Monday, July 26, 2010

go on hiatus

Other work is calling me away from effective management of this blog, so I'm going to take a break.

Many thank-yous to the uncountable readers, commenters, emailers, and guest posters of swpd. I've learned much more than I can say about the insidious tenacity of de facto white supremacy -- the pain it causes non-white people, and the common tendencies it encourages in white people. It's also been good to see other people finding something of value here. I can only hope that any good this blog has done so far has outweighed the bad that it's also done.

I'd especially like to thank the non-white/people of color who have willingly shared their experiences here with racism. I'd also like to apologize to those who have been annoyed, frustrated, hurt, and/or driven away by derailed comment sections. One thing I'll be doing while away from the blog is thinking about how to reconfigure its activities, especially comment moderation.


PS -- I'll continue checking email, at unmakingmacon AT gmail DOT com

Friday, July 23, 2010

listen to anti-racist music

It's Friday! How about some music?

Here's a video by Jasiri X called "What if the Tea Party was Black" (lyrics below).

Got any other anti-racist music to recommend in the comments?

YouTube says,

A few months ago, Tim Wise wrote a widely circulated article called, "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black" which challenged America to take a close look at the hypocrisy of the Right Wing. Now, a Pittsburgh rapper is accepting his challenge in true Hip Hop form. Jasiri X has released a video called "What if the Tea Party was Black." The Hip Hop artist says that he got the idea when Paradise,a member of the pro-black rap group X-Clan, forwarded him a copy of Wise's article. "I saw the article and I liked the concept," says the rapper. So Jasiri hit the studio with producer Cynik Lethal while Paradise grabbed his video camera and they went on their mission to defeat the Right Wing propaganda machine.

Here's the video. Jasiri X has also done a followup piece (here), responding to the critics in the 1500+ comments inspired by this one.


What if the tea party was black
Holding guns like the Black Panther Party was back
If Al was Rush Limbaugh and Jesse was Sean Hannity
And Tavis was Glenn Beck would you harm they families
If Sarah Palin was suddenly Sistah Souljah
Would you leave it to the voters or go and get the soldiers
Yall know if the tea party was black
The government would have been had the army attack

What if Michael Baisden was on ya FM dial
For 3 hours every day calling the president foul
Would they say free speech or find evidence how
To charge him with treason like see he's unamerican now
What if Minister Farrakhan prayed for the death
Of the commander in chief that he be laid to rest
Would they treat it as the gravest threat or never make an arrest
Even today he's still hated for less
What if President Obama would have lost the election
Quit his job so he could go talk to the left and
Bash the government for being off of direction
Fraught with deception
And told black people they want all of our weapons
And we want our own country and called for secession
Would he be arrested and tossed in corrections
For trying to foster aggression
Against the people's lawful selection
Our questions

What if the tea party was black
Holding guns like the Black Panther Party was back
If Al was Rush Limbaugh and Jesse was Sean Hannity
And Tavis was Glenn Beck would you harm they families
If Sarah Palin was suddenly Sistah Souljah
Would you leave it to the voters or go and get the soldiers
Yall know if the tea party was black
The government would have been had the army attack

What If black people went on Facebook and made a page
That for the death of the president elect we prayed
Would the creators be tazed and thrown in a cage
We know the page wouldn't have been displayed all these days
What if Jeremiah Wright said that everybody white
Wasn't a real Americna would you feel scared of him
If he had a militia with pictures that depict the president as Hitler
They would kill and bury that
What if Cynthia McKinney lamented the winning of the new president
And hinted he wasn't really a true resident
With no proof or evidence
Would the media treat it like a huge press event
They would have attacked whatever group she represents
They would have called her a kook on precedent
And any network that gave her due preference
Would be the laughing stock of the news so our question is

What if the tea party was black
Holding guns like the Black Panther Party was back
If Al was Rush Limbaugh and Jesse was Sean Hannity
And Tavis was Glenn Beck would you harm they families
If Sarah Palin was suddenly Sistah Souljah
Would you leave it to the voters or go and get the soldiers
Yall know if the tea party was black
The government would have been had the army attack

h/t: Scott McLemee @ Crooked Timber

Thursday, July 22, 2010

wonder how to respect other cultures

This is a guest post by Joanna, who blogs at My Name is JuJuBe. She's wondering just where the lines are for white people between "appropriation" and something like, "respectful appreciation."

