Sticks and stones and bullets

December 5, 2004

An article I read this week, from the online edition of the British paper The Guardian, brought some recent news to a point for me. "No offence, but why are all white men so aggressive?", by British writer Gary Younge, "flips the script" on offensive questions to people of color by posing a series of similar questions to white Brits. Younge writes:

Sometimes ... questions can be so pregnant with assumptions that they are, arguably, better left unanswered. Not because they do not relate to important issues, but because they are so loaded with prejudice and crippled by ignorance, thoughtless in tone and reckless in content, that the manner in which they are put renders them incapable of addressing important issues. To engage with them would be to legitimise their bias. ... Those who ask the questions of others without interrogating themselves are effectively saying: this is our world, you're just living in it.

So what? I hear some people saying already. People talking is a problem? People having a cultural exchange is a problem? Surely you're not saying that there's any connection between asking someone where they're from and real racism? Actually, that's exactly what I'm about to say. This fight gets fought out on a daily basis in small encounters, in small questions put to people who stand out, by people who don't. The daily failure to recognize the subtext of such encounters underlines that subtext, justifies it, makes it solid and real.

Why? Because, as Younge says above, to answer a question that your questioner is never asked is tacitly to agree with them that there's something wrong with you, or at least different about you; that the world belongs to those like them, and anyone who is not like them must account for herself. To answer that question is to admit that you're an interloper, a trespasser; to admit that those who belong have a right to question you. Again, Younge explains this better than I can:

the reason some people get defensive is because they feel that they are forever being attacked. ... Before there can be negotiation there must first be goodwill - the desire to fill in the gaps of knowledge and perspective. ... Without that, all we are left with is full-scale interrogation - the hostile questioning of the prosecution counsel: less of a conversation than a trial by presumption.

Why is this important? Because, at its base, it is about nullification, denying that the Other truly exists, or has a right to exist within a cultural space. When I try to make people aware of this subtext, most of my white friends think that I'm simply oversensitive, interpreting genuine interest in me as an attack. It's only when one's defenses are down, when one's adrenaline is up -- when the interrogator is drunk or very upset -- that the real spirit of an interchange comes out in more direct form and the questions and statements sound more like an attempt to attack or destroy.

I've been told in such situations "You're so ugly" or "Go back where you came from!" or "Don't hate yourself just because you don't know who you are!" or even "You white trash ... Chinese trash!" So many opportunities are missed, so many clear demonstrations of the way we think about and act out race privilege are ignored or denied away. And then all at once the stakes are raised and the privilege, the power and the territoriality -- whose world it is and who gets to live in it -- gets played out in physical form.

Two weeks ago, a Hmong American literally trespassed into the world of a group of white Americans. Presumably, no one asked him where he was from, or dressed up their language in any way. They just told him to get out, and might have backed that up with a gunshot, or a few. He was alone, they called in backup. Whatever happened to start the exchange, it ended with six of the white hunters dead and all the blame on the outsider.

There is no way to spin this story that would make it any less tragic. But in the next few months, the nature of that tragedy will be heavily in dispute. Could it have been avoided, and how? Was it a territorial dispute or a culture clash or an outright racist incident? Obviously, a man who would kill six people over an argument is disturbed, right? Right? Is there any way in the world the killing of six others can be justified as self defense? At the moment, for me, the key to this question is: "Just how threatened did he feel?"

If members of our dominant race can't recognize the attack implicit in "where do you come from, really?", then can they at least recognize the attack explicit in racial epithets cast by men brandishing hunting weapons? Is there any way to make it clear to a dominant majority that already feels embattled, that a racially motivated attack is not merely an immediate, singular attack, but a symptom of what the victim feels to be a culture-wide effort to erase his existence? Add a gun to that mix and what do you have?

Early media efforts to be fair on this head don't bode well, as this article demonstrates: the writer only has "culture clash" to suggest, all the while underlining the "this is our world, you're just hunting in it" subtext of the region's ongoing conflict. Before rushing to condemn the shooter, maybe for once in its mea-culpa-allergic history the United States -- that is, all of us -- can stop and ask ourselves for a moment if we've ever contributed anything to a culture that makes such confrontations possible ... daily with words, and sometimes tragically with guns.