Friday, March 31, 2006

A Poverty of the Soul

Long before the RSS feed page, professors enjoyed a much more casual process: the continual service of students who see or hear something, think of their professor, and then bring the article or the book or the cd or the video or their notes on the event and present it as a gift. Which it is. Invariably. This extra attention is usually tendered by a student who is at least momentarily fascinated by the topic at hand (and sometimes by the professor, as well), so they're typically right on the money. Case in point: a heads-up on a New York Times Op-Ed Page contribution ("A Poverty of the Mind," 3/26/06) by sociologist and Harvard professor, Orlando Patterson. An essay that, as it turns out, is getting much attention, but which I had somehow missed as yet.

In a nutshell, Patterson is calling for a return to the good ole days of racial analysis when African-Americans were recognized as being their own worst problem, rather than paying attention to such irrelevant factors as "low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing," all of which are a direct result of the European-American power structure's policy setting and none of which can be magically affected by African-American determination.

Joblessness, points out Patterson, for example, is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the population does not turn to crime. simply dies of the effects of malnutrition or kills itself, a much preferred outcome, one must assume, as far as Patterson is concerned. Perhaps, if he could bring himself to grasp the insidious and effective nature of what continual socialization to perceive oneself as inferior accomplishes, he would recognize the difference between India, Latin America, and the United States. When one is poor in India, one is not, ipso facto, worthless or deserving of that status for some reason; one is simply poor. In the U.S., on the other hand, where we like to "blame the victim," poor people are seen as deserving of their fate (even if there are not enough jobs, even if they are highly skilled, even if they play by all the rules). It hurts. It makes people angry. And it increases the likelihood that they will go outside the lines. Oh, yes, and there's the matter of not wanting to be homeless, as well.

Other social scientists, not looking to roll us backward to an even more White-controlled and White-serving paradigm than is currently in use, tell us that poverty is about "relative deprivation" anyway. Maybe a greater percentage of U.S. citizens have food to eat than one might find in, say, India, but U.S. culture is such that money is more important than life here and what you have is more important than who you are. The first thing we identify about a person is their skin tone and the second entails asking, "What do you do?" Meaning where do you fall in the socio-economic class system.

Consequently, if you happen to be a dark-skinned male in the U.S. and you grew up without enough resources to expect to receive a decent education and the police started labeling you for the criminal justice system at the age of ten by taking your photo with a string of numbers across your chest against the day when you might do something illegal and your daily life is awash with input about how basketball and rap are your only hope (despite the occasional Jamaican professor, who after all was not born here and did not benefit from an invidious social rearrangement of his brain), you are infinitely more likely to go to prison than to college, whereupon you will be highly unlikely as a convicted felon to ever get a decent job in life. What part does Patterson see all this playing in the development of the African-American male mindset, I wonder? And how would the individual African-American boy-child go about avoiding the repercussions of this horrible reality?

Patterson admits that the jobs created in the "economic boom" of the 1990's (does this man never leave the hallowed halls?) do not offer a living wage, but he sees working for less than it takes to live on as an "opportunity to acquire basic work skills" that can later be transferred to "better" jobs. It would be interesting to know how Patterson thinks young Black men are supposed to live while being paid $150 per week. Further, Carol Stack's new research on how working at McDonald's prepares you only to work at McDonald's seems lost on the good doctor, who it would appear went straight from Jamaica to the London School of Economics to the University of the West Indies to Harvard (an impressive trajectory that raised the question for me of how a Black man could come to be chosen by Harvard in 1969 in the first place, but which is answered loudly and clearly by his perspective in this essay).

Poor schools, Patterson reminds us, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate. But while social scientist after social scientist has pointed out the negativistic debilitation and labeling process that is slam-dunking young Black men in the U.S. on a daily basis--inside and outside of the public school system--Patterson doesn't get it. He sits in his ivory tower and remains blissfully oblivious, not to mention reeking of self-righteousness. Don't bother him with the information about the recent study describing how African-American youth compete respectably with European-Americans when they think an exam is just for practice, but then take a nose-dive on their scores when they believe that the score will be used to determine their placement. One has to wonder which "distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions" peculiar to Black youth Patterson would suggest result in this apparent lack of confidence in their ability to compete with those who look like me, especially considering that they'd already proven that they could hold their own. Whose best interest would their lackluster performance in the latter case be? And who, exactly, has been in continual control of the social institutions of this country from its inception to the present--institutions at whose doors youthful Black failure to thrive must surely be laid.

