Looking for a Way beyond Distraction

By Imagining America | May 05, 2015

lautry2By La Tanya S. Autry, PAGE Co-director

My mind and heart has been heavy these days- now Baltimore. Watching the events that lead to the uprising and the media representations of the protestors is immobilizing. But actually I’ve been in this state for some time. Since mid-February I’ve started and stopped writing about racism, denial, and state-sanctioned violence many times. I’ve considered various formats; but nothing seemed right or enough. An incident at a #BlackLivesMatter art history teach-in that I led entitled “Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in Visual Culture” sparked this standstill. After about 40 minutes of our 60 minute session, a young woman told me that racism doesn’t exist. Her comment stunned me. A series of thoughts flooded my mind: Was she in some way making an argument that race doesn’t exist, yet has social realities? Why is she here at a session that includes the word racism in the title? Is she here to disrupt? Is she just ignorant? What’s happening?

The session attendee, who acknowledged that at 22 years of age she was probably the youngest person in the room, conceded that racism may have been an issue in the past. However, according to her, it is no longer a problem. Instead Ferguson was about class and gender. She found my mention of the beating of Rodney King in 1991 irrelevant. That was in the past. Despite the title of the session, she asked why we weren’t addressing the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. At the time I countered her position with questions and tried to listen respectfully to her responses. While I didn’t agree with her, I sought to find some value in the interchange. There are probably many other people who feel as she does. Even so, after a short time I quickly moved on to emphasizing the importance of addressing the institutionalization of racism. I didn’t want to waste the remaining time trying to prove that racism exists. That wasn’t the objective of the workshop and we had such a small amount of time to do critical work.

Detail of fountain at National Center of Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia, July 2014. Photo by author.

Detail of fountain at National Center of Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia, July 2014. Photo by author.

This crack in the session remains with me. It compels me to think hard about best ways to discuss and teach this tough topic. It also pushes me to reassess racism. I believe I rightly focused on institutionalization. Yet I realize that I had made certain assumptions about the knowledge and perspectives of the participants. In one 60 minute session it’s difficult to complete a thorough analysis of people’s viewpoints on such a complex issue. But I think I should have included some an exercise or discussion about race and racism. The difficulty is something to highlight, not ignore.

About a month later, differing interpretations of racism hit me once again. While participating in the March 18th #museumsrespondtoferguson TweetChat, a monthly online discussion on Twitter that addresses the role of race in museum settings, I made a differentiation about the source of racism. I identified some racism as stemming from ignorance. One of the chat participants gently pushed back at that comment as she noted that she typically thinks all racism stems from ignorance. I emphasized that racism often involves hate. At this point in the forum, I didn’t think it was appropriate to detail how my studies of lynching violence in the U.S. have informed my understanding of racism. After a few remarks I left this issue. But the moment froze in my mind. Once again, toward the tail end of a discussion, I became aware of the lack of communication between group members about a key aspect of an activity.

Recently I’ve come across a couple of incisive statements that are helping me bridge these fissures. Imani Perry’s words ring true to me: “Racism is not ignorance, it is the most sophisticated, slippery, elusive ideology since the creation of gender.”* This position, also restricted to the 140 character limit of Twitter, is far more definitive than my brief reference to hate. Perry recenters my attention to the dangerous character of this belief structure; it’s often invisible. Also Toni Morrison classifies racism as a form of ideology as she indicates how it drains vitality from oppressed people who become entrenched in the impossible task of disproving it to the oppressor.

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so your spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. – Toni Morrison, “A Humanist View,” 1975 speech at Portland State University

By reading the entire speech, it’s apparent that she finds racism a deceptive strategy that people use to maintain or seize economic control. Unlike the claim that racism doesn’t exist, Morrison recognizes it while also locating it as implicated in a larger sociopolitical problem. She urges people to shun reacting to racism: “Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place.” I understand the sentiment. However, at this juncture I’m unsure how to reconcile it with anti-racism pedagogy and activism. I could interpret this stage as an impasse. But there’s movement here. The words of Perry and Morrison encourage me to learn more about racism and anti-racism methods. They also charge me to review my activist work as an educator, museum curator, and citizen. This process is helping me get beyond the numbing effect. Though I’ve saved the quotes on my computer, I may emblazon them across my door to remind myself of the fortitude and vigilance needed to tackle distraction so I can do my work- increase my understanding of the human condition and contribute to the betterment of society.

* Imani Perry, @imaniperry, scholar of law, culture, and race (March 29, 2015 tweet on Twitter)