The Chain

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones

I feel certain I have at the least confounded and probably sometimes offended relatives and good friends by stating what should be obvious: That most, if not all White Americans are, by definition, racist, and that Black Americans cannot possibly be racist; that there is no such thing as “reverse racism.” “Reverse sexism” is also impossible. All forms of “reverse” oppression are impossible. How can the oppressed by any logical means oppress the oppressor? He may kill him, he may hate him, he may resist him, but until he has truly overcome him, he cannot oppress his oppressor.

Those offended or confounded (or both) do not understand that by telling them they are probably racists or sexists (all White people can be racist; all men can by misogynists. In both cases, most of each group are likely to be). They assume, in reactionary fashion, that I am telling them they are bad people, and I am doing no such thing. They put their hands over their ears at this point, usually, because it is just too surreal to them that I might think they oppress Black people or women.

And yet they do.

If one is born in the USA to nominally white parents and raised in nearly any place in the USA one is born in it, born breathing it. How can one not? Perhaps by being born in a peculiar situation where one absorbs more Black culture and functions by Black rules and is taught carefully by one’s parents just what is what, one might at least be aware of the difference. I was born into such a situation, into such a life. But both my parents were nominally White (at least one was part Pamunkey Indian, but it was downplayed in her family for generations, and when she got woke to the fact she embraced that part of herself, but by then she had also been woke to the fact that she, like all of us, was chained to Black folks first and foremost, and as a woman she was also chained to men).

That chain up there in that picture from that monumental movie is a real thing. Race, on the other hand, is not — and yet it is. Race is paradoxical, a construct created by White people long ago so that they could claim their Whiteness and with it their White privilege.

It is a thing and it is not. And those two, that yin and that yang, are chained to one another, at least here in the USA.

I am nominally White, though I am one half the proportion of Pamunkey my mother was, and was raised up largely observing Black (and White Hillbilly/Indian/possibly Negro) relatives. Hell, Southerners owe their accents to Black people. They didn’t go from trans-Atlantic to “ya’ll” and “ain’t” by some process of nature. It comes from somewhere; somewhere across the tracks or in my case around the corner or next door.

This paradox is chained to itself, and as in The Defiant Ones, breaking the chain frees us to associate freely instead of by necessity. But only when the chain has been broken through trial by ordeal, as in said movie.

Racism is not a character trait, per se. It is, properly, an “ism,” that is, a political device designed to maintain White supremacy (in this country at least) and to maintain White privilege. We don’t usually recognize it in ourselves (even the most vapid Trump voter more often than not will tell you “I’m not racist,” even as he unconsciously stands on the shoulders and often the necks of Black people to live his privileged life), and he (and plenty of non-Trumpians as well) will deny it defiantly, because they believe they are being called evil. Some of them are, of course, as society always has a small minority of truly evil people, but they are usually consciously evil — and are bigots. If I call someone a bigot I am not trying to offer that person enlightenment but rather saying something on the order of “Stand down or be knocked down.”

Nazis, it should go without saying, are both racists and bigots — and evil. But not all racists are bad people at all. They are simply in the dark about themselves, as are a lot of misogynists (though the evidence of misogyny is often more obvious to the misogynist, who simply is too unevolved to even care that he feels superior to women — and yet they are also chained together).

How does Mr. Webster define racism? This way:
1 :a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2 a :a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles

b :a political or social system founded on racism

3 :racial prejudice or discrimination

Webster’s #1 is actually White supremacy. Full Stop.
Webster’s #2a is the institutionalized form of racism, aka: Jim Crow. Webster’s #2b is what we actually are born into and breathe and practice, often unconsciously.
Webster’s #3 is #2b in action.

The United States is, and has been from its beginning a largely racist institution, even as its Declaration of Independence and Constitution defined it otherwise. Behold! Another paradox! The fact that those grand documents could deny their own words is a simple problem: By defining “all men” as all White men, and by Roger Taney delivering the verdict of the Supreme Court of the Land that Negroes could not qualify as full citizens or even fully human (3/5ths I believe was the best they were allowed) the wonderful Declaration and venerated Constitution left them back in the swamp or on the plantation.

Science tells us race is not even a thing, that it has no scientific basis in fact, and science doesn’t lie. White people, however, do lie, or repeat lies they are told from birth. Wouldn’t you?