Unless, of course, you believe, as Professor Patterson apparently does, that Black kids (and I guess Black folks in general, then) are just like that. He acknowledges the ugly past (kind of him to bother), but holds firmly to the idea that it is nonetheless important to hold people responsible for their behavior (although that doesn't seem to mean holding European-Americans responsible for either that ugly past or the well-documented practices that continue to oppress people of color, since Patterson doesn't seem nearly as interested in holding White feet to the fire).

Now, I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't be responsible for their behavior. I'm suggesting that people living out their lives under nightmare conditions sometimes don't act right. And abject poverty (such as one out of two Black children in the U.S. grow up in--through no fault of their own) is a nightmare and garishly hard on self-image and self-esteem, which linger for life.

Additionally, after a full team of professionals descended on Columbine to work for a year with the students traumatized by a single event in a single school (heinous as it was), one study suggested that as many as forty percent of the young Black kids in Compton suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (the results of living in a war zone). The question was: why were those children not getting help and how were they supposed to deal with life while not getting it? Patterson suggests that these young people should have their needs "addressed" (a lick and a promise perhaps?), but that ultimately and in the meantime, of course, we must hold them responsible. And here I thought that's what the White power structure has been doing all along...?

Patterson admits that slavery (his specialty, apparently) had horrendous effects on Black culture, but he doesn't seem to buy that there is still trouble in what has undoubtedly been paradise for him. He points out that Jim Crow was dismantled in a single generation, as if the attempts to force that dismantling had not been introduced until the 1960's. But in using this type of reasoning, he falls into the Euro-centric perspective that now that people of color can come down out of the balconies at the movie theater or legally marry a White wife and rub shoulders with the pundits at Harvard, history has moved on and poor Black men should get over it.

He harangues young Black men for their "predatory sexuality and irresponsible fatherhood" (somehow blaming it on slavery) without imagining that whatever it is he's descibing has anything to do with the reality of Black life in general in the U.S. today--as prescribed by White power and privilege. It's a markedly short-sighted viewpoint for a supposedly erudite man. He's a sociologist, after all, and my understanding of the field would suggest that sociologists want to know the context in which social realities develop. To look back in the causal chain two hundred years, but leave out yesterday, while tidy, is not a very comprehensive explanatory analysis.

But this ignoring of the well-documented reality of White oppression against people of color and most particularly African-Americans in the present conveniently allows Patterson to pontificate that all young Black men need to do is "to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book." As if that would insure educated Black men a job and insulate them from racism in the workplace and protect them from police brutality and assure them that their children--male and female--will benefit from the equal playing field that Patterson seems to see, but African-Americans at every educational level know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, does not exist.

That this world-famous intellectual refers to "our racist past" as a tragedy and then goes on to write that "most Black Americans have by now, miraculously, escaped its consequences" makes me embarrassed to be in academe. But not surprised, never surprised, at what it produces in service to those with the power to define.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Racism = Prejudice + Power

My unapologetic intention when I teach is to open students' minds to ideas they may not have previously considered. If this sounds like something scary, keep in mind that the whole process of socialization--from birth--is exactly and nothing more than this. We're not born "gendered," for example; the attempt is made to carefully and with great intent turn us into "little girls" and "little boys"--for life. Similarly, one of the perfectly understandable difficulties with our legislative system is that virtually all of those who make it to Washington were born rich and have really no clue in Hell what the rest of us--the vast majority of U.S. citizens--are dealing with.

Anyway, by the time most young people get to college, they've had at least 18 years of non-stop exposure to the "party line." By this, I don't mean necessarily a particular political view, although that can certainly be part of it. What I mean is that this nation was founded on principles that are very, very intrinsic to its nature and pretty much consistent to the present. And youth being raised up under these principles and impressed with their veracity come to see them as the only way to think. This is what many people call a "world view." Every society has one.

Now, if the principles in question were the principles we hear touted all the time when people are running for office or selling a war--principles such as truth, peace, and freedom--there wouldn't be a problem. And I'd probably be somewhere rocking on a porch. But from the inception of this nation, we have talked out one side of our national mouth and barked orders out of the other without seeming to recognize or care that those to whom we are barking the orders are not confused about our motives one iota.

We rave about truth while telling huge and malicious lies and then simply shrug when confronted with reality. We smarm about freedom and have the hands-down worst reputation of all time for forcing our will on anyone who will stand still for it and literally millions who have fought us to the death (such as the Native Americans)--allies and enemies alike. And we pontificate sanctimoniously about peace while having built and maintained our nation on the back of a military machine that began with men shooting other men in the back from behind trees and has now become a force that will go down in history with the most infamous and misguided despotic societies that ever existed.

