Monday, May 3, 2010

Talking About Race

I’m tired of being a spokesperson for the American people. I used to think it was part of my job description as a PCV, trying to represent the reality and diversity that is the USA. Now I realize how pretentious I was being. I realized this after school today as I was sitting in the main office chatting with our pedagogical director. He was asking the typical, “Will you take me to America with you?”
I said I’d pack him in my suitcase.
“No really, I’m tired of Mozambique. I already have my education, now I want to see America.”
The conversation continued with me explaining that he needs a visa, not easy to get for a Mozambican entering the US. Still, he was hopeful he’d find a way, joking that we could get married, asking me what American life is like.
“It’s better there, right?” he said.
I told him that depends on who you are. I explained that life can be very difficult for some people, that there exists poverty and violence. He asked what life would be like for him upon arriving in the States. I said that life for newly arrived immigrants can be very tough indeed.
“When they see me will they say, ‘Oh you are Mozambican?’” he asked.
“Well no, probably not,” I said. “They’ll probably think you’re American until you start talking. There are a lot of people that look like you in the States.”
“Really?” he said, “there are a lot of black people?”
“Yes of course,” I replied.
“They were slaves right?” he asked.
“Well their ancestors likely were yes. Generations ago people were taken from Africa and sold as slaves in the US.”
“So they’re African after all?”
“No, they’re African-American.”

At this point I was feeling good about my tactfulness with the race issue, especially given that I was speaking in Portuguese, but I knew I was going to slip up at some point. Whenever I have these conversations with Mozambicans I eventually say something I regret.
“You call them African-American after all? Not negro?”
“Yes, it’s not like here where you say negro or negra.”
“But they call each other ‘nigga,’” he said.
I have heard my students say this. I see it scrawled on the chalkboard after break periods. Mozambican kids hear it in rap songs but don’t know about the hate-filled connotations of that word, the controversy. When I ask what it means they say, “It means ‘black person,’ like me teacher.”

My students relate most to the segments of American culture featuring people that look more like them, but what finds its way to Mozambique is not a fair sampling of African-American heritage and culture. Rather they get a distillation of the most sexualized, materialistic and violent gangster rap our country has to offer. I don’t know why this happened, but it’s what I see. Mozambican kids idolize and emulate these images. They wear cheap brass “bling” over their uniforms. They write “G-unit” on the chalkboard. I was upset to walk into class one day and see an enlarged and frighteningly accurate drawing of a handgun done in chalk on the board. A bullet was leaving the gun and headed for a face.

When we did a lesson on professions and future aspirations, I had students in each class tell me they wanted to be “hustlers” and “gangsters.” I even had one tell me he wanted to be a terrorist.
“Do you know what a gangster is?” I asked.
“Yes teacher, he is a big guy, a big chief.”
“Gangsters kill people,” I said.
“Yeaaaaahh, they are big men with guns!” he said excitedly.
“Do you know who they kill?” I asked. Silence. “They kill mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. Do you want to be a gangster?”
He looked down, “No teacher.”
“Good, I hope that you will not.”

I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes. Rather, I want to more accurately represent the diversity of America. I want to tell the story of all its peoples. But what I’m realizing now is that I am not a representative of American diversity. I am only a representative of my own life experience. So inevitably when I try to represent what I cannot, I run into trouble.
When my director said, “but they call each other ‘nigga,’”
I said, “Well, that’s ‘gangster language.’ I can’t call them that, I must say African-American.”
“But they can call you ‘white?’” he asked.
“Well… yes.” I said.
“And you can’t call then ‘nigga?’” he asked.
“Of course not!” I said, exasperated, “If I did I’d be shot.”
“They’d shoot you?” he asked.
Here’s where I had gotten myself in trouble. Right here with this “they.” I was perpetuating the same stereotype that I wanted to break.
Backtracking, I said, “well no, I mean yes… it depends. In some places yes, I could get shot, but of course not everyone is like that. I want to say something… I shouldn’t group people by race like that. There are all different types of people, some good and some bad, in every race.”

I’m not sure I saved myself on that one. My director wasn’t antagonizing me, he was just curious. I’m pretty sure nothing I could have said would have offended him, but I offended myself. The race issue is hard to talk about, but it’s necessary to talk about. I will continue to talk about it. What I’m learning though is that I need to stop trying to represent the whole American people. The fact is I don’t represent all Americans, nor do I represent all female Americans, all white Americans, all 20-something Americans, all Americans form the Northeast… I only represent myself, Clancy Brown.

1 comment:

  1. Ah the innocence of it all!
    They are just curious...and we know that curiosity sometimes kills the cat.
    But, I think you handled yourself quite well. It's just that your end of the conversation included an implicit understanding of the history of racial prejudice in the US, and his did not.
    Maybe a better answer that being shot for saying 'nigga' would have been along the order
    "it is an insult coming from a white person, and could provoke a fight". That might make for a handy lead in to why it is an insult from a white person and merely slang for blacks to blacks.
    Then, of course, it's a lengthy and complicated discussion regarding the comings and goings of slavery in the US.
    But, an interesting, if disturbing perspective on this is that slavery is still alive in many parts of the world, for instance in Africa where parents sometimes sell their children into slavery out of desperation.
    One final note about the children that idolize gangsterism and hustling. Hustling in particular ends up being a kind of slavery, but in the abstract sense, so does gangsterism. It would be good to try to point out that you are not the 'big man' but instead become trapped in a world that is very difficult to escape from. That you in essence give up your freedom and personal rights.
    This was an inspiring opportunity. Don't shy away from these. You CAN be an ambassador for all kinds of things as you have been with the aids discussions, farming, empowering women, etc.
    Keep up the good work, and never forget to 'think outside the box'!
    Love Dad