Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: racism

How I Explained Black Lives Matter to My Mother’s Mahjong Group

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“Liberals” are sometimes stereotyped in the media as elitists. I wonder if there is an element of truth to this. We say we want to discuss issues with our friends and relatives, but then use abstract language more suitable for a Yale graduate school seminar.   If your conservative Uncle Joe on Facebook is willing to agree with you that there is too much police brutality against African-Americans, does it really matter at this point if he “accepts” the concept of white supremacy on your latest post?

I understand this tendency to sound elitist because I can be that person myself. I’m the type of guy who came home from my first semester of college to scold my mother to stop reading her “stupid Sue Grafton mystery novels” and pick up Plato’s Republic instead.

“Do you want to live your entire life in the shadows?” I told her after my freshman year.  “How can you live without ever getting a strong foundation in Greek philosophy?”

Yeah. That type of guy.

Who would have guessed that one day I would be back living in the same apartment with my mother, reading her Sue Grafton novels?

Twice a week, my mother sets up a bridge table in the living room and plays mahjong with her friends.   Her friends are smart, compassionate women, feminists at heart, open to neighborhoods of diversity, but born of another generation.   Each woman is over eighty years of age,  the children of immigrant parents, and have worked since an early age.  None of them had the opportunity to attend college.   It would be haughty of me to lecture these amazing women based on my advanced education, right? But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

I remember a few months ago, the mahjong group was taking a break from the game, having coffee and cake, and gossiping about their neighbors in the building. I entered the kitchen to grab a piece of the cake myself when I overheard one of them mention the cute children of the “Oriental” neighbor in apartment 3D.

“You probably shouldn’t say that,” I said. “She’s Chinese, not Oriental.”

“What’s so bad about Oriental? I’ve always said Oriental. Like someone from the Orient. Like Oriental salad!”

My mother and her friends teamed up against me.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s so wrong with Oriental?” asked my own mother.

I explained the different of Oriental and Occidental, and how the term Oriental comes from a European perspective and gives off the aura of “the other” and exoticism.

No one understood what the hell I was talking about.

“Just don’t say it! They don’t like it!” I shouted, giving up.

A few days ago, I came back from this rally in Union Square. The women were playing mahjong. I showed them a few of the photos I took, including one of a protester holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.”

“I don’t get what this means — Black Lives Matter? Don’t ALL lives matter?”

I went to the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in order to give me time to think about my answer. What was the best way to talk to a group of eighty-year-old Jewish women about this subject?

I had an idea.  I returned to the living room.

“Remember when you were kids, everyone said “Merry Christmas” to each other?”

I figured this was a good way to draw them in, with an analogy.

“We didn’t say Merry Christmas to each other,” said Louise, my mother’s friend.

“Yes, that’s because you’re Jewish,” I replied.   “But the average American said Merry Christmas. People felt like it was a Christian country, so they just said Merry Christmas. This is the equivalant of saying White Lives Matter, but it’s more like Christmas Matters. Or Christian Holidays Matter.”

Now, everyone just looked confused.

“Hear me out. But as time went by, Americans wanted to include everyone in the holiday spirit, particuilarly their Jewish friends, so they started saying Happy Holidays. This is like saying All Holidays Matters — Christmas, Hanukkah, whatever.

“And what’s so wrong about that? Saying Happy Holidays?” said my mother. “You just made the argument for saying All Lives Matter.”

“Well, yes, but we all know that deep in our hearts, All Holidays Matter is really about Christmas, with Hanukkah and the other holidays sitting in the back row. It’s still Christian Holidays Matters in disguise. So someone who really celebrates Hanukkah might not want to be a mere appendage, but wants Hanukkah to be celebrated as worthy of it’s own meaning. So someone might say, “I never liked when you just said Merry Christmas, because it excluded me, and I did appreciate that you started to say Happy Holidays, but we both know that I was never an equal part under that All Holidays Flag, so now I just want to hear Happy Hanukkah so you are acknowledging that my holiday has meaning in itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with saying Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, but sometimes you just want to hear Happy Hannukah. And it is the same with saying Black Lives Matter. It’s a matter of giving respect.”

