Saturday, September 09, 2017

Overcoming great fear

This is not an easy post for me to write.  

But I'm going to own up, here and now, to racism and prejudice. Not abstractly, not artfully in that "as a person of privilege I realize that I must be racist in ways I can't perceive" way.  No; concretely and specifically. As in, "This morning I was racist and prejudiced."

I was walking home from the farmer's market (where, I note, while lots of the crowd was waiting in line for food stamps to try to feed their families, I was buying my 26th through 30th houseplants, while swallowing a $7 piece of quiche).  

Staggering under the burden of my floral swag, I was surprised when a tall young black man swung around a corner heading in same direction.  He wasn't really paying any attention to me and there wasn't anything objectively threatening in his demeanor other than his sudden appearance. But I was startled and a little scared anyway and my first thought was; "Is this someone I need to worry about?"

It's not something I am proud of ... but neither is it something I intend to apologize for.  I grew up in a rough neighborhood and being wary was just necessary self-preservation; habits of youth do not disappear just because the circumstances that spawned them do.  More essentially, we are all animals and as such we are designed to use fear to keep ourselves alive.  Despite being social animals -- or perhaps because we are -- we have a natural fear of people who are different or people who are physically imposing (and an even bigger fear when those are combined).  And I had been startled by someone who was different than me (black) and physically imposing (younger and bigger).

Those feelings are natural; but so are a lot of negative feelings.  The impulse to be violent, or greedy, or cowardly are all perfectly 'natural'.  Shame doesn't really lie in having those impulses.  Shame lies in giving in to them.  Our virtue lies not in the absence of such feelings, but in controlling them rather than letting them control us.  Isn't that why the Green Lantern legend evolved? Green Lantern is no longer simply a person without fear... because that just means you're stupid.  Green Lantern is a person with the ability of OVERCOME great fear, which is much more impressive and wise.

So I am not here to damn myself for my own racism and prejudice (there are always people who will do that for you).  I am here to point out what helped me control them almost immediately:

Those. I noticed he was wearing those. [He was also wearing a Spider-Man button, but I've read in the Bugle that he's a masked menace, so that wasn't comforting at all.]  Thanks to the icons of DC comics being part of the common culture I share with someone "different", I immediately realized that this was someone with no interest in villainy; it was someone who wanted to be a hero.  

And that his main obstacle was people like me.


Bryan L said...

I've got a young comic-book reading friend who is black. We worked at the same place for a while, and I saw him walking along with a manga tucked under one arm, and started talking to him. We've kept up with one another since. I am constantly stunned by the number of times he's pulled over by the police. He is not physically imposing -- he's short and bespectacled, and works in IT. But the police pull him over for 1. being in a neighborhood he isn't "supposed" to be in, 2. driving too slow (he was looking for an address), 3. failure to use a signal (seriously, that's like 90% of the people here), 4. driving a car that's "too nice," and three or four other ridiculous excuses in the two or three years I've known him. He jokes about "driving while black," and brushes it off, but dammit, he shouldn't have to. And he damn sure shouldn't have to worry about keeping his hands in sight and not getting shot while heading to the grocery store.

Honestly, I'd heard about this, but until I actually met someone who faced it regularly, I assumed it wasn't that common or that it only happened to "suspicious" looking characters. I get mad at myself for not realizing what other people go through, and that I've been so damn complacent about it for so long.

Anonymous said...

We all need to work on it. So long as you are working on it, you're at the very least pointed in the right direction.

Anonymous recommends reading the VSB site ( to learn a lot more about how things look from the black perspective. We white folks who want to better ourselves, would do VERY well to make listening part of the process.

A shameful confession. One of my biggest fears since childhood / teenagedom has been the possibility that I could become one of the bad guys too easily. Learning about the Stanley Milgram experiment at 12 taught me that, until I'm tested, I cannot really discount the possibility that I am one of the 65% that would go all the way to the lethal shock. All the possible ways I could be driven to evil: threats, flattery, authority figures, prejudice, mob mentality, willful ignorance, being offered what I want, or simply deciding that the wrong thing is much much easier. So many ways to become one of the bad guys.

