The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Black as Evil

Watching "Spiderman 3" with my son. It's the one with the evil black Spiderman suit. He's already absorbed that message, I kid you not. On Scooby-Do yesterday, the "black horse" was evil, and in countless other books, comic books, television shows, is evil. The darkness of his mother's skin is...EVIL. Now, obviously this can be counter-acted. But consider that if you have 100 units of energy in your life, you've just expended 1 or 2 of them countering an endless social barrage of images. No, I don't think this is "racist." It's perceptual, dealing with the fact that human beings are not nocturnal, that the darkness genuinely did and does represent a threat to our poor senses. Europeans who had never seen or heard of Africans had this wired into their language and mythologies. Nothing personal. But in the race of life, it's just another in an endless series of handicaps to bear. This isn't a universal human perception, but it's common enough: white=good/beautiful. Black=evil/ugly. I've watched it all my life, and watching Jason picking it up irritates the shit out of me.
White as the "Norm"

There's another, more insidious advantage to being white: it is the norm, and not even really perceived as such. Over on, there is a commentary on the upcoming "I Am Legend" adaptation starring Will Smith, containing some very subtle racism:

"The character of Robert Neville is not a muscular, exercising, black microbiologist. Robert Neville is a broken down, middle aged, functional alcoholic who is grossly out of step with society at large."
Anyone catch it? The problem is that the "true" Neville's race is not mentioned in this quote. It is simply ASSUMED that a person is white, unless otherwise mentioned. I see this every day, and have, my entire life. Starting when I was a kid, with "flesh colored" bandages and crayons. Whose flesh? Human? Then...what was I? What in the living hell was I, if not human? Want to know how I set out on the road of personal discovery, of seeking some sense of identity that did not rely on things of this world, or intellect, or religion, or psychology? There it was. And I KNOW it was no "advantage" to have been subjected to this pressure...because of the ten or so kids who grew up around me subjected to the same pressures, all but maybe three of them are broken or dead. Why did I survive? I'm not certain, but I really have had unthinking people try to tell me that this shit was "good for me" somehow. Many Jews who survived the Concentration Camps have become extremely spiritual and powerful people. No one would be idiot enough to suggest the Camps were "good" for them.
Don't you dare go there.


libero said...

dalla lontana ? italia?

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Of the 7 or so close friends I had as a teenager, the two successes are me and a guy who ended up working at a gas station. One of the friends who died was black, another was asian and gay, another was Mexican, and the remainder were white like me.

It's poverty. To the degree that racism and the legacy of racism keeps blacks in poverty, it's racism, sure -- but black kids growing up in healthy, successful households are not like the black kids growing up in South Central (or in Pomona, where I grew up.)

And sure -- surviving bad times makes you strong, but except in rare, rare cases, not as strong as having been whole your entire life to begin with. It took me well over 20 years to get shut of some of the self-destructive habits I picked up as a teenager ... I think I am shut of them today, but I'm constantly on watch to see I don't backslide. This is strength? Of course it's not; this is weakness, managed, and maybe a little piece of wisdom about what's driving me.

Steve Perry said...

The majority always fucks over the minority, as you've pointed out. A few years from now, when a lot more folks in the US are tea-colored, maybe things will be better.

Of course, true parity comes when other things are equal -- opportunity, income, schooling, housing. Even band-aids. Color coordination needs some green ...

Oh, and last time I looked, T was a lovely shade of brown, not black. Just as I am closer to a pinkish tan than white.

Steven Barnes said...

Lovely indeed. I referred to the cultural implication that darkness is evil and dangerous, lightness good and safe. I loved the line in the original (not that recent abortion) "Shaft" where the police officer holds up a pen to Richard Roundtree and says "you ain't all that black" to which Shaft holds up a coffee cup to the officer and says 'and you ain't that white, baby." Loved that movie, for all its flaws.

Mike R said...

> It is simply ASSUMED that a person is white, unless otherwise mentioned.<

In America, statistically speaking that's not that unreasonable an assumption to make - a little less than assuming that someone is right -handed instead of left-handed. Don't you assume that people are right-handed unless stated otherwise? Now mind you, due to the history of race relations in the US there is all sorts of baggage attached to that assumption than there is about assuming someone is right-handed, but the assumption itself has a pretty good statistical chance of being true.

