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Who Do You Think You Are? One of Us?

As a teenager one summer, I was working for an advertising agency in Philadelphia. One day, out of the blue, I was told on the phone by one of the relatives of a white employee, “Who do you think you are? One of us?” I was stunned. Although mild compared to outright acts of brutality, it was one of many experiences that propelled me to do the work that I do now, analyzing and understanding the dynamics of racism. The constant daily insults from Euro-Americans always expecting service and constant attention from people of color is infuriating, but easier to respond to appropriately when analyzed. The publications that have helped me the most are Asiba Tupahache’s Taking Another Look (New York: Spirit of January Publications, 1986) and Dr. Frances Cress Welsing’s The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors (Chicago: Third World Press, 1991).

Apartheid is not confined to South Africa. It is used as a tactic by groups of persons who repress and minimize. Asiba Tupahache refers to “vertical hierarchies” that consider deviant anyone who does not physically look like the marketed image of the person or group at the top of the “vertical.” Privilege, “reciprocity,” and “social proof” are used to bind together an inner circle with vertical hiearchies within a reciprocity network. (See Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence [New York: Quill, 1984]). Members of the inner circle define and decide who is where on the vertical, who will be at the top of the vertical, and therefore who will be the standard for the image projected as the ideal.

“One way abusers ensure domination is by what I call the vertical structure. It is a thought process that puts powerful over powerless. Co-existence is not possible. There are only superior and inferiors. The source of domination assumes the highest position as the most superior. An entity or idea that is different from the abuser must be owned, controlled, or dominated.” (Asiba Tupahache, Taking Another Look)

I see this as a clear description for the European and Euro-American culture. This could also be applied to a caste system focusing on nationality, race, class, gender, age, sexual preference, and physical challenge. In apartheid systems, everyone outside or on the margins of the reciprocity network is considered useful only if they serve without any expectation or hope of reciprocity. (The person on the phone who made the comment to me saw me as someone who should serve in silence without the expectation of even the smallest courtesy. I have noticed that when a woman of color becomes, for example, Miss America, that some white women suddenly demand service of women of color trying to state by implication that they must stay “in their place” and serve. In 1991, with the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, as well as the early 1992 disclosure that one of the presidential candidates had extramarital affairs with white as well as black women, I found that some white women were extremely agitated asking for service of black women, expecting doors to be opened, garbage to be carried . . . people out of the blue making requests . . . who were indignant when one responded with surprise at such an inappropriate request from anyone, let alone a total stranger.)

Some considered on the margin, having internalized the shame and abuse, may maintain and perpetuate the vertical pecking order of the collective system, creating the people of color who are neoconservatives and who receive as favors limited acceptance in the wings of the reciprocity network. They may receive perks in exchange for supressing and damaging their own people and keeping a firm grip on maintaining the status quo. This does not exonerate those people on the vertical for the enforcing aspects of the vertical that create, as Tupahache says, the terror that causes people to hurt themselves as well as others in order to survive. Apartheid systems therefore are vampire empires. As in the classic horror films, once bitten, a new vampire (a person emulating the warped system of beliefs which lives off of and degrades other people) is created, either as children of those on the vertical with privileges or as some of the most terrorized victims desperate to survive. Fear becomes a basic component in an apartheid system in order to keep in line all those who threaten the vertical—supressed or in a stupor from malnutrition, lack of truthful and accurate education (which applies to all sides), just plain terror from brutality of the vertical (as one can witness in the history of lynching, police brutality, aggression against smaller countries for control of their region and their resources, such as the Gulf War, etc. . . .), or addictions encouraged or secretly supported such as alchohol, prescription, and illegal drugs. Additional addictions encouraged to stop critical thinking on all positions on and off of the vertical include religion and religiosity, food, and sex. Racism is also a mood-altering addiction which blocks intelligence and critical thinking. See “Socialization and Racism” by Rutledge M. Dennis in Benjamin P. Bowser and Raymond G. Hunt’s Impacts of Racism on White Americans (London: Sage Publications, 1981, 72–73).

“So disclosing oppression in a system where oppression is normalized, celebrated and sometimes worshipped results in cognitive dissonance. The self-esteem involved in the system heavily depends on oppression staying intact. Exposure threatens this esteem by bringing out the need for change. This can be like taking crack away from a crack addict (which might be easier than taking white supremacy away from America).” (Asiba Tupahache, “Disclosing Oppression and Cognitive Dissonance,” The Spirit of January Monthly [December 1991], 3)

The following are a number of paradoxes and double standards that I have witnessed in the apartheid system. I have used the American system of apartheid for my examples. Our apartheid attitudes fan out and are reflected in how we use and treat the rest of the world. (The US consumes over 40 percent of the world’s resources although it is only 5 percent of the world’s population.)