And I think I won them over. Either that or they just wanted to go back to their game.

Understanding my Privilege

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I took this photo of some man sweltering in the New York City heatwave, and when I looked at it later, I suddenly understood the concept of “privilege.”

I know this will make no sense to you right now.  But it was an “aha” moment for myself, brought upon by all the discussion about the Zimmerman trial in Florida, and what his acquittal tells us about America.

I’m privileged as a straight, white male — because I’m born as “the norm.”  I could have been a perfect home run if I was also born as a “Christian.”  You would think being born privileged in America is good, and we would want to proudly announce it to the world, but in today’s culture, no one wants to admit that they were given a head start in the race to the finish line.  So, we tend to avoid the conversation.

But as a “Citizen of the Month,” [see blog title], I believe it is important to acknowledge my privilege, because if I don’t, I can’t even begin to understand the struggles of my fellow citizens who weren’t born into the norm.   I have an important role in making things better for everyone, since I am the one with the advantages.

Now, let’s go back to the photo of this man.  He is in a wheelchair.  He looks miserable. Perhaps he is even hit hard times.  He is still a privileged straight white male.

That was the aha moment.

Just imagine how the scenario and context of the photo would change if he were a black man sitting on the street like this.  Would we assume a certain life history that would be different because of his race?   All things aren’t equal.

This man is privileged.  That does not mean he is lucky.  Or even happy.  If I told you that this straight white man was born a multi-millionaire, lost it all to a drug addiction, and is now homeless, would you lose all empathy for him because of his privilege?  Of course not.

A privileged person can have a life of tragedy through illness, broken relationships, bad luck, or plain stupidity.  A non-privileged person can go to one of our nation’s top private university and become President of the United States.  Individuals rise and fall despite of their privilege and lack of privilege for many reasons — psychological, economic, good looks, parental guidance, experience with bullying in school, and even a natural ability to juggle.  This doesn’t change the fact of privilege.

The concept of privilege is a sociological one, and revolves around issues of group identity and social biases.    This does not take away from free will or just plain luck.  A black man could have a life of ease, and be born of wealthy parents, and still lack the privilege of the white man of going to the supermarket wearing a hoodie.

That is what we are talking about.  Not the ups and downs of life that everyone, privileged or not, will have to deal with over their lifetime.

Thinking of this issue as two separate entities  — privilege and free will — makes it easier for me to accept my privilege as a straight white male.  I was born with advantages.    On the other hand, the world is not an academic exercise in sociology.   Life will always be a game of high stakes poker, no matter what cards you are dealt.   Accepting your privilege just means that you believe in making sure the card game of American life as run as fairly as possible for all.   It cannot predict the outcome of every individual’s hand.

Last post:  Owning my Racism

Owning My Racism

In ten days, thousands of bloggers, mostly smart and saavy women, will be heading into the beautiful city of Chicago for the annual BlogHer conference.

Another fun fact: Chicago is also the murder capitol of the nation.

In fact, at the same time as BlogHer, there will be another conference in town — an important emergency national summit on urban violence at Chicago State University, led by the Congressional Black Caucus.

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The Sheraton, the BlogHer host hotel, has a special conference rate of $199 a night. Before I found roommates, I searched the Internet for less expensive alternatives. I discovered a good deal at a chain hotel a train-ride away. I DM-ed one of my friends in Chicago to ask about this hotel.

“You know anything about it?” I asked.

“Oh, you don’t want to go there. It’s in a very bad neighborhood.”

A very bad neighborhood. Chicago. I bet you are having the same images in your mind that I do — liquor stores, pawn shops, Fried Chicken places, unemployed men, gangs, and mostly black faces. And gun violence.

Poor. Black. Crime. Violence. Fear. The words easily come together in urban America.

“Better you stay at the Sheraton,” said my friend. “Why tempt fate?”

