A Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces
Usually, my blog posts deal with African American community or political issues, and I talk as one cultural insider to another cultural insider.
However, I’ve realized that sometimes, well-meaning, really nice White people (of which there are many, by the way) want Black folks to talk to them in non-angry, non-confrontational, and patient ways about Black cultural issues they don’t understand.
So I wondered if it might be useful for me to write blog posts that break racial things down for good White folks who mean no harm—and who either have Black friends or are in the midst of acquiring friendships with Black people– and are just trying to navigate these racial waters that ironically (and to me, bewilderingly) have become far more treacherous since the election of our first Black president.
Sidebar: I use “race” as a shorthand because that word usually means “Black” or “People of Color” to White people. But really, “race” is not a real, like, biological thing. It does not exist except in people’s minds. What I actually mean when I say “race” is “culture.”
I hadn’t even planned to post again this week, but I’ve noticed the online furor on Black social media concerning Governor Jan Brewer’s pointing her finger very close to President Barack Obama’s face. The response from White folks? Some are upset, but I get the impression they don’t really understand why we African Americans are so troubled. Some of us are even enraged.
So I thought that it might be time to write a Teachable Racial Moment post.
Ok, here goes: If you are wise, you will not ever put your finger–or your whole hand– in a Black person’s face, unless you know you want to immediately engage in a knock down, drag out, fight-to-the-concrete physical brawl. It’s actually a well-known signal for “let’s fight right this moment” in the Black community. When I say “ever” I mean not in this present lifetime, or even after death, if you encounter another Black angel in Heaven. Because that angel is still liable to get into it with you and risk being de-winged.
I don’t know when the finger point in the face became such a grave insult to Black folks, but it has been for at least fifty years. And what does the gesture mean anyway? It means derision. It means disrespect. And above all, it means power to the pointer.
Sidebar: Have you ever seen a mother (of any cultural background) in the mall with her disobedient toddler? She finally gets exasperated and leans down and begins to scold the child—by pointing her finger in his or her face. And what happens? The toddler starts crying, and then gets it together and starts behaving better. Thus, the finger point in the face is not a gesture between equals. She who does the pointing is establishing herself as a superior to the person being pointed at.
Okay, and now, I’m about to reveal a Racial Secret. Are you ready? I’m going to put this in italics so you really get it.
Because the finger point gesture establishes superiority, the gesture is even worse if a White person does it to a Black person, due to the history in this country of White supremacist violence and cultural demeaning of Black folks.
Nice Non-Racist White folks, this may seem silly to y’all. And I get that. Right now, you may be saying, “Dang, Black folks got too many rules! It’s so hard to keep up with y’all!” That’s true. I won’t deny it. So many rules, even I have a hard time keeping up.
But consider that, individually, we all have rules that help create a space in which we are happy.
For example, I despise egg whites. (No racial pun intended here, I promise.) I will eat whole scrambled eggs willingly, or baked into cookies, cakes, etcetera, but if given a boiled egg, I will only eat the yolk. The thought of an egg white omelet is one that moves me almost to physical pain. It’s so slimy and disgusting.
So one day, I was visiting my mama and she was making potato salad. And she was chopping up boiled egg whites to mix into the potato salad. Now I live to eat my mama’s potato salad. Nobody makes it better. So I was watching her chop up those egg whites and I felt tears come to my eyes, because I knew I wasn’t going to eat that potato salad with those egg whites in it. I was so disappointed and I felt really betrayed, too.
Mama looked up and saw my face and said quietly, “Honi, you know I already made your potato salad without the whites, darling. It’s sitting in the refrigerator right now.”
That’s what I mean.
Mama could have said, “Look, get over it. I’m not making two separate potato salads to please your rusty grown behind. What am I, your personal chef?” But she didn’t. And just like she knows I won’t eat egg whites, I know she despises the dark meat of chicken and I’d never try to serve a chicken thigh to her. It’s these little things that lead to understanding between two people.
And this leads us back to Governor Jan Brewer. After she pointed her finger in President Obama’s face she followed up in a media interview by saying she “felt threatened” by him. But remember when I said above that the finger point in the face was both an aggressive act and one attempting to establish superiority?
If anyone felt threatened, it would be President Obama, threatened by Governor Brewer’s attempt to not only belittle him, but also because he probably suspected that later, she’d try to flip the racial script on him. Which she most certainly did.
Here’s that flipped script: she, the Little Helpless White Lady, felt afraid of him, a Big Ole Scary Black Man. (Refer to the film, Birth of a Nation if you aren’t familiar with this tired script. It’s only a bit more tired–and dangerous–than the Big-Breasted Loving Black Mammy Who Lives To Take Care of White Folks Kids With No Pay script in Gone With The Wind.)
So, let me get this straight.
Governor Brewer felt afraid of President Obama. She felt threatened by him. After she poked her finger in his face and attempted to humiliate him. And let’s not forget this was going on in front of cameras.
Yeah, okay. I completely believe her.
This flipped racial script of Governor Brewer is very old, and has several versions, but it has proven useful throughout the years for the shell game of White supremacy, as when a Black man was lynched whenever a White woman accused him of looking at her funny.
I’m not playing here mentioning the funny look. It was the unofficial law of “reckless eyeballing” created by White southerners, and many a southern Black man swung at the end of a rope for committing that supposed crime. The case of Emmitt Till was a variation of “reckless eyeballing,” because he whistled at a White woman and ended up murdered.
Just because President Obama doesn’t talk about that racial script doesn’t mean he isn’t well aware of our nation’s troubled history concerning White women and Black men, which is why he walked away from Governor Brewer. I’m pretty sure that, as a Black man, he was angered by her culturally transgressive act, but he had the presence of mind to get himself together before he broke all the way fool on the tarmac with that lady and not only ended up in jail, but went down in history as 1) the first Black president and 2) the first president who physically assaulted a woman in public.
But he saved himself, because President Obama is an Old School Brother. And it is never acceptable for an Old School Brother to hit a woman, whether or not she has committed an act of aggression. And let me tell you that you don’t really want to know what would have happened if Governor Brewer had pointed her finger in the face of another Black man—not an Old School Brother but one of these Young Knuckleheads With No Sense.
Eh, Lord, it would have been so ugly. And that’s all I’m going to say.
Polite, kind, respectful, self-controlled, and full of common sense: that’s how Old School Brothers get down. And by the way, that’s why I really adore them. And that’s why, despite the fact that President Obama hasn’t been a perfect leader (at least in my opinion), as a Sister, I feel extremely proud of him. And I bet Mrs. Obama does, too.