Is “Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford,” driving me against Iconoclasts?

A friend, and I do not use this word lightly…but it is important to note that, this friend is someone I have never met physically. Our friendship started on Facebook, and operates mostly on Facebook. I love him, and loathe him as much, sometimes. Which should tell you, he has great relevance to the human race, and the intellectual community; I do not dispense my time and friendship lightly!

But, this friend has repeatedly said [to me] that, if you do not agree with someone’s opinion or politics, especially the opinion of someone in the public, move on and choose another audience. If that person happens to be a news anchor or TV personality, switch channels. If it is a politician, stop listening to him/her. But, do not censor that person or sign petitions to have them removed from public space — TV, radio or political office, because you disagree with them.

I have vehemently opposed his opinion, and his insinuation that I signed petitions to censor anybody I disagree with. For one, I have never signed any petition against him, yet he spews plenty of nonsense, that personally and directly denigrates and hurts others.

I have said that, we cannot remain aloof to bigots, and giving bigotry room to flourish by conveniently switching our channels with a remote! Especially when the person(s) spreading bigotry has capacity to reach and influence a varied public opinion. Or when the views of such a person could be construed as “speaking for and representing the social group to which he/she belongs”. In fact it is not uncommon that, “unpopular” remarks made by a person of a given social group [say black or muslim], become selfishly co-opted by bigots [like the KKK or anti-muslim radicals] for their backlash against the social group [Blacks].

To make my thought process less cryptic, my friend and I have argued over whether people like Don Lemon, who often, spit [for lack of a kinder word] unpopular views against the black community, for which he is seen as representative —because he is black—should be censored from presenting on public television. I have signed a petition or two against Don Lemon, when his comments have come out insensitive toward black lives.

For instance, when a Black high school student in South Carolina was slammed to the floor by a police office called into a classroom to ‘restore order,” Don Demon hesitated to assign blame to the police, implicitly justifying the police officers aggressive reaction by saying,

“I don’t know.”
“It does look disturbing,” said the CNN anchor. “The part that is most disturbing to me is seeing her thrown around. As far as the desk going over, I don’t know if the desk fell over because she didn’t want to get up or if he pushed it over. I don’t know. I think there’s context to everything. I would like to see what happens before and I would like to see what happened afterwards… It does look horrible. It does look like there’s no excuse for what he’s doing to her, but again, we don’t know… This only show a small slice in time of what happened. I’d like to know more before passing judgment.”

While covering the intense street eruption in Ferguson coupled with police/military tear-gas and gunfire following Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Lemon’s remarks that, “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air,” were misplaced but not far from stereotypes of African American males as habitual drug users.

After the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Lemon ’cautioned’ black folks to “pull up their pants, finish school, stop using the “N” word, and stop having children out of wedlock.” Again, popular stereotypes thrown at black people, even though they can be attributed to any group or color in America. Moreover, Trayvon Martin, at the time of shooting was not depicted as “wearing saggy pants” or with “children out of wedlock.”

Donald Trump is another person I find repulsive, and have persistent objection to his hate speech, and would readily sign a petition against his 2016 presidential bid. He has unapologetically slurred anyone and any group of people he does not think highly of: called for “ID tag” for all muslims,” “accused Mexico of sending their criminals and rapists to America,’ and “accused China of stealing American jobs and ruining our economy.” And he continues on a spiteful roll, with ever-growing new targets!

I have no apologies for signing petitions, to take their bigotry out of the public realm. My goal is not to silence all their voices, but to ensure they “Do Harm” to others —nor use their power and platform to misinform, slander, hurt or destroy others, taken away from them. Sure, they are entitled to their opinion, just as much as we, who are opposed to them, will respond by expressing our disapproval in the “Courts of Public Opinion.” They can continue spewing their hate in other fora, just not as public personalities, whose livelihoods and existence is made possible by the viewing or listening public.

I do not believe in turning off the TV, switching to another TV channel or remaining silent, whenever I hear bigoted and misinformed commentary on any group of people, by those with powerful voices and platform. I do not believe, my friend suggests, that I should only speak out, when I am personally offended. I strongly believe that I am not an island, but a member of a shared humanity and shared human responsibility.

Here are some quotes to back me up:

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”Dante Alighieri
[Technically, I do not believe there’s a ’special hell,’ except the one each of us creates wherever, whenever!