I have a question that I would love to hear some feed back about. I recently read a book called Culture Bandits, by Del Jones, about the appropriation of African cultural images and traditions by white people.

Now, I understand that performing a traditional type of music, or wearing certain culturally significant items are blatant forms of cultural appropriation. I never really paid attention to the concept of cultural appropriation before, but have become more aware in recent years.

So, I have several questions regarding this.

1) While I have heard many times (and always believed) that a white person wearing dreadlocks is a form of cultural theft, does the same hold true for a white person wearing braids/cornrows?

2) If a white person displays art work from another culture in their home (and I mean GENUINE artwork, not a white person's INTERPRETATION of another culture's artistic tradtion), is that cultural appreciation, or cultural appropriation?

3) If a white chef is called an "expert" on the food of another cultural, like Rick Bayless is considered a highly respected Mexican chef, is that culturally inappropriate? (I see nothing wrong with a home chef cooking food from another cultural tradition, but I think that profiting from someone else's cultural traditions is disrespectful.) Does it make a difference HOW the person goes about doing this? (meaning, is Rick Bayless living in Mexico and studying the food and later opening a restaurant as offensive as say, Taco Bell?)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

quotation of the week (sherman alexie)

Sherman Alexie
(Spokane/Coeur d’Alene)

        Go, Ghost, Go

At this university upon a hill,
         I meet a tenured professor
                 Who's strangely thrilled
         To list all of the oppressors --
Past, present, and future -- who have killed.
Are killing, and will kill the indigenous.
         O, he names the standard suspects --
                 Rich, white, and unjust --
         And I, a red man, think he's correct,
But why does he have to be so humorless?

And how can he, a white man, fondly speak
         Of the Ghost Dance, the strange and cruel
         That, if performed well, would have doomed
All white men to hell, destroyed their colonies,
And brought back every dead Indian to life?
         The professor says, "Brown people
                 From all brown tribes
         Will burn skyscrapers and steeples.
They'll speak Spanish and carry guns and knives.
Sherman, can't you see that immigration
         Is the new and improved Ghost Dance?"
         All I can do is laugh and laugh
And say, "Damn, you've got some imagination.
You should write a screenplay about this shit --
         About some fictional city,
         Grown fat and pale and pretty,
That's destroyed by a Chicano apocalypse."
The professor doesn't speak. He shakes his head
         And assaults me with his pity.
         I wonder how he can believe
In a ceremony that requires his death.
I think that he thinks he's the new Jesus.
         He's eager to get on that cross
         And pay the ultimate cost
Because he's addicted to the indigenous.

Sherman Alexie self-identifies as a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, which he left to attend a nearly all-white high school (where the only other Indian was the school's mascot). His first screenplay, Smoke Signals, was the first major film produced, written, and directed by American Indians. Alexie is the author of dozens of books and the recipient of nearly as many awards (you can read a bio about him here). The above poem is available online here, and in Alexie's recent book, War Dances. (Image source)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

pounce on any example they can find of "black racism"

[Updates below]

In apparent reaction to recent revelations of blatant Tea Party racism, Fox and other news outlets have seized on a relatively ancient video clip, of a black USDA official admitting that she offered a white farmer less help than she could have. The efforts to make snippets from Shirley Sherrod's speech a national story constitute a vintage white whine -- "Hey, black people can be racist too ya know!"

These efforts by Fox and others to spark a media firestorm exemplify a more general common white tendency -- that of finding, often with a sort of righteous glee, examples of "black racism." In my experience, most white people point out random, very specific and individualized examples of black bigotry far more often than they point out individual or institutional acts of white racism.

Also, the timing of such examples tends to be revealing. White people usually point out "black racism" when they're confronted with examples of white racism. In the current case, in a rather breathless piece entitled "Video Shows USDA Official Saying She Didn't Give 'Full Force' of Help to White Farmer," Fox News operatives reveal in their very first sentence just why Today's Viral Video suddenly interests them:

Days after the NAACP clashed with Tea Party members over allegations of racism, a video has surfaced showing an Agriculture Department official regaling an NAACP audience with a story about how she withheld help to a white farmer facing bankruptcy -- video that now has forced the official to resign.