Here's where it gets shameful. Deep down, I don't want to be Batman or Superman or Nightwing. I want to be Hal Jordan. Not even Green Lantern, but Hal Jordan: the guy who doesn't give in to fear, the guy who maybe isn't all that smart but can tell right from wrong and simply cannot be broken. (Except perhaps by a primordial avatar of fear in the form of a big yellow space bug.) To be Batman you need a billion dollars, ninja training, and dead parents. To be Hal Jordan you just have to know right from wrong, and refuse to side with wrong.

Anonymous said...

It is disheartening to learn just how deep institutional racism goes. It is encouraging that we can have these conversations. All we non-KKK members realize racism is bad. It's a no-brainier. Now that we can break down what racism entails, in more exacting terms (e.g. "Microaggressions," which I only heard of last year), we have a better chance of steering ourselves in a better direction.

- Mike Loughlin

Slaughter said...

Possibly related story: I was walking with my ex before yesterday and close to home, we saw a dude with a typical "shady" local profile*... and hands inside his pants. Me and ex both saw this guy and simultaneously we dragged each other and swerved to cross the street pretty much instantly.
Guy was either:
a)Someone with a weapon on his pants
b)A pervert of some sort (we have been having a lot of randos masturbating on innapropriate public places lately, in Brazil)
c)Just scratching it down

The human brain is primed to do a lot of on-the-fly decisions and calculations. You just saw a large unknown moving on your direction, your brain IS supposed to see it as threat. I don't think you believe that blacks are all evil criminal scum (and neither do I), the reality is that a lot of street criminals in your country DO fit that profile. In my city, a lot of criminals fit the profile noted below, and I don't feel racist against amerindian-ish people.

Stop beating yourself up, you are not a racist and you didn't act as a racist, your brain just did a on-the-fly reaction. Its no more under your control than any other spontaneous reaction.

*amerindian-ish, thin, lankey-ish, badly-dressed, shirtless. We call those "malacos" around here in my state, think "hood rat" but different dress from your badguys.

Slaughter said...

Honestly I find the whole racism thing a hysteria nowdays, akin to old moral panics. I mean, real racism exists, but honestly I don't think racism is one of the big issues of our age anymore. It also does not help that people with huge historical ignorance or agendas use racism as a stick to beat white people with "designated opressor" tags, nevermind if the guy is descended from plantation owners (and so what if?) or some guy from east europe whose voweless name, if he pronounces it reversed, sends him back to the 5th dimension.

Btw, before someone calls me a massive racist, I'm part black and amerindian.

Its like the reflexive attitude of a catholic who quickly commits a sinful act, then does a sign of the cross and remembers himself to do twenty hail maries later.

Honestly, I think that a few decades down the line, they will that in our decade, everything was racist, or so we thought. Like how we mock the Puritans nowdays, or the Temperance movement.

Anonymous said...

"Stop beating yourself up, you are not a racist and you didn't act as a racist, your brain just did a on-the-fly reaction. Its no more under your control than any other spontaneous reaction."

I don't think the issue was that a gut reaction happened. I think the concern is that the gut reaction would have dominated, had it not been for visible indicators that the other guy is a good guy at heart.

We all have gut reactions, but we have a choice of what to do with them. That's what it means to have intelligence, and especially a conscience. Far too many people subscribe to the notion that "I felt ______, therefore my response was justified"; those people cause no end of harm while seeing themselves as unalloyed good guys.

SilverAlex said...

great post! Just found your site as I was looking for heroclix stuff, but glad I checked out your blog.

Redforce said...

Maybe you would appreciate some Comic Book Irony In Real Life on Halloween, Scipio.

Yesterday, as I was returning from a lunchtime errand, I klonked my head on a metal pipe in the parking garage (It was a heavy metal pipe, so it was a KLONK sound effect, not a KLANK, trust me - I had the swirly stars around my head). I went back to work, and then went home, none the worse for wear.

Last night, I am bored and taking some What Superhero Are You tests. I took four - Two of them had Hal Jordan as #1, and a third had him at the #2 possible spot.

Anonymous said...

Did you see Ralph Dibny on The Flash? No Jean to be seen. Unless a big twist reveals Jean to be the big bad of the season. But that’s a...stretch!

Slaughter said...

Ralph is quite cool on The Flash, even if his backtory got changed a bit. Still, seems the writers have done their home-work and remembered what a jerk Ralph used to be. Let's hope they remember the grand-standing and media love Ralph had. It would really set him apart from Barry.

There's a Jean Loring in the Arrowverse (you can see her in S02 of Arrow and she appeared in the last episode), but she's quite old, so clearly not our Jean.

Anonymous said...

Same thing happened to me, only I was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Did Scipio see Crisis on Earth X?

Anonymous said...

Scipio, what happened? When will you post again?

Anonymous said...

Come back, Scipio! A weary world needs your wisdom!

cybrid said...

Browsing the archives (something that I recommended to other readers in a post that was apparently deemed...unworthy, which was bound to happen to me at some point) reminded me of a theory I had about why the Martian Manhunter kept manifesting "new" super-powers. Since this thread is drifting away from any "topic" per se, I thought I'd call fresh attention to it here:

Maybe the Martian Manhunter can, in effect, manifest absolutely any super-power that he can imagine (in addition to the innate telepathy, super-strength, flight, et cetera)...but he can only use each such power ONCE (kind of not entirely unlike how Chris and Vicki from the second version of Dial H for Hero never became the same super-heroes twice [unless that's been changed] (something that the MM's fellow House of Mystery alumnus Robbie Reed in fact did do now and then)).

And THAT'S why he kept needing to in effect think of different ways to do the exact same thing over and over again, because the way he did it last week won't work this week.

Thus, aside from the telepathy and so on, he also had every super-power there is...but he had each one only once and never again. As far as theories go it's certainly one of them. ;-)

In contrast with golden age Quality Comics immigrant Burp the Twerp the Super Son-of-a-Gun, who had every imaginable super-power at once (unsurprisingly, he was a "humor" character, the guy who made Plastic Man's stories look gritty and realistic). Which, I suppose, makes him even more powerful than The Spectre, Mxyzptlk, and every other supposedly omnipotent DC character. Could it be that there is no God, there's only Burp...?

Probably not.

Per the GCD (speaking of omnipotent...), Burp's first and thus far only DC appearance was in Secret Origins #30 (September 1988), the rather unimaginatively titled "The Secret Origin of Plastic Man" (what, you thought I pulled the Plastic Man reference out of nowhere?), written by Roy Thomas.

And I'll stop now.

Anonymous said...

Your theory can even square with my own other theory, I think. My theory is that J'onn's ONLY power is shapeshifting. What first got me thinking, was in JLA#11 when J'onn says he can shapeshift his mind as easily as his body, (even to shrink the analytical left hemisphere and grow the irrational right hemisphere, to navigate The Joker's mental maze).
So I think he could even shift his mind to be telepathic. Even invisibility, intangibility, weightlessness and strength are just shiftedshape.
All of those strange innumerable powers from the early run? You could say he's just being creative. Bored with generic gangsters, he can afford the luxury. It could have been to purposely keep the nature of his powers mysterious, to make it harder to strategically counter (except by, you know, starting a fire). He was trying to adapt to find his place in the world, before he found a comfortable role in the Justice League (and finally take a deep Martian-breath, lots of them).

Or, you know, House of Mystery writers just scripted generic Superman plots while avoiding any consistent powers or supporting cast. Then Justice League writers took the opposite approach.

Bryan L said...

I'm very intrigued by the idea that J'onn's powers all stem from shapeshifting. It's a pretty elegant explanation for him. But I really like this idea:

"It could have been to purposely keep the nature of his powers mysterious, to make it harder to strategically counter (except by, you know, starting a fire)."

If your only weakness is something that's incredibly common on Earth, it makes sense to obscure it by manifesting bizarre powers. Kind of hiding in plain sight.