cut on the bias

keeping an eye on the spins and weirdness of media, crime and everyday life

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On prejudice

The presidential race has again brought prejudice into the forefront of public discussion. I know there are people who are prejudiced. In fact, I suspect that the only person who isn't prejudiced is a dead person. People who vote for Obama because he's black, regardless of his political views, are prejudiced. People who vote against Obama because he's black, regardless of his political views, are prejudiced. Ditto people who vote for or against the Republican ticket because the VP candidate is a woman. Those are characteristics, not character.

I try hard - some would say too hard (hello, Alan!) - not to be prejudiced. I do make value judgments, but (I hope) based on value assessments, not observations of characteristics. I could get into a detailed discussion of it all, but I'm not going to. I'm sure you're thankful.

What I do want to comment on is a concept underlying prejudice-in-practice that makes me very very edgy. That is: permission. Or, perhaps more accurately, the necessary inference that if someone is the object of prejudice on a systemic basis, that person requires permission from those in control of the society to be able to do certain things. Or any thing, really.

I am a white woman. I didn't choose to be born white, or female, or an American, for that matter. But I think all three things are pretty cool. I like knowing about my Caucasian ancestors' history, the history of their countries and the way they came to be a part of the US. I like being a woman, and all that entails. I like being an American, and consider it both a blessing and a privilege. I'm proud of the history of the US. And I'm proud to be from Appalachia, and to be a Southerner. Being proud of those things doesn't mean that I think I'm better than anyone who isn't one or more of those things. I hope everyone can find pleasure and pride in their race, sex and country. It's part of what makes us unique individuals.

At a certain time in this country, my Irish ancestors were treated very poorly. And many opportunities available to women weren't open to them until relatively recently. But I do not feel that I need to ask permission for anything I want to do. I don't need to get someone's approval to work in any kind of job; I just need the skills to do the work and the character to be a good employee. I don't need someone to sign off before I work toward a specific educational goal; I just need the capability, money and will to do it. And it's no one's business where I go, when I go, and why I go, as long as it isn't illegal. I don't need anyone's permission.

But I get the sense that in this country some people believe that black people collectively need permission from white people collectively to succeed. I think some of both white and black people believe that. It isn't stated, and there's no Bureau of Permissions to apply to for the go-ahead. But some black people feel that barrier is there, and some white and black people think other white people are putting the barrier there. So they tilt at the barrier endlessly, with great frustration and anger and sadness and at times a sense of impotence. And maybe there are a few remaining vestiges of a barrier in places, just as there are still barriers between East and West Germany even though the Berlin Wall came down nearly two decades ago.

But I think that in today's society, there aren't permission barriers anymore, not in a pervasive sense. I think any one of any race can go, do and succeed in any way they want to, as long as they meet the relevant skill/financial threshold for that endeavor. Race per se is not the issue any more.

What the issue is now is the sense that permissions are needed. The sense that someone you don't even know is holding you back because of something you can't and shouldn't even wish to change has to be extremely frustrating and angering. I get that. But how do you convince someone that the barrier isn't there? That they don't need anyone's permission? I don't know. But it needs to happen.

And that brings me to a personal note. As a white person, I feel to some degree blamed every time I read about the prejudice some black people feel they face. It makes me highly annoyed. I don't oppress anyone. I don't want to oppress anyone. I want to put up a huge sign that says, YOU DON'T NEED MY PERMISSION. I am neither less nor more than they are. I don't like being regarded with collective suspicion that I feel something I don't feel but can't prove I don't feel without making such a big deal of not feeling it that it becomes apparently self-evident that I feel it after all because why would I make such a big deal of denying it if I didn't actually feel it somewhere deep down and am ashamed/embarrassed about it?

It makes me feel very sympathetic toward men who don't care one way or another what choices a woman makes about her life, other than ordinary human moral choices, but are held loudly and angrily to account for their non-proven and often non-existent patriarchal attitudes.

I'm not dealing right now with social barriers like poverty and poor education. That's for another post. I'm just dealing with all this miasma around this election about race and prejudice. So, for the record:

Hey, Obama - YOU DON'T NEED MY PERMISSION. And neither does anyone else.


At 16/10/08 12:40 PM, Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Thank you for blogging again. It's fun to hear all that nonsense on tv (mollycoddling and fawing over Obama) and then see the logic you bring to the table, which is really a breath of fresh air (or a freath of bresh air). I just wish that people could get down to what the election is really about: the issues and what's important to them personally. If you think the government can solve all the world's problems and you're willing to pull out your wallet and give them the green to make it happen, by all means, vote for the candidate who promotes that. If you think that the government is (and should be) limited in the world-saving department and you value morality a little more than most, by all means, vote for the candidate who promotes that. There are fundamental differences that go way beyond the appearance and personal characteristics of each candidate, and I just wish that people could wipe away the mud that has been slung in their eyes and see that. I don't understand that some are still undecided. The candidates are so different, and how can you NOT know what's important to you if you're old enough to have the privilege to vote?


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