Hmmm . . . I can't help but wonder, how long has Fox News, or perhaps someone else, been holding onto this story?

I wonder because this common white attention to "black racism" usually functions as a distraction, an effort to deflect blame from white people. In a (by now, I hope, classic) blog post, Abagond labeled this white move the Arab Trader Argument:

The Arab trader argument is my name for an argument white Americans often use to defend the evil they do in the world. It goes like this: if white Americans do something evil and terrible it is all right –- or at least not all that bad –- so long as they can find at least one example from world history of someone else doing the same thing. Thus the Atlantic slave trade was not so bad because Arabs traders sold slaves too! . . .

The thing is utterly morally bankrupt. It is the everyone-does-it argument that we tried when we were eight. Our mothers did not buy it then and it does not work now –- except maybe for the morally blind.

I haven't heard Fox News and other pilot-fish media followers described as "morally blind," but the term does fit the way they're pouncing on this snippet from a speech that was delivered not this week or even this month; former USDA official Shirley Sherrod's delivered this speech in . . . 1986!

What Fox and other blatantly conservative media outlets are willfully blind to in this case, as in other similar ones, is the fuller context of what Sherrod was saying. Again, Fox goes ahead and admits what it's doing in this sense; a line in their story reads,

The point of [Sherrod's] story wasn't entirely clear; only an excerpt of the speech is included in the video clip.

Kudos to CNN, then, for holding back a bit on this common white deflection reflex, at least on one of its programs. In the following "American Morning" segment, anchors John Roberts and Kiran Chetry ask, "Does that video tell the whole story?" They also make the effort of simply asking Sherrod what the whole story is, including the point of her anecdote -- while she thought at the time that race was important, she later realized that her treatment of the white farmer was wrong, and that "the issue is not about race, it's about those who have versus those who do not have."

I'm tempted to say that Fox News has already gotten what it and other conservatives want, which is to get us all talking about race instead of social class -- that the ol' Divide-and-Conquer strategy seems to have worked again, and here I am writing a blog post about race, when even the black person in question is saying that we should really be talking about "those who have versus those who do not have."

And yes, back in the 1980s, as now, small American farmers of all races were suffering from the predations of big-time Agribusiness. However, as Daily Kos dairist Deep Harm writes, "minority farmers had a particularly difficult row to hoe":

In 1920, black farmers in the United States owned 15.6 million acres of land; by 1999 that number had fallen to 2 million, and it's still dropping by 1,000 acres per day. In 1910 there were 926,000 African Americans involved in farming; at the end of the century, just 18,000 remain[ed], and they're going under at the rate of five to six times the rate of white farmers.

Racism and classism both matter, of course, and for non-white people, the former greatly exacerbates the latter.

The end of the YouTube clip that started this faux/Fox controversy contains a recent statement by NAACP Vice President Hilary Shelton, to the effect that his organization does indeed "repudiate racists within our ranks." The implication of juxtaposing Shelton's statement with Sherrod's is a question -- Will the NAACP condemn Sherrod's actions?

As a white person, I don't think it's up to me to judge the race-related actions of non-white people. However, I wish the NAACP hadn't been so quick to come out against Sherrod*:

"Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA. According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the civil rights group. "We are appalled by her actions, just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers."

"Her actions were shameful," Jealous continued. "While she went on to explain in the story that she ultimately realized her mistake, as well as the common predicament of working people of all races, she gave no indication she had attempted to right the wrong she had done to this man."

As Sherrod herself said in response, it's "unfortunate that the NAACP would make a statement without even checking to see what happened. This was 24 years ago, and I'm telling a story to try to unite people."

To be clear, I'm not claiming that Sherrod did the right thing in not helping a distressed farmer as much as she could have, just because he was a white man who treated her like an inferior. Instead, I'm pointing out the common white tendency that's demonstrated by many of the white reactions to the snippets from Sherrod's speech: pointing out "black racism" in an effort to deflect attention from white racism.

Is there anything else besides that tendency that could explain why this story is now national news?

*As I noted here, my thanks go out to commenter Queen of the Cynics, for pointing out here the problem with this sentence.

Update: Some are saying that the White House, which may have indirectly told Sherrod to "resign," got punked by Andrew Breitbart, the same sleaze-merchant responsible for the ACORN pimp-and-prostitute fiasco. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says, however, that the decision was his alone.

