Wednesday, December 7, 2022
HomeOpinionOp Ed: Regular: To Go -- Untangling Racism: The Gordian Knot

Op Ed: Regular: To Go — Untangling Racism: The Gordian Knot

This is a new column, “Regular: To Go” similar to Musings from a Millennial, from the west end of Higganum out by the Lake. A long time writer for HK-Now and other online publications, this resident will cover a wide range of topics, whatever is on her radar. The views stated here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of this newspaper. 

By Deb Thomas.

An old Greek legend tells of a poor peasant named Gordius, and his wife, who went into ancient Phrygia one day in an ox-cart. Good luck for Gordo; an oracle foretold the people that their future king would come into town riding in an ox-cart. After Gordius was named King, he offered his ox-cart to Zeus in thanks. However, he tied it up in an intricate knot. Another oracle had advised the people that whoever untied this knot, the “Gordian Knot,” would rule all of Asia. No one could do it; not until Alexander the Great came along and sliced it open with his sword. That’s the story, more or less

A while back, I posted a photo in social media I found while randomly searching the internet—it was an eye catching image. I was looking for definitions of racism. A brief conversation ensued with a friend, where she posed the thought, “I actually hope we can reach a point when humans are not fearful of other humans simply because of the color of their skin. I think at the root of racism is fear, and that fear is responded to with violence.” I replied that I agreed. However, I believe at the root of racism is a fear so pervasive in American society – it will need deep dissection; and even deeper understanding. Even then there will be a resistance. The knot is tangled.

Since then, I’ve been mired in an internal discussion about racism and, trying to figure out how to write about and define it. On the surface, I know we form our opinions on the backs of our families first, and then from the people around us—our environment—-our peers; so we learn as we are taught. That explains some of the reasoning why we think the way we do. But where did that come from? What is racism? Were the early humans racists? Racism has not always been the topic of the day; yet we just had a Peaceful Protest about racism on Higganum Green. Why is racism still prevalent after all this time? Didn’t we fight a Civil War to end slavery? I don’t believe in discrimination; how can I be a racist? Don’t we have laws to prevent discrimination based on creed, color, or religion? Racism is something that happens in big cities, right?

No; racism is here, in our news; globally and in our country and our town. Whatever you’ve learned from history, it’s time for a deeper examination. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary defines racism as:

1a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2aa doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles

ba political or social system founded on racism

3racial prejudice or discrimination

Racism is all around us; some of it is blatant. Some exists in secret and not so secret ways under the radar of law. De facto segregation and discrimination join forces in redlining and gerrymandering. I have read that in order to combat racism, communities need to examine their policies on every subject that governs our daily lives. It is profoundly difficult to understand all the ways in which racism is deeply ingrained and carried out in our present society. In order to change, leaders need to be open to discussion and ready to openly comprehend racism, but to confront racism in education, housing, and all public services. In addition, leaders must recognize racial bullying and aggression and eradicate it at once at the highest level.

I was moved by a story I read a long while ago in The Atlantic Magazine (June, 2014) by Ta-Nehisi Coates, titled, “The Case for Reparations.” He writes, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” At the time, I was also reading, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (by Ann Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank, writers from The Hartford Courant), and I found both to be mind-expanding powerhouses of untold information about the earliest racism in our country; slavery and the North’s participation in perpetuating it.

In his article, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about housing problems post Emancipation, and after the great northerly migration. In suburban Chicago under the shadow of Jim Crow activities, the separate but unequal opportunities in education, and the legacy of discrimination endured long after slavery. “Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ’Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

Of my contacts in social media, I can see that as much as the Black Lives Matter movement energizes some with a call to action, there are others who are bothered by this. The only word I can think of is “bother,” because from what I read, some people perceive the movement of unequal treatment under the law – as an old, tired issue. “Haven’t we hashed this out before?” was a question I read in a New York Times editorial recently. Then, from a relative, I read, “That Aunt Jemima was a well-paid actress.” From friends in town I gleaned that, displaying of a Confederate Flag is just a “harmless, group identity thing.” With all the opportunities for enlightenment – I am wondering why some people are unconcerned or perceive the question of racism to be settled. It could be, as one of my childhood friends espoused, that some people like things “the way they were.” He’d also written that “things were better before.” I don’t know what he was alluding to, other than what seems obvious to me; that talking about Black Lives Matter, and the subject of racism—is uncomfortable. It is as if the Black Lives Matter movement seems too much to bear; it brings up a wellspring of questions that we have not confronted, and now it’s flooded the field. We have put off hard decisions and issues. Thinking and talking about social injustices to others is difficult; it is difficult and uncomfortable. It is overdue; and it is only a start. Real change is what’s needed.

