How could I not buy this? 26 bucks on Ebay! I love things that are representative of something sick and wrong. The present really ain’t so bad, when you find things like this to remind you how truly shitty things could be back in the olden days.
The sign basically says “The door is that way”, except that’s not what it says at all. What it means to say is, “Your door is over there, filthy nigger.” Or, alternatively, “Nonono! Thar be black people there!” It’s not the words that are significant, it’s the meaning. There are a lot of deeply rooted, nasty things conveyed by this sign that have nothing to do with the words written on it. There’s nothing shameful about a sign that says “You must be this tall to ride…” There is no sinister subtext that suggests dwarves, or children are lesser people.
It completely blows me away that just a few years before I was born, it was perfectly acceptable to think of black people as subhuman. I don’t think of my parents as racist people, I don’t think I ever heard them make a comment to me as a child that I would consider racist, or in any way betrayed racist tendencies. I know my grandparents have though. I don’t really understand how they could grow up in an environment where this kind of thing was the norm, and not feel like something was terribly wrong. I don’t understand how they could have accepted this. I would like to think that had I been in such a position, I’d be horrified at the thought of black people being forced to the back of the bus, or being sequestered in a different portion of the restaurant. I don’t understand how America(Fuck Yeah!) of all places, not only allowed this to happen, but actively encouraged it, and aggressively resisted the notion of equality for everyone(and often still does.) We like to think of ourselves as champions for freedom and justice throughout the world. It’s easy to rail against injustice when it’s somewhere else. It’s very easy to point fingers at someone else doing wrong. It’s much harder to point the finger at yourself. Black units fought in WWII, it’s just that they were black units, and were generally treated poorly in comparison to their not black counterparts. Liberate Europe, but heavens no, not the negros! The parallels between the civil rights struggles of the past, and those of the present are obvious. Replace “gay marriage” with “interracial marriage” and the argument in opposition is essentially identical, and equally ridiculous.
All this segregation stuff happened before I was born, so I don’t really feel like I share any responsibility for it. I don’t feel like a racist, but if I’m being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I still think of black people differently on some level. It’s not that I think less of them, it’s that I fear that they think less of me. I am all too aware that I represent the category of people who systematically abused their category of people, and sometimes still does. Cops don’t beat white people like they beat Rodney King. In Los Angeles, they beat people like that all the time, but not white people. Driving While Black is not an imaginary phenomenon. I’m all too aware of the unconscionable injustice of it all.
When I encounter a new black person, which happens quite often(EEK! They’re everywhere!), a part of me is subconsciously afraid that they will be suspicious of my motives. I’m slightly more self conscious. I feel as if I might be inspected with a suspicious eye for indicators of racist beliefs. I feel a little bit uncomfortable if I even acknowledge someone’s “blackness” in a conversation. It’s as if I’m alluding to something that shouldn’t matter, but we both know sometimes does. I feel a teeny twinge of discomfort when I say it. I want it to be as meaningless as mentioning someone’s hair color, while tacitly acknowledging the hidden undercurrent that unfortunately exists, doing it in a manner that conveys my contempt for said undercurrents, proceeding to feeling ridiculous for even giving a shit about it at all. There’s that little hitch in there where it all happens. It’s over in a flash, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It’s not that we really think of ourselves as fundamentally different, we’re just in different, yet completely arbitrary categories, separated by a whole lot of bad history that neither one of us really wants to talk about. I sort of feel between between two generations. It’s far enough away that I don’t at all feel responsible for it, but close enough that I still feel a little creeped out by the fact that people really still believe that shit, and worry that I could accidentally be mistaken for one of them.
What kind of guilt do my parents/grandparents feel? How could they sit near(or not so near) a black person, and not feel shame for all the occasions where they silently, but knowingly participated in a travesty of justice. While you sit in the front of the bus, how do you not feel shame while you bear silent witness to the people being shuttled into the back, where the white folks won’t have to be reminded of their presence. That’s the answer though. You put them behind you, and you keep staring forward. If you don’t see them, you don’t have to confront the fact that you’re a part of it too. I really do wonder how people in my parent’s/grandparents generation feel about this, but it’s just not something you talk about openly, or honestly. It’s one of those things you talk around. It’s always discussed obliquely, as if it were a piece of history, a part of someone else’s life, not your own, carefully scrubbed of any first-person references.
I kind of understand where it comes from, in a general sense. People classify themselves and others. Evolutionarily, our ability to categorize the world around us is an advantage. We seek out things in our environment that are somehow different, or stand out, and we point them out to call attention to them. It doesn’t stop at objects though, it gets applied to people too. Similar people are Us. Different people are Them. Neighbors, and nations both clash over property lines, religions, resources, or any other reason they can think of. Neighbors can hate, or fear each other for their superficial differences, just like nations. People inherently compete against other people. We constantly frame things in Us vs. Them contexts on all levels. We *search* for ways to define people as same, or different, Us, or Them. When I’m white, and you’re black, it’s automatic to begin thinking of us as different. It’s not better, or worse, it’s just Not Same. It’s a completely arbitrary, and utterly meaningless distinction. We default to noticing the differences that are obvious, not the differences that are meaningful. Tens of thousands of years ago, the differences that were obvious were also the differences that were meaningful. Now we’re like, civilized and shit. The differences that are meaningful aren’t so obvious, but the old tendencies still exist, sometimes to our detriment.
I feel like I have to acknowledge that being black makes someone’s experience in the world different, because it *is* different and there’s no reason it should be. In acknowledging it, I secretly fear being associated with it. By not acknowledging it, I’d feel like I’m hiding from it, refusing to confront the ugly truth. I don’t know how to resolve that conflict other than by laughing at the ridiculousness of the ugly truth.