So it is that people who have been raised under this system have learned to say that they believe in one thing, and yet actually live their lives out very pointedly in directions that manifest something totally different. Such as, on one hand, screeching "just say no to drugs" at the top of our lungs, while popping every imaginable substance--prescription, street, or otherwise--at every imaginable opportunity. Whether it's crack, valium, Jack Daniels, or Starbucks, we espouse one theory and live another.

Similarly, people in the United States, and most particularly European-Americans, spout a supposed belief in "equality," whatever we think that is, while being unconscionably comfortable with the greatest gaps (between rich and poor, between White and Black) of any industrialized nation of the world. And we are so committed to this idealized belief in equality--as opposed to the actual practice of it--that people who look like me purport to be stunned when presented with the idea that the equal treatment does not, in fact, exist, however well documented this reality may be.

One way to protest or mask the reality of racial oppression and its ramifications is to use the word "racism" to mean any prejudicial attitude by anyone of any "race" anywhere who feels superior in any way to someone of a different "race." That way, a European-American can point at an African-American who has buckled under his or her grief, frustration, and discouragment, finally becoming filled with bitterness and maybe even hatred toward the White establishment and those it privileges--and call that person of color a "racist." Which, in turn, allows White folks to declare, "See--anyone can be a racist."

The reason this doesn't hold for me is that, to start with, as I mentioned before (see "'Black.White.' Part Two or Keep My Name Out Your Mouth," March 4th), Europeans expressly constructed the very concept of "race" in the first place. And they didn't do it to make it easier to identify someone in a crowd either. They did it to create a hierarchy wherein people that look like me would automatically get the most of the best and the least of the worst--primarily by stealing from everybody else in one way or the other--while whoever was left got what they could, if anything. This was done for the purpose of making a very specific group of Europeans extremely rich. And White-controlled science, White-controlled law, and White-controlled religion worked together to legitimate this construct by announcing in no uncertain terms that White folks are superior to all other peoples on the face of the earth.

In other words, the very social construction of "race" itself was the act of White oppressors for the purpose of exploiting and dominating people of color. Having gone that far, some Europeans took their grandiose new status and proceeded to immigrate to North America, dragging with them millions of Africans, who they brutally and violently forced to build a new nation from the ground up for the benefit of its White citizens. It goes without saying, of course, that all of this new nation's social institutions, then, were originally established and have been continuously maintained by those with the power to define the culture--White people and those they allow into the inner circle.

This has not changed to date. We no longer drink at separate water fountains, it's true. But African-Americans, as a rule and across the board, because they don't have the power to do anything about it, are still paid less than White folks, own less than White folks, are more likely to be unemployed than White folks, are more likely to go to jail than White folks, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And most White folks are convinced that this is because people of color are, in fact, inferior. Let me repeat that: most White folks, yes, most White folks believe that people of color are, in fact, inferior. Even as they say, "I don't see color. I just see everyone as a human being," by which they mean, they don't intend to acknowledge all the studies showing how exploited and dominated people of color still are in the United States because the White speaker has already decided that Black people's problems are the result of Black people's inferiority. "Some of my best friends are Black," they will say, while discounting what African-Americans themselves say about the quality of their lives in the good old U.S. of A.

This rampant perception that people of color are inferior creates such a mindset that it's actually part of our national world view. We've taught ourselves to believe it for so long that we now think it's the natural truth. And to make matters worse, we've taught people of color to believe it, as well, in the face of overwhelming documentation to the contrary. Why do you think we dare not treat "African-American history" as a regular part of the history curriculum in this country rather than just breaking out Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech once a year in February? If people of color understood clearly who they are and what has been done to them, they would have long since burned this country down. And if White people were taught the truth of this nation's history and their own participation in and benefit from practices of White power and privilege, it would humble them so much that they might not recover.

Consequently, I (and I am not alone here) don't believe that it's possible for a person of color to be a racist. A Black person can be prejudiced against members of other groups, can be mean-spirited, can be cruel, can be hateful, can even be dangerous to members of other groups, but they have never had the power in the United States to define the nature of their own lives and therefore, to me, they're just being prejudicial, mean-spirited, cruel, hateful, and dangerous. The erroneous belief in White superiority and the inferiority of all others is directly responsible for the racist oppression that is entrenched and lethal in its daily application to the lives of people of color in this country today. It's no wonder African-Americans don't like White people. And since White people chose to construct the category of "race" in the first place specifically to gain from the denigration and destruction of other's lives, only White people, in my opinion, then, can be "racist."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo...

