Dear Dr. Carson: I can’t “move beyond” my skin and hair

bencarsondebate

Dear Dr. Ben Carson,

I was rooting for you in the GOP debate. I was annoyed with the first question they asked you (though you answered it better than I had expected). I was indignant when minutes had passed and you hadn’t had the opportunity to speak. I liked your idea of a proportional tax (Though I cringed a little when you likened it to tithing). I was chomping at the bit for them to give you a civil rights type of question because I just knew that you would knock it out of the park.

I was depending on you, Dr. Carson. I was depending on you to come through for me for and other voters who are like me: Black, Christian, moderate, and not married to any political party or candidate.

When they gave you the question about the race relations, I thought, “Here’s our moment. Come through, Dr. Ben.”

Republicans are blind to many of the issues in the black community. What issues they are able to perceive are often viewed through a veil of whiteness and patriarchy. Republicans are deaf to what the black community is saying. What little they do hear is misunderstood and approached with a defensive, superior attitude.

As a black woman, I feel that I have no voice within this party for my issues and the issues of my community. Instead, I’m told what’s wrong with my community (and me by extension). I hear/read statements by those who claim to represent the Republican Rarty about the black community that are at best tone deaf and are often racially and culturally insensitive. Of course, the Republican Party isn’t racist because they are the party of Lincoln hallelujah and pass the ammunition.

When Megyn Kelly asked you about race relations, I was waiting for a well thought out commentary on one of the major social issues of our day. I was waiting for you to take everyone there to college and to Sunday School. I had my funeral home fan with Dr. Martin Luther King printed on it at the ready.

You had a moment, and in that moment, you had the chance to educate White America. You had the chance to bring this issue into the living room of 24 million Americans. You had the chance to do so with the backdrop of a political campaign and not a riot and burning businesses.

Not everything that you said was wrong or off base: I agree that we do need to take care not to make every single incident between people of differing races about race. I do agree that we are all the same at the core of our beings. Those are points I wouldn’t have made, but I see where your audience needed/wanted to hear those things.

I waited with bated breath for the moment when you would say something that would get people thinking and would help them understand what’s happening in our country. Instead, you said the most asinine, tone deaf thing that could have been said:

The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Dr. Carson, my skin and my hair aren’t something that I need to “move beyond.” My skin and hair are part of who I am. Rather than “moving beyond” it, we need to have an honest conversation in this country as to why those things are so problematic that we have to pretend to not notice them in the first place.

It’s interesting to me that you said skin and hair. Skin color and hair texture are two of the most consistently defining features of African Americans. Our skin and hair are two areas of our physical appearance that are often viewed as the least desirable. Our skin color and hair also makes us the subject of all kinds of profiling.

Whether or not you intended to, by singling out skin and hair, you coded what you said for black people. Really, everything that you said seemed to be directed at black people. We’re often the so-called “purveyors of hatred” who bring racial issues to the forefront. We’re the ones for which skin and hair are tied to our identity.

What you said about race has given every hardheaded, “colorblind,” racially insensitive person what they need to feel like they can shout me (and other people of color) down when I bring up issues of racial equality and justice. In my work, I’ve been trying VERY hard to educate people about my culture and about why we (black people) emphasize our culture so much. What you’ve said, I feel, has set activists like me who try hard to educate the white community back.

Now you’re being held up as the ‘model Negro’ who is the template for the black view of race relations. This is extremely problematic because, as much as you want to deny it, African Americans are a distinct culture in America. We do have distinct issues as a community. Saying that we should move beyond it (which is a fancy way of saying don’t talk about it) doesn’t make those issues go away.

Perhaps you are oblivious to the stigma that comes with race issues and the problems that come with discussing them. People like me have to deal with all manner of BS as we try to bring attention to issues within the black community and when we try to educate non-blacks about race relations from our perspective. We’re shouted down. We’re accused of being divisive. Some of us (not me fortunately) are even threatened with violence.

I understand that your response isn’t the totality of your views on the matter. I understand the pressure you’re under and how the forum that you were in might have shaped your response. I understand that you only had a minute to respond.

But…

That minute, that forum, the complexity of your views are no reason to essentially throw voters like me under the bus to get points and applause from everyone else. I was hoping for something…anything…that would indicate that you were different from everyone else in your party.

You gave me nothing to work with, Dr. Carson. This fact makes me sad.

