Over the past few weeks there has been growing international outrage at the shooting of a young black teenager in Florida by an armed neighborhood watch man. I’m not sure I have much to add to this outrage, because so much has been quite brilliantly written on this by many social media partisans. I’ve done my part, by raising awareness over all the social media platforms I own. I felt I would only be reiterating the many commentators on the issue.
Then President Obama, when pressed on the case over the weekend, declared that, “…if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
Then, the always eloquent GOP candidate, Newt Gingrich, replied to the President’s comments by calling them disgraceful, and saying that it shouldn’t matter what color the victim is.
That’s where I felt that it was time to write about this issue – because it’s something I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot of recently: the idea that race and gender should not matter, or that it doesn’t, actually, matter. And so, really, we should all stop talking about it.
I could not disagree more.
This is an especially important time for race in America, as the Supreme Court sets out to hear arguments that affirmative action should be repealed. And of course, with the upcoming elections, racist taunts have resumed en masse towards the current President. An Iraqi woman has just been beaten to death in her home in California with a note saying ‘go back to your country’ - but, all the while, race does not matter.
The overarching truth is that when you refuse to talk about something and say that it doesn’t matter, it negates and silences the every day realities of a large segment of the population, essentially condemning their history and their present story into silence, and erasing the way they live their lives and the struggles they might experience on a daily basis with the status quo of structures that regulate their actions.
Newt, you are creating an invisible race.
This raises interesting questions. First, who creates the status quo? And secondly, who are the proponents of saying that ‘race and gender don’t matter’? As we have learned with the whole Kony 2012 debacle, identifying who shapes an issue, and how it is shaped, is just as important as the response that we bring to that issue. One topic can have so many different interpretations, orchestrations and solutions.
In this case, it seems like an old, rich, white man believes that race shouldn’t matter. These are the same old, rich, white men who legislate time and again for restrictive measures on women’s rights, on their healthcare, on their sexual reproductive abilities. These are the same rich, white, old men that decry homosexuality and ignore the LGBT community.
Just as the many women around the United States who are currently reeling under the attacks of these political figures on their seemingly inalienable rights would not like to see their realities silenced, I do not believe that black people, with their particular histories and current realities, would like to be told that these do not matter and should no longer be spoken of.
This is especially true when women and people of color live within structures that have been overwhelmingly created by people that do not look like them (ie, old, white, rich men). If the goal is to move away from a social hierarchy that clearly favors one particular group of people, then all people’s realities should be considered as best as possible when erecting new structures. We see this idea in the fundamental tenets of democracy, and in the understanding that not all histories have been equal, and these create different current day realities that must be made up for in some way; hence the measures to make up for gender inequality and racial disparities.
This is not to say that this particular history is the only one that women or people of color know. It is not to say that this history should burden their shoulders today. This is not to say that these groups should be known or thought of as only attached to one particular history (Surprise! All black people are not the same.) But it is to say that the people who define whether or not this history and these realities are relevant are the people who are living them.
What would be lovely, of course, is to believe that we live in a world where race and gender shouldn’t matter. But shouldn’t and don’t are two completely different states. The former conveys a world where we are completely oblivious to our differences and to the different histories that we have lived because of those differences. In fact, it is probably a world where we have no differences. Unfortunately that is not our case.
If we take this one step further – saying, yes but shouldn’t we strive to have a society where race and gender don’t matter? Sure, we should strive for that. But we cannot silence these outright. When silenced, a funny thing happens: the status quo slowly continues to exist, and those who are benefited keep benefiting and create more structures that benefit them. In other words, if the norm is white and male, then structures will be perpetuated that will solidify this norm, and keep going forth.
Peacebuilding processes are a great example of this. During the Arab Spring, women were a huge part of the organization and spread of the movement. Yet, when it came time to pick the political representatives – women were completely left out. Prevailing attitudes towards women and women’s place in society took over. These new male dominated structures will then reproduce themselves to create more male dominated structures in the future. What could have helped was a system of quotas, whereby a certain percentage of women should be represented in government. While not ideal, it is a step in the right direction.
Much like feminism had to learn that women were not an all-encompassing homogenous group (otherwise known as essentialism), so do people, in general, and the United States, in particular. Being told that your reality plays no part in the social activities of every day life is a regressive and dangerous attitude to take. Unfortunately it seems to be one that pervades the white male conservative narrative.
And it is frighteningly sad to note that it takes a young man’s death to point this out, yet again.
This piece originally appeared on The Eternalist, and cross-posted with permission.