By Vickie Wilcher
Once again, like so many times before, we’ve hit a fever pitch in our discussion about race and racism in America. Passions are running high on all sides of the issues around race. Media outlets are all over the various angels for their stories and how they’ll attempt to persuade us that their views are the right ones. But we’ve been down this road before. In fact, we’ve passed this way so many times before that it’s as if we’re so accustomed to it that we welcome it—on some strange level it’s as though we embrace the adrenalin rush, and then spent, we crash, landing right back in our lazy, painful, but comfortable collective malaise.
Donald Sterling made clearly racist remarks that offended black and white people alike. But why– Why did he make such comments? And why did we respond the way we did? As for the former, it may very well be that Sterling, an old White guy, sugar daddy to a much younger woman, simply could not handle seeing his young mistress interacting with younger Black men—his jealousy overwhelmed him, ignited his racist tendencies and so, filled with rage and the demoralizing reality that he could never compete with any of the younger men on certain levels, he threw the only cards he had—the power and the race card. Unfortunately for him, we heard his rant and our learned hypocrisy overwhelmed us. We engaged in the cycle of immediate and temporary response with regard to race and racism in this country. We hit the default button: immediate outcry, then back to business as usual.
Regarding why so many people responded to Sterling’s remarks the way they did; I would argue that to some extent, we responded to him with such shock and vitriol because it was easy and it was in line with the way we’ve been socialized to respond to anything that might reveal the truth about what this country really is and that might reveal its blood stained history. Simply put, we held Sterling out to dry because if we hadn’t we’d have had to admit to the racism that is, was and always has been very much a part of the very fabric of this country’s soul. By chopping Sterling up, we could go on pretending that we’re a “post-racial” society in which racism simply doesn’t exist. But those of us who will dare to be honest know that that’s a lie.
It’s important to note though that this is not the first, nor the only, lie that keeps us locked in this never ending cycle of race based hate. Collectively, as a society, we’ve been lying to ourselves and the world since our inception. Recall, if you will that America is the nation that held herself out to be the “land of the free” whilst she enslaved and brutalized thousands of men, women and children. Despite our deeply troubled past, we are continually presented with opportunities to rise to meet our better selves and to create a culture in which there is equality for all people (at least in terms of human rights); no matter their race, gender, age, socio-economic status and so on. These opportunities present themselves everyday, all day in our daily lives. They happen between the Donald Sterling, Travon Martin and Rodney King moments.
It’s in those moments of everyday interaction that we are given the chance to love, respect and care for one another that racism, and all the other “isms” for that matter, can be eased, if not completely obliterated. If, for example, the likes of the Donald Sterlings and George Zimmermans of the world saw Black people showing more love and respect for themselves and one another, it might be harder for them to behave in ways that are disrespectful and harmful to Blacks. An example of this point can be found in a lesson that women of a certain age were surely taught. Back in the day great emphasis was placed on making sure that young ladies weren’t “fast.” Many parents and grandparents drilled into their daughters’ very psyches that they would loose all respect if they dared to have sex before marriage or they were at least all grown up. Young ladies had to respect themselves in order to demand and command any degree of respect from others. The same principle is applicable here. Black people will need to fix the intra-group racism that men like Donald Sterling and George Zimmerman are modeling one some level, and using as excuse on another. To clarify: it may be that Sterling and Zimmerman look at the Black community and simply say, “they don’t care about or respect one another, why should we.”
To clarify, I am not a Donald Sterling sympathizer with respect to his apparent history of racism. Nor is it my intent to offer any of those who have perpetrated crimes against the Black American community a pass or excuse for their actions. I do wish however to be complete about my use of the word, “any” when I refer to those who would do the Black community harm. This means not shying away from acknowledging the fact that the Black community itself must assume some of the fault for having created the environments that produced the Donald Sterlings and the George Zimmermans of the world. To that point, back in the day the prevailing thought about Black men was that all a “nigger” wanted was a white woman and a Cadillac;” today one visual of the “successful” Black man is just that—he has a White woman and a fancy car of some sort; suggesting then that little was done to address/correct the prevailing thought. In my on experience its been Black people who have worked the hardest to destroy me and I have seen, not unlike many others, one Black person after another actively and aggressively work to hurt other Blacks for the pettiest of reasons. Taken together, these points would surely suggest to the onlooker that Blacks are indeed a group that has little concern about itself, its true history, its legacy or, and perhaps most importantly, its proliferation. The natural response to such an assumption would likely be for the onlooker to adopt a similar attitude of non-caring.
In addition to the elders who back in the day tried so hard to impress upon young black girls (and boys) the need for self respect (and so self-love), there are any number of pop psychologist and new age spiritual gurus who will tell us today that until we love and respect ourselves, we cannot love and respect anyone else; nor can we expect love and respect from anyone else. With that, it seems obvious that some of the work that must be done in the Black community (and to another extent, in the American community at-large) will be rooted in deconstructing the negative images many Blacks have of themselves and other Blacks; and then replacing those images with more positive and loving ones. Fortunately, it stands to reason that just as we can construct one way of thinking, we can construct another. That is to say that if concepts such as hate, self-hate and racism can be taught, then so too can ideas like love, respect and unity be taught, learned and executed. But for the latter to occur, we, Blacks and Whites alike, will have to step away from our denial. We will need to acknowledge the truths of our past and work to correct the errors of those times.
It is more than likely that it will be only through this work that we can create a society where there are at least fewer Donald Sterlings. In truth, we can indeed lessen the number of racists in the world, but we must first face that fact that there are and always have been racists, misogynist, ageist, and any number of groups of every race and creed who carry out their prejudices against others every day. Turning away from that truth, much like the people, basketball players included, turned away from the racist antics of Donald Sterling, is as much a problem as the racism itself. Because in truth it’s the denial, the lie, that nurtures and grows the problem.