Notes from the Fishbowl | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Notes from the Fishbowl

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Managing Editor Ronni Mott

Last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time debating the meaning of a post-election column written by Northside Sun newspaper publisher Wyatt Emmerich. It sucked up energy that I should have used working on other stories but, ultimately, it helped crystallize some concepts bouncing around in my brain.

I won't use this space to rehash the entire debate. Y'all can read it for yourself on our website. To summarize, Emmerich's column began with the premise that the resurgence of people talking about race during and after Jackson's hotly contested mayoral elections is not a good thing. He then spent considerable ink arguing that the way white northside Jacksonians voted had nothing to do with race. Those voters didn't vote for Chokwe Lumumba because they don't like his ideology, not because of his race, Emmerich argued.

I pulled a statement about who was "blacker" out of the column for last week's stinker quote--a statement that brought howls of disbelief from the JFP editorial staff and a few others--and dashed off a short rebuttal, complete with a regrettable bit of snark, and referenced a nauseatingly racist column Emmerich gave a prize to nine years ago. Since then, Emmerich and the JFP (OK, mostly me) have written an eBook's worth of words debating racism.

At the time I write this column, no winner has emerged, but winning isn't the point for me.

When I moved to Mississippi in 1997, a friend from D.C. asked me if Mississippians were really as racist as she'd heard. I gave it some thought, and my conclusion seems as salient today as it was 16 years ago. Racism, I told her, may not be more prevalent here than in the nation's capital, but it's covert. This is a place where queries of what church I go to and where "my people" are from can be cover for unsubtle probes to determine where I stood on the question of African American equality. "Democrat," for some folks, was code for "black," as in, "South Jackson is full of 'Democrats,' you know, so you probably don't want to live there." The word "Democrats" often came out in a low whisper, as if the word wasn't fit for polite company. Sometimes it came complete with air quotes.

Experiences like that were a wake-up call, but for a while, I kept hitting the snooze button. Sixteen years ago, my equality concerns centered on my struggle to make inroads in a paternalistic and misogynistic society. I didn't see the color of anyone's skin as a problem in that conversation. (I've learned since that it is.) I was shocked at how entrenched racism was in Mississippi, but I didn't delve into that particular morass except behind closed doors with a few carefully chosen individuals. I was comfortable ensconced behind the gates of white privilege, and tsk-tsking was the extent of my activism on the subject of race.

Things began to change when I started learning about the real history and ongoing struggle for racial equality in America, as contrasted with the benign pabulum I'd been spoon fed in school. Gradually, I confronted the reality that I didn't have a clue. Back then, I was convinced that if only we whites gave black people enough help, they could take our hands to climb out of their myriad holes. I lived in a world where those who couldn't make it really weren't trying.

I had no conscious thoughts defining that point of view. Like a goldfish in a dirty fishbowl, I didn't see the scummy water I swam in. I couldn't see that there was anything else.

My parents spent their formative years under the iron fist of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Similar to growing up black in the Old South, for Jews and many other ethnic and social minorities, Hitler's empire was an equally violent and oppressive society. My family isn't Jewish. In many ways, they were like southern whites: able to see the destruction and inhumanity of racism, but without "skin" in the game.

I didn't see their biases until I brought my Jewish boyfriend home for Christmas dinner. Jews were still the "other," when it came to their little girl. The tension was far too dense for a knife to cut. The bigotry they grew up with, despite intellectualizing its inherent injustice, still informed their attitudes.

It's an insidious aspect of intolerance: We're mostly blind to our own prejudices even when others' are obvious. The hard slog to see my own bias isn't comfortable. I've learned to look mine in the eye, but someone has to lay it out incontrovertibly, and that can be brutal. When I see a prejudice I've been operating from, I always feel like an idiot at how obvious it was, but as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know. Put all your knowledge in a Venn diagram: The right circle is the stuff you know, and the left is the stuff you don't know. The intersection is the stuff you're learning. Surrounding it all are the things you don't even know that you don't know.

Racism can be in that space; so can white privilege and the phenomenon of white "saviourhood." Bias is the cloudy water in the fishbowl to the goldfish. It's like the humid southern air we breathe--invisible. Waking up to our biases is like popping the red pill--suddenly, the matrix is everywhere.

When someone who grew up as a privileged white man in the South says that race doesn't matter any more and that it doesn't color his actions, I suspect he's a lot like that goldfish: He's blind to the water he's swimming in every day. It's not his fault, of course. If horseflies could talk, they'd surely wonder why I object to the smell of the excrement they live on.

Here's the thing: We have to keep talking about race and gender and every other type of inequality and injustice we force on each other, because whatever pain we inflict on others, it begins in our own hearts. When we ignorantly play out our invisible points of view, we never allow "others" to achieve equality with us. We have to gain knowledge of the destructive ideas we don't even know we hold, and we have to be brave enough to call them out once we see them.

For us white folk, it's a fool's game to separate race from Chokwe Lumumba's ideology. It's fully informed by a lifetime spent fighting for equality, but that doesn't make it bad, wrong or scary. Walk toward it to understand. Don't shy away. Equality isn't a zero-sum game.

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