It's very strange to be me sometimes. For example, I wish I had a nickel for every time I've wound up trying to explain to a person of color that European-Americans overall are not naive and do not mean well when it comes to race. I fell into one of those conversations the other day with a highly intelligent young African-American guy I've talked with many times. Because he's highly intelligent and because I've talked with him many times, I thought he understood. And maybe he does. But as he advances in the academic world (I knew him first as an undergraduate and now, he's finishing his Master's degree), he may be deciding that he can only espouse what he can "prove" immediately using hard-core social scientific research. Or maybe he now sees knee-jerk perceptions that European-Americans are racist by choice as "Black racism"--something no middle class, upwardly-mobile Black man wants to have thought about himself as he matures (more about that in a future post). Or maybe he just tries to put the best possible face on things so that he doesn't walk out his front door some morning and slap somebody. Somebody White.

The conversation, once more, was on "Black.White." (the television reality series involving two middle class families--one Black, one White--living in the same house and periodically being painted up to "cross races" and go out into the rest of the world to see what they can learn). My young Black colleague was saying that he thought the European-American wife on the show "meant well" when she tried to bond with her Black counterpart by calling her a "Bitch" (she "thought" all Black women called each other that...?). He suggested that she just didn't know any better. That she just hadn't been exposed to African-Americans. That she was a victim of a system that under-informed her, or worse, maybe even misinformed her through dissemination of erroneous and horrifically negative stereotypes about Black people. But that she couldn't help herself because she may not have had any first-hand experience to which to compare the misinformation.

I, needless to say, begged--loudly and adamently--to differ with him.

First of all, it's no longer possible for European-Americans to avoid being "exposed to" people of color--of all kinds. Just as there are White folks all over the place, there are Black folks all over the place. Black folks in lower, middle, and upper classes. Black folks doing all types of jobs. Black folks on television and winning academy awards. Black folks all over the music and sports entertainment industry. Black folks shopping. Black folks walking down the street. All kinds of Black folks in all kinds of places. How in the world could Mrs. White Person have been exposed for years (because the browning of America is hardly a recent development) to all those different Black folks and still wind up with the impression that African-American women call each other the B-word--as a sign of affection?

Secondly, when I go into a room full of White folks--be it a meeting, conference, church, organization, whatever--and see few, if any, faces belonging to people of color, I know that people of color do not feel welcome there. The White folks can say anything they want about how Black (or Latino or Asian or Native American) people just don't seem interested in this meeting, conference, church, organization, whatever. They can insist (and even document) the efforts they have made to get people of color to join them. But I know that people of color only stay away from places where they are made to feel uncomfortable. People of color are so diverse in their interests, capabilities, and accomplishments, not to mention so large a portion of the population now, that at least some of them would be likely to show up in almost any location where they are included, respected, valued, and accepted as equals. So their absence is, for me, the instant barometric indicator, if you will, of the attitude and behaviors of the people in the room. No matter how those people try to defend themselves.

In other words, even though they cannot avoid coming into contact with all manner of people of color, European-Americans are so immersed in their sense that they are rightly privileged as a result of their own superiority that they create unwelcome atmospheres for people of color and then blame it on the Black folks when the Black folks stay away (a la "African-Americans like to stay with their own kind..."). Making it, then, very easy to use the "Sorry--I haven't been exposed" defense for undefendable behaviors.

And this is why I say that White people are not "naive." They may be uninformed. They may be misinformed. But they happily participate in the process of maintaining their "ignorance." As long as people buy the illusion that they have something to lose by knowing and accepting the truth, they will hug a lie like it's their long-lost mother. And, as I am wont to say: you can't wake up a person who's pretending to be asleep.

In all of the scenes of "Black.White." that I have already seen or heard about, and even on the Oprah show where the two families appeared for a promotional follow-up session, Mrs. White Person never once said at all, let alone sincerely, "I'm having trouble understanding what you're trying to tell me about your lives. Help me learn what I don't already know." All I heard over and over and over again was her poor--and embarrassing--attempts to defend herself and talk about what she "meant." But, as Jane Elliott (see my links) says, "It's not the intent; it's the impact."

The reality is that White power and White privilege inundate and inculcate every facet of life in the United States and always have. It's a matter of public record that has been and continues to be documented in a range of ways. New and highly expensive studies, for example, (read Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard here) just hit the New York Times this week full of such gut-wrenching information as the fact that, in the United States of America, 50% of young Black males who are not college graduates are unemployed. Fifty percent.