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What does this have to do with the Trayvon Martin shooting or the George Zimmerman trial in Florida?

Nothing. But everything. I live in America. I am part of the problem.

Black-White Issues Jump the Shark

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Recently, there was a lot of arguing going on at Los Angeles talk radio stations about a crime in Long Beach, CA that happened last October, where a gang of thirty youths severely beat three girls. One girl was so battered that she had multiple fractures and required surgery to reposition one of her eyes. The gang consisted of black boys and girls. The victims were all white. The victims were tormented about their “whiteness,” so when the perpetrators were caught, they were charged with an additional hate crime. This caused a big turmoil as some questioned whether blacks could ever be charged with a hate crime against whites. As one commenter in the Huffington Post recently said after an article on this subject:

The fact is that black people in the U.S. represent a distinct minority with a unique history of having been brought here as slaves, against their will. They cannot “pass” into the majority population because of skin color. And they continue to be the objects of constant and often violent racism directed at them by the majority. They are also, in large numbers, segregated into separate housing, schools, places of work, and jobs within any particular business.

Is it fair to say that a violent act against a black person, motivated by race, is equal to a violent act against a white person, motivated by race? No, actually, it’s not at all fair. There is a long history of majority white violence against black people in this country publicly represented by the Klan, but privately supported by millions of white citizens. The effect of that racism is to continue to brutally enforce patterns of racism and segregation.

These three women were beaten to a pulp because they were white. Hate crime laws are on the books. So, what gives? For some, ideological distinctions are more important than justice. Isn’t it time to move to a new level in racial relations where the aim is to protect anyone from being victimized? If we want to have “hate crime” laws, we should at least use them to help all victims. Of course, as in many of these racially-tinged trials, the biggest losers were the three victims. The defendants were given amazingly light sentences.

Four of nine black teenagers convicted in the racially charged beating of three white women on Halloween were sentenced to probation Friday.

Punishment could have ranged up to confinement in a California Youth Authority lockup until age 25. The teens were ordered to serve 250 hours of community service, 60 days house arrest, and take anger management and racial tolerance programs.

Some saw this as a victory for the African-American community. And why is that? The fact remains that these three girls were beaten up by a gang of young criminals, and scarred for life, both emotionally and physically. The criminals will just go back to their community and continue to terrorize innocent people in their own community.

Until college, I attended public school in Queens. I received a pretty good education, mostly because I was shoved into special advanced classes. Sadly, much of the school lived on in chaos. As in any large urban school, there were gangs of kids who would steal your lunch money or worse. In my school, these kids were mostly black. Now that I’m far away in suburban Redondo Beach, it’s easy to remember these poor youths as underprivileged, but at the time, when you heard the term “F**k you, whitey,” you just wondered if you could run as fast as the “Six Million Dollar Man.”

Still, even in the middle of these crime sprees, I never visualized it as a black vs. white issue. These bad kids were black mostly because the school had a large black population of students. There were plenty of smart black kids in our advanced class, and they were picked on as much as the white kids, if not more. In fact, after school, my Jewish friends and I walked one way home, to the “better” neighborhood, while my black friends walked in the same direction as the thugs, getting beaten up twice as badly.

To me, the issue at my junior high school was the same as it was in Long Beach — a criminal element acting against innocents. End of story. I’m sorry, but forty years after Martin Luther King, race issues are beginning to jump the shark for me. Can’t we move onto talking about race in a new way?

Today, I read an article asking another very important racial question — Is Barack Obama black enough?

There are degrees of black political cred in America. Those whose ancestors lived through the harrowing years of slavery, might well take the view that a guy like Obama with a Kenyan father and a white mother hasn’t “lived” the black American experience the hard way.

As far as his professional path is concerned, Obama hasn’t risen through the ranks by taking the route well traveled by many prominent African American leaders. No service as a pastor or as an activist in the NAACP. Some in the black community see him as too fresh, too fast and too slick. A graduate of Harvard who made his own running. A guy with a foot in the white camp.

