Wednesday, January 6, 2010

TIMES HAVE CHANGED -- BUT LET'S NOT GET CARRIED AWAY!

I don't know what it feels like for a girl. But I certainly can appreciate that life is no 24/7 picnic for the fairer sex. That should be pretty obvious, no? Well, perhaps not every guy is as aware and enlightened as I like to think I am.

A few days ago, I was talking to several white people about the occasional racism that I, as a black man, encounter in Argentina. One of them looked at me, and without a hint of irony, asked, "So why did you move here then?"

I wasn't sure why she would assume that my relocation to Buenos Aires had anything to do with black-white relations in New York City. But I took the bait anyway.

"And where would you suggest I live?" I asked/responded. "I moved here because I like the city, not to escape racism, which, by the way, is everywhere. In the United States it's much worse."

Another person looked at me, astonished. "Really?"

Seriously.

I'm never quite sure whether to chalk up such cluelessness about the harshy reality of race relations as a sign that said clueless person is above harboring racist ideals or as a sign that said clueless person is simply, well, clueless.

Perhaps it's a mix, but I insist on giving my friend the benefit of a doubt. In college, a roommate of mine once announced that racism was history, a thing of the past. This was 20 years ago. Yes, things have improved, but she'd still be egregiously mistaken today. You can't wash away liberal guilt by pretending that racism is ancient history. For many, including "fans" of the first black U.S. President (I use the word "fans" because he's as much an international celebrity as he is a politician), it might be under rug swept, but it's not completely swept away.

But what do I know?

For starters, this: No white person could possibly fully understand what it feels like for a black person. In Argentina. In the United States. Any place where black people are a minority. Yes, U.S. President Barack Obama is a major step in the right direction, a sign that things are improving, but he does not represent the end of racism as we know it, which is alive and well, in Argentina, in the U.S. and in pretty much every nation under the sun -- if not racism against black people, racism against some group outside of the ruling majority.

I didn't get into all of this with my under-informed white friends -- though I did, once again, repeat the story of the Argentine who recently slammed me with his own racist bile. In the end, it doesn't really matter what I say -- my experiences are my experiences, and no matter how shocked my white acquaintances look when I tell them about that particular bigot, they'll never truly understand what it feels like for a black person, here, there and everywhere.

Just like I will never really know what it feels like for a girl.

All we can do is stop, look, listen and learn. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending that everything is okay only perpetuates the problem. Knowledge is power. The power to change minds and perhaps even lives.
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