Friday, August 11, 2006


Today, one of the h-net listservs I'm on sent around an Article from Sunday's NYT about Ota Benga. He was the Congolese man put on "display" at the Bronx Zoo in September, 1906. Benga was characterized as a sort of evolutionary link between apes and humans. While a current zoo official agrees that this must've been a tad bit racist, he is quick to note,
"You have to look at the time in which it happened, and you try to understand why this would occur.
Which brings me to my point.

Am I the only one tired of this excuse? Is it valid and I'm just cynical and exhausted? I heard it, years ago, in a World Civ class when we read Heart of Darkness. Some white students were glad to jump on that bandwagon, attribute characters' racism solely to the time in which they lived. The professor wouldn't agree or disagree, he just listened to us debate. Heatedly.

And I've heard it my whole life as a black girl in the South with white friends who felt that they should offer some explanation for their parents' and grandparents' behavior and cold looks towards me. I've heard it as woman who lives in an academic world with mostly white colleagues who think I should understand why a particular professor won't speak to me or doesn't believe I'm all that good a student. And you know what pisses me off? They offer this explanation in a way that's supposed to induce guilt in me. Like, "Elle, you have to understand when and where they come from."

Mm-hmm. Fine.

But I still don't like it. Because that excuse makes people less human--as if they don't have choices, can't look deeper, can't question the status quo. It absolves them from their actions in propagating a hurtful, oppressive system. I don't believe anyone is racist simply because of when and where s/he was born--people don't protect and maintain such systems unless they derive some benefit. Thus, my biggest issue with this excuse is that it obscures the fact that born-and-bred racists acknowledge, accept, and perpetuate the privileging of whiteness.

But maybe that's just the little ol' revisionist historian in me...


Terrence said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Ironically, about a month ago, a female friend and I were talking about how her white friend's grandmother was still call black women "gals".

Her friend tried to explain it away by saying, "She's from that (Jim Crow) period", but my friend's attitude was like she needs to catch up with the times.

On the other hand, they have been conditioned to be that way, just like that Congolese man was "conditioned" to do what he did.

A black co-worker talked about her elderly father, until his death, called every white man, "sir" even if they were teens in their small Louisiana town. She stated that she would have to get on her father all of the time.

I believe that conditioning can keep people from looking deeper because all they know is what they have been taught - especially if they are uneducated.

Please don't think I am excusing such behavior because I am not, but think about how black folk in the south, paid their fare then walked straight to the back of the bus. They were "conditioned" by society and laws.

Nonetheless, the people should not make such issues light and fluffy as to excuse such behavior - regardless of how long ago it was. That racist display at the Bronx Zoo occurred in 1906. And I have an aunt in Arkansas who is 101 years old. My mother is 80. They have some stories to tell.

Ultimately, I think dismissing such behavior as "you have to understand when and where they come from" or "that was a long time ago" is insensitive and is a sign of some whites protecting themselves. It's like a coping mechanism.

It's like, "Well, it wasn't okay, but it was okay because it happened during that era. We need to move on."

I hear that all of the time.

I hope my rambling makes some sense.

Evanne said...

Dehumanizing behavior is never okay, if it stems from ignornace then it begs for education, if it stems from fear it needs confrontation. Tolerance of bad behavior is not kind it only perpetuates the pattern. Mind you I am not advocating meeting ignorance and fear with anger and strength. The calm assertative energy that refuses to condone or accept anything other that respect and courtsey that every human is due is a mighty sword capable of making a vast difference. Witness Ms. Parks and choice of bus seat.

But you alread know what I think - about most everything.

Elle said...

terrence, your "rambling" does make sense. i don't doubt the power of conditioning, of learned behaviors, but i want people to be honest about why we hold on to some of them.

evanne, i never know everything that's percolating in that wonderful mind, so thank you for sharing.

brownfemipower said...

Well, i have a hard time believing this "they didn't know any better" baloney because during all periods when people say things like this (pre-civil war, colonial expansion era, jim crowe era etc) there was a very vocal anti-slavery, anti-war, anti-colonialism, anti-racism movement. and while I can accept that poc would adopt those particular positions out of saftey--(once you've seen a friend strung up, set on fire, then dismembered for soveniers, can you ever really feel safe again?) I don't accept white folks reasoning for continuing to perpertrate white privilege in the form of "gals" and other such stuff. And I don't accept white folks reasoning that they "didn't know any better". there were alternatives to slavery and violence being debated quite hotly and passionatly in the public domain, there were protesting and speeches and I even read that an anti-slavery org took over a post office and mailed out hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery messages. I could accept that maybe they didn't know better if there weren't any type of coordinated campaigns against the dominate structures, but there was, and an awful lot of them were run by white folks. This says to me that white slave owners and that type of person knew perfectly well what they were doing and *chose* not to change, for whatever reason--and generally, those reasons that they chose not change were for very racist and horrible reasons.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...