Am I supposed to care? How black SHOULD he be? This is another example of race-related talk that just seems out-dated. Hey, I grew up in Queens (birthplace of Run DMC). I went to a public school with a large black population.  I’ve been to a rap concert AND, once upon a time, owned an album by the Commodores.  If you really want street cred — I’m more black than Barack Obama.  But that doesn’t make me a better candidate?

When are we going to grow up?

The Racist Cabbie

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The movie Crash showed us all that racism is still very much alive and well in America.  Last night, on a hard-hitting Primetime, journalist John Quinones went one step further, exploring many important issues, including racism, in a show titled, "What Would You Do?"

In one segment titled "Dealing with a Racist Cabbie," a secret camera crew filmed passengers as they enter a taxi driven by a racist cab driver.  As the driver spewed his racist hatred, what would be the reaction of the various passengers?

"Are we all driven by prejudice and fear?  Do we all harbor racist thoughts?

Say you’re riding in a taxi and the driver starts a racist tirade — denigrating blacks, Arabs, Jews, Asians, or Hispanics. Would you argue with him, tell him to shut up and let you out, or just keep quiet? Or would you maybe even join in?"

To paraphrase John Quinones before the show cut to the commercial for erectile dysfunction:  "We were about to learn… "

Now I know many of you have already emailed me about this show, but in case you missed it — I was one of the passengers.   Some suggested that I didn’t combat the driver’s racism as strongly as I should have.  I will not apologize for what I said.  You all know that I am not a racist.  Imagine yourself in my position, alone in the cab with a talkative driver —

Here is the transcript:

Neil enters the cab.

"59th and Lexington, please."

"Sure thing.  You in town for a convention?"

"No, just visiting.  I’m meeting some of my blogging friends."

"Yeah?  You’re a blogger?  You know any Asian bloggers?"

"A few.  Why?"

"It’s just… Asians are the worst drivers.  I was wondering what type of bloggers they are?"

"This isn’t being recorded or anything?"

"Nah, nah, nah."

"So, I can be open with you?"

"Sure thing."

"Asians are as bad blogging as they are driving.  Especially those Koreans.  I don’t care if Jackie Chan is Korean.  They come to this country and think they can blog like everyone else."

"I hear you, buddy.  At least there aren’t any black bloggers."

"Unfortunately, there are.   Tons of them.   I don’t even understand half the stuff they write.  It’s always about rap music and big butts.  Sometimes, they don’t even tell you that they’re black and you’re reading them every day until they publish a photo of themselves and it’s like, "Holy shit, that motherfucker is as black as my leather jacket.""

"Holy shit is right.  They should make you post a photo so you can see who the blogger really is."

"Maybe it would work for the blacks, but what about the Jews.  Nowadays, Jews don’t even look like Jews anymore, with all that kabbalah crap going on."

"Oh, man, don’t get me started on those Jews."

"The Jews suck, man.  And I should know.  I’m Jewish myself.   You want a pain in the ass for the rest of your life, you marry a Jewish woman.  "Neilochka, fix my computer.  Neilochka, I bought you new pants.  Neilochka, eat my borscht."  They’ll drive you so crazy, you’ll want to hit your head on the mezzuzah!" 

"Man, oh Manischewitz.  Hey, tell me.  Is it true that Jews control all the money in the world and run the entertainment, medical, and legal fields?"

"Yes.  They’d run the blogging world, too — but they ain’t stupid.  There’s no money in it!"

"So, who runs the blogging world?"

"Who do you think? — the Pakistanis!"

The cab suddenly pulls over to the curb.

"Hey — why are you stopping the car?"

A camera crew approaches, along with John Quinones.

"Hello, I’m John Quinones of ABC’s Primetime and we’re conducting a experiment to see how people respond to a racist cabbie."

"What are you — a fucking Puerto Rican?" 

"You realize that this is being recorded and will be watched by millions of Americans…?"