1. People of color throughout the world are almost always negatively stereotyped as “dirty and lazy” by those in the vertical, inner circle reciprocity network (this attitude is internalized by people of color as part of the pattern of victimization which is enforced by the mythmaking apparatus of the vertical through the reproduction of and repetition of negative stereotype images) . . . Yet people of color are expected to clean the homes and take care of those on the vertical. We are supposed be the servants who clean up what you have dirtied and do not wish to clean up yourselves. We are supposed to prepare your food even if we barely have food to prepare for ourselves. Yet your mythology about us states we are too dirty to be in your company. If we do not serve freely at low wages and welcome being taken advantage of, we are considered lazy and ungrateful and are punished.

2. We are called militants if we protest, and are brutalized. Those on your side are called founding fathers and freedom fighters. We are called illegal aliens, but those who you want to vote for the most conservative aspects of your vertical are called immigrants. We are left to drown at sea, and you are rescued. When we drown, it is a few lines in the newspaper. When you are rescued, it is pages of human interest stories. When our women are raped by your men, we are called liars. If our men are accused, anyone will do as long as they come close to the description, which may not be questioned. We are arrested without question and convicted. We are set up to hide your crimes. We are described as barbaric, heinous, savage. You have the mildest words for your own. When your own are rehabilitated from drugs, it is a worthy human interest story, maybe a movie or two. If we are on any substance, we are considered hopelessly and forever criminal.

3. Our culture can be shamelessly appropriated, and you will say you originated it or are doing us a favor. You flood us with personal questions about our lives and how we do things without our having the reciprocity of the same privilege with you. You make lots of money from using us. If we have a twinge of your culture in anything we do, we are called thieves, plagiarists. You may even laugh at us. If Paul Simon were a backup musician for a Brazilian or black South African group, or if Brazilian groups or black South African musicians suddenly started imitating Paul Simon, you would be outraged . . . you would be stunned. Our cultures are labeled “primitive” unless you take them as your own, such as the ancient Egyptian culture. Although Egypt is on the continent of Africa, you deny we had anything to do with Egypt, except perhaps as slaves. Slavery is seen as our eternal condition, while you portray yourselves as the masters of the universe. The world must revolve around you or there is no world, unless it is defined by you in your voice. You must interpret us. We are not permitted to speak for ourselves without incurring hostility, jealousy, or distrust.

4. We are expected to take care of your elderly even if we are more elderly than you. You expect us to stand so that you can sit. You expect us to starve so that you can eat. You expect us to work long hours at low pay for you so that you can rest and save money.

5. You are allowed access to employment (during more prosperous times) and access to certain unions. We will roundly be called lazy for being unemployed even though you know that you work in segregated, restricted trades and professions. You push the glass ceiling lower and lower and say that we are not good enough. Your lies are easily covered up. Our truth is called a lie.

6. Our success will be criminalized. You will dwell on our failures, and if you cannot find any, you will make some up. You try to make us fail by putting obstacles in our way. As we continue to suceeed, we will be the object of scrutiny and suspicion. (We are expected to be tactful about the dynamics of your sabotage.)

7. Teflon will be applied to people on the vertical who commit questionable acts, whereas those on the margins will be forever Velcro, with everything negative projected and sticking on to them.

8. What is considered eternally criminal and pathological for us will be considered something to be romanticized, or your infractions will be treated as a minor slip off of the eternally allocated place of grace. One slip by us damns all of us. One slip by you is an individual mistake.

9. Negative mythologies will be created about those not blessed enough to be on the vertical. Page layouts in newspapers will present a contrast through comparison of word and image of you and of us. Crimes against us by you will be overlooked, covered up, denied, or prettied up with soothing words. People not on the vertical are usually juxtaposed in a reference (text or image) to something criminal or a negative occurrence directly or juxtaposed by association.

10. Interest in cultural contributions other than the European, currently called multiculturalism and nastily referred to as “politically correct,” is further contorted by the colonization of multiculturalism by those who wish to limit the voice of authority of the primary source to people of European descent who interpret and appropriate, subverting the original and ongoing original voices. As a result of what appeared to be good intentions, vast resources of rich and diverse cultural contributions are open for one group only to use and exploit.

11. The propaganda put out by the top of the vertical creates an illusion, such as the only ones left in the future in science fiction movies are white with one or two people of color. This is further reflected in advertising. Free speech is considered that speech which adheres to the boundaries of discourse set by the vertical. Questioning is a threat if the question and the answer expose the paradoxes and “inconsistencies” of the vertical. (See Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent [New York: Pantheon, 1988], 302.)

Although my examples focus directly on my experience with racism in the United States, their aspects can be applied to apartheid anywhere based on race, gender, class, age, sexual preference, nationality, the physical challenge of disability, as well as location on the vertical hierarchy.

Excerpted from Howardena Pindell: Paintings and Drawings, 1972–1992 (Kansas City, Mo.: Exhibits USA, 1992).