The Surreal Quality Of American Racism
By Romi Mahajan
03 July, 2015
I’ve been mulling over this article for weeks, knowing that there is absolutely no way I’ll be able to pull it off without offending some or many; usually I would be given pause by this in any way- all writing of any significance whatsoever offends some and delights others. But what if my writing offends good people who are unceasingly victimized? That was the question that dogged me until I concluded that the reasons for writing about a recent experience are profound and that the good that can come from it outweighs the possible –even the likely- offense.
So dear reader, please understand this if you care to proceed.
I was recently on a business trip in a major city and was walking back to my hotel when two white homeless men got into a scuffle in front of me. They exchanged words, a minor blow or two, and started yelling all manner of insults at each other. Finally, one of them (the lighter skinned one) called the other “Nigger.” He meant this as an insult. The darker-skinned (but white) man responded by saying that he was not a “Nigger.” This exchange went on in that vein (“You are an N”..”I ain’t an N.”….) for some time until the men separated and went their own ways.
I was shocked. So many thoughts rushed through my mind. The incident was dense with a surreal insanity. A class elitist could dismiss this as the ranting of homeless men. But rantings they were not. The “insult” and the “defense” were conscious and clear. You can hit me, call me names, but when you venture to call me “N” you really mean business. And that epithet is so thorough, so insulting that I can let other things got but must defend myself against it. And that too even from folks scraping the bottom of the economic barrel (which, elitist or not, indicates “status” in increasingly hierarchical America.)
For some, this might be bewildering, for others not so much. For both groups, however, incidents like this indicate at once the deep, tectonic racism that defines American society and its surreal quality. For African-Americans, the message from White America is clear- even those we discard, even those outside the economic system are better than you. Being you is the lowest state imaginable, worse even than destitution.
Clearly, not all White Americans are consciously racist and many are no more racist than anyone else. Certainly, most don’t “want” to be racist. But “wants” are matters of what’s conscious and what’s conscious needn’t reflect reality. Racism in America is deep-seated, fundamental, and normative; it is in effect unconscious, built into behavior, into assumptions, into the very imagination.
Imagine the following - two African-American men are fighting. They hurl abuses at each other. They push each other. Finally, after much frustration, they call each other “White”—the ultimate insult. That pushes each other the limit and they escalate. Seems far-fetched but that is exactly what happened in the incident I recounted above, though inversely. It’s not that African-Americans don’t have their own race-hate but the prejudices they harbor are not the ones that form the fundamental fulcrum of American society.
Power allows prejudice to translate into material outcomes. For African-Americans these outcomes are palpable, countable, and real- poverty, health woes, incarceration, death. The list goes on- humiliation, soul-crushing stasis, rejection, depression.
Racism in America is both real and surreal.
Romi Mahajan is the founder of KKM Group a marketing firm, an author, an investor, and an activist. His career is a storied one, including spending 9 years at Microsoft and being the first CMO of Ascentium, an award-winning digital agency. Romi has also authored two books on marketing- the latest one can be found here . A prolific writer and speaker, Mahajan lives in Bellevue, WA, with his wife and two kids. Mahajan graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, at the age of 19. He can be reached at [email protected]
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