Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Race and Culture

Over the last 5 years, I feel as though I've had my eyes opened to a great many things I didn't always know about the world. I grew up mostly in small towns in Canada, and I knew virtually nothing about racism. All the towns I lived in where almost entirely white, and racism was just something I learned about in school. I completely had the perception that it was a problem many years ago, and Martin Luther King came around, and made a few speeches... and that was that. I really was pretty much that naive.

Racism itself was a dirty word. I would feel uncomfortable just hearing someone say it. I remember thinking that it was just a backward, obsolete notion that had no place in modern society. Then again, my high school was 99% white... so it would be hard for racial tensions to arise, wouldn't it?

Since being in the U.S. for 4-5 years, and living in Tennessee no less, I've been shocked time and time again to see how much of an issue racism really is. I mean, this issue is entrenched in the culture here. This was a huge surprise to me.... It was like finding a live dinosaur in your friend's back yard, when you had always been taught they were extinct.

I don't quite know what to think about it all.... But I do know that thinking about all these things has brought me face to face with some of my own prejudices that I didn't even know were there. I noticed that I'm most comfortable with people that look, act, and talk like I do.

I lived in a low-cost downtown apartment complex for a few years back... and I was the only white guy in the building. My roommate was Chinese, and virtually every other resident was African-American. I was surprised at how uncomfortable I was. I remember walking up the stairs to my apartment, and other residents would be hanging around outside.... they would stop their conversations and just stare at me as I walked up the stairs. I wondered what they were thinking? Did they mistrust me because I was different than them? I had to be honest with myself, and realize that I was making judgments about them.... I felt quite uncomfortable the whole time I lived there. It was a rougher part of town, but what was I basing my discomfort on... Race? Culture? Or was it as simple as being uneasy about living in a rough neighbourhood? How did all these things interact?

Race seems to be on the front pages nearly every day recently. Barack Obama, a half-black, half-white junior senator from Illinois, is running for President, and he may win. It's clear that this is going to bring the notion of racism in the the spotlight. Everyone's got an opinion. Some people think Obama might win "because he's black", while others think if he loses it'll be "because he's black". Some people accuse Obama of glossing over the race issues... pretending they're not there. Others look at people like Rev. Jesse Jackson and wonder if his activism is hurting more than helping the situation. Everyone's got an angle. Sometimes it feels as though American culture is consumed with a sense of "Everyone Versus Everyone".

I mean, let's not forget... Racism is not just about black and white. There are thousands of different cultures out there... each one with unique peoples, and different perspectives on the world. A walk around downtown Toronto is enough to get a sense of that.

I find it hard to develop solid opinions because I sense so much history in these divisions. There are so many deeply entrenched feelings and beliefs... and many of these are somewhat regional. Things are different in Tennessee than they are in Texas, and different in Canada than they are in California. Traveling around this country has been a very eye-opening experience for me.

The only thing I know for sure is that this country (and the world) is far bigger and far more complex than I feel I was taught in school. Many issues have the ability to linger for centuries. The older I get, the more I realize I know very little about the world. I feel like I understand less every year. I guess that's part of growing up... not to mention moving to a new country in your twenties. I wonder how the world will appear to my eyes in another 5 years. At this rate, I feel like discovering a live dinosaur in my own backyard wouldn't be that surprising.


Ben Knechtel said...

Great blog dude...keep em comin.

a. skart said...

Great blog.

I had a similar experience moving to Tennessee from California. I was surprised to see how much someone's race was still an issue. Being from California, Southern Cali at that...I went to school with kids from every race and it wasn't something we saw. Maybe it didn't matter to me because I'm "white" (actually Caucasian-Hispanic, but if you can't tell, it's as if it's not true) but I had friends from every race.

I had the chance to visit the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama and it was an eye-opening experience. Events that I had only read about in textbooks or watched documentaries about were suddenly very real and right in front of my face. Very very moving.

Race issues still make me uncomfortable but I try to empathize with both the accuser and victim. Angry protests and debates don't get anybody anywhere.

I could keep going but I really just wanted to say, Good job.