Sunday, February 22, 2009

What we don't know can hurt us



Above is the controversial image. A monkey is shot by police as they talk about finding someone else to write the stimulus package.

When I saw the cartoon, my first reaction wasn't as strong as my African-American friends. Because I am White, the image and the association did not and does not affect me like it does a person who is African-American. I don't have the context to understand or have the pain associated with being called a monkey in the most derogatory way. When I was a kid, if we were called monkeys, it was because we were acting silly.

So, with my background and context, I could try to deny that the monkey has anything to do with President Obama. But the monkey in the picture has nothing to do with clowning around...and it has nothing to do with an attack on someone (as some people are trying to connect it with the recent chimp "pet" who turned violent and attacked a woman). The cartoon is very specific in it's comments about about a stimulus bill. The word bubble and the chimp together in a cartoon don't allow us to disconnect the two.

I believe many of us who are White try desperately to deny and refuse to acknowledge our history. The reality is that White people have connected Black people with monkeys for a long time. If we don't believe that, we need to look into our history. As Kyra Phillips (CNN) found out, our history and the connecting of Black people to monkeys is all too real. You can see the of the dialogue with Kyra Phillips, Al Sharpton, and Jeff Johnson of BET here. She found the information in an article written by Rev. Buckner Payne in 1867 called, "The Negro: What is his Ethnological Status?"

We take up the monkey, and trace him...through his upward and advancing orders--baboon, ourang-outang and gorilla, up to the negro, another noble animal, that noblest of the beast creation. The difference between these higher orders of the monkey and the negro is very slight...and consists mainly of this one thing: the negro can utter sounds that can be imitated; hence, he could talk wtih Adam and Eve, for they could imitate his sounds.
I think it's important that we hear what people say. When Black people are telling us it's a racist cartoon, why are we so offended by that? Where does the defensiveness come from? Why not acknowledge their comments and their feelings and seek understanding so that even if we may not understand it, we can at least become more sensitive?

I am very impressed with Attorney General Eric Holder's response toward the cartoon. Yes, he called us a "Nation of Cowards" (which is the soundbyte that has triggered so much emotion) but he also challenged us to start a new conversation.
If we're going to make progress, we have to have the guts...we have to have the determination to be honest with each other.
Mr. Holder wants to make sure the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights division does its job. To do that, he plans to start with his own employees. Mr. Holder thinks it's important...
to not only commemorate Black History, but also to foster a period of dialogue between the races. Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with and would like to not have to deal with racial matters...
View Eric Holder's words (not just his sound bytes) below. I think it's important to hear it from him. He challenges us all to a new level:



As Holder implies, we are scared to have the conversation. We don't want to be charged with racism and we don't want to be indicted as racists. Mr. Holder is not accusing us of either. He is simply challenging us to seek a deeper conversation so that we can move forward with each other.

Our cowardice shows. As I read CNN's The Cafferty File blog, I recognized how our cowardic plays out. He asks:
Here’s my question to you: Do you agree with Attorney General Eric Holder that the U.S. is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to race?
I'm sure he doesn't realize that his question is a cowardly question. But I believe the bolder position Mr. Holder is calling us to is to acknowledge the comments...acknowledge the racism in the cartoon...and begin a deeper conversation. Asking us to side for or against Mr. Holder continues to pit us against one another. A better question would be,
"How have we been a 'nation of cowards' and how can we move beyond that?"
Instead of denying that there's anything wrong, let's open ourselves to ask, "What *is* wrong...with what I just said...with what I just did...with what I just drew?" It's a vulnerable position and the answer may be painful, but I find that people who offer these open-ended conversations aren't trying to hurt us; they are trying to help us see and understand what we can't.

As I watch Eric Holder and observe how President Obama handle different situations I began to notice something. To this point, what we've come to be proud of is when we have shades of brown in high level positions. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a start. But what I see happening now is a true diversity. President Obama chose people of diverse skin tones, but he has also created a freedom in our country that starts from the top--a freedom to speak and a freedom to challenge what hasn't been spoken about and challenged in the past.

This new dialogue has the potential to challenge us to hear voices that we haven't heard before. It has the potential to challenge all of us to see things differently.

I am looking forward to this new day.
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