A NEW APPROACH TO RACISM
By Comandante Chispas
What in the world (or elsewhere) do racism, John Steinbeck and music have in common?
The three of them were presented bang-bang-bang by Kristofkessemeir -- see his Ello post + commentaries, “True Culture Has No Hatred but Curiosity for New Things.”
Kristof, you made me curious ...
Introductory warning: I went around and around on the use of strong language for this post. I decided to include a two-word racist phrase because (i) to exclude it -- not to see it is not to feel it -- would weaken the basic point which needs to be made. (ii) To make the phrase taboo only augments its magic, hence increases its power.* This post´s purpose is to decrease, not increase, its power. (iii) Increasing the power of such phrases has political consequences. Racists of course use racial slurs all the time. To increase the power of the slurs, therefore, is to increase the power of the racists.
I seen fellas like you before.
You ain’t askin’ nothin’; you’re
jus’ singin’ a kinda song.
-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath** --
I wonder if you find those words as painful to read as I did to write.
Look at them again. Did your breakfast start to warm?
Then you know how I felt hearing them 5-6 times a day when I was growing up in the South.
You may be thinking, yeah -- there it is: Hillary´s basket of deplorables!
Over the years, hearing racist words from people who I came to know full good and well were not deplorable, I came to a certain conclusion ...
A random circumstance provided the opportunity to test it.
Driving south at Christmas time, we stopped in Alabama. There they were again, those words -- the gas station attendant was muttering them.
"I want to see something," I told my friends.
I got out of the car.
"You know," I suggested in a casual way, "I don´t think you really mean what you´re saying."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah? Then why the fuck am I sayin´ it?"
"It´s just a song you like to sing."
He stopped cleaning the windshield.
Two buddies armed with Eskimo Pies hurried over.
"You know, that´s ... the damnest thing I ever heard!" He laughed.
Damnest thing; damnest thing. His buddies´ heads moved up and down like fishing-line bobbers teased by unseen minnows.
A lively discussion ensued which beat the hell out of any Harvard conference. The part I remember most:
The attendant: "We white Southerners can except THEM as individuals -- all of us know at least one good one -- but never as a group. Never! Northern Whites, on the other hand, can accept THEM as a group but not as individuals."
The bobbers bobbed harder.
I asked him to clarify.
"Northern whites love to talk about helping THEM. Equality, justice, all that shit. But when one of THEM wants to move in next door, my god! -- how those whites and their wives piss and moan about their precious property values."
You, dear reader, may now find your head nodding in enthusiastic agreement.
I know mine did.
America doesn´t have the foggiest idea how to combat racism. It never did, and -- the way things are going -- never will. We will meet an exception in a moment.
The best the United States has come up with to combat racism is ... racism. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: the problem has infected the solution.
As with Typhoid Mary, the carriers of the disease appear to be in perfect health. They are easily identified; as the incarnation of Honest Consciousness, they refuse to undergo any examination. They adamantly reject even the dimmest suggestion they might somehow be contagious, thus responsible for more infections, even deaths.
The 2016 American presidential campaigns furnished a truckload of cases of confusing a person with a song that person sings.
For a specific example, click here. The Trump supporter chants at reporters "Jew S.A.!," not "U.S.A.!" Both CNN and Trump´s campaign manager a la Hillary instantly write the man off as a deplorable. The consequence of their complete, total, absolute ad hominem attack was that the supporter´s song was completely, totally, absolutely passed over.
Need another example of fighting racism with racism? Click here. In claiming that Hillary got it right after all -- that Trump supporters are indeed a "basket of deplorables" -- Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank unwittingly perpetuates a la CNN the very thing he fights.
We are about to see somebody who got it right.
Everybody knows there are fascist-racist criminals out there who are incorrigible – deplorable, if you like. However, there are other people who are just singin´a kinda deplorable song but are not themselves deplorable.
It is not easy to separate the two groups.
Let´s take the hardest case imaginable. If anybody is deplorable, it is a KKK member.
Kristof´s Ello post introduced us to Daryl Davis, a black musician who traveled the country meeting KKK members. He says he was not seeking converts; he was simply curious -- there´s that word again -- how somebody could hate him without knowing him.
Because of Daryl Davis, 200 Klansmen hung up their hoods. Daryl Davis was able to make his incredible achievement because he was a musician. Consciously and/or unconsciously, he tapped into something as profound as it is new. We will identify it shortly.
Racism is the crack in the diamond of America. It cannot be rubbed out with an EEO eraser. A radically new approach is needed. It starts with a new awareness.
Above all, about music.
An unabashed, unabridged blindness permeates America. It keeps Americans from seeing why racism, unlike Russia, can destroy the United States:
Castes have birth as their identifying characteristic. Classes, on the other hand, in our world are based mostly on wealth.
Race is a characteristic of birth. That means ...
No -- no way!
Americans instantly and automatically associate the word caste with India. Faraway. Poor/poorer/poorest. Weirdo-o, foreign. Thank god, it can´t happen here!
In reality, not only can it happen here, it did. In fact, it is happening right now.
