Last week some old, white cheating cowboy fraud said publicly what he has probably said over and over to his friends. Another super rich white bigot’s private words were reported too. In many ways this really isn’t news. 

We live in a racist nation that has perpetuated derogatory stereotypes and promoted discrimination against people of color throughout most of its history. Thankfully, we have seen some hard fought changes occur, but do we really believe we can eradicate three hundred years of bigotry and ignorance in a couple generations? I heard a TV commentator say today that our nation “needs to have a conversation about race.”  Really?

“What do you get when you send a racist to college?”  My friend and mentor, Will Nichols used to ask that question of his Black History students at Cuyahoga Community College forty years ago.  A year earlier I met this decorated World War II veteran, who had worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. He was teaching philosophy part time then, while working full time at the post office.

As a full time history instructor Will Nichols quickly became involved as faculty sponsor for a number of African-American student organizations, and he developed the Black history courses into ones that would require senior level work of junior college level students. His rationale was that he wanted the Black students in his classes to be able to perform at a level far higher than would be required of them elsewhere.  At the time, I thought it unfortunate that as a white student in his class I had to do this extra work too. 

As we groaned over doing 50 page research papers, Nick used to say, “I won’t do it for you, but I’ll wade in my own blood waist deep to help you up so you can do it.” True to his word, he was available 24 hours a day for consultation, inviting our study groups to his apartment on the weekends to work on our papers together.

There was no Martin Luther King Day then, no Black History Month, just the same clear need in our culture to have an ongoing dialogue about our nation’s shameful history and continued behavior of racist oppression. I wonder what Will Nichols, who’s been gone a few years now, would have to say about the often repeated notion that Americans need to have a conversation about “race.”

I believe he’d say that it was an important issue, but as he smiled, waiting for the answer to his original question, he’d tell us that the crucial conversation had to be not about race, but about racism. We Americans have still not fully engaged that dialogue.

Our primary problem isn’t about misunderstanding each other’s cultures (we’ve all been guilty of that at times); our primary problem is about facing the ongoing reality of systemic discrimination. It’s about recognizing the rationalizations and denial that occur in all situations of oppression.  When your culture does something that is unacceptable, such as kidnapping someone and imprisoning them and their descendants for hundreds of years, there is only one way to feel okay about living with that.  You must justify it.

The Romans justified their domination and enslavement of Europeans and others by depicting them as animal like. The British justified their control of the Irish by depicting them as savages or sub-human. Europeans, Chinese, Euro-Americans, and other colonizing cultures all depicted indigenous peoples around the world as savages or scary beasts. The Nazi death machine depicted the Jews and Eastern Europeans as sub-human.

The opinion maker apologists of each offending culture argue that because of some flaws in the victims’ humanity, the imprisonment, enslavement, or extermination of these “others” is in the best interest of everyone involved. Stereotypes are shaped and reproduced broadly, reinforcing the perceived inferiority of the oppressed group.

The stereotypes used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans early in our history were so deeply imbedded in the psyche of white American culture that many of them continue right into the present. It is not some random accident that independent study after study show that housing, job, and justice system discrimination is still rampant in our society.  Our rationalization and denial still keep us from addressing the reality of our culture’s racist legacy.

 So what was the answer to Nick’s question?  When you send a racist to college, “You get an educated racist.” It doesn’t matter what’s put in front of our eyes to see, if we refuse to open our eyes to see it.

We can change that if we as a culture continue to find the courage to face the reality of racism and its terrible consequences.

 

River Smith is author of the book, A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author with Victor Lee Lewis and Hugh Vasquez of The Color of Fear: A Teacher’s Manual.

So, I just heard on the radio that authorities are finally looking into sexual assault charges against a Florida college star athlete for an incident that took place last year. Over and over again I’ve seen sexual assault cases against star athletes conveniently swept under the rug. You can bet the teenaged athletes who, at a 2012 party, assaulted a young teen girl in Steubenville, Ohio, have seen it too.

 As a man who committed what I consider attempted sexual assault more than once as a teenager, I have watched the events unfolding over the last year and a half in Steubenville with great interest and much sadness. Whether we examine the cultural training and influences for boys like me a half a century ago or for those in the present, media messages and unequal power relationships that promote objectification of women and sexual aggressiveness of men abound. Sexist stereotypes and rape fantasies are reinforced day after day. 

