I started writing the following essay in February, but never finished it as life got in the way. I have changed in the last few months, and there are some changes I would make to the essay. I think I'd be less caustic and angry in tone, and make my points less forcefully. Also, I think something I didn't discuss was my own anger problem– I personally experience resentment in circumstances other people appear to find completely neutral or even positive. For example I was at a workshop sponsored by the local sustainability group yesterday, and one of the speakers was from the City of Seattle. She was talking about how to disconnect rooftop gutters from the sewer system (which can cause sewage overflows) and techniques for preventing pollution from washing into Puget Sound. I was getting very angry as I listened to her, because to my mind this is a classic case of what I see as the deep hypocrisy of official politics in Seattle. Sure, it's great for homeowners to build rain gardens to filter runoff and divert rainwater into cisterns, but this is a regional problem that requires regional solutions. The city can offer a rebate for it, but meanwhile a lot of people don't own their own homes, and then there's industrial pollution, pollution from cars on the streets, the list goes on. In the end, I feel that this policy has the potential to do more harm than good. Sounds crazy, but if all the interested civically minded people are working on their rain gardens instead of organizing to take over the government, well the problem doesn't get solved. I see it as not about diverting rainwater but rather diverting pasion and energy into manageable canals instead of a strong and powerful river. I felt this was an important issue to raise (and I either had to raise it or leave cuz I was pissed) so I confronted her, but I came across somewhat inarticulately. I think this was because of the social power she had as the presenter, and I felt a lot of pressure to drop the issue because people were there to hear her present. Anyway, I think this essay was in many ways, perhaps entirely, an exercise for me to help myself come to terms with my own anger. Don't want to revise it significantly, but figured I'd share it, since there's good writing and I made some good points (usually do.) Also, I'm interested if anyone of you reading it notice differences in tone between this part and the rest of it.
Why I wish I was black
(or I gave this essay a provocative title so that you would read it)
I realized today that I am a little bit jealous of black people. It's not because I think Rush Limbaugh's ideas are much more than vitriolic buffoonery. It's not because I think trading my white guilt for the accumulated history of the slave trade and 350 years of racism is a good deal. And it's certainly not because I wish I could be cool or have rhythm– those are problems I solved a long time ago without having to resort to a change of skin color. Instead, it is something that I think took me so long to bring into my conscious awareness, because it is subtle and largely foreign to my experience: it is a mixture of the genuine bond that many black people share combined with more direct access to a stronger cultural tradition of mastery over anger management skills. If you are wondering how modern psychobabble comes to bear on this topic, don't worry, I will explain.
But first, a story. Shortly after I awoke this morning I turned the channel to local national public radio station, and immediately had my hackles raised; I don't remember the details as clearly as I'd like, but it was my impression that the talkshow guest was calmly and articulately passing off lies as the truth, lies that justified and assumed the legitimacy of corporate profiteering from and negligence towards people's healthcare needs. When the host went to break, he announced that the guest was in fact Al Gore; at this point I just had to change the channel and soon after that I just had to turn the radio off because the sports talk radio station was irritating as well (I usually enjoy that particular show.) Crucial context here, is that I am very familiar with Steve Cher, the host on NPR; I usually like his show, but what irritates me about him consistently is that he almost never challenges any of his guests and certainly never sustains any challenge through even minor resistance. He excels at making interesting guests comfortable and drawing them out, but his approach is woefully inadequate at best when going up against a man who was vice president of the most powerful government on earth for eight years, which was directly responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and illegally bombing Kosovo, amongst other crimes internationally. Domestically, more (disproportionately black and brown) people went to prison under this administration than any previous, Clinton was a big backer of "welfare reform's" assault on the poor, and the administration promoted other policies like "free-trade agreements" that continued the pattern of dramatically increasing income and wealth inequality. All of this stuff is amply documented in excruciating detail in reams of articles in the main part of this web site.
As you can see, I am passionate about this topic, and indeed I was fired up. It took me the better part of an hour, breakfast, and some calming techniques including reading a beautifully written blessing, singing a song I wrote that often helps me in these situations, some stretching and lots of deep breaths to get to a point where I felt calm enough to effectively lodge a complaint with the radio station. Thanks to cellphone technology, I know that that conversation lasted four minutes and 20 seconds (maybe some pot would've helped me calm down…) and some of that time I was just talking to the call screener. I felt like I remained respectful and articulate enough to get my point across, but the intensity of the interaction left me flustered and with poor concentration. Fortunately, I have compiled a large library of music of different varieties, and I am usually able to find something that helps me whatever mood I'm in; today, I found myself intuitively drawn towards Parliament Funkadelic. Listening at a loud volume, and crucially, dancing to their music helped me shift my mood and get into a place where I could sit down and write this essay.
OK, I promised to bring it back around, so here goes… I am pretty sure the reason P. Funk was so helpful is that those black musicians drew on a well of hundreds of years of wisdom about how to deal with this kind of situation. When the people who have the power to broadcast their message widely consistently ridicule or dismiss your beliefs, and that's when they bother to even acknowledge them, the irritation builds over time into infuriation and rage. For an oppressed group like the descendents of African slaves in the United States, it is much worse, in that they are routinely subjected to racist attacks against their humanity both verbal and physical, and it often has nothing to do with a mood at the ny choices that they have made. What I really want to do before I finish this paragraph, though, is give some mad props to Parliament Funkadelic and by extension the many contributions to American black culture that it symbolizes for the purposes of this essay. Their expressions of anger are at times so subtle that I would imagine many white people listening miss it completely; now maybe I'm not giving white people enough credit here, but it's hard to give this band all of the credit that it deserves. They are successful musical alchemists, gracefully and without apparent effort transforming emotional lead into emotional gold, healers capable of gently massaging people through their ears until they fall asleep and almost forget to pay before they stumble out of the masseuse's office in seventh heaven– except in this case it's people stumbling out of a nightclub after dancing their asses off.
My point here isn't that white people are incapable of handling anger in a mature way. There are plenty of black versions of Eminem, and I think one of my favorite bands They Might Be Giants has a lot of sophistication around this issue. I just think that on the balance, black people tend to be better at this, much in the way that white people tend to score better on standardized tests. Of course, the difference is that managing anger demonstrates maturity, while standardized tests tend to measure differences in social class.
OK, this is more or less where the original essay ends. Right now I will to point out that this is really a human issue, not a race issue. The lesson that is most valuable to me is not that white people are privileged jerks or that black people are heroic in the face of evil. Instead, all of this makes me think about how we can all learn from each other, how something horrible often or maybe always contains within it the potential for transformation. My experiences and observations have lead me to the belief that suffering and oppression can yield wisdom, when we can find humility. Yeah, yeah, it sounds a lot better when you write a song about it. I'm working on it, don't worry.