Now, there are some jobs out there--not necessarily great ones, but some, just the same. Still, there are not nearly enough jobs for every unemployed worker to have one, which is a crucial point, because if White folks started "letting" Black males compete fairly for jobs, White families--and White men, in particular--would feel the economic pinch. Quick. The fact is that it's simply not logical that 50% of the young Black males in this country either don't want or cannot possibly do any of the jobs that are available. It is, in the end, as they say, all about the benjamins. And Mrs. White Person--on some level--knows it.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Shocked By The Culture

Somehow or other, over the years (which is to say, decades, really), I have become the "go-to girl" for many who know me and want to talk to someone about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." It started, I guess, when I was a junior in high school and talked my way into doing an all-interview term paper on "Racial Discrimination in the Quad-Cities" (where I grew up in Illinois). Now, the interesting part about this is that I didn't know at the time what either race or discrimination was (it was 1963). But I had begged my teacher to let me do something outside the library and this was what she suggested. Then, some crucial input by the president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter made it possible for me to begin what has now become a life-long study. Presenting my "findings" during class (at my teacher's insistance) resulted in me winning a joke award at the end of the year: the National Association for the Advancement of Cows and Pigs Award. It was embarrassing. And I was pretty sure it was racist, though I didn't, as yet, know for sure.

Anyway, I went on with my life, proceeding to become deeply involved with the national prison movement for several years, where I discovered well before it was being openly admitted in polite society that prison populations were overwhelmingly representative of minority groups and, most particularly African-Americans. I was shocked. The situation fairly stunk of a systemic attack on a community, but with little context into which to put what I saw going on, I more or less filed it away with the earlier material.

My daughter's father did the best he could to educate me to the cold realities of his day-to-day existence, but he was never satisfied with the results. Then, eventually, I spent a couple of years in a branch of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and came to understand more about the institutionalized nature of oppression in the U.S., as well as some of the strategies that were being employed and honed in opposition to that oppression. It was during this period that I first discovered that a "White" person can say some pretty straight-forward stuff about race without necessarily catching hell--stuff that is very heartening for people of color to hear coming out of a White person's mouth--and that even White people are more inclined to listen than they ever tend to be when a Black person is doing the talking.

We had called in the U.S. Justice Department to review law enforcement brutality against people of color in our city, so we were holding a community forum. My job was to make sure the press got there (it did). But near the end of the forum, characterized in most part by the expected statements of frustration by local Black residents followed by the local police chief's vague postering, I finally stood up and said rather forcefully, "The real problem is an attitude problem of police concerning Blacks. Residents need a police force to believe in. Racism cannot be tolerated. All officers must know that slavery is dead in America." People--White and Black--looked at me like my hair was on fire.

Needless to say, my comment was quoted in articles on the front page of two different newspapers the following day. And I was off to the races, as it were.

When I moved to Florida, I once had to spend a good week or two scouting for a pair of red patent leather high heels before learning that the only shoe store in several cities that carried such an item was located in an African-American neighborhood. Then, soon after that, I took a potshot from a superior at work for wearing fuschia stretch pants. "Doing your shopping on Tamarind Avenue these days?" he had quipped, referring to a street in the so-called "ghetto."

Now, the fact was that I had purchased the pants in a popular department store, as I recall, and was seriously irritated that he would call my taste into question like that, while simultaneously marking himself as a racist. But I quit wearing the pants until I left that job in an attempt not to take more sniping. Which moved me even closer to the Black community, as one who was becoming increasingly sensitive to and rebellious against anti-Black sentiments.

A few years further up the road, shortly after I had entered grad school and then decided to specialize in the subject of "race," I wound up at a party where most of the other party-goers were either African or African-American. I arrived a bit late (as usual), entering the apartment by walking down the stairs into a room bustling with people. Later on in the evening, I was talking with a Black woman I had never met before, when she mentioned casually that she knew when I came down the stairs that I had been "shocked by the culture."

"Shocked by the culture...?" I asked, curious.

"Yeah, you know," she responded. "You've been around Black folks. Most White folks don't carry themselves like you do coming into a room full of us."

And here I am twenty years later, writing about race and teaching about race and speaking about race and learning about race, with people (especially people of color) bringing me books and articles and dvd's about race and cd's of spoken word and "rebel music" and even seeking me out to talk about race. Two of my former students--African-American--came over one day some years ago, saying "From time to time, we gotta get back in touch with our blackness." I felt weird about it, but I knew that what they meant was that I rant a good bit and fairly non-stop and it couches the topic in boldness. In a world where institutionalized oppression shuts Blacks and Whites in their respective corners, while internalized oppression blunts the spirits of most people of color, the effects of my having been shocked by the culture is a blessing not always in disguise.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Do I Look Ethnic?

Last night, for the second time this week, I presented a lecture on racism in the United States. Now, it doesn't take long for a new group of students to realize that the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" is my "thing." The course can be almost anything, but I will, hands down and unquestionably, talk about race at every opportunity. Why? A better question might be "Why wouldn't I?" No other topic--at least to me and after all, we're talking about my thing here--is as imperative to get out on the table as this one at this time in this country. Even if the rest of the world didn't pretty much hate us (the only nation with a lower world image right now than us is Iran--just think about that for a minute--South Africa, North Korea, even Iraq, for God's sake, are thought better of than we are). Anyway, even if the rest of the world liked us, we would still be in dire, dire straits, thanks to where we are with this one teeny little problem.

So, there I am, revving up my motor, not nearly to cruise speed yet, and believe me, I cruise on this topic--and well above the speed limit--when I was stopped in my tracks by a student's question. I was trying to establish how fixated people in the U.S. are about race. It's not particularly common in the rest of the world to even necessarily designate race. Forms of all kinds that routinely ask "race" in addition to information such as birth date or address just don't turn up everywhere like they do here. Nation of origin maybe, if the person isn't a citizen. But not race. It's understood elsewhere that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization supported a mass international review by eminent scientists from around the world back in the late 1940's and early 1950's that officially established once and for all, for those to whom it was of crucial importance, that "for all practical social purposes, 'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth." Not that most countries were struggling with this matter all that much in any case.

But here, in the United States, we seem to have missed the memo. We continue to be so adament about pigeonholing people that, rather than admit that it's an irrational activity, we just keep adding categories. At the rate we're going, one can imagine at some point having to add an entire sheet full of options: Black (whatever that is perceived to be), White (whatever that is perceived to be), Hispanic (not Black), Hispanic (not Spanish-speaking), Native American, Pacific Islander, mixed (oh, please), and so forth on and on, ad nauseum. And these lists are, you understand, what we in social science call "forced choice." You can't leave them all blank. You have to declare.

Once when I was trying to register to vote in Tallahassee, Florida, the young man filling out the information asked, after getting my name, address, and birth date, "Race?" I should have replied, "No, thank you. I just ate." But what I said was, "Why? I'm registering to vote."

"It's just part of the information they ask for," he replied pleasantly.

"Well, I don't care to book into that kind of information gathering," I countered.

Flustered, he finished filling out the little card, had me sign it, and then just checked the box he felt like checking anyway as I turned to walk away.

So, as I laid the groundwork for all this last night, I started telling another story to illustrate the pervasive nature of our apparent "need to know" this information throughout the society. The incident took place about twenty years ago, when my bi-racial daughter and I were standing in a check-out line at a supermarket. I was perusing the magazines or something when I overheard a young voice pointedly asking someone, "Are you Black or are you White?"

I turned and had to look down. There, feet firmly planted in front of my daughter was a European-American boy of about her same age (maybe four or so), eyeball to eyeball with her, and, when she just looked at him, he demanded again, "Are you Black...or are you White?" If he was with an adult, and he surely must have been, he was not being in the least censured.

I was horrified. It had not occurred to me (stupidly, perhaps) that my daughter was going to have to answer questions like that at this age. I grabbed her hand and we exited with our groceries, where I began the process of her education about "race" in the car on the way home.

When I told this story in the classroom last night, however, a European-American's hand went up. "Did your daughter look...ethnic?" the student asked, completely missing the point, as if it would have been reasonable for a child to ask such a question if my daughter had looked "different." I was stopped short. When I'm processing something--usually on a much different level than what is being presented--I stall for time. "What do you mean?" I asked. "What do you mean by 'ethnic?'" Now, I knew what she meant, but like I say, I was processing. And I still am.

The fact is that everybody looks "ethnic." "Ethnicity" just speaks to where your heritage appears to emanate from. I may not reflect all the various threads of my heritage. Few people who look like me do. But I look ethnic nonetheless. You can readily identify me as one who has at least some ties to Europe--probably to England or Ireland or Scotland, in particular--and that makes my ethnicity European-American, if one only uses the visual to establish such a thing.

But that's not what the student meant and she was in no way appearing to be mean-spirited or challenging. She was just trying to establish what made the boy ask the question--rather than taking a good, hard look at the question itself (which is what I had intended for them to do). I side-stepped the issue because I was trying to move on and because I wanted to mull it all over on my own first.

