Friday, November 20, 2009


i made a joke today on facebook today about an interaction with one of my students:

Kevin Still

had a white male student write on his homework: "Everyone is free to do what they want and to become what they want in America! The sky is the limit in the USA!" To which Kevin replied in the margins, "Who's been feeding you Sugar Puffed Bullcrap O's for breakfast?"

the question this student was to answer asked: How would you describe American culture today? when i originally gave the assignment, i asked the students to write their answer as a letter to a non-american. previously, i had experienced this exact same awkward responsibility in china when groups of chinese students circled around me and asked, "what is america like?" they had only seen america in the movies. likewise, i had only seen america through the eyes of a caucasian male.

there's a good chance my sugar-puffed student sloughed off the homework. maybe he waited till the last minute and did not really want to engage the question. perhaps he thought i wouldn't really read his work, nor did he expect that i would challenge his response. whatever the situation, my student's response illustrates a pervasive caucasian and upper-class perspective about america. and, sadly, there's a good chance that this student - white, male, upper-middle class, christian - actually believes what he wrote.

* * * *

i grew up in smalltown south arkansas. not exactly a hotbed of gang warfare, but my hometown quivered like a pressure cooker of racial tension. i was taught not to trust black people. i was taught to appreciate them but not to closely befriend them. as you can see, from the places the blacks live, we should reach missions to them. and you can see from the way they dress and speak, we should fear them. and i did appreciate black people. and i did fear black people. and i did force my way into some distant intimacy with the few "close" black friends i made at el dorado high school.

* * * *

chemotherapy kills all the cells in the cancer patient's body. with no intelligence to distinguish good from bad cells, chemotherapy kills skin cells that regulates UV rays, as well as hair follicles. teenagers respond to baldness with decorative headpieces. i chose bandanas.

i was 14 years old, rail thin, and filled to the brim with strict racial mistrust. one day at a shopping mall near the children's hospital in little rock, at a mall that had recently made primetime news for gang violence, a young black man saddled up beside me in a music store and asked me what the navy blue bandana was about.

"nothing. i'm sick."

"well, sick boy," he said, pulling in close to my ear, "there's two niggas out in that hallway right now that will shoot your ass dead for wearing that rag, and they won't give a shit that you sick."

then he walked away. laughing. and he called over his shoulder as he left the store, "good luck, sick boy! hope you make it to the car!"

* * * *

you might think that i got the last laugh on my hometown, my own race-heavy stories, and my instructed mistrust by marrying a black woman, by spending major holidays with my black family, by simply growing up and leaving those tired old thought patterns behind me.

but i have not.

i still fear black people at times. i still expect the worst of other races - asian, latino, indian - in social situations. i find myself narrow-mindedly wondering when those people are going to get it together. when will they speak english? when will they assimilate? and my wife and i still have long, long, long conversations in the car about our families when we drive away from saint louis and austin.

as a white american man, i publicly confess that my heart is not fully healed or completely right, and i confess that on my best days my understanding of other races is as narrow as my student's sloughed off homework answer.

* * * *

latonya and i watched CRIPS AND BLOODS: MADE IN AMERICA this past wednesday. and while i'm not much for documentaries, this was definitely one of the best documentaries i've ever seen.

the title is misleading. this is not a film about gangs as much as an exploration of south central los angeles' effect on young black men. chronicling the urban structures set in place by governing white forces. as far back as the 1950s, the film suggests that california has clamped down more vicious racial segregation for the past six decades than the deep south ever did.

the film discusses the roots and causes for the 1965 watts riot, and then reveals the white government response. interviewed riot participants declare, "you stuck us in these brick streets. you imprisoned us in these old broken buildings. you guarded the streets and wouldn't let us leave. so now, we're throwing these bricks and buildings back at you."

gangs rose up in LA as a response to the ignored dilapidation of neighborhoods and businesses in urban areas. after the primary black speakers of the civil rights movement were either imprisoned or assassinated, during an age when white america was content to skyrocket forward in suburbs and skyrises, young black men and women were forced to form their own social movement systems, usually in the form of gangs. there was still a need to survive. to eat. to make money and fill the hours of the day. but the response of governing forces in los angeles was to rid the streets of the appearance of evil: a.k.a. black men.

like the 1965 watts riot, the 1992 LA riots ignited in response to white america once again stealing the upper-hand in the black community. with the same bottled rage built from generations of concrete imprisonment as their predecessors in watts, young black people used their own homes and neighborhoods as weapons against the white abiding forces. in the aftermath, government officials promised millions of dollars in renovation efforts, as well as urban rebuilding programs that offered jobs to men and women in the community. such optimism even brought rival gangs together in peace. however, as is the pattern with white-collar spin-doctors, the government pulled their money and resources into other areas of interests, once again leaving the community unemployed and disheartened. they even turned the young liberal media to something far more pressing than the plight of urban life:

tipper gore's supreme court battle against explicit song lyrics.