Another,

“Never underestimate the power of small beginnings. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Chinese philosopher Laozi

This one is attributed to Dalai Lama XIV, ~
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Then,
“Small is beautiful,”
~ title of a collection of essays by British economist  E. F.  Schumacher, one of the very first books gifted to me in junior high, by brilliant mind in my family, who also happened to be an economist.

Or the African proverb ~ “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And of course, my favorite ~ “Karma is a Female Dog!” 

I am a communitarian. I am human and desire nothing but humane treatment and humane living. I cannot shut up in the face of human misery or humiliation.

Nelson Mandela seems to agree with me ~
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

So, I have openly cheered on “iconoclasts,” going after symbols of the racist past — statutes, flags or streets or books around the world, notably tearing down apartheid monuments in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in South Africa; and removing the Confederate flag from state buildings in Columbia, South Carolina and Danville, Virginia in the United States.

The Apartheid Must Fall spring,” galvanized students at South African universities to bring down or deface apartheid statutes and monuments around the country, in an attempt to erase the visible face of apartheid and colonialism from the country’s education system. “Cecil Must Fall,” brought down the statute of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, who was a controversial British colonial politician, businessman and mining investor in Southern Africa. Rhodes advocated for the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon race, claiming that humanity would be better served by having more of “the finest race” —white race—spread around the world. He is used to have used private military power to exterminate black Africans and sanctions aggressive land grabs from black people in Southern Africa.

Statutes of Queen Elizabeth outside the Port Elizabeth City Library, and King George VI at the University of KwaZulu-Natal were spray-painted. At the Boer war museum in Port Elizabeth, a Bronze British soldier was torn down from a horse, while statutes of former South African leaders Paul Krueger and Louis Botha were defaced in Pretoria and Cape Town, respectively.

Here in the United States, we witnessed the “Take It Down Summer,” calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from State capitols in southern States, because of its association with segregation, slavery and racism. The campaign brought down the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia, and at the Sutherlin Mansion lawn in Danville, Virginia. Big retailers Amazon.com Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc—pulled the confederate flag merchandise from their stores, and from their websites, following eBay, Google Inc, and Sears Holdings Corp.

Opponents of the Confederate Flag view it with as the perpetual legacy of slavery and racism of  Southern states, when the confederate state denied freedom and equal rights to black people. Proponents defend the Confederate Flag as their heritage —a symbol of valor, commitment and courage of those who fought for the confederacy, in the same vein as the United States Flag, and a bastion of “white supremacy”.

Moreover, Dylan Roof, who murdered nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME, a Historical Black Church in Charlotte, South Carolina, posted online pictures posing with the confederate flag, and blamed blacks for “stealing our [white people’s] women”.

Ironically though, state officials and political leaders in South Carolina justified and sold to their public “bring down the flag, as a negative economic cost to their state, not a moral obligation, similar to the abolition of colonialism or slavery, and apartheid in South Africa!

But the most recent controversy on Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, a campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes statute from Oriel College at the University of Oxford, got me re-thinking my “hail to the iconoclasts”!

Ntokozo Qwabe, a student at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom is spearheading this campaign, challenging Oxford to part with a racist maniac equivalent to Hitler, and save its reputation as an international center of intellectualism that attracts many black students from Africa. Historical Oxford, on the other hand, is opposed to the “moral call” to bring down Rhodes statute, because it would undermine the conservation of history. Attackers of Qwabe have called him a hypocrite, denouncing Rhodes statute, yet he is a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship for his studies at Oxford. Responding to calls to return the Rhodes scholarship, Qwabe has stated that Rhodes did not own the money, but robbed it from the black African peoples and their lands;

“Rhodes did not have a scholarship. It was never his money. All that he looted must absolutely be returned immediately…I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes. I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labour of my people which Rhodes pillaged and slaved.”

Let me clarify that, I do not condone all kinds of “iconoclasts”; like any human, I choose and pick my battles. I believe in the sanctity of each and everyone’s religious beliefs and practices. I do not support the caricature, defacing, devaluing or attack on religious, spiritual or cultural institutions and symbols — books, flags or statutes. While I do not identify with any organized religion, I am not offended by religious symbols erected in public, as long as they are not seek or applied to directly discomfort or harm me, as a social being.

I have taken exception to bigoted historical statutes, books and flags that hurt and discomfort my social existence, which have served supremacist aims, to oppress, denigrate and exterminate a people. When the call arises to correct historical injustices, such histories deserve to be challenged and most definitely defaced, if the disenfranchised see their continued grandstanding as giving power and credit to the oppressor.