Still deciding who to vote for,

The Armchair Commentary

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6 thoughts on “Dear Dr. Carson: I can’t “move beyond” my skin and hair

  1. With my comment I am not trying to change you or convince you of anything but rather in the spirit of you wanting to educate non-black Americans, I want to understand the ultimate aims of your critical position on Dr. Carson’s advocacy of colorblindness. Is there any end state or goal that would leave you contented with the relationship with non-black Americans? If I too reject Dr. Carson’s proposed view and stereotype non-blacks based strictly on their level of whiteness, is that what you want? Where do non-blacks fit with your position?

    When you say White America, who makes up this group? Do country of origin or genetics play a part or is it strictly appearance? Does time in the United States matter? Are families that go back generations beyond the Civil War different from families like my own that arrived since 1900 or since 1970? With so many mixed families, do you ever get into difficulties where part of a nuclear family is White America and part is not based on the appearance criteria?

    I fail to see how things will ever get better with no perceptible end goal and only a superficial criteria used to differentiate us, one that inescapably places guilt and burden on individuals outside any action on their part, forever unable to change the course of how they are perceived (making the assumption here that not every single non-black is racist or encourages/continues racism).

    Whereas with the criteria offered by Dr. Carson I can see a path forward where we can ultimately end up on the same side, while still acknowledging the problems that exist right now and with our own unique personal and group cultures kept intact, fighting injustice wherever it lurks. To me he is helping to give us a goal that is achievable. To me he is not blatantly ignoring the injustices of the now, which it seems you perceive him to be hand waving away and ignoring and maybe that is one of the differences between us here where I can understand better. Dr. Carson is a black-skinned man who grew up with American experiences that surely included racial and racist conditions, and I will be hard-pressed to be convinced that he would want to encourage racism against blacks through ignorance and inaction because of what he said about where we could go when interacting with each other. I appreciate any nuggets of wisdom you can provide and hope you receive this message in the inquiring and knowledge-seeking way it was written.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I started to make my second response, and I realized that I didn’t address one of your questions.

      8) With so many mixed families, do you ever get into difficulties where part of a nuclear family is White America and part is not based on the appearance criteria?

      My husband, daughter, and I constitute a multi racial family. My husband is white. He is almost exclusively mostly of German and Swiss descent.

      Our daughter is still quite young, so her appearance is still settling in. We will teach her what we know of family history from both sides and we will pass down my culture. My husband is of German/Swiss descent. His family assimilated into general American culture, so there isn’t really anything tangible to pass from that culture.

      Mixing presents it’s own unique issues. Those issues are usually related to how the offspring born of such unions identify in terms of race/ethnicity. It is important for the parents to instill a healthy sense of identity in the children and teach them about the unique challenges they will face as a family.

      As far as my husband and I go, I recognize that he will never be black and I’ll never be white. We are from the same small town in Missouri, went to the same high school, and had similar experiences growing up. We went to the same college. For all of the similarities and all of our uniqueness as individuals, there are things that are different about us because of our respective cultures. Those differences aren’t wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Welp, I kind of sucked at replying and my replies are out of order because I realized that I didn’t hit reply on your first comment. My first comment is a little farther down.

      As I mentioned in my first comment, there is a fundamental thing that I think you’re missing with this post, and I think that understanding that will hopefully clarify my position further:

      White America tends to view blackness in terms of skin color. Black people understand our blackness not only in terms of our skin color, but also in terms of our other physical features and our collective experience.

      Being black is so much more than what color your skin is. There is a set of cultural experiences that are common to pretty much everyone who identifies as black. Our skin and hair play a role in that identity.

      Dr. Carson’s admonition to “move past” skin color and hair is less problematic for white people than it is for black people.

      For white people there’s not really anything to “move past.” Your skin color, or the variations thereof are what is considered the default in this country. Your hair texture is what is considered the default. The collective American culture is based upon European culture/thought. So really, what’s being “moved past” is the existence of people of color in American society. What I mean by that is that the thing we’re being admonished to “move past” are the injustices that have been done to people of color.

      I don’t want to punish or penalize white people for the past any more than white people want to be punished or penalized. There is a point at which we have to reconcile the past with now. I think that part of that process is acknowledging the injustices of the past and dealing with the issues that the past has caused. There has been acknowledgement, and a little movement on fixing the crap storm slavery and the 100 years thereafter caused. But that goes way beyond making some laws. It goes to the changing of hearts and minds.

      Black people can ill afford to hold white people hostage and refuse to forgive for the injustices done to our people in the past. We HAVE to seek to heal from the wounds of our oppression. We have to forgive white people for the injustices that have been done to our people. As hard as it is to forgive, it’s for our good that we do. We have to recognize the effects of our oppression and seek an active remedy. We will be truly free as a people when we do that.