The films of my grandparents’ time and the films and television shows of mine promoted rape and sexual assault, too. The heralded 1939 film, Gone With The Wind has a celebrated scene where Scarlett has made her disdain clear to her husband, Rhett. He attacks her, picks her up against her will and takes her upstairs to … what? The next scene we see Scarlett lying in bed, smiling. What does that mean? What’s the lesson drawn?  When, fifteen years later, Marlon Brando, in the acclaimed film, On The Waterfront, violently attacks Eva Marie Saint, and the viewer sees that she evidently wanted him to do that, what does it mean?  What does a thirteen year old boy learn from that?  When three or four decades after that Nicholas Cage does the same to Cher in the award winning, Moonstruck, and she decides she loves him, what in the world is the movie maker telling boys about women, and about how men should behave?  So called serious films continue to perpetuate this image of the heroine waiting to be taken by the strong, impetuous hero. The scores of comedy films made over the last ninety years that have implied that it is a good idea to ply women with alcohol to “loosen them up” also continue to provide lessons today. 

When most video games marketed to teen boys depict women as either helpless damsels who must be saved, or strong, evil women who must be vanquished, what is the message the boy gets?  When thousands of rap songs constantly label women as “b***ches” or “hos”, or as their body parts, who simply are there to please the males, what does the eleven year old boy learn about girls and women? What messages do the girls get about themselves? 

We live in a patriarchal, sexist culture where women hold less than 20% of our elected offices on average, less than 5% of CEO positions of our largest corporations, less than a quarter of the top positions in our cultural institutions. Most film directors, most video producers, most advertising executives are men, while single mothers are the largest group of adults in poverty. These conditions help determine whose vision defines our world—what’s valued as important, what’s not. 

Over one-third of teen girls report violence from their male partners.Thousands of women each year are raped or battered by guys they know.  In one survey it was reported that 23% of women who served in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars were victims of at least one attempted sexual assault by their male comrades. At the same time, the markets for violent pornography and sexual slavery are at all time highs. 

This is the environment in which these teen boys committed horrid crimes of violation and degradation against an innocent young woman. This is the environment in which a community of youths and adults supported and tolerated those crimes.  It was a similar environment almost a half century ago when my friends and I crossed similar boundaries, and were not held accountable.  As bad as it is now, it was worse in some ways then. The voice of women could barely be heard. That was before brave women came together to create rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, before women rallied to challenge “the problem with no name,” and demanded liberation for women and the right to control their own bodies.

The voices are getting louder, but it is still hard to be heard over the cheers for a game winning touchdown catch or the dissonant noise of one more porn video or Hollywood flick that swallows the landscape.   

As I write this and you read this, women in our country are being battered; women in our country are being raped; women and girls in our country are being sexually harassed, and boys are being taught that either it’s okay or it doesn’t matter that much. We’re also not being taught that this is not simply a “violence against women” problem, but something even bigger.  We are not being taught that this is an inevitable result of living in a patriarchy. We are not being taught that until we fully challenge the distorted masculinity that comes from living in a dysfunctional patriarchal system, we will never reach the roots of the violence.  In the meantime, we do what we can.

As power relationships slowly change, sexist images are challenged, and women’s voices are heard, perhaps we can hope that, even if we haven’t yet stopped the sexist violence, it goes unacknowledged and unpunished a little less often.  A small victory, but a critical one.   

River Smith is former co-chair of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), former coordinator of Men Against Violence (a community centered feminist-based batterers program), and author of A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power.

INCOGNEGRO

I attempted suicide. I was young, in love, and in over my head. I distinctly remember wanting everything to stop. That night I learned three things. I learned that my boyfriend wasn’t willing to sit around and watch me die. Literally, he wasn’t willing to. He wrestled one of the two bottles of pills from my hand, called my father, and left our apartment hoping for the best. I also learned that one bottle of over the counter sleeping pills isn’t enough to kill you. Most importantly, I learned that educated black women don’t kill themselves.

The ride to the hospital was a trippy one. As my mother drove trees, street lights, and utility poles intertwined amidst pulsating skies streaked with orange, amber, and blue. It was as if Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” had come to life, mixed with a tinge of The Beatles
“Yellow Submarine.”

Once…

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INCOGNEGRO

I have three great loves in life; black men, pizza, and football. Lucky for me they all complement each other nicely.