"It will?  www.citizenofthemonth.com!  Come one, come all — even the Koreans!  I really do love Jackie Chan!"

Oh no, am I a Racist Blogger?

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Over the last few months, I’ve made quite a few mentions that I was "liberal" while Sophia was "conservative." 

Recently, a reader emailed me:

"You don’t seem very liberal.  You make fun of liberals, but I never hear you make fun of conservatives."

I thought about that, and my reader-friend is right.  For some reason, I find the craziness of the left more amusing that the insanity of the right.   Maybe that’s why there are so many entertaining conservative talk shows, while leftist talk shows are a snooze.  For all their good intentions, many liberals, myself included, are neurotic nuts, particularly in matters of race and ethnicity. 

I might be wrong, but I always thought Dr. King’s vision was of an America where everyone treated each other equally.  In an odd way, I think Sophia is the perfect role model for this vision. 

Recently, we were driving on the San Diego Freeway, when a car cut us off so abruptly – we almost collided. 

Sophia flashed her lights at the car and screamed out, "Asshole!." 

"Don’t say that," I said.

"Why not?  He is a f***ing asshole."

Exactly… why not? 

Sophia looked at me, knowingly.  She knew.  She knew my wimpy, liberal, guilty, condescending face very well. 

You see, the driver was an African-American.

Maybe I didn’t think about it consciously, but inside, my mind was blabbing on with all sorts of liberal mind games:

"He’s a black guy.  Maybe he came from a broken family.  Maybe he’s had it tough growing up in Compton.  Maybe he got beat up by the LAPD.   Maybe as a teenager in the hood, he was ostracized by his friends when they found a George Michael CD in his car."

Of course, it didn’t occur to me to look at the reality of the situation.   We were driving a Hyundai.  He was driving a Lexus.   It’s quite possible that this guy grew up in Beverly Hills.  He did cut us off.  He was an asshole. 

Would I have worried so much if this guy was white?  Would I happily have called this guy the "asshole" he really was?   I thought back to everything I read about the meaning of liberal in the 1960s and 70s.  Wasn’t the original point supposed to be that we fuck each other (in a pleasurable way) and become one huge happy human family?   Today, it seems as though liberals are the ones always bringing up race and keeping everyone apart.  Why not take a page from the conservative book and think of everyone as an individual first?

I bring this up, because in the last two weeks, I’ve picked up a whole bunch of new readers.   Many of them came from new friends who are black and Asian.  At first, I didn’t even think about this.  I mean, in the blogging world, who really thinks about what anyone else looks like?  That’s what makes online friendships so cool.  All that cultural stuff disappears.  In fact, my real name could be Maria Gonzalez and you would never know the truth.

However, because I’ve been meeting so many new people,  I’ve decided to revamp my blogroll and organize it in a new way.  Look at it in the right sidebar — it’s a mess.   

But then last night, I had some trouble sleeping as I began thinking like a guilty liberal.

"I wonder if all my new readers are wondering why I haven’t put them on my blogroll.  Are they talking to each other?  Are they saying, "He certainly has quite a few "white folks" on his blogroll.  Why all of a sudden is there no room for African-Americans and Asians on the list?  Does his "citizenship" of the month really extend to all groups?  Or is he… a racist blogger?!  In fact, the only times he ever mentions blacks or Asians is when he talks about corrupt Nigerian bishops and his obsession with Chinese food."

In the crowd I interact with, there is nothing worse than being called a racist.  It is the worst insult possible, even lower that dissing a person’s mother.  I could not face the barista in my local Starbucks where I sometimes write my posts if he thought I was a racist blogger.

So, to all my new African-American and Asian friends, let me make it clear:

I love you. 

Be patient as I fix my blogroll.  I am not a racist blogger.   In fact, I look forward to flirting with women of all races on this blog. 

I’m going to try to learn from Sophia and not be afraid to treat you any better or worse just because of your race or ethncity.  In fact, that means I might actually call one of you an "asshole" very soon. 

But, understand, I will be saying that with LOVE.

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