Friday, August 25, 2006

Tribal warfare

There are many, many divisions in American culture, not the least of which is class. We do a great job of hating each other based on how much money we make and how much stuff we have, or don't have. (With the rich leading the way, hating the rest of us with a virulence that never seems to taper out.) And of course our politics are more divisive now than at any time since the 1960s. But the thing that really threatens to tear us apart now, perhaps irrevocably, is race.

More than anything else, Hurricane Katrina proved this. As a middle class white person, I've found you tend to settle in to a certain comfort zone. You think, well, the civil rights movement and the race riots are ancient history. We've come a long way. How naive and stupid we were to think this!

Just about a year ago, we watched on TV as a heavily black region of our own country was wiped off the map, and it made barely a ripple in our collective consciousness. As mind-meltingly difficult as it is to believe, most of the country had this reaction: "What were those people thinking, staying put instead of jumping into their air conditioned SUVs and driving out of town ahead of the storm? That's what we would have done. And all that looting. So uncouth. We would have simply gone to a restaurant, if we were hungry or needed bottled water! Those people deserved what they got. I certainly don't want my taxes raised to clean up that mess. Let them take care of themselves."

And then nobody cleaned up a goddamn thing down there, and we all went on with our lives. Out of sight, out of mind.

I couldn't help but think of Katrina and its woeful aftermath when the news broke about the plan for the next season of Survivor. What could be more appropriate than to have the teams compete based on race? The whites fighting the blacks fighting the Asians fighting the Latinos. I said to a friend of mine that if The Onion had done a piece with this premise, I would have gotten the queasy feeling that I sometimes get when reading that site, that sometimes they go a little too far. But no, this is reality, in America in 2006. This is how far we've degraded ourselves since the era of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, that some sleazebag TV producer proposes this premise, and it gets greenlighted.

What's next? Prime-time snuff films?

But beyond the gruesomeness of the idea that, you know, the Latinos will band together and try to outwit the whites with their native cunning, or some such equally repugnant horseshit, there is the pervasive misperception that we all fit neatly into exact racial groups. Tribes, if you will. We are European-American and African-American and Mexican-American and whatever.

This is bullshit on its face, and we all know it. My own family is an example, but then again most families are an example. If you go back far enough, I assure you, not everyone in your family will be 'pure' Irish or Spanish or anything else. When I look into my Peanut's beautiful face, I see my Sicilian family in her scrumptious chubby cheeks and my husband's Chinese family in the gentle curve of her eyes. She is not one thing or the other. She is Italian and Chinese but most of all she is American. The combination of her genes makes her who she is. Her birthright is to be all of these things, and to be first and foremost an American citizen -- with all the rights and responsibilities that come along with that citizenship.

The evil dirtbags who want us to believe that you have to be only one thing to be an American -- only white or only black or only Asian or only Latino -- are our common enemy. It's an old cliche in some ways, but it holds more true than ever today: if we refuse to hang together, we'll surely hang separately. Given the sometimes violently racist culture we live in today, I can only hope that someday, when the Peanut goes to school and sees a roomful of kids with mixed-race characteristics, just like her, that they can all find a better way to get along than their parents did.

No comments: