Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gloria Kathurima, Tom Robinson, and the Nature of Racism

in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson
in the trial scene in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Sometimes there’s a purely coincidental propinquity of events that helps bring a little clarity… or at least a little introspection.

A few days ago, I wrote about that bizarre float in the 4th of July parade in Norfolk, Nebraska. So, a day or two earlier, did Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall. We came to many of the same conclusions, although whereas Jack was to state unconditionally that the display was not racist, I was a little more circumspect. Here’s what I wrote as a comment on Jack’s essay (with one typo cleaned up):
I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.

In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.

I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.

One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.

We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither of which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?
Jack was kind enough to make my commentary his “Comment of the Day,” and posted it separately on Friday. As a tag to that post, he wrote
1. The meaning of a communication is determined by the sender’s intent.
2. Since most bias is based on experience, I think the answer is both “always” and “never.” Experience doesn’t excuse or validate bias, it just explains it.
The problem with associating meaning with the sender’s intent, of course, is spelled out in Jack’s own later comment on the same post—it requires the presumption of “competent communication.” And if nothing else can be asserted with confidence about this particular mess, I feel comfortable in asserting that Mr. Remmich cannot be counted on to provide such competence, or it would have been a hell of a lot easier to figure out that a). he was portraying himself as the zombie-ish figure standing in frustration outside the outhouse/presidential library on the float, and b). that he was upset by the VA and Bergdahl incidents. Indeed, we could lay the entire responsibility for the communicative process on the listener if only we could limit ourselves to “competent interpretation.” Alas, there far too many potholes in far too many places along the road to communication to blame any one source.

In a comment on his own post, Jack added, “If the woman who thought the float was racist thinks any criticism of the President must be racist, the sender [can’t] do a thing about that, other than not communicate at all.” There is no evidence to suggest that she thinks that at all, and Jack’s comment could be taken either as a true hypothetical or as an assertion that she is guilty of this narrow-mindedness. I’m guessing the former. But I base that conclusion in part on “knowing” Jack—we’ve read and commented on a lot of each other’s blog pieces over the last three and a half years, and we even met in person for a few minutes once. Anyway, the idea of different perceptions stuck with me later in the day.

My wife and I went to see a university production of To Kill a Mockingbird directed by one of my colleagues Friday night. In the play, as in the book and movie, Tom Robinson, a young black man, stands accused of assaulting a white woman. By the time he testifies, two things are clear: that he is innocent, and that he will probably be convicted anyway, despite a spirited and persuasive defense by our hero, Atticus Finch. Robinson had in fact run from the scene of the crime, however, after being seen by the girl’s father (who, by now, has been clearly established as the real cause of his daughter’s injuries; there was no rape at all). Here’s are the questions and the testimony (this is from the book; the play may be slightly different):
”Then you ran.”
“I sho’ did, suh.”
“Why did you run?”
“I was scared, suh.”
“Why were you scared?”
“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.”
What struck me, apart from the obvious truth of the statement given the setting in 1930s Alabama, was the use of the word “scared.” That word stood out. Gloria Kathurima, the Kenyan immigrant/naturalized citizen who had become something of a flashpoint in the Norfolk controversy had used it, too: describing her reaction to the float and the responses of her fellow parade-goers. “That's when I really became scared,” she said.

I remember thinking that was a strange turn of phrase, especially for someone as articulate and seemingly unflappable as Ms. Kathurima. I could understand “disgusted” or “resentful” or even “irate.” But “scared” seemed odd. I didn’t think much of it until seeing the show last night and hearing Tom Robinson talk about being “scared.”

The scene and the story of To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole are structured so that there is absolutely no doubt that Tom Robinson has every right to be afraid. If he didn’t get out of that shack and as far away as possible as fast as possible, he’d be beaten or possibly lynched. Everybody knew it—everybody in the fictive courtroom that day, and all the real people who read the book, saw the movie, or watched the play. Still, our reaction was probably more sympathetic than empathetic—most of us can approximate an intellectual understanding of what would be going through the mind of someone like Tom Robinson, but few—I hope—will have first-hand experience of that sort of terror.

The case in Norfolk is more nuanced. The bad guys of the piece—such as they are—are merely boorish in an ignorant and unsophisticated way: they are nothing like the embodiment of evil we see in the Ewell clan in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is impossible to believe that Gloria Kathurima’s “really… scared” was anything like Tom Robinson’s. On the other hand, it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that someone who looks like me understands completely what someone who looks like Ms. Kathurima goes through on a daily basis. If I were “[black] like her,” if I had endured the quotidian slights, the subtle ostracisms, and possibly worse, perhaps I’d be scared, too.

It is perfectly possible that a dispassionate observer would say that Ms. Kathurima has suffered the effects of racism not at all, that her perceptions of it are totally unfounded. It is even more plausible that the same objective witness would see no race-related intent on Mr. Remmich’s part. But I can’t see that that’s the end of the discussion. We can’t know what was in Remmich’s mind; someone even suggested on Curmie’s Facebook page that his stated reasons for making the float had been made up post facto when someone called him on his racism. That’s possible, although I doubt it.

And whereas Jack was right in his original post to suggest that Kathurima “has been told over and over again by Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the NAACP and others that President Obama is a great man who is being robbed of the credit due him by the racism of his enemies,” he also points out that “she is used to racism, [and] the scene of a mostly white crowd laughing at what she may have thought was a crude depiction of black President must have felt like a minstrel show to her. I don’t blame her.”  I might add, too, my oft-repeated observation that whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity, even when dealing with people of different skin colors, is racist.

It is, after all, all about perception. Because, as Atticus Finch reminds us, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Good advice.

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