      For this to happen, we need for white people to stop re-injuring the same old wounds. We have to point out what is hurtful and why its hurtful so that white people can stop doing those things. One doesn’t have to actively be a racist to participate in racism. Dismantling racism means encouraging white solidarity while tearing down white supremacy. In other words: it’s ok for white people to be white, but it’s not ok for whiteness to lord over every-otherness. We’re all equal.

      Another thing that is problematic about Dr. Carson’s position is that “moving past” the issues doesn’t actually solve the problem because the problem is deeply rooted in our society. What he said plays more into what whites believe about race than what the reality is for black people.

      It’s easy for white people to move past something that they don’t have to deal with. White people are the majority of people in this nation. It’s easy to find and create spaces where there are only white people. Whiteness is the default in our society, which means that POC rarely present any challenge to that default unless POC actively seek to challenge it.

      In other words, white people don’t have to deal with race related issues. When they do have to deal with race related issues, it’s because POC are making them aware of it. When POC make white people aware of racial issues, they generally have to rely on white people to accept that it is an issue and rectify it.

      For black people, “moving past” means dealing with everything that stems from our history in this nation. We are a collective culture…the experiences of the one affects the many. Our history in this nation has created a huge wound that is emotional, spiritual, and psychological. We’re in a grief process. Sometimes that process feels perpetual. It’s not always as easy as waking up one day and deciding not to be affected by it.

      Without acknowledging these things, we can’t truly “move past” anything because the same old things are going to unstitch that same old wound.

      Furthermore, the idea “moving past” skin color and hair actually places unnecessary shame on those things. What I feel Dr. Carson is promoting (perhaps inadvertently) is the type of “colorblindness” that puts shame on recognizing ethnic, racial, and cultural differences which causes those in the majority culture to feel nervous about doing or saying the wrong thing and makes minorities feel like they have to give up part of themselves. I have met so many people who are afraid to acknowledge any kind of difference out of fear of offending. That’s uncomfortable for everyone involved.

      Colorblindness also centers the existence of racism on skin color and the perception thereof when racism actually takes on many forms with discrimination based purely on skin color being the most basic. Skin color is the front door of racism, everything goes through it, but it’s not the sum total of all racism is.

      Finally, as I mentioned in the body of my post, Dr. Carson’s call to “move past” skin and hair takes on a different meaning for me as a black woman than it does for a white person. I’ve mentioned several times already that skin and hair are a significant part of the black experience. Saying that it is something that I should move past is extremely problematic because it places shame on something that makes me who I am. My skin and my hair are part of my cultural identity which is also part of my larger sense of identity. It’s something that I don’t want people to be blind to.

      I think that instead of “moving past” skin color and hair as Dr. Carson proposed, the way that we truly end racism is for each of us to see the treasure that God placed in each one of us in every facet of us, including race and culture. What that looks like practically is for us to stop elevating certain cultures above other cultures and treating certain groups as inferior and stereotyping others in a way that is detrimental to them. It means eliminating institutional bias. It means allowing groups to have their own spaces where they can grow, process, and heal out of the gaze of others. It means allowing people to express as much or as little of their culture as they want without fear of retribution or being forced to assimilate.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jacob, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comment. I will try to answer your specific questions with this post, and then I’ll post a follow up comment that will hopefully clarify what I’m saying because there is one fundamental thing that I think you’re missing, but you’ve asked some good questions and so I want to deal with those.

    1) Is there any end state or goal that would leave you contented with the relationship with non-black Americans?

    One of my goals for race relations in America would be for people to see that while I’m 100% unashamedly an American, there is a cultural identity that I possess as a black American that is distinct from the majority culture. There is nothing inherently better or worse about my culture than any other subculture or the general American culture.

    America is a melting pot, and part of what makes America what it is is that we are a melding of different cultures and ideas. I think that’s great. We need that. I don’t think that to be American that we totally have to give up our respective cultures of origin completely. I’ll get to some more of my thoughts/history on that in a later question. My views can be summed up pretty well by this School House Rock episode called “The Great American Melting Pot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZQl6XBo64M

    2) If I too reject Dr. Carson’s proposed view and stereotype non-blacks based strictly on their level of whiteness, is that what you want?

    No. That’s where there is break down in the white/black dichotomy of our culture. Whiteness tends to view blackness in terms of skin color. Blackness views blackness in terms of identification.

    Blackness is not just shade of skin, it’s an experience. When we talk about our skin color, it is implied that we’re talking not only of our shade, but also about our experience because black people come in a huge variety of shades. In fact, there are black people who have your shade of skin! This is why Rachel Dolezal was able to ‘pass’ for black.

    Being black isn’t about genetic percentages. In fact, I know people who have two parents who identify as black and they themselves identify as black who possess less African DNA than people with only one parent who identifies as black.