Many news outlets are now reporting the fuller context of Sherrod's entirely unobjectionable remarks. Sherrod wasn't working yet for the USDA when the episode she describes happened; she made up for not helping the white farmer as much as she could have by befriending him and his wife, Eloise, who described Sherrod as a "good friend" who hasn't been "treated right," and who also "helped us save our farm."

I wonder if the White House will get Shirley Sherrod's job back for her? Guess who, of all people, thinks it should.

How much weirder will this sad, race-baiting parable for our times get?

Update II: This non-story-that's-become-a-huge-story has metastasized into such an extensive series of interviews, apologies, rebuttals, new charges and countercharges that it needs its own blog -- surely one exists? I'd add more links to some of it, but I think they'd be out of date by tomorrow.

So I'll just add a question, in case anyone's still reading here. What do you think of the claim some are making, that Shirley Sherrod is the Rosa Parks of our time?

Monday, July 19, 2010

say things like, "aren't indian women beautiful?"

This is a guest post by Epi Tales, who writes at a blog of the same name, where this post also appears. She writes of herself, "I can’t stop reading. I hate life unless I'm being propelled through the pages of a book in parallel to my 'real' life. As a kid, I read Harriet the Spy, and I was infatuated with the idea of writing. Constantly. Insatiably."

After all the internet hoopla following Joel Stein's "My Own Private India", I am more confused than ever about the racism I experience. The silver lining is wittiness, specifically Kal Penn's now-famous, incredibly sarcastic retort published on the Huffington Post.

Hold on, I’ve got some nostalgia, bear with me: all these mentions of Edison, NJ engender some serious gastronomical and linguistic longing. Walking into restaurants or sweet shops with my then-fiance, I was never addressed in English, only Hindi. It never felt presumptuous, rather inclusive, with the undertone of “I know you know this” and “we share something, whatever part of India you’re from”. Isn’t there some comfort in that?

Now I’m walking around Seattle, which is white enough to find an Indian interesting, yet cosmopolitan enough not to call me a dothead (I think this term is out of vogue anyway). Instead, I find hilarious, yet racist, moments. Last weekend, my mother and father-in-law were browsing jewelry in a booth at the Freemont fair. A kindly older man looks up and says, “Do you speak Hindi?” to which I answer, “yes”. He tries out a few phrases on us, and his accent is respectable. He tells us about his time in India. I groan inwardly -- why is it that every non-Indian male who starts a conversation with me seems to have an insatiable urge to tell me about that one time they were in India? Or how they know Ravi Shankar? Or how I must eat ‘such spicy food’? Yes, one billion of us possess miraculous abilities to eat food spicier than anything you could comprehend. And we’re uniformly spiritually advanced yogis too. Then they want to go to India. And close the conversation by saying how I’m beautiful because I’m Indian. Oh, and throw in an Aishwarya Rai reference, as well as the one Bollywood flick they’ve ever seen.

I’m still rolling my eyes when we leave the dry shelter of the jewelry booth, pressing forward in the now-familiar Seattle drizzle. A curly brown-haired young hippie-looking guy, holding a guitar, loudly addresses us in Hindi, “NAMASTE! Sabkooh sapna hai” except that we could not understand his Hindi, due to his accent. We turn towards him, confused.

“I think he said, ‘sabkooch samne hai’ [everything is in front of you]”, I ventured, to my MIL.

“Wait, really? Not ‘sabkooch apna hai’ [everything is mine],” she responded. Apparently exhausted with our own conjecture, we turn back to the hippie-looking, guitar-holding guy, and ask, “wait, what did you say?”

“Do you guys speak Hindi?” Whoa. There’s that line again. Is this how Seattle-ites greet strangers?

“Yes, of course. What were you saying?”

“Everything is a dream,” he responded. Oh goodness, I thought to myself, he’s starting to flirt, and I am standing here with my in-laws. Who hits on someone with her parents watching? (And, for the record, I wear a wedding ring on my left hand). Polite banter followed about -- guess what -- Ravi Shankar. Eager to end this rain-soaked insipidity, my MIL and I turn to leave. He then turns conspiratorially to my FIL and comments, “aren’t Indian women beautiful?” Really? This dialog actually took place out of a comic strip?

More comedy: at my office, anytime someone speaking to me refers to a project in India or Indian food, they gesture towards me.

