Prompted by that news story about the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who refused marriage licenses to interracial couples.
My initial reaction was, “Meh.” Because I’m always amused to see how many people are shocked, shocked they tell you, at the continued persistence of blatant racism. I always wonder what planet these people have been living on, because they don’t seem to realize that lynchings have probably happened within their lifetime and that there’s a reason so many communities are segregated to this day and there’s also a reason the poorer and darker-skinned of these communities don’t have the political power they need to improve themselves. Not just America, but much of the world still seems to be trapped in the self-imposed delusion that racism is dead, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. So my reaction to that almost has to be “meh”, because if I let myself dwell on it for very long I will probably start drinking. (And drinking is bad for writers.)
My followup reaction has been a more complex sort of annoyance, because I’m beginning to once again smell whiffs of the same old sh!t re “The American South is so racist!”
OK, some background first. I’m probably not a true Southerner. I was born in Iowa. (Yeah, really.) Spent my first five years in Brooklyn ’til the parents divorced, whereupon I moved to Mobile, Alabama with Mom. I spent my school years down there and I’ll be honest: I thought it was fairly miserable. Nothing to do, heat and mosquitoes out the wazoo, and I was constantly bombarded with astonished reactions from others — black and white (not many other races in Mobile) — when they realized I loved to read and did well in school and hadn’t had sex yet, much less gotten pregnant. Food was good, though, and family was there, and Mobile is really quite pretty in the architectural and climate sense. But I digress. I never truly settled into the Southern mentality because I spent all my summers up in Brooklyn with Dad, which included trips to Chicago and Los Angeles and Iowa (again) and Paris, and camping trips in the Catskills and softball games in Jersey. I went to college at Tulane in New Orleans during the years when David Duke was running for governor and Tim Wise had just graduated, leaving an active, galvanized anti-racist movement on campus in his wake, which I joined. But I’d had enough by the time I finished college, so I went to grad school in nice quiet tame Maryland. Still technically the South, but not really, to my Alabama-trained sensibilities. After that I continued a steady progression northward into Massachusetts and finally back to the place I feel most at home, New York.
But the South is powerful. It gets into your blood if you spend even a little while there. And the most valuable lesson that my Southern upbringing taught me was this: racism is everywhere, inescapable. But the honest, straightforward racism is far easier to deal with than the delusional, self-denying stuff.
And frankly, I respect the honest, straightforward version of racism more. If somebody hates me because I’m black, I want them to say it out loud. Then I know where I stand with them, and can properly arm/armor myself before I have to deal with them. What I despise are people who insist they’re not racist and then go right ahead and do racist things. I can’t prepare for those, because I don’t know where or who they are. I turn my back for a second and some random person sticks a knife in. Worst of all, a lot of them don’t realize they’re racist, because they’ve convinced themselves that only blackface and KKK membership and guys like this LA justice of the peace are what racism looks like. Those people are like sleeper agents — after they stick the knife in, then they blink in surprise and look down at their bloody hands and gasp, “OMG, what have I done?” and proceed to have a panic attack. Which does me a whole lot of good as I stand there bleeding.
Southern racism, IMO, is mostly the straightforward, “safe” version of racism. I call it “safe” — though it still kills people and causes great harm — because it’s relatively easy to avoid, easy to confront, and easy to scorn. But the racism I’ve encountered in every other part of the country (and every part of the world I’ve visited outside the US) is mostly the sleeper-agent version of racism. It’s not easy to deal with, and I suspect it destroys a lot more lives. It’s not safe at all.
Now, let me be clear: I believe both forms of racism are dangerous and must be eradicated. The “safe” version, among other things, facilitates the continued existence of the unsafe version by distracting attention from it. But which version do you think scares me more?
Seriously, why would some two-bit justice of the peace in the back end of beyond who’s at least thought about this stuff, and is willing to speak his thoughts aloud, bother me? I’m far more concerned about the agents and editors and publishers and art directors and sales associates and fellow authors and readers who smile in my face at conventions and networking events, and who might at any given moment “go active” and come at me with a broken beer-bottle. Or pan my work as “not universal” because it features people of color. Or ignore it at awards time because they genuinely believe only white men can do SF any justice. Or decline to read/review it because they see my author picture and assume it can’t possibly be any good because of what I look like and Those People can’t write. Or deride me as an “affirmative action baby” if I’m successful. Or or or or or.
So if I had to sum up my overall reaction, it would be Hey, you, person who just made yet another har-har funneh joke about Southern inbreeding and backwardness, do you actually have any idea how racism really works? No? Then STFU and go read a book, and meanwhile save your outrage and ridicule for the next RaceFail, wherever it may crop up. Which will probably be in your own backyard. Or, your mirror.
Or, shorter: meh.