The question becomes, where do we draw the line between “erasing history” and “correcting historical injustices”? Ntokozo Qwabe, argues that Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign does not seek to erase the history of Cecil Rhodes, but wants everyone to know his crimes. Quite interesting!

Similarly, I was taken back when I heard the Quaker Friends Central School, in Central Pennsylvania banned the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because, “Its use of the  <<N word>> made students uncomfortable”. The book will no longer be part of required reading for students of literature at the school because it was not “inclusive”. I am thinking, nor is religion inclusive!

I will come back to these two Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I must say that, I take exceptions to “revisionism of history”; that’s what makes a “good intellectual,” after all, self-contradiction [smile].

For instance, when in Uganda, government renamed streets and roads, from British names, given during British colonial occupation, to names of heroic Ugandans and Africans, I cheered on. The exercise was less out of spite, but assertion of “a new dawn of African leadership.”

Contrary, I am troubled that the Quakers are engaging in the usual [il]liberal attitude of sweeping under the rug, a troubled history, of white America and America’s racial relations, by denying the younger generation a chance to engage and interrogate in a topic, that discomforts but is very vital to forging in-roads to real social justice and racial harmony, a principle which the Quakers so loudly self-identify.

No doubt the Quakers, were one of the groups that so indefatigably participated in the struggle to free black people from slavery in America, and win their freedoms. But like many “liberal”/progressive movements and groups in America and around the world, their internal structures and programing do not always provide genuinely comfortable spaces for interrogating racism. Their “retreats” for young people which I once attended, present a facade of equality and harmony, but have a “deafening silence” and discomfort to in-group complex dynamics and life experiences. The talk about “racism” is presented as what “others” do, not an in-house concern.

Which reminds me a lot about, growing up in a former British colony. I read and learned plenty of European History, language, culture and geography, presented as the victors, saviors, and gallant fighters and humanitarians, who came to save the “Savages,” “primitives,” “child-like,” “diseased” and “impoverished” Black Africans. The African had no agency, not much history, celebratory, before the coming of “the white man”! About Europe and America, I knew all about the glitter and gold they are, but not the true face of racism, exploitation, extermination of the people who welcomed them into their lands, until I made physical contacts with their lands.

So, perhaps Rhodes Might Not Fall in Oxford, but the historical narration of Cecil Rhodes must be revised in curriculum teaching, campus tour, on the statute and all writings, to include his exploitations, racist land grabs, armed plunder and holding into captivity and servitude nations and peoples of Africa. Perhaps Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, should stay on the Quaker schools reading list, to teach young people about the true face of racism, when the legacy of white America did not consider black people as human or worthy of dignity.

Perhaps, letting these historical bigotry to stand in public are good opportunities for the human race to reflect and pat themselves on the back, “Look how far we’ve made it!” Unless, of course, we have not yet made it, and still stuck in sentiments of supremacy.

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Everyday, I have to understand Racism

Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs, a white married christian male shared his “coming of age with racism in America”, when he wrote, The Day That I Started to Understand Racism, inspired by his experience as an adoptive/foster parent (with his wife) of a black child.

“Our first weekend together we were on our way to a birthday party and had to stop to get a last minute addition to our gift. We had to stop at a store that was in a town not far from our own. That town had a long and well-known history of racism. So as we got out of the car to walk into the store, I began to run scenarios through my head. What might I do if someone in this store makes a racist remark to this boy that has been given to my care? Should I just ignore it as if the comments don’t matter? Surely I cannot let that be OK for my new son. Should I confront the racist jerk and tell them how ludicrous their comments are? I couldn’t imagine what I might say. Would I just respond with violence and stand up against injustice? That didn’t seem like a Christian response and no one likes to go to jail.(March 18, 2014, http://jeremiahgibbs.com/2014/03/18/the-day-that-i-started-to-understand-racism/. Accessed May 13, 2014)”

I can perfectly related to all these questions, even though I am neither white nor a parent of a white or multi-racial (white and black) child. I am a black woman of continental African origin, living in suburban America. I am a mother of an African American child of lighter skin color than myself, that he has sometimes thought of himself as white. Well, he is five-years old, and recently returned to America from living abroad where racism or race was not a fronted identity or discussion. He is just a lovely baby, an American baby, and since I have lived in America for most of my adult life, I consider myself an American.To my friends and family back in my country of origin I am an America, though not the same with my American friends here. In a way, this is a good and a bad: good because it gives me “a pass” with white friends (“You are not like those black people,” I have been told more than once). A bad because it allows me that uncomfortable pass, which I ride with, because I do not want to “disturb the status quo”. Partly, this is why I can relate to Dr. Gibbs’ story, most especially when I am running outdoors, and when I go around looking for work.