While I’m grateful that these anecdotes are neither traumatic nor hate driven, they constitute racism in that I am viewed first and foremost as my race. Similar to how dripping water can wear away rock, or how well-being erodes when faced with verbal abuse (just ask the French government), these small barbs injure a sense of individuality and belonging over time. Place the idea of complete assimilation in this context, and it quickly becomes obvious that integration cannot happen without an accepting environment.

Looking back at the ill-placed Time piece, I can’t quite get angry at Joel Stein even though his piece does an astoundingly good job at missing the point. He opens with “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.” (italics added) where he explicitly condemns a particular branch of immigrants. He then insults them, saying:

In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Then he admits that Indians have helped his precious hometown survive economically.

Stein continues to demonstrate his complete ignorance, blessed as he may be with his titular “own private India”, by saying that one billion Indians are “familiar … [with] instruct[ing] stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.” If you ask the vast majority of Indians about routers, they might stare at you blank-faced. India is not all Bangalore and high-tech. Still though, reading about Stein’s sense of dislocation when his “town is totally unfamiliar to me [him]” draws real sympathy, even from a member of the group he feels so threatened by -- but isn’t this the reason for all the aphorisms about change? And isn’t this perceived threat the most neatly circumscribed definition of xenophobia? And this is precisely why the scars of immigration remain, even two generations later. But this comes full circle: this is also what Stein and these immigrants share, in addition to the more tangible, crowded space of Edison, NJ.

Calling Stein’s perspective or my experiences offensive isn’t the right word -- nothing that’s outlined here is blatantly mean-spirited, just severely misguided. To my boys, the idea that any generalization can be made about Indian women, i.e., half of a billion people, is indescribably ludicrous. And Stein: nice blinders -- are they hip right now? Because so is the other side of the story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

force non-white students to read "great literature" that demeans them

This is a follow-up to the previous swpd post, in response to many of the readers' comments there.

Here's something that I as a white person can never really know -- what's it like for non-white children when they have to sit through an education system that still normalizes and glorifies white people and white ways, more or less all of the time? A system that also still denigrates the contributions and lived experiences of people of color, more or less all of the time?

How, for instance, do non-white students reconcile what they probably perceive at times as a contradiction, a paradox, when they're being taught that some work of unspokenly white art is "great," and yet they know at some level that it's also racist? And worse yet, that the teacher isn't even acknowledging the racism, and can't even seem to see it?

In a YouTube clip, damali ayo (author of such satiric takes on whiteness as How to Rent a Negro and Obamistan!: Land without Racism) describes her experience in class with the n-word, and with hearing it so many times during discussions of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Embedding of the clip has been "disabled by request," so here's what ayo says while discussing two "n-words," including responses to the word "negro" in her first book's title:

[After the book and web site appeared,] license to use the word "negro" grew dramatically in my life. People started calling me negro all the time, and it's like, "No, you guys, it's satire and, you're not supposed to say that." . . . So like, I have to explain, the idea is that the stuff on the site is as archaic, and as outdated as this word.

I remember being in class and reading To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . and I don't remember what that book is about. No clue, zero.

What I think the book is about is the word "ni**ger-lover," because that's all I heard for like, days on end in my classroom, was the teacher going, "Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**er-lover, ni**er-lover!" And then the kids, "Oh! Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover!"

And I remember looking at Kim Yates . . . she was badass. And I remember looking across the table at her, and we just, our faces sank. And I started to see the other white kids follow suit. She was older than me, and I didn't know if she was going to do something, so I was just looking at her like, "What do we do?" I think we were both just overwhelmed with the inability to control the situation that was being led by the teacher.

Of course, a lot of other "great literature" -- which by default tends to mean "great white literature" -- that gets taught also has racist effects. Toni Morrison wrote a whole book about that, and I'm sure others have written about it too. In that book, Playing in the Dark, Morrison points out that understanding what's racist about great white literature doesn't necessarily diminish it, nor its authors. Instead, such deeper understandings can enrich the literature, further demonstrating how it represents and illuminates human experience, including racism. In other words, such materials don't need necessarily need to be banned; they can be taught in better ways, and they can also be taught alongside other art, created by people who understand racism differently, and better, because they're not white.