Often, when faced with life’s unsolvable questions, I find respite and refuge in one of my three loves. Kevin Hart has made me laugh to the point of tears, when tears and not laughter was what I needed most. And I have willfully and frequently found comfort in the doughy clutches of a greasy pie—the pepperoni stares back but doesn’t judge. So it seemed oddly appropriate that after the jury in the Michael Dunn trial was unable to reach a verdict on the count of first degree murder in the shooting of Jordan Davis, I turned to yet another emotional mainstay, football.

Trayvon and Tracy Martin Trayvon and Tracy Martin

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And sometimes it’s about class, or gender, or age, or any other classification that causes us to be identified as one of “the others.” President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been profiled by people all their lives, just as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were. That doesn’t mean that there are not also other reasons for the disrespectful behavior directed toward them. It is important, however, to face this profile thing.

 So Trayvon Martin was suspended from school at the time that George Zimmerman shot and killed him. Young Trayvon was wearing a hoodie–a symbol to some people of troublemaking. Furthermore, he was guilty of the unpardonable crime of being a young Black male on the street at night. Jordan was sitting in a van with his buds listening to some music, too loud, like most teens.  He also had the audacity to give an old white guy some lip or the wrong kind of look.

We don’t know what specific issues made the one young man, walking down the street, talking on his cellphone to his friend, a suspicious character to Mr. Zimmerman. We don’t know exactly what made Jordan Davis seem a threat to Michael Dunn, if that’s what really happened.  We don’t know exactly, but we have a pretty good idea.

This reminds me a little of my own misadventures as a teenager on the streets of Cleveland in the 1960’s. Like so many of my friends, I spent my nights walking the streets and hanging on corners for entertainment. Each evening, as I buffed my shoes and combed my hair on the way out the door, as I hit the sidewalk with the baaaadest walk on the block, clicking out a tune with my cleats, I thought about how cool I was, and I thought about meeting up with my boys, and about hooking up with some local “chicks.”  I tried very hard not to think about the police.

Unfortunately, from the first time they stopped to check me out, the local patrol boys decided that I was a troublemaker. I wasn’t sure why. Was it because they didn’t like my hair?  My spit shined shoes? My so cool walk? Or maybe it was the way I smiled when they jabbed me with their night sticks. It certainly could have been the smile. A judge later told me from the bench that he was locking me up just to wipe that smile off my face. It also could have been that hair. I was suspended at least twenty times by high school administrators who didn’t like it.

To so many people in authority I was seen as a “punk,” “a smart–a– troublemaker,” up to no good. I was somehow considered a dangerous person who was suspected as a cause of any problems that might be happening in the neighborhood.  I had to be watched. I had to be hassled. I had to be controlled. The bruises to my ribs, the pain in my stomach, the scratches on my face as I was slammed repeatedly against the police cars, were a message from those in authority. The term wasn’t in use back then, but I was being profiled.

I was in a crazy relationship that, as a teenager, I was too self-absorbed and innocent to know how to change. I was told over and over again that I had a problem with authority, when really it was the other way around. My friends and I didn’t wear the same clothes, didn’t listen to the same music, didn’t talk the way the adults did, and we didn’t respect the same norms of behavior.  We were too loud, too reckless; we were different; we were “the other,” and that made us dangerous to the people in authority. That perceived reality gave some police, some school administrators, some judges the justification to treat us without respect, without compassion, without understanding, and without justice. I didn’t know yet how the Black kids from the neighborhood next to ours were judged or treated by the authorities. I just knew they wouldn’t be safe on our streets. The authorities and our gangs would make sure of that.  Why? Because they were “the other.”  They were stereotyped. They were profiled.

So here we are now, nearly a half century later. The civil rights movement has given us decades to look at discrimination. And I wonder, can we get past our prejudices, our fears, our stereotypes to demand the same respect, same justice for the many young Black men on our streets today, that we would for any of our children. Michael Dunn evidently couldn’t. Neither, it seems, can many conservative commentators or republican lawmakers.

 River Smith is a psychologist, eco-feminist community activist, author of A Conspiracy to Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author, with Victor L. Lewis and Hugh Vasquez, of Lessons from The Color of Fear: A Teachers Manual.