European-Americans use the term "ethnic" interchangeably with the term "exotic" to describe someone who looks different from the "norm," which is "White," of course. In and of themselves, ethnic and exotic are not pejorative terms, but what caught my attention last night was how they are used in the United States to establish "otherness." There's "us" and then there's "them." As Paula Rothenberg (see the links list on this blog) says, White privilege and power have "normalized" and "naturalized" Whiteness, making them the standard against which all else, and most particularly anything "ethnic," is judged. The trouble is, of course, that we are all 100% ethnic. And most of us probably don't begin to realize how many ethnicities we do, in fact, represent.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

"Black.White." (Part Two) or Keep My Name Out Your Mouth

As if on call, shortly after being exposed to the up-coming reality show that will appear soon on FX and about which I have my usual Why-Am-I-Not-Surprised attitude [see my "Black.White." (Part One) entry posted below], I received an email from a student with a bit of film attached. It was a story presented recently as part of a standard newscast on WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, and it reminded me of the cluelessness of the White family on the FX show.

According to the news report, Paul Dawson, a forty-something European-American honors English teacher at Valley High School in Jefferson County, Kentucky, stumbled and tripped over his tongue during class one day when he instructed an African-American boy to get away from the classroom door by saying, "Sit down, niggah!" He claimed on the broadcast to have been just using the vernacular that he has heard the kids themselves use so much. In fact, he said several times in a row at one point in the interview, "Why is this word used so frequently? I'm trying to understand..."

The difficulty, I would suggest to Mr. Dawson, an English teacher for twenty years and, therefore, we might assume, fascinated by words, is that "niggah" is so much more than just a word. A history lesson might be in order here.

When Europeans realized how rich they could become by jingling a few gold coins in brigands' faces on the west coast of Africa to "buy" captured humans that could be literally worked to death for free, they were fairly dazzled by the potential of it all. In short order, they had enlisted the aid and support of the religious community (as in "these heathens, if they indeed have souls, which they may not, will be better off forced into Christendom anyway than allowed to live their lives as they might choose"). Soon, the social scientific community, as well, had joined the refrain, declaring that the social world, just like the jungle, is always ruled by the fittest--or at least by those who can, by any means necessary, force their will on others.

Using this type of reasoning, if reason had anything to do with it, the Europeans involved in this process did not see--or did not want to see--Africans as humans with homes and families, with cultures and religions of their own, with languages and traditions that had been consistently in place for many hundreds of years. So the investors, in the interest of turning people into "property," decided to erase all that they didn't want to see. Instead of acknowledging, then, that the Africans were Ibo and Fulani and Mangbetu and Maasai, the Europeans simply called them after the Niger (which means "black") River, that stretches 2500 miles through West Africa. So the captured Africans became "Negroes."

In the southern United States, of course, where a heavy dialect of the English language rather quickly developed among the slaveholders, the "Negroes" soon became "Niggrahs" or more colloquially, "niggers." I personally believe that this is why European-Americans didn't grouse too much when African-Americans went from calling themselves "Negroes" to calling themselves "Blacks" in the sixties. It was more of the same, if you will, especially since it had been Europeans that called them "black" in the first place, regardless of the "I'm Black and I'm proud" movement. It was when "Black" people began using various forms of the term "African-American" that White folks got edgy because, I think, it takes the lost Africans back to a grand heritage (read your history), a heritage that was stolen on purpose to make them more manageable.

What Mr. Dawson doesn't apparently understand about the word "niggah" is that White folks have used up all their word-using privileges when it comes to the n-word. They just can't use it any more unless they earn the right somehow (as bestowed on the occasional European-American by people of color who love them) and, even then, they'd better be very, very careful how and when they choose to do so. Which they know very well, if they've reached that level of inclusion.

It didn't surprise me that Bruno Marcotulli (the White man made up to be Black for the FX reality show) was anxiously waiting for some African-American to call him "Niggah" so that he could use the word, too. This is a club that is closed to men who look like Marcotulli. And he feels that rejection, that "don't-be-ridiculous" barrier. And with White guilt and White low self esteem and the need many Whites feel to be everywhere at once and wherever they please, he longs to slap hands with a man of color and be included. Just like Paul Dawson does.

But this club is members-only. This is a club made up of people who have suffered so much for so long that no other name could probably ever encompass all the history that it carries within it. History that is rich and deep. History that talks about rising above all violence and all pain and all agony and all shame at all cost to stride into the future anyway. Like transforming the field holler into the blues which eventually became the base for all the musics from R & B and rock and roll to jazz--heard now around the world--African-Americans have squeezed their milleniums of shared history into artforms...and a word.