Question: If you were in South Africa would you find it unreasonable to assume that someone is a Black African unless stated otherwise?

>Want to know how I set out on the road of personal discovery, of seeking some sense of identity that did not rely on things of this world, or intellect, or religion, or psychology? There it was. And I KNOW it was no "advantage" to have been subjected to this pressure...because of the ten or so kids who grew up around me subjected to the same pressures, all but maybe three of them are broken or dead.<

It's entirely possible for an event to be of benefit to one individual in a group while that event was simultaneously being an absolutely disastrous for a group as a whole.

Look at it this way: There are large numbers of people who blow their paychecks on playing the lotto. That is a stupid activity and the group would be better off if they didn't do it. But eventually one of them wins the lotto - does that mean it was no longer a destructive activity? No, it simply means that that one person got lucky. It helped that one individual while being destructive to the group - no contradiction. People aren't groups. They are people.

> Why did I survive? I'm not certain, but I really have had unthinking people try to tell me that this shit was "good for me" somehow.<

Eh. That's a value judgment so I'm not going to go there, but you just said that the reason YOU (you, not your community as a whole, but YOU) started on your journey was because of the shit you went through. Remove the shit and do you still have the motivation to "wake-up"?

Maybe. Perhaps you're genetically predisposed for leading the type of life you're living and would do the same in a world where your environment was radically different.

But maybe not. Most people don't do well at all three points of the body-mind-relationship triangle after all. Maybe you needed not just genes, but the right environment (or the right environment and the right genes). Maybe you needed everything to fall into place _just_ right, and if a single "power-ball" had come up a seven instead of an eight, you would have taken a different path.

Here's a key point - you know all those advantages that White people have? Even with them, by my standards and probably by yours, the average white Americans has not done as much with their life as you have done with yours.

So what's the difference between you and the average white guy who hasn't done much with his life(You, not whatever group you choose to identify with, but you)? Personally I think it's because you're not average - both in genetic and environment terms. If I had to guess I'd say that you've got some smart genes, and some really good emotional intelligence genes, but that your specific environment (Mom pumping you full of self-help books, a society that kept telling you something you knew not to be true) pushed you to grow up _really_ early and look at the world in such a way that it lead you to reject dogma and really examine the world without as many filters and blinders as the average person has.

Maybe in a world where a *Steve never encountered any racism he would be a big shot screenwriter with half a dozen blockbusters under his belt - and four messy divorces. Or a coke habit. Or a horrible body. Because that Steve never had to wake up.

Or not. Maybe he'd just be Super-Steve! With everything in the world going his way and no big problems or worries! (Know many people like that?)

But no matter what, he wouldn't be Steve. He'd be someone else with the same name and genetics, but a different person.

_This_ reality, the reality in which you underwent racism, is the only reality in which you could or can exist.

Is that Good? Is that Bad? It just is.

Steve Perry said...

Cultural observations of light/dark, good/bad go way back, to before there was much culture. Humans are largely diurnal and tropical. Naked, we do good on warm veldts and in trees on a warm sunny day' not in the snow or in the water after Apollo parks the chariot.

In the day, you can see the predator coming, and maybe get up the tree in time; at night, the big cat or the snake or whatever else that decides you might make a good dinner can sneak right up on you.

Sunshine was safer than darkness. The day, however dangerous it might have been, was safer for great apes who depended more on sight than on sound or scent than the night. 85% of the sensory detail we take in about the world comes in through the eyes, and they are designed for tropical daylight.

Me, I think that's the basis for the whole light/dark, white/black thing. Everything that happens in the day isn't good, nor everything at night isn't evil, but at a very deep instinctual level, that's how the lizard brain sorts it out.

Tribalism puts everybody outside the local group into the be-careful category, and the less they look like your cousin, the more careful people tend to be.

Lot of folks are still afraid of the dark. As above, so below.

Steven Barnes said...

I'm agreeing with this stuff. I agree that the dark/light thing is basically perceptual. I know that I HAD to find answers because of my environment, but believe I would have sought them anyway--because it was my nature and/or basic programming. Without my mom...I don't know, I really don't. I know I dropped out of college because I was afraid of contracting my teachers' perceived failure attitudes. Knowing myself now, there was nothing to worry about. Had I not had those early pains, I think I'd be happier, healthier, and even more successful. But I could be wrong.

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