Still, so many teachers continue to handle racist material badly, much to the detriment of students of color. Should teachers no longer subject them, and white students, to great literature that's also racist? Maybe it depends on how they teach it.

At any rate, many are clearly not teaching it well. As swpd commenter Jane Laplain wrote about her own Mockingbird experience,

I remember this was everybody's favorite "Race" book in my highschool english class. That and "Huck Finn." Both of these novels made me feel like I wanted to shrivel up and die, just wordless humiliation. What with the teacher and the kids all crowing about how much they loooooved the message. I could never quite put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable. The protagonists after all were AGAINST racism... shouldn't I be happy about that? I just didn't have the tools to dissect the hidden messages then.

Commenter Bingo offered some suggestions for how to better teach the novel -- these and other methods might help to prevent non-white students from feeling the ways that damali ayo and Jane Laplain did:

If I had to teach TKAM I'd...

1. Use the Innocence Project to show how innocent black men STILL lose their lives and freedom due to racism.

2. Ditto for Oscar Grant and other instances of police brutality.

3. Analyze the similarities between Mel Gibson's recent racist statement and the way the defendant is framed in TKAM.

4. Show how treatment of blacks as animals in the media (i.e. Obama monkey toys) ties into dehumanization of blacks in TKAM -- to Atticus blacks are mockingbirds, in the courtroom the defendant is referred to as a "buck."

It seems to me that teachers (white or non-white) who do such things do so because they're more sensitive to the differing effects that racially charged materials and discussions can have on differently raced students. Hopefully, they're also aware that racism has by no means gone away, and part of what they're ultimately doing as teachers is trying to fight it.

What were your experiences in school with racist white literature, and with other forms of great-but-actually-racist art? Did you have any teachers who handled such materials and discussions especially well? And is there any hope that teachers and the education system in general will do better?

h/t: RVCBard and sanguinity. For more on damali ayo at swpd, see "think that apologizing officially for slavery makes a big difference"; an swpd interview with her; and an insightful excerpt from her book, How to Rent a Negro.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

warmly embrace a racist novel (to kill a mockingbird)

I refuse to go along with this week's warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee's novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It's also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

A few days ago, NPR (National Propaganda Public Radio) aired a typically laudatory piece on the novel, voiced by reporter Lynn Neary. As usual on the soothing, soporific NPR, this piece was filtered through, and aimed toward, a well-educated white perspective. These implied people are all too happy to be reminded that racism is a thing of the past, and that things are oh so much better now. The writers of this NPR segment were careful enough to interview some black teachers and students about Lee's book, but if any offered significant criticism, their perspectives were left out.

The segment begins,

Harper Lee had the kind of success most writers only dream about. Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in the summer of 1960, it hit the bestseller lists, then it won a Pulitzer Prize, and then was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Her novel has never gone out of print.

But, in a move that's unheard of in this age of celebrity writers, Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago -- she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has endured, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

NPR's print version (entitled "50 Years On, 'Mockingbird' Still Sings America's Song") goes on to say,

For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus -- a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape -- came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.

That's right, dear, lily-white NPR fans. Things were sooooo different back then, weren't they? Thank God racism is dead!

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist -- it allows, indeed encourages, today's well-meaning white people to think that "America is a very different place" than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

The novel came out, you see, "just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation." Back in the bad old days, when "the nation" was "fighting"; why not say that mainstream white supremacists, with the support of most white Americans, were keeping black kids out of school while bashing in the heads of their adult parents and relatives? And come to think of it, the heads of those black kids too? But nowadays, you see, "the nation" embraces its black kids.

By way of driving home that particular, comforting implication -- "Fortunately, we all pretty much get along now!" -- Neary sets her story in a racially mixed, seemingly postracial classroom:

Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates -- and with students of all backgrounds.

"Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing" is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. "Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from."

This part of Neary's segment clarifies the second problem I have with how the novel comes across to so many American readers -- its messages get read as "universal" -- "To Kill a Mockingbird can teach anyone how to be a better person!" I suppose that's a nice message, but when people claim that the novel's messages can be embraced by anyone, the realities of white supremacist violence, past and present, fade from view.

Neary carries on about the book's widespread appeal -- which somehow circles right back to white people:

"The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world," says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. "And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country."

Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.

Yes, "we" wouldn't want white people, the principle enactors of racism, