women's Rights. Photo, Library of Congress.

Denial is a part of every system of oppression. Republicans deny their oppression of working class families and the poor by pretending to be “for” family values and “free” enterprise, while shifting the balance of power and profit to those who exploit the public good for private and personal gain.

But what we are seeing with President Obama is a new class of denial. It’s a denial that denies it is denying. It calls for him to do things many–not all–but many don’t want him to do. Perhaps instructive is a story from my high school years, where as a member of the group of first African-Americans to integrate my hometown high school, I was encouraged to take full advantage of opportunities and activities. Except for the state BETA Club convention, when everyone wondered who would be my roomates, and the regional band clinic, another overnight trip, where we were suppose to stay with families (I was told I could decline the trip if I wanted to, although I had made first chair), and the Christmas parades where the good citizens of neighboring towns through cigarettes at the boots of our one African-American majorette. The point here is not to shock, open old wounds, or cite old history, it’s to point out that America never seems to know anyone who has done those things. We offer opportunity and equal expectations, but deny the invisible expectation of limits silently imposed by race–and then deny race is a factor.

With the President, remember the New Yorker magazine cover with his head wrapped and his wife in a 70s-styled afro with platforms with a fist bump, the American flag burning in the fireplace – the modern militant radical equivalent of the watermelon eating stereotype that supposedly was only a “parody”? Remember the discussions during the primaries as to whether the President had street cred (was he “black” enough)? So consumed were many with panning race and denying the panning, that no one saw what is obvious: it’s worse–his politics are neither racial or socialist (and socialist is simply another code word for race that can be denied by those who use it).

Now many who deny their denial have discovered they can have it both ways and are playing both sides. I feel like I’m watching an old Sidney Poitier movie, in which he is suffering silently under the yoke, as impotent as Gershwin’s Porgy, as tragic as Ellison’s Invisible Man’s battle royal–sympathetic, a source of fury–but safe.

This is meant to be a larger reading of Obama within the cultural dynamic of race outside of its usual confines of bias and prejudice. It is not a reading of his personality or politics, but of the subtle ways America invents to deny its denial that it (we) see race, and often hold out expectations which we don’t expect to be met. Newt’s “Kenyan anti-colonialism” was an unveiled, unvarnished clear academic reference to the Mao Mao, yet not one pundit, broadcast or print, labeled it or nailed it. I found it insidious and bankrupt. It labeled the President in a way that really labeled the broader image of African-Americans–no longer welfare cheats but now deadly killers of western civilization’s right to its manifest destiny. It shut a door for me that no one among the Republicans or Tea Party folk renounced the remark. To support those who hold or who let such views go by would be like fighting for the Confederacy. (Which incidently some African-Americans did not based on principles or beliefs; they were promised freedom and pensions, creating a win-win in their political hedge.)

How can the country leave unnoticed the Kenyan anti-colonial reference while wanting him to “man up”? Actually the country is doubling down on its denial; from the Duchess who found him uppity to the pan cake boxes that bootstrapped him to recyled imagery, no one seems to be able to find anyone who thinks race is an issue, when it fact, it’s all over the place, but outside of the narrow confines of bias or prejudice by which we have been conditioned to think about it. Cultural attitudes are difficult to identity and can not be counted in surveys or polls, or one by one. They linger and reproduce as a interior legacy–and a big part of that legacy is that the complexities of the culture of race are denied.

To borrow and paraphrase an image from my favorite Ismael Reed poem, “Jacket Notes,” the President is like a man going over Nigara Falls in a barrel. Many of the gawkers hope he falls on his face. Some don’t think much of his act. The barrel makers don’t think he can cut it. “But what really hurts is / he is bigger than the / barrel.”

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  1. Something we continually forget is something we need continual reminders of, and still, the forgetting may never change…race is omnipresent and is constantly a factor in defining the conduits of power, but it is “seen” only when a rupture in the white-dominated power structure presents…

    As a white person living in a media that is white-dominated no matter how many African-Americans or other ethnicities appear to color the screen, I still only see race when I am looking at those who are categorized in this white-dominated regime as “non-white”: unwittingly, because I can only tweak the edges of unconsciousness to make it partially conscious occasionally.

    This seems proof enough that we are a white-dominated society, because it takes herculean effort for race to be a factor to me–since society _unconsciously_ confers privilege to me, I literally have the luxury of never having to think about how my race does or does not privilege me only to the extent I wish to. I could survive equally fine by claiming that race is simply not a factor in any activity or aspiration I have—that is, inherently, not true–but privilege allows me to believe that if I wish, because an unconscious societal privilege does not require the consciousness or conscience of individuals in order to function.

    Thus: “we” (i.e., the white-dominated bias, of which, ironically, all races can participate in an collude with, as long as they are identifying with this dominant power structure) immediately see race, religion, and ethnicity whenever there is a deranged shooter such as the Fort Hood shooter, or the Times Square bomber…but “we” never see race or religion in the Oklahoma City bombing and now, Tuscon shootings…

    Instead, immediately the “mental illness” is apparent in Jared Loughner, because race and religion are not factors. I agree, he clearly is a paranoid schizophrenic—but I would argue that mental illness is the most salient factor in ANY individual that wishes to shoot or bomb anything…whether full-blown mental illness, or delusions of grandeur, or, “ordinary” stress pushed to the psychotic breaking point…

    The mental status of either Faisal Shazad or Nidal Hasan was simply not as important as the fact that they played perfectly into the theme of “Islamic extremism” set up by the dominant power structure.
    Instead of even _entertaining_ the concept that either of these men could be severely mentally ill, all that ultimately remains apparent is the mental illness of a society that can only see race when it is non-white.

    Faisal Shazad, was apparently was wracked by a potential lifetime of indentured servitude due to debts…desperately troubled, but having no access to any sort of mental health support, because mental health is barely even a topic of political discussion, just as childcare never enters the arena of debate on social services in this country.

    Thus, the profound inequality of wealth in this country, and the concommitant lack of social mobility, may very well have been the most prominent factors in Faisal Shazad’s desperate actions, yet that discourse never entered the debate.

    Instead, the spin-cycle just kept the anti-Muslim rhetoric churning ever larger profits for Halliburton, Xe services, FOX News empire, and its millions of corporate minions, contentedly munching the cud of hate servicing a white-dominated society.

    We suffer from being a more white-dominated than a truly pluralistic society, where race truly is _not_ a factor because white-dominance is no longer unconscious, because it allows the literal white-washing of profound social deficiencies our entire society suffers from: a lack of meaningful, broad mental health services, that recognize a tremendous spectrum from severe mental illness to stress caused by larger social forces but felt by the individual, as all needing treatment and accountability.

    Otherwise, we suffer under childish, facile machinations that allow us only to see race when it threatens the dominant power structure, and only to see mental illness infrequently enough to never meaningfully address it. And to never see or discuss how constructs of race make it impossible for our society to enjoy any meaningful degree of true mental health, because the lack of examination fuels the profound inequality of wealth and social mobility in our country, which everyone suffers under, even if on first glance, they believe that they do not….

  2. Enjoy yr heartfelt responses, stated with courage and honesty. You add a great deal to the conversation,, and I am glad you share here! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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