21 July 2011

Post 406: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow. ISBN: 9781598879377 (audio book).

I'll be honest, I wasn't going to post about this one. I listened to it back in May, and since it was an "extra" book I didn't feel obligated to post about it and I couldn't really come up with anything to write about. What did I have in common with a half-Danish, half-Black American girl?

And then I had to correct someone about using a racial slur and I was very strongly reminded of a scene in the book. Nella, Rachel's Danish mother, is speaking with her employer and friend when she uses the word "jigaboo." Nella did not realize this was a racial slur, English being her second language, and was appalled to learn that she had called her own children this word. Although my situation was a bit different, I've been on both ends of the Calling Out and know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of this kind of situation.

There is no expression for the amount of horror I felt at realizing I was perpetrating racist behavior. It brought me to tears to realize I was not above that kind of behavior, even if it was done in ignorance; maybe especially because it was done in ignorance. It is not a comfortable thing to be Called Out, it is not pleasant, it is not nice. There is a great deal of shame involved, whether this is the intention of the party doing the Calling Out or not, because it is hurtful to realize that you in turn have been hurtful to someone else on such a basic level. It is, however, necessary. This is not an aspect of Antioch College that I found to be "toxic," regardless of the shock it produced to the system. Rather it was more like being slapped out of a bad dream I didn't even know I was having. Maybe I wouldn't have remembered it if I woke on my own, but I also wouldn't have learned from it if someone hadn't taken it upon themselves to slap me in the first place.

And let's not be coy, Calling Out is an act of emotional/social/political/mental violence, but so is allowing the kind of behavior that prompts it. Calling Out ideally reduces the number of incidents that occur in the future that may silently go on hurting people who have already long been hurt by a tradition of racial/sexual/gendered/sized slurs, behaviors, and stereotypes. It is hard to call someone out for this behavior, because no one wants to cause that kind of anguish to someone. Many people get very defensive because they don't realize that it is not necessarily calling them a racist, but that they have ingrained behaviors that have been caused by racism and therefore they need to work on Their Shit, as we called it at Antioch.

Everyone has Their Shit they need to work on. We are all Works in Progress, but we can't possibly see our own flaws all the time and we can't possibly fix something we aren't aware is broken. So today I tried to help someone with Their Shit. They were watching someone on the news and he happened to be a black man spouting Republican lines, the person then commented with, "What a fucking Uncle Tom."

I did not immediately respond, mostly because I was shocked. This is a person who is close to me, who I respect, and who I really do not wish to pick fights with anymore than I have to. On the other hand, a Calling Out was necessary in order to correct this person's behavior so that the person did not make future mistakes and realized that Their Shit was out in the open. I agonized a bit over the decision, but realized that if I was having that argument, I probably needed to go ahead and do it, because if it was agonizing me, it would bother someone else.

The person was accepting of the criticism, if not necessarily for the correct reasons. Instead of saying, "You're right, that's some fucked up Shit," we had a discussion about how the Black American* Republican was acting like an Uncle Tom, and how it still wasn't right to use that term because it was racially denoted rather than indicating that the person held ideas based on their own experiences and ideology, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. The person finally agreed not to use the term because it offended me; while this is not exactly a Win it's not a loss either. The person did not learn that the behavior was unacceptable because it categorically treated someone, or a group of someone's, as subhuman: in this case denying them personhood in the sense of holding them responsible for their own thought processes rather than insisting that they are reliant on the Republican party to think for them. It doesn't matter if that's actually what happened, because they still have enough awareness and intelligence to decide whether they will believe that information or not, calling some an Uncle Tom is just a step up from calling them a monkey instead.

And before you use patsy...

For once I agree with and managed to read through the New York Times Book Review. A rather spoilery, but really good review, is over at Bookroom Reviews.
LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive Media.
*I prefer the term Black American because it doesn't automatically negate heritage from other black-skinned regions (i.e. black people come from more places that Africa). It's not a perfect term, because it also negates the fact that many Black Americans come from a mixed racial heritage, but I feel it is slightly more accurate than African American. Here is someone who uses the word Black or Person of Color to describe herself. It demonstrates exactly how difficult language can be when something like race comes into play.


  1. Reading this was enlightening in some way. It reminded me of an incident back in college.

    There was a floor meeting called in my dorm -- and this was an honors dorm, too -- due to a guy feeling that he'd been disrespectfully treated by one girl in particular, and he and his friends by everyone in general. His group was black, the accused were white. But I'll never forget the one girl, she broke down crying because they were saying she was racist. It was one of those situations where, she most likely wasn't, but it was easy to see where her actions would give that idea.

    Calling someone racist is really inflammatory, and it's something we need to do less. I've never heard this concept of separating racist actions from racist people, but I think it's liberating. The minute you accuse someone of racism, it usually shuts down conversation. It's a brick wall, an endpoint, and there's nothing that can really be done afterward to salvage the situation. Informing someone that their attitudes or actions may be based on racial insensitivity -- and not that they, themselves, are racist -- pinpoints the actual problem and can lead to closure through behavior changes.

    More than that, it also completely shuts down But I Have a Black Friend. It may even dismantle They're Okay With Me Saying It, but I'm not sure about that one.

  2. i tried to explain to a friend that referring to young actresses on tv or movies as "whores" was not okay (something he routinely did, especially with anyone from the disney channel), and he basically just doesn't do it anymore around me because it offends me. baby steps?

  3. Dan,
    It's still hard, and I know for me it caused me to shut down a bit. Not in the way of denying it, but I did have to withdraw from the situation for awhile to think about what happened. It is easier in the long run because you've already gone through the hard stuff the first time and come to the conclusion that it's more of an ingrained behavior picked up from a sick society.

    That one seems to be a lot harder to tackle than the racial slurs. It seems like our society still thinks it's okay to treat women in this manner because they somehow "deserve" it rather than because the society itself has told them they have to be sexually available, but not "too" available. If we opt into what society says we should be, most of us become "whores" or "sluts" whereas if we don't we become "dykes" or "bitches". This is a situation that men are less often placed in regarding their sexuality (assuming they are heterosexual at least). Although, that does seem to be changing for the worse, but maybe that's just because I spend too much time on the internet? It can't possibly be like that in the real world, can it?


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