Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Problem with Systemic Racism...

They say a "watched pot never boils." But that's not entirely true. Of course a watched pot boils, it's just that intently watching a pot of water reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit is not an incredibly exciting way to spend your time. And so most people get bored or distracted and end up leaving before it ever reaches the boiling point.

The problem with systemic racism is that it is like a heat source that keeps a pot of water simmering at a constant 211 degrees. Extremely hot, but not quite boiling. Every once in a while the heat gets turned up just a tad. Like when a frightened white police officer in Ferguson MO shoots a young unarmed black man while his hands were in the air. Or a group of ignorant, overzealous college students create a banner for a football game that makes light of an act of genocide committed against Native Americans by the United States government.

And the water starts to boil.

Protests are organized. Twitter goes ablaze. Op-Eds are written. And civil rights leaders are given the microphone.

And the temperature is brought back down to 211 degrees.

Even the dominant culture gets caught up in the frenzy. However, their fight is vastly different from the fight of the Native American, African American, Latino or other minority cultures.

For while the minority culture is angry because of the entire system of racism they are surrounded by, the dominant culture is either protesting because one individual committed a single offensive act that caused the equilibrium to be thrown off, or they are completely bewildered that such an "isolated" event could have caused the water to boil in the first place.

But the goal of the dominant culture, the one that benefits from the systemic racism, is not to bring the water down to a reasonable temperature, or even remove it from the fire altogether. Their goal is stop the water from boiling and get it back to a steaming hot simmer.

For to the dominant culture, a simmering pot is normal and even good.

Because the dominant culture primarily sees the problem in the context of the current situation, they attempt to address it not on a systemic basis, but rather on an individual one.

"That officer needs to be disciplined."
"Those students need to be expelled."

And while the minority culture is angry towards the individual, we are more frustrated, and at times even livid, towards the entire system.

The challenge for us, is to not allow our immediate anger and frustration towards the individual to cause us to forget the larger goal, which is systemic change.

Systemic change is most likely not going to happen while the water is boiling. Protests, Facebook likes, sit-ins, Op-Eds, angry Twitter feeds, and 15-second sound bites on the evening news may help us vent our current frustration, but by themselves are not going to bring about systemic change.

To get systemic change, the conversation needs to go much deeper. The audience needs to be far broader. And the leaders need to be vastly more courageous.

This past weekend, when I saw the banner that some students displayed at the OSU football game which made light of the Trail of Tears, I was extremely frustrated and angry. I felt an incredible desire to say something but was well aware that the student’s banner was merely a symptom of a much deeper, systemic problem. So I created a graphic using the banner the students displayed and adding some comments that connected the banner to the deeper systemic issues.

I posted this graphic on my Facebook and Twitter feeds in hopes that it would be shared, commented on and possibly even make its way into the mass media. But I was not counting on the latter.  For an in-depth interview regarding our misinformed national identity, a broken educational system or the Supreme Court case law precedent based on a Doctrine of Discovery, would in no way help ABC, NBC, CBS or ESPN sell advertising on the opening weekend of the college football season. They would be looking for controversy, not dialogue. Their purposes would be much better satisfied with an angry Indian rather than a weary indigenous host.

But the graphic did get shared many times on social media. I have not gotten an overwhelming amount of feedback on it, but I have received some. And it is my hope that the systemic problems the graphic highlights will open new doors to the much deeper and broader conversations that need to take place.

The crisis of systemic racism is not that the water occasionally boils, but that it is kept simmering at a constant 211 degrees. Working for systemic change is not flashy, it will not get politicians elected, and rarely will it help sell advertising. For most people do not pay attention to things like systemic racism because, after all, "a watched pot never boils."

But we all know that’s not true.

Mark Charles (Navajo)

Updated 09/02/2014

2 comments: said...

I completely believe the viewpoints of this blog, from start to finish. There is an element of mockery in using a banner that makes fun of such a tragic event of The Trail Of Tears and somehow believing that such mockery is perfectly okay to express through a banner that is actually being used by student who are rooting for....cowboys.These students honestly may not perceive the hurt this causes numerous members of my Tribe, the Cherokee Nation. They may not know the origin of the TOT, they may not know of the huge numbers of native Americans who, force marched clear to Oklahoma, lost many lives along the way. It was a vast genocide that i knew I never was taught about. For this matter, we take to heart then that if ignorance is the recipe for chanting support for the home team, we just may witness continued bias in such manner that people can do so with impunity under the 1st Amendment law. I believe in the first amendment, but I also believe in politeness, not mass attempts to subjugate other persons' feelings of being told that their ancestors suffering should be commercially used to not only give "cheers to the home team", but also deride, denigrate and show disdain for a group of people whose only fault was to be driven to starvation onto an Indian Territory that they were told was exclusively for them Betrayal takes many, may forms.It seems betrayal, with 1st Amendment protections, comes easily today to them who otherwise see no reason to discontinue racist taunts that seem perfectly "natural" to them. I could not disagree with them more....

Deborah Brunt said...

Mark, I'm very sad that these things have happened. And I'm distressed that we (in the dominant culture) remain so blind as to what the shooting in Ferguson and the atrocious banner at the OSU football game reveal about us and our nation. Thank you for bringing to the front what we need to see.