Let me tell you why running in my neighborhood revokes feelings of fear, anger and insecurity in me, similar to Dr. Gibbs’ experience. I love running and jogging in my neighborhood, through the trees and waters. I barely see anyone running in my neighborhood. Perhaps they do, but not at the time I go out at 8:30am, when many are either out for work or are on their way, during the week, or sleeping in over the weekend. My neighborhood has plenty of older retirees, who got tired of the back and forth vacation travel up here, and decided to settle for good. The neighborhood is within a ski mountainous zone, attracting plenty of winter sports and vacation in the mountains. There are, as well, middle-age couples who got tired of the bustle and hustle of city life in New York and New Jersey, and settled here with family. Many commute everyday to work in New York City and New Jersey. That group is for the most part open-minded to folks from all walks of life; in typical NYC experience. Then there are the “original settlers” or long-term residents, some who still have the confederate flag on their big trucks. That group scares me.

Generally, I run around my neighborhood with no incident of disrespect or attack on me. I run mostly along the roads/streets but without pedestrian walk/run platforms, most motorists politely move over to allow me running space. Sometimes, I get a High-5 or honk, and sometimes I catch a smile. Most often I do not make eye contact, in respect of the “societal taboo” against staring at people, but as well due to my inner “insecurities” of running in a predominantly white neighborhood. I fear offending anyone, if I am caught looking at her/him. True, I get the rude pushovers. I have been honked at rudely, literally ran off the tarmac, given a finger, and near spat at by a drive-by male in a passenger seat. I have also been intentionally hit with leftover foods. Please believe it! One Winter Sunday, while running back home on my last leg, a car slowed down while approaching me with two middle-aged white folks. They threw leftover foods out of their window targeted at me, and drove off. Fortunately, it missed me by a thread, but I did not survive a bruised ego. I cried running my last leg home, and I wished that I had recorded the registration plate, said something or chased the vehicle to the stoplight and told them off. Since my instinct is not to fight, especially when dealing with a people of ‘higher’ societal privilege, I let it burn. Still, it haunts me, and I cry again sometimes when I remember that incident. I ask myself similar questions like Dr. Gibbs, how can I let such evil acts flyby? But I did.

But there is another very vocal resident of in my neighborhood that repeatedly outwardly disapproves of my presence in the neighborhood – “Holy dogs”. That fact that white people’s dog generally hate and bark at black people is hidden in plain view. That these dogs generally do not like black males or look-a-like males is also an established truth, especially if you are walking or running in their neighborhood. And if like me, you have low cropped hair, typical of a male, I wonder if that is an additional disadvantage. It is so humiliating when dogs – small, large, old or puppies bark at me through their house windows, fences or chase after me from their yards when I am running on the main street, not on their property. I have been bitten by dogs, so I do not take “my dog is sweat, nice to us and our cats and eats from our plates” crap. I also believe that dogs are trained and socialized to respond differently to different people. Most white people’s dogs are socialized [intentionally or not] to respond to black people harshly. From experience running in my neighborhood, I have witnessed a white person walk past a home in front of me without the dog(s) barking at her. When I came in sight, they started barking. There is a house by the road, where dogs chase after me from their yard, even after seeing me run past multiple times. Another time while running through the neighborhood, a dog charged me and barked at me repeatedly, while its owner sat on the front porch merely calling it back. I stopped running but the dog would not bulge. Each time I tried to move, it charged toward me. I begged the neighbor for what seemed like five minutes to come restrain his dog, until he felt ‘kind’ enough to get up and call his dog back home, by throwing a bone or play toy at it.

Once again, I asked myself why I did not notify the police? I guess my hesitation to involve the po po comes from my internalized understanding of racism in America, and fear that racism could prevent the police from responding to me. Even as an educated woman from an elite US university, sentiments about the unfair US criminal justice cannot simply fed away. So, I keep on running, hoping my neighborhood and the dogs would get used to my face and body, and accept that I am not gonna stop running unless they knock me over or eat me up. But for now, I keep on the main streets, and wear bright neon colors, to avoid giving anyone an excuse to run me over because, “they did not see me; I was too dark”. As much as I would love trail running, I keep away to avoid stirring anyone from shooting me for “trespassing” in their backyard. It is a privilege white folks can risk, well, unless you are a German exchange student at a high school in suburban Montana (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/father-german-exchange-student-killed-montana-homeowner-slams-u-s-gun-culture-article-1.1775600).