Remember Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be Black? The national enrage and outrage, the resounding unanimity of condemnations brought America´s caste system roiling to the surface.
You are either born Black or you are not. If you are not, you cannot be Black. What you say or feel or think about it makes no difference.
By classifying a person by what -- not who -- he/she is, the caste system and the racism inevitably associated with it are eternally, viscerally anti-democratic. Any live-and-let-live modus vivendi between caste and democracy cannot endure. Eventually, one destroys the other.
Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts.
Everybody acts ... It´s hard to imagine anyone
surviving in our world without acting ...
We use it to protect our interests and to gain
advantage in every aspect of our lives, and it
is instinctive, a skill built into all of us.
Whenever we want something from somebody
or when we want to hide something or pretend,
we´re acting. Most people do it all day long.
-- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me --
Murderers, rapists. All during his campaign was Trump only acting? Pretending? Gaining advantage? Were his hate-inciting comments just a song he was singing -- or are they something else?
The title of Brando´s book suggests he viewed acting and songs as interrelated. I think songs are more powerful.
The power of music has been recognized for over 2,000 years. Plato wrote that “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”***
Music is primarily auditory; acting, visual. To ask how racism is so enduring is ultimately to ask how, in neurological terms, music is when all is said and done, overwhelming.
Music convinces by traveling along neurological circuitry formed for a purpose completely distinct from enjoyment: survival.
Daniel Levitin, a neurology scientist:
"In cats and rats, animals whose auditory systems are well known and bear a marked resemblance to our own, there are projections directly from the inner ear to the cerebellum ... that coordinate the movements involved in orienting the animal to an auditory stimulus in space. There are even location-sensitive neurons in the cerebellum, an efficient way of rapidly orienting the head or body to a source. These areas in turn send projections out to the areas in the frontal lobe that my studies ... found to be active in processing both language and music — regions in the inferior frontal and orbitofrontal cortex. What was going on here? Why would the connections from the ear bypass the auditory cortex, the central receiving area for hearing, and send masses of fibers to the cerebellum, a center of motor control (and perhaps, we were learning, of emotion)?..."
In other words, music, an auditory phenomenon, directly enters the brain, bypassing neurological centers of rational perception, reflexion, evaluation. To repeat: that bypass is necessary. The underlying purpose of the direct ear-cerebellum circuitry is survival. If a lion roars nearby, there is no time for analysis. Involuntary reflexes take over.
But why are auditory phenomena so especially powerful?
"Our perceptual system is exquisitely tuned to detect changes in the environment, because change can be a signal that danger is imminent. We see this in each of the five senses. Our visual system, while endowed with a capacity to see millions of colors and to see in the dark when illumination is as dim as one photon in a million, is most sensitive to sudden change. An entire region of the visual cortex, area MT, specializes in detecting motion; neurons there fire when an object in our visual field moves ... But sounds typically trigger the greatest startle reactions [sic]. A sudden noise causes us to jump out of our seats, to turn out heads, to duck, or to cover our ears. The auditory startle is the fastest and arguably the most important of our startle responses. This makes sense: In the world we live in, surrounded by a blanket of atmosphere, the sudden movement of an object—particularly a large one—causes an air disturbance. This movement of air molecules is perceived by us as sound."****
Racism will never be understood, much less effectively countered, until its underlying musical component is acknowledged and understood.
What has been said about racism applies equally to xenophobia and misogyny. They, too, are songs people sing -- songs that pervade American life.
Not politicians or government bureaucrats or other “community leaders,” but musicians -- Daryl Davis and others like him -- reading these words: you hold the key.
To understand racism as song, we need to open a whole new line of inquiry. It may turn out to be not so much a question of inventing new things as of reordering old ones.
We all know that music -- especially popular music -- changes. How? Why? And how do those changes cause changes in a society's culture, its beliefs, behavior, biases including racism?
Those questions are not being asked. And, for a reason.
You ain´t askin´ nothing, John Steinbeck´s hero observed. Exactly -- not asking is part of the song.
A crucial part.
Neurology explains why racism as song has proved to be impervious to what your mom and dad and little league coach and preacher and favorite high school teacher told you;
to anti-discrimination laws and regulations;
to school busing;
to billions of dollars in government expenditures;
to speeches, conferences and articles like this one.
Our anti-taboo position runs directly counter to the mainstream media such as CNN which allow themselves only to speak of the "n-word." But intentions and their consequences seldom coincide. By creating and enforcing taboos, the major networks and newspapers end up supporting latently what they oppose manifestly.
**John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, New York, 1976, p. 163.
*Plato, Plato’s Republic, translated by B. Jowett, Random House, New York, undated, p. 135. (Book IV, subject 424). Exhibit #1: the astounding impact of Little Richard and other Black rock and roll musicians on Jim Crow segregation.
*** Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music, pp. 180-1.
@ello @ellowrites @ellomusic @ellomusicmakers @daryldavis #DarylDavis @racism @racist #JohnSteinbeck #TheGrapesofWrath #RachelDolezal @blackartmatters