As a man who has been part of the pro-feminist men’s movement for most of my adult life, I have addressed so called men’s rights movement people over and over. For the most part, I have found it to be a sad group of misguided men who are scared and hurting, and sometimes very dangerous. They also remind me that no matter how much work I’ve done challenging my own sexism, I must still be vigilant regarding my oppressive tendencies. It reminds me too, to thank the extraordinary women who have continued to teach me as we go on making this feminist revolution that our world so desperately needs.

The Belle Jar

I need to take a moment here to talk about the Men’s Rights Movement, because there seems to be some confusion. Actually, there seems to be a whole lot of confusion.

Over the past little while, I’ve had a number of people challenge me on calling out men’s rights activists (hereafter referred to as MRAs). “But men are oppressed too,” people say. “Feminism is sexist, and it teaches men that masculinity is wrong.” “Straight, white men aren’t allowed to be proud of themselves anymore.” “If you believe in equality, then you should want men to have the same type of activism as women.” “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

First of all, yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But let’s not pretend that all opinions are created equal – some are based on fact, and some are total bullshit. Like, I could tell you that I believe that vaccines…

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_08Q7wH6Vg (River Smith’s The Long & Painful Death of Chief Wahoo-drum & poetry video with archival footage)

I used to feel like I was born with a baseball in my left hand, a shortstop’s glove on the other. Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert set my blood rushing. What fun it was to watch Thunder Thornton, Frank Robinson, Bobby Bonds, Charlie Spikes, and Joe Carter. There is no ballet I enjoyed more than Omar going into the hole, leaping, spinning, and releasing; Kenny running, running, propelling himself in the air, cleat on the fence, reaching high as the ball slammed into his glove. Wow.

I love baseball. Love playing it. Love watching it. Oh, I enjoy Lebron, Kyrie and the guys a lot, and can get excited for a moment as a browns runner slides and twists his way through defenders, but I love baseball.

So it’s Springtime in Cleveland again. Time for blooming buds, lakefront picnics, buzzing lawnmowers, dreams of a pennant winning season, and Cleveland’s own special pastime, racism. For over twenty years our video collective has documented the demonstrations outside Fort Progressive (Fort Jacobs) to protest the demeaning Chief Wahoo emblem and the baseball team’s nickname, Indians.

Native Americans from around the country come most years to help educate fans about how the nickname and the wahoo serve to stereotype American tribal peoples; how the use of face paint and feather headdresses mock their religion; how the comments about the warpath and scalping totally misrepresent Native American history and culture. Incidentally, if you do your research you’ll find that probably far more Euro-Americans scalped Indians, than vice versa.

While isolated tribes and occasional individuals have indicated that they don’t mind the usurpation of their native images and words, every major national Native American organization has made it clear that sports team names and emblems are racist and foster unhealthy and misleading stereotypes of their people. After scores of high schools and colleges, and a few professional teams changed their nicknames, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) declared around ten years ago that they will not allow any team nicknames or mascots “hostile and abusive” to Indians to be displayed on team uniforms at any NCAA postseason tournament. American students all over the country and their advisors are getting it. Why can’t we?

How long do you think a team named the Cleveland Jews with a caricatured image for an emblem or the Euclid Negroes with caricatured Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima would last? Somehow we can get that this is not okay when it comes to these groups. If we just open our hearts and widen our understanding a little more, we can see that it’s also not really innocent fun if our behavior causes young Indian girls and boys to have to grow up with distorted images and stereotypes of themselves and their families promoted all around them.

I have loved Cleveland baseball all my life. How does changing the name of the team harm my memories? How does it harm the actual tradition of playing the game? Bob Feller still played for Cleveland. Rocky Colavito still played for Cleveland. Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez still played for Cleveland. Changing the nickname of the team doesn’t change the joy that fans have had watching these extraordinary players. It does, however, reduce the pain and discomfort for thousands of our brothers and sisters. Surely we can delight in a Santana homerun or a diving Brantley catch whether the team is called the Rockers, the Steelmakers, or the Spiders. The cartoonish character on the player’s sleeve doesn’t make the play any more exciting or better.

I want to watch Yan Gomes and Cory Kluber. I want to cheer on Francisco Linder, and Urshela when he gets here, but neither I nor many other fans with conscience will ever feel comfortable paying to attend a Cleveland baseball game as long as it means insulting our Indian brothers and sisters, and their children.

River Smith is co-producer at Liberation Brew TV
and author of A Conspiracy to Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity and Power

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