“But but but but…” start the knee-jerk explanations to poor ignorant me. “But they first of all look different from White people.” Yeah, and so do White people. Look different from White people, I mean. Yeah, we don’t all look the same. That’s how you can tell you’re talking to Louie instead of Melvin. The don’t look the same! “But they talk different and they tend to be less well-educated and they tend to live in tore up neighborhoods and…” HOLD IT! They talk different from who? Sure, they often speak in code, as do…wait for it…white people. And then White people begin to envy that code, see it as “hip” and “borrow” it, so the code changes constantly. Naturally. “And they mumble a lot…” like a lot of White people who I can’t understand worth a damn, and I will say it here, now, and you can find it on Youtube: Baltimoreans (often outside of Baltimore called “Baltimorons”) and Southern Maryland White people, who speak the “Merlin mumble.”

So there’s a lot of bullshit in those arguments, except that “they” look different from “us.” To what extent, though? Darker skin tone? Thicker lips? Broader noses? Nappy hair? Skin color exists on a spectrum. Dark-skinned people are mostly separated out (like oil in water) by White people, and historically were either sent to “separate but equal” schools or denied school altogether. My hillbilly relatives, on the other hand, often chose to forgo school, even White schools (the “separate” but not the unequal) because they chose to do other things than to learn, knowing that if worse came to worst, they could still find work better than the work Negroes could find, so why bother? And they multiply like roaches. My relatives, that is. Which cuts off the next argument at the knees, if for somewhat different reasons.

Then there are my brown grandkids, not Black, but my God, they could be Muslims (but they’re not) or some sort of A-rabs (cool, but they’re not), or one of those “other” people (yes, they are, and they are mine, and they are beautiful, so sit down and shut up if that’s problematic).

Please note all these rules can be applied to misogynist behavior as well, only it is more subtle, because a woman can be White and still get grabbed or groped inappropriately or passed over for a job or a promotion for not playing along to get along.

Black people often don’t get that far in the game. Why? Because you can SEE they’re black. Just like people can see I’m White. I’ve got it all over me. It is the one area over which I have no control, unless I were, say, Sir Laurence Olivier playing Othello. That would work for me, as it worked for Olivier, because he was, by God, a White man beneath that artful makeup.

Sir Laurence Olivier’s Excellent Othello the Moor. Did he fool you? What about that chain?

Yes, one of the greatest (White) actors who ever lived immortalized himself perhaps most enduringly by playing a Black man. Why, do you suppose, this seemed natural?

We’re not even talking about cultural appropriation, which is a much more complex and nuanced thing. Just couldn’t they find a great Black actor to take that role? A Negro playing a Shakespearean role? Don’t be ridiculous!

Lawrence Fishburne, anybody?

“But they wreck the places where they live! What about that?” Oh, you mean those projects they were herded into and left to figure the rest out for themselves, and whether they were government owned projects or just dumps owned by slumlords like Fred Trump? (Google Gregory Estates. It’s not far from where I sit writing this). Is a leaking roof the same as “wrecking” a place? Is trying to find a way to make the stove work the same as vandalizing the stove? Is eventually saying “Fuck this shit” a reasonable reaction to being ghettoized, cut off from quality education, having no quality food sources in the neighborhood? “But they rob the stores and steal the groceries!” Oh. And that happens nowhere else, right? That’s why your local Wegman’s has several rentacops wandering around, keeping the White folks from getting ideas?

So how do we be together, prove the incredible logic of the statement Black Lives Matter, integrate in a very real way, when “They don’t want us in their world anyway!”? (But you want them in yours, right? Or, say, if the situation were reversed you would? Hey man, you have to EARN respect. You don’t just presume it’s coming to sit on your lap). Where do we start?

Plenty of “them” have made the effort. They’ve met us more than half-way. Hey, they mostly haven’t even killed us. I’m not sure why not, but they don’t do it much.

But back to the question: How?

Watch The Defiant Ones. Keep an eye on that chain. We’re still chained together in order to survive (mostly us White folks at the expense of the Black folks on the other end of that chain).

Break that chain, engage before, during and after the break, give and take the abuse, live the experience after the chain is broken, and watch what happens. Because that chain is the key to the starting line, and when it’s broken we will all have to face the sheriff anyway, but we will no longer be alone with each other.

We’re already connected. Get used to it — then break the fucking chain.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
AJ Calhoun

AJ Calhoun

Writer, activist, novelist, sixth generation DC, local historian-storyteller, and 1:1 patient care technician five days a week.