Guest Blog: “Comparative Racism” by Ellen Hawley
Introducing moon child guest blogger: Ellen Hawley!
My name is Ellen Hawley and I am an American living in Britain. I have published three novels: The Divorce Diet (Kensington Press; 2015), Open Line (Coffee House Press; 2008), and Trip Sheets (Milkweed Editions; 1998).
I blog at Notes from the U.K. and have worked as an editor, a cab driver, a radio talk show host, a janitor, an assembler, a file clerk, and for four fun-filled hours a receptionist. I have also taught writing. I have never worked as a lion tamer and, at this stage in life, I am unlikely to.
You can also follow Ellen’s work on her website.
“Comparative Racism” by Ellen Hawley
For better and for worse, the US has a reputation. Big cars, loud voices, outsize promises. It’s the place British writers send a character when they can’t resolve his or her situation at home and they’re not willing to write a tragic ending. It promises freedom, opportunity, vast stretches of land. And – oops – racism. We’re known for that too.
I say “we” because although I live in Cornwall and have become a British citizen, I was born and raised in the U.S. Ask me my nationality and the odds are I’ll say “American” before I remember that I have two.
Our American version of original sin was stealing the land from the Native Americans, and we compounded that by basing our developing economy on slavery. But injustice is never stable, so we needed laws, police forces, armies, vigilante groups, everyday beliefs, and religious interpretations to keep all the pieces—and the people—in their places. Racism sank it roots deep into our culture and our consciousness. Hundreds of years later, no one grows up there unaffected by it.
All of which you may already know. I don’t know you and it’s hard to know where to start anyway. The topic’s huge. I’ve started this essay three times already. Even a small chunk of the topic is more than I can do justice to. Sophie lives in Scotland, though, and asked me what racism’s like in the U.S. Since I don’t know where you – her readers – live, I’ll address her question as best I can and hope it’s of some use to you.
What’s the U.S. like now that we’re all officially free and equal? The laws designed to keep the races separate and unequal have been repealed and the army no longer fights the Native American tribes, but we live with our history. Here’s a quick and wildly incomplete report.
Back in the mid-1960s when I went out with a black man (I’m white), heads turned when we walked down the street. Literally: If I looked behind us, I’d often find that people had turned to stare once they thought we wouldn’t notice. Some didn’t wait that long. And that was in cosmopolitan New York. In parts of the South, he could easily have been killed for going out with me. Or walking down the street with me, regardless of what our relationship was or wasn’t.
Today. the shock is gone and the physical threat is gone. White families that would once have turned their backs on a mixed-race descendant now include and treasure them. (I use the phrases race and mixed race for lack of anything better; race is a myth, and I know it.) In some families that happened easily and in others it was a battle, but it happened all the same. I’m sure a few families are exceptions, but I’d bet not that many. Of the ones who include and treasure, not all are wise enough to do it well, but change is never smooth and easy, and this is a change. A small but also a huge one.
Times change, and it’s always personal.
I should add that my experience comes from the North. Parts of the South may not have gotten around to taking it in their stride yet.
Another thing that’s changed is that racial name calling now carries a social stigma and people who indulge in it complain about that, waving the banner of free speech; although the people shutting them up are exercising their free speech as surely as the name-callers are. Nothing in the Constitution guarantees the right to not hear it from other people when they think you’re an asshole. What the Constitution says about free speech is that Congress shall make no law abridging it. It’s not Congress that’s holding the name-callers back, it’s public opinion, and that really, really pisses them off.
But in spite the changes in law and culture, the average income of blacks and Native Americans is far lower than that of whites. Segregation of schools and neighborhoods continues, although no law enforces it. Some horrifying percent of young black men are in prison, and having been convicted of felonies will never vote or get a decent job (if they ever had one to begin with) again. Blacks are more likely to be stopped by the police, beaten by the police, killed by the police, and charged with more serious offenses for the same cause. Forgive me if I don’t trot out statistics. I’m a disaster with numbers. If you want them, they’re there to be found.
Not that many years ago, someone did a study of hiring practices by sending out two versions of the same resumes, one with a name that sounded African-American, the other with one that could assume was white. Guess which one wasn’t offered an interview? I don’t know how many they sent out – again, you don’t want to trust me around numbers – but enough to see a pattern.
We’re none of us out from under the shadow.
So we have a body of black people who don’t see any way to get at the American dream. Predictably, they’re angry. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s raised hopes and changed some things, but not enough. When the tide of hope receded, it left a ring of bitterness. Do you know the Langston Hughes poem: What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
If you’re white, you can live your entire life in the same country and never know what it’s like to live there in a black or brown skin, and you can manage not to know what they’re so angry about. Slavery ended a long time ago. What’s their problem?
I sound like I’m being a wise-ass there. I am a wise-ass, but I’ve seen those words, written in not quite that order. As a serious question or statement.
We also have a body of whites who feel aggrieved by what has changed. They can’t forgive Obama for being (a) black and (b) the president. Some of them will say that outright and others won’t, but either way he just drives them nuts. Their sense of grievance is wider and deeper than just Obama, but that’s enough to give you a sense of it. Huge topic. Limited space. We’ll stop with that one example. When a group loses its privileged position – or even a small part of it – its members aren’t all going to smile and say, “Well, that’s a relief” – although an enlightened few may.
You’ve heard about the young black man shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, and about the fury that sparked. You may have heard about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen-year-old, shot by a vigilante who, having been charged with second-degree murder, was acquitted. The list goes on. With social media, suddenly it’s possible to track these incidents, to put them together, to start a #BlackLivesMatter movement. That’s part of the American reality. It’s not new, but the wider world is finally hearing about it.
Sophie asks if the U.S. is being demonized (actually, she said “demonised”) by the media stories. I wouldn’t say so. What you’re reading and hearing is true. We’re talking about a country built over a deep pool of bitterness, and we live at a time when it’s found a way to the surface. It’s not a pretty sight, but then it’s not a pretty reality. Making it visible may – just may – mean we stand any chance of changing a few more things.
A few words from the primary blogger – I chose to feature a piece by Ellen because I found her work, particularly her blog post on the Cornwall Gay Pride, to be truly fascinating, intelligent and sophisticated. Ellen’s writing has an exceptional way of reveering the reader; to open their mind to new perspectives they may not have considered.
After talking with Ellen, we decided that a piece on comparative racism would make an interesting guest blog post and this piece is truly excellent. It begs a lot of questions about not only racism in America but racism all around the world, and furthermore encourages the reader ponder on their own humanity. This piece is very sobering, evocative and thought-provoking, and I can’t thank Ellen enough for allowing this piece to be featured on ‘moon child’.
Featured image courtesy of Ted Eytan via Flickr.
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