When Richard Pryor came back from Africa with the statement that "there are no niggers in Africa," he was right, of course. Because that's not where the members of this club reside. They're strictly U.S.-born and bred. With the indomitable spirit of Africa in their souls, but their feet on U.S. soil. Pryor once quipped that Black men hold onto their privates because that's the only thing they have left that hasn't been taken from them. But I would argue that there are other things, as well. And that's their history, their monumental strength and accomplishments in the face of overwhelming odds, and their name--whatever it is they want to call themselves--whether it's understood (and can be used) by the White man or not.

"Black.White." (Part One)

All the scuttlebutt these days--even on Oprah, and that's the standard du jour--is about FX-TV's up-coming show starring two families (one Black, one White) who trade races for a while and try walking in each other's shoes. Reality television being as popular as it is, it was probably only a matter of time before someone like Executive Producer R.J. Cutler (himself European-American) hooked up with someone like actor/rapper/producer Ice Cube willing to join the project to make some money exploring "the color line."

My first thought when I read a promo piece about the show was "Oh, boy, here we go...I wonder how they'll take an emotionally-laden topic of crucial import and turn it into a sound-bite that somehow makes the situation worse." The show hasn't even aired yet and I already have my answer.

For those who've been living in the back of the cave, "Black.White." (the show's title and the first signal that they didn't know what they were really trying to get at) takes a European-American family: Bruno Marcotulli, his wife Carmen Wurgel, and her daughter Rose, and--reality show style--puts them in a house for six weeks with an African-American family made up of Brian and Renee Sparks and their son Nick. But that wasn't enough for Cutler. He's won some awards for his previous reality shows and he has the genre pretty much down pat. So--with the help of Hollywood make-up artists, language experts, et al--he came up with the idea of turning the two families into each other (as it were). What he apparently discovered was that it couldn't be done. Make-up sits on the surface and the issue, if you will, is in the mind where the make-up doesn't reach.

Cutler's idea was interesting, except that any African-American could have told him that the White folks wouldn't get it. Heck! I could have told him that the White folks wouldn't get it. In six weeks? I don't think so. But the sponsors must be falling all over themselves to get a piece of this action. And it's the bottom line, not the color line that unquestionably drove Cutler's train. Skip the fact that viewers are going to walk away from the screen shaking their heads and more convinced than ever that the "other side" is crazy. "I didn't realize how genuinely different an experience it is to be a White American and a Black American," said Cutler at the end of the taping. Du-uh! (And Ice Cube couldn't help him out with that?) But, from what I can tell, lack of insight rarely, if ever, influences a Hollywood mogul to entertain second thoughts when a buck can be made.

A recent installment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, kindly taped and brought to me after a class one day, since I don't have television, brought the two families for a coast-to-coast follow-up session and gave us all a taste of what's to come. I, for one, am glad I won't be seeing it. Not since I visited friends and watched an episode of Bobbie Brown and Whitney Houston demonstrating how crack affects your home life have I been quite so happy to be out of the loop. One scene, for example, showed Wurgel standing up extemporaneously at a poetry group for Black young people and trying her hand at spoken word, using words like "creature" to describe individual members of the stunned audience. I wince just thinking about it. And she was still trying doggedly to explain herself sitting with Oprah after the fact.

Wurgel bought a dashiki to wear to church and managed to call Renee Sparks a bitch in a moment of attempted bonding ("I thought that's what Black women call themselves...") and that was all before the poetry group incident. Her husband Bruno, on the other hand, admitted at one point that he was waiting with relish for some Black person to call him the n-word so that he could reciprocate. With a high five, I guess. You get the idea.

One can only wonder if Ice Cube, who was quoted as saying about the project that "...race is not just the obvious," was just in it for the money, as well. He knew that you can't teach an old dog new tricks in six weeks. He surely also realized how exploitative it would be to put an African-American family into a situation where they can't leave and must come into constant, unavoidable, and recorded contact with well-meaning, but racist people. Still, he signed on.

My problem with it all: my concern that White folks will watch and decide (once more, with feeling) that institutionalized oppression against people of color and most particularly African-Americans is simply a matter of Black folks' skewed perceptions; that it's just the natural function of group relations, in any case; that it belongs primarily, in fact, to occasional bigots sitting on a bar stool; and that it has nothing to do with ordinary European-Americans--like them. And then, of course, I'm also concerned that Black folks will give up believing that there's any hope at all for the future. Because when that happens, we're all in a world of trouble.