* * * *

consider the following scenarios:

- a recent study discovered that school aged children in south central los angeles display more symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome than children of the same age bracket in afghanistan.

- because rival gangs hold such a grip-lock on their neighborhoods and streets, it is possible for young urban men and women never to exit a five block radius of their homes for years. children growing up ten minutes from the ocean have never set foot on the beach due to the heavy hands surrounding them.

- women in these neighborhoods are feeling the full brunt of the violence as they realize, no matter how much they love their sons and grandsons, boys need men in their lives. with a vast chasm of men in the home, these young boys gravitate to the only men in the neighborhood they can find. and the women lose all voice and all authority in that child's life.

* * * *

beneath the quippy little one-liner i tossed at my student on his paper, i wrote:

"Seriously, you need to know that guys like me and you - middle-class white dudes in good health and with no criminal background history - have more privilege in this country than we will ever realize. Now, I am asking you, look at the question again, think about what you are being asked, and write a new answer."

there is a conversation worth having here. one that is difficult and, at times, awkward. i can't blame my student for his perspective. he's lived his whole life seeing one reality and not realizing that another very different reality exists even in his own hometown. but i want my students to see the dividing lines between people. i want them to see that what's happening in south central los angeles is an honest hyperbole for something that's happening in bryan, texas. and i think the best place to begin seeing these lines, to begin accepting these realities, is to admit that our own vantage point is skewed, and it's the reluctance to challenge our viewpoints that perpetuates the dividing lines between people in our own communities. what's happening in LA is happening everywhere in smaller degrees, and my response to this film needs to work itself outloud in larger degrees.

i give CRIPS AND BLOODS: MADE IN AMERICA 5 skiddish little cancer kids in the record store out of 5. this film is available on netflix as a "watch instantly" offering.


Tiffani R said...

Its too late for me to read the whole post in detail, but I just wanted to comment that I watched the documentary back in April or May of this year on PBS - and thought it was incredible and amazing.
I was taking a class on the social construction of race, and the professor told us about it.

I'm glad you challenged your student to reconsider his white privilege. Its possible that he would not have been pressed to consider it at any point had you not told him that his answer was shallow and inappropriate (in your kind way...). I wonder how you could even use the documentary in your class to start a discussion on privilege and geographical segregation and discrimination, etc. Would be very interesting.

Anyway, I like you Hamster. And I like Mrs. Hamster, too, and am pretty glad the Lord saw fit to put the two of you together. Loves!

the hamster said...

tiffani -

thanks for the kind words. i have also thought a great deal this week about how to use the film in my classes. i know that my student can't be blamed for his limited perspective. he's 19. he's seen very little of the country, let alone the world. and he's possibly been taught to believe exactly what he said on his homework. personally, i just think it's necessary to come along and bust those bubbles a bit, to say, "look around even this town, bro." white conservatives have built and shaped even this quiet little texas town, and the segregation is obvious. one could live years in this town and never see the dividing racial and economic lines. i want my students to see those lines, and i want them to question why those lines are there. i'm also very willing to say, "see, i have a long way to go in this as well," if that will help start the conversation. and it's a necessary conversation for many reasons. films like this are good places to start talking.

Leida said...

my friend, i dig that you're doing your part to shape young minds, including mine. i put this in my queue (yay, the netflix!) and look forward to having my mind blown. my bro and i have talked around and around this very issue, only from a black male vs black female perspective. social strictures and how they defined our experiences in this culture are very different, even so specifically as by our sex. i think of it all the time when i consider raising a black (or even bi-racial) man in this country.

love your brain,

Parkerchica said...

Dearest Hamster,

Thanks for recommending this movie. It's something Matt and I definitely need to see.

I have heard white priveledge described as a weightless backpack that we carry around. We don't know it's there, but others recognize it. I'm not exactly sure what I can do to change this, but I do know that I am starting to feel the weight of the pack. I heard a story today about an 18 year old boy who liked to speed, tried to outrun the cops, and ended up dead-ending into a lake. Evidently, the local judge is doing everything she can to help this kid avoid jail time. He is white, from a middle class family. I find it hard to believe the same effort would be made on the behalf of a black kid from a rough neighborhood. I really don't like the way that feels...

We have learned many things about the world and about ourselves since our daughter Mariah joined our family. We have realized that most of the people we meet who claim they "don't see color" are white people. They don't see color because the color of their skin has only worked to their advantage. They have not been eyed suspiciously at a convenience store. They have not been stopped by a policeman simply for driving a nice car. The list goes on...and today, we are at a loss concerning how to explain this to our Mariah and to our other children.

Looking forward to watching the documentary.

Parkerchica said...

Okay, so it's a year and a half later, and I have finally watched this movie tonight. I'm so glad you reviewed it. As a mom, the most heartbreaking scene for me was when all those mothers who had lost their sons just stared at the camera, tears rolling down their cheeks as their children's names and ages were listed. This is a community of people who have not been treated like people at all.