My casual observation how the BLM movement is affecting society stems out of a curiosity about human nature; I have a background in psychology. My understanding of news articles across the spectrum of conservative and progressive—Democrat and Republican social media, is that there is small undercurrent feeling —which I came across while reading, that things have gone too far. That this progressive issue —has somehow come undone and, the peaceful protests and marches are somehow, an over-correction. See? The safety of how things “used to be,” is easier to deal with. To that, I say, no; things have not gone too far, we must change and it can begin with you.

It cannot be easy to be a black person in our society right now. Yet, at no other time in the past four hundred years since the Mayflower’s arrival, have so many confronted racism. The history of Blacks in America is painful to explain, yet, nationwide, we are talking about what is going on; George Floyd’s death, the ensuing protests, and big issues of police and power. Talking about and talking to and most important, I believe—listening to —others’ stories who have been wronged and discriminated against are necessary in order to bring about social changes, as difficult as they are, if you seek positive changes, as I do. I have learned a great deal from writing this; even as broad-minded, sensitive, and careful as I think I’ve been. I’ve learned there are ways we can all get involved to move forward. The basic ways we relate to one another whatever our ethnicity —is one way to enhance our understanding of each other and effect change. To start, we can be aware of microaggressions.

Derald Wing Sue, author of a 2010 book titled, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, and professor of Psychology at Columbia University’s graduate school of education, equates the term microaggression as a “covert form[s] of racism,” (from Sarah Hamson’s article in The Globe and Mail, July 8, 2016). He defines microaggression as:

“…the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” A few examples for a classroom and applicable to all of us are:

“Using inappropriate humor in class that degrades students from different groups. Expressing racially charged political opinions in class assuming that the targets of those opinions do not exist in class. Using the term ‘illegals’ to reference undocumented students. Hosting debates in class that place students from groups who may represent a minority opinion in class in a difficult position. Singling students out in class because of their backgrounds. Expecting students of any particular group to ‘represent’ the perspectives of others of their race, gender, etc. in class discussions or debates. Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories. (I have copied only a few as taken from, a University of Denver position paper titled: Microaggressions in the Classroom, by former students: Joel Portman, Tuyen Trisa Bui and Javier Ogaz; and Dr Jesús Treviño, former Associate Provost for Multicultural Excellence.)”

Bringing racism into the open for conversation is a knotted puzzle. I have a difficult time trying to comprehend why some people are resistant to changing behavior and learning how to be not only smarter, but also kinder; I don’t think I have it figured out. That is the subject of my exploration in future columns, along with the definition and history of race. Additionally, I’ll attach and build a kind of lexicon of words that may help your understanding. I will keep posing questions while attempting to untangle the complex Gordian Knot of racism, and how we got here.

“The work of love, peace and justice will always be necessary until their realism and their imperative takes hold of our imagination, crowds out any dream of hatred or revenge, and fills up our existence with their power.”  John Lewis (from his book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, 2018).

For further reading:

  1. “Racism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism. Accessed 24 Jul. 2020.
  2. Sarah Hampson. (July 8, 2006). “Derald Wing Sue on Microaggression, The Implicit Racism Minorities Endure.” The Globe and Mail. The article may be found on line at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/derald-wing-sue-on-microaggressions-racism/article30821500/
  1. Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. has published a position paper with his work on microaggression at: https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/microaggressions_by_derald_wing_sue_ph.d._.pdf
  2. The University of Denver – Center for Multicultural Excellence at: http://otl.du.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/MicroAggressionsInClassroom-DUCME.pdf
  3. Ta-Nahesi Coates. (June, 2014). “The Case for Reparations—Two hundred fifty years of slavery.” The Atlantic. The entire on line article may be found at:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

  1. Farrow, Ann, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. New York, Ballantine Books, 2006. (First published in magazine format in The Hartford Courant, 2005.)

Deb lives on a backroad in Higganum and works daily on the Great American Thriller/Mystery Novel. People’s stories interest her, along with a great cup of coffee. She has written for local news publications for over 30 years.

 

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