Sunday, 28 February 2010

Discussions in Black History Month: On being the "bigger person"

I was bullied from about my 4th year in primary school until my last year in secondary school. Mostly I was just ostracized, but there were times when it got physical. It got so bad at one point that I had to spend my lunch-hours in a classroom to prevent the fights from starting. 

In general, it was a thoroughly awful period of my life. This may be unfair, but I remember my secondary school as a place that offered very little to most of the students that passed through it outside of socialisation for the street, which was merely an epiphenomenon of the backgrounds of the majority of the student body. The school leadership and staff, at least some of them, did what they could. However the hegemonic culture inside the school walls was pretty much that of the street. This is hopelessly simplified, but in the street pretty much all you have of lasting importance is your name, your rep.

I could have taken on the boys and girls with reps, I could have played by their rules, but for the most part I didn't. My mind was beyond the school walls, beyond the street. I wanted more than what the street had to offer, and because of that I was extremely vulnerable. Say I'd brought a knife into school and used it on one of my bullies. It would mean expulsion, and possible imprisonment. I had no crew, no one would have stood tall for me. Maybe I'd get a rep, but more likely I'd get a knife in the liver from anyone of my victim's crew. And the rep you get from knifing someone was not the kind I needed to get where I wanted to go.

So I took punches and abuse, when I would have liked nothing more than to smash the faces of the people who stepped to me. At times I wanted to seriously hurt the people whose indifference and insults made my life almost unbearable at times, but I never did. Being despised and ostracized was bad enough, but being thought of as weak, and the knowledge that this perception would only encourage more despite and ostracism, was hard for me to live with.

Another thing that was hard for me to live with was the fact that I would likely never get to where I wanted to go having exacted revenge, or seeing the people who made my childhood much harder than it should have been called to account. I've managed to let go of much of my anger, perhaps the process has been aided by the fact that I'm now a good way along on the path I wanted.

Needless to say my experience has greatly affected my thinking on the struggles of black people and other minority groups across the world. A number of my acquaintances are dissatisfied with it. Taking the position that there are finite resources, and that any struggle for these resources is a zero-sum game; they argue that fighting for the development of the black community while precluding  the tactics used by whites to gain and maintain power at the expense of other groups means also precluding any chance that black people  as a whole will ever catch up. I commonly hear:You're asking black people to be saintly, to keep turning the other cheek. Why push for policies that benefit most Americans and not just black people? Why can't we just say that we alone deserve this or that policy because of what was done to us?

I think my acquaintances' positions also rely on the ugly premise that racial discrimination is only a wrong when it happens to black people -  I know for sure that at least one of them would affirm that premise with no qualms.

Aside from arguments about values or morality, this is a terrible foundation from which to build up a community. In the US context this kind of  "all for us, none for others" thinking would pit 13% of the US population against the other 87%. Looking at the numbers, what are the odds of fulfilling one's agenda?

It's an awful tribalism. The kind that would call for 5 take on 50 in combat to reach a target, rather than have a sniper take one shot, based not on a comparison of the likely effectiveness of the two strategies but because the latter does not generate the right feelings, and lacks the requisite gore and glory.

My position isn't about being "a bigger person" as N would say. I wasn't a bigger person in secondary school. I could be as ignorant, and cruel, and ugly as anyone else. My desire to go to university did not mean that I'd completely transcended my environment, I was an active participant in the culture of the school even as an outcast. My hands are not clean.

My position is simply about wanting more than violence, and more than the fear of violence.

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