    Skin color is most definitely part of the black experience. What shade you are or what shade your parents are (by your I mean black people) plays in to how one experiences blackness.

    So to answer your question more fully:

    No, I don’t want to be stereotyped (negatively) period. When you see my skin color and my hair, I want you to see/know that I am a person of African descent. By talking to me, you might be able to pick up that my family has been in the US for several generations and that I’m not a recent immigrant. For people from the continent of Africa and the African diaspora, there are some other considerations but I’ll get to that in another section.

    For now, lets say that you know that I’m African-American (which I am). In our regular, normal, everyday interaction with one another (pretending that we know one another), I don’t need for you to tell me that I’m black or treat me any differently than you would anyone else. However, as a member of a different culture than mine, I would expect you to be sensitive to the fact that there are some differences in our culture…and if you were a friend, I would think that it would be really cool if you asked me about my culture, just as I would want to know about your culture.

    Basically, I just want to be seen as a regular American with a unique cultural background and for my culture to be respected. Part of respecting my culture is also respecting my physical features because those are a huge part of my culture.

    3) Where do non-blacks fit with your position?

    I can only speak for my own experience. I cannot speak for people of other races/ethnicities. I feel like the members of those groups should have agency in deciding how and how much they want to assimilate into American culture.

    In my own interactions with other people of color (POC) and people of other cultures, I try to be respectful of them and try to understand their values as a culture. The key words for all is CULTURAL and RACIAL SENSITIVITY. Being sensitive doesn’t mean walking on eggshells, nor does it mean denigrating one’s own culture. It just means being aware that the things that make us different don’t have to divide us.

    4) When you say White America, who makes up this group?

    To me, White America is anyone who is of European (and Eastern Bloc/Russian/etc.) decent who isn’t a recent (first or second generation) immigrant and who doesn’t identify as a person of color (Rachel Doleful and her ilk excluded).

    Practically, it’s anyone who looks European and that has white(ish) skin. I’m basically using it as a catch-all term for those who fit the criteria above and for those who don’t appear to be other POC and who don’t identify as POC.

    5) Do country of origin or genetics play a part or is it strictly appearance?

    I tend to identify White America as those who are of European decent (or who are from the Eastern Bloc/Russia. Etc since that’s technically Asia). People from the Iberian Peninsula and from around the Mediterranean Sea could be considered POC based on appearances, but are mostly considered white in America. There was a time when Italians weren’t considered to be white, but with intermixing with other people of European decent and the adoption of the English Language by Italian Americans, they were able to slide in to whiteness.

    Historically, what has tended to constitute whiteness has been 1) Skin color 2) Speaking English 3) Not Jewish. There are some historical nuances and stuff that I’m not going to go in to.

    I know that this isn’t the scope of the question, but I wanted to address people from the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora for a moment.

    Blackness unites African Americans, Africans, and those from the African Diaspora. We have very, very similar experiences and there are a lot of similarities in the culture among these groups. With that said, there most definitely are cultural distinctions among blacks from those groups. People of African descent who are from the Continent and Diaspora share in the Black Experience in significant ways…so it’s not just limited to African Americans. But there are things that people from the Continent don’t necessarily understand about people from the Diaspora and vice versa.

    6) Does time in the United States matter?

    No. I think that time in the US determines if a person is American but isn’t a litmus test for whiteness or blackness.

    7) Are families that go back generations beyond the Civil War different from families like my own that arrived since 1900 or since 1970?

    In terms of their status as White America, no. Obviously, people who were here after the Civil War weren’t complicit in slavery, but within a generation or two of their arrival here, they were viewed as American/white and didn’t face the same issues that blacks and other POC did.

    Off topic, but germane to the subject at hand is that the role of slavery can’t be diminished in the building up of the color line. No other group was enslaved based on the color of their skin except black people. No other group was in slavery as consistently or as long as black people.

    The Chinese were treated horrendously, but they were never enslaved. The Irish were enslaved, but for a comparatively short period of time, and as America lost it’s British/French/Spanish roots, the Irish were able to slide in to whiteness.

    Native Americans were enslaved some, but they were also exterminated. That is a topic in and of itself and is a grave injustice.

    So a lot of the root of what I’m speaking to is what has been the fruit of slavery (and European Imperialism). Black people were subjugated. There were laws that determined who could be considered white (those laws were most prominent in the American South). Our skin color and physical features were mocked and were used to mark us as being subhuman. Such treatment caused black people to band together. We perpetuated what we could of our African Roots and cerated our own culture that references Africa but is uniquely American.

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