Similar thoughts came to me once, while trail-running with a team in a predominantly white neighborhood or Marietta, Georgia. We run through woods and streams, and in people’s backyards, without anybody shooting or shouting at us or calling the police on us. Well, I was running with a predominantly white group, and the only one of two black folks. A week later, while running in South West Atlanta, I did not feel brave enough to trail-run by  myself, ironically in a predominantly black neighborhood. Why? Randomized surveys done on street racism have showed that blacks are as much likely as whites to profile black people. In a staged “bike theft” in a public park, part of ABC TV series, “What Would You DO?”, results showed that when it was a young white male cutting a bike chain off a stand,  people looked on, asked questions and expressed shock when he told them the bike did not belong to him. All except one (out of 100) continued on without confronting him or calling the police. Even more revealing, when the “staged bike thief” was a white female, as passerby’s offered her immediate help to free the bike from the chain. Only one woman protested to her husband helping free the bike, and another called the police after she had left the scene. However, when it was a young black male wearing identical clothes as the white male, passerby’s immediately (white and black people) confronted him, congregated, confiscated his tools or immediately called the police. When asked to account for their actions, both blacks and white people pointed to their biases against “personal appearance”. Black people said “first impression matters”…..and…”they thought the white guy worked in the park.” White people generally said they were looking out for private property, some even claimed race did not matter. So, there you have it!

Sometimes I worry about running into a serial killer or kidnapper along my route, especially while running new, quiet and isolated neighborhoods. I guess it comes from watching too many “Forensic Evidence”, “Unresolved Mysteries”, “20-20” and “48 hours” TV shows. Pretty much all of the crimes featured happened in suburbs similar to where I live. I have heard from moms at my son’s bus stop that they are plenty of drug users in the neighborhoods, and some have been busted in the police. Then I worry whether, being a black person, anybody driving or walking by would care if they saw a guy forcing me into his car? On my recent Saturday long distance run, while trying to discover a new running route in the neighborhood. I got onto a new street with a few houses. From a distance, I saw three white males and a white woman standing by the road and “burning something”; there was smoke likely from a fire. My heart skipped, but I was scared of showing my fears by turning back. I worried they could chase after me, so I proceeded on. I guess they sensed my fears and said, “hello”, when I got close to them.

Perhaps I am too paranoid, but that goes to show how institutionalized racism is experienced differently by black folks. I always wonder whether a white person would have to skip a beat at such an encounter! The feeling of “I do not belong here” is so real to me everyday in this neighborhood, even when I am inside my home. I hate it when sometimes I say hello to person across walking or running in my neighborhood, and they do not respond.

Similar experience and sentiments with finding work in this neighborhood. I took a break from online application and decided to walk-into several professional establishments in the neighborhood. As the black people in the “bike theft case” said, first impressions matter. Pretty much every place here is staffed with white folks. Like I say, “You know the place is white, if McDonald is predominantly staffed with white people.” Welcome to my neighborhood! Although, I did not look for work at McDonalds. I went to Doctors’ Offices, Departmental Stores, Restaurants, Grocery Stores, education institutions, and several small businesses. At most places, I was asked to apply online, or bring a resume – including restaurants! I know times are tough, and jobs are not coming by easily. However, when you do not see anyone who looks like you in most workplaces, including the front desk, it is hard not feeling unwelcome. Still, I did all as requested, with follow-up call back and walk in, but no rewards yet.

I bet some of you are wondering, why I am still living in this neighborhood, if it is that traumatizing to me? In the words of Dr. Jeremy Gibbs…

“This isn’t the only thing that we learned from raising our son (that we gladly adopted last year). We also have learned that parents that want the most for their children are often faced with a dilemma (even when they have the means to make educational choice) about whether they will give their kids a school environment that is supportive of their identity. Or shall we choose a school where lots of children look like him and he can learn about being black in America? Usually the schools with large African-American populations are struggling and under-resourced. Do I use the means that are within my reach to send him to a school with opportunity that will ensure that he has very few friends that look like him? Is that somehow better? The thing that I’m learning here is that racial minorities have to ask questions that majority populations get the privilege of ignoring. I still don’t know all the questions that I need to be asking.”

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