We don't trust each other. They say we don't want to be around them. We say they don't want to be around us. We seem to live in different worlds. Why is this stil a reality in the 21st century? Gang Leader for a Day is one of those books that really gets to the bottom of the divide. It starts in the hood. Within most cities there's a another city with it's own customs and economy. It goes by many names. These cities are mostly populated by people of color and it lies at the heart of why there exists such distrust among the races even after a generations have accepted and celebrated the civil rights movement. At the heart of this divide lies a real segregation of culture as real as any law could enforce.
The Black/White Bear Divide
I was just thinking about how this applies to the bear community. I had a great opportunity to join in on a discussion in our group on Facebook. One of Our contributors, Lynx Bear, posed a great question asking why blacks are not better represented in the bear community. It's such a good question and one of the many reasons I'm glad he agreed to be a contributor to M3. It was an earlier post where Lynx Bear talks about race and poverty that made me pull out this book and read it again. Ever since then It's been rattling around in my head. This book gets at so many aspects of American life. Race, poverty, and segregation plays out in all aspects of life. Even in a subculture within a subculture. It's so amazing to me that it permeates everything and makes us divided when we shouldn't be.
One of these is not like the others
Have you noticed that all people kinda look alike? It's not just white people that look alike to blacks or blacks to whites, but all people kinda look alike if you think about it objectively. We're just prone to see the differences. If we weren't we wouldn't fuck and have kids together. But it can feel uncomfortable when you go into a place and you're the only black guy there. Not having ever been to a bear event I can only rely on the observations of friends who've gone, but there aren't any real conclusions drawn as to why. It seems the answers to such questions are something even a sociologist would have a hard time figuring out.
I once heard a joke that went something like "the only time you see a black guy and a white guy together is at work, in a buddy movie, or in a gay couple." While it may be true that there are three times as many interracial gay couples as there are straight couples, gay people still are just as divided along race as straight people are in the community at large. One addition I would make to that joke is the inclusion of nerds. Black nerds have been known to hang out with white guys. And since I happen to be a black gay nerd, I have a lot of white friends.
Blacks, Whites, and Nerds
I've been in the situation Lynx talks about in the discussion, but in a completely different environment. I play Magic the Gathering. Yes, it's the nerdiest card game on earth and there is exactly one black pro player out of thousands. It's rare that I'll ever see a black person when I go to a Magic event and when I do I usually have anything but pity for him. No solidarity, no what's up my brotha, or As-salamu alaykum, it's mostly just a nod of the head and an akward realization that we are really different from the hundreds of other people at the event.
Black guys who hang out with white guys will be rejected by their black brothers and labeled as white. I've had this happen to me. I start talking a little white forgetting what it means to sound black and I would get called names. I wouldn't even try to correct something so ignorant. I'd just say "so what's your point?" and the person would usually shut up. I wouldn't be offended at being called white just for the sake of being called white or even being suspected of being part white just because I'm light skinned. There's nothing wrong with being white. There is, however, something wrong with the implication that because I'm intelligent and well spoken that these are automatically white characteristics. This seems like an unspoken acceptance of black inferiority. That somehow intelectual curiosity is an alien atribute that has infected me by my association with white people. This seems completely irrational considering my namesake, Malcolm X, happened to have white ancestry and no one would have dared question his induction into black America.
The Origins of The Black White Divide
Gang leader for a day is a book that gets to the heart of the black white divide. As individuals we may intermingle, but the source of our culture remains divided. As a black guy you may have never lived in the hood, but a lot of black people do. In fact the majority of us still do. Our skin pigmentation doesn't magically link us except in the eyes of close minded people. I would be as much an outsider in the ghetto as Sudhir Venkatesh was in the book. In Gang leader for a Day we get to follow an East Indian Grad student raised in southern California as he walks the streets and buildings of the worst and largest housing projects in Chicago trying to find answers to the question of perpetual poverty. Often people thought he was arab or hispanic, but to everyone he was an outsider looking in. And of course even in his home, a mostly white suburb, he was and outsider, so for him it wasn't that new a territory to survey. There was no map for him to follow though. He just had to sit and listen and observe to learn what there is to know about the culture.
The hood is far more complicated than any movie or show has portrayed. This is probably because it's not that dramatic. People are just living their lives like anyone else, doing the best that they can with what little they have. Certainly there's drama, but there's little that can be remarked about it until you throw in an interesting twist. In this case it's the author himself, trying to change the culture of his academic colleagues and get them to see the poor, the gangs, and the drug addicted as more than just numbers, but as living breathing contradictions, perfectly flawed and complex as any person anywhere.
The Myth of the Culture of Poverty
After reading this book it's hard to continue to believe in the culture of poverty. People want to be able to take pride in what little they have, so to protect our ego we ask others to come down to our level to feel less inferior. This isn't something unique to the project or to black people, it's a universal. There is a cultural force the keeps people in poverty, yes this much is true, but until we can change human nature itself and our need for self esteem we're not going to change this force or regression into ignorance and segregation. If you want to be a part of the larger community you're going to suffer the feeling of isolation and inferiority that comes with the package.
We start to see the similarities in the gangs that deal crack and the corporations that are supposed to be so better and different because they're legal. Outlaw capitalism is still capitalism. We start to realize that the crack gangs are much like any franchise. There's a hierarchy similar to the bureaucracy at Burger King. The only difference is the shit that they're slinging is going to kill us a lot faster. They don't know that they'd be better off going to school and working for the man because they see drug king pins as their heros, but it doesn't make their dreams any less valid or even that different.
What can we DO?
The hospitality and thoughtfulness overwhelmed Sudhir as the people in the projects took him in and fed him while he was doing his ethnographic studies. These people looked out for each other and were in many ways more a family to him than anyone at The University of Chicago. He felt that he needed to do something to help the people around him, but it was ultimately fruitless. What he did do was write a great book that shined a light into the dark places of American slums. We have to start seeing people as not that different than us. We have to see ourselves in the other. We as a people, collectively and individually, have to change the way we see each other. Not as different, but as one big human family that needs each other to survive.
We can each start by refusing to accept that race is a real thing that exists outside our own perceptions. It's a radical idea considering we want to take pride in being black and surviving slavery and forging a community in the face of hostile and deadly opposition. We can still take pride in it the same why we take pride in the founding of the first democratic society even if none of the founders were black. We're all just people. We may have differences, but were a lot more a alike than we are different. Let's share with each other the true stories of who we are as individuals and see in each others the common spark of humanity. Let's not close ourselves off just because it feels uncomfortable. It really is worth the effort to open the minds of the people around us even if we don't personally gain rewards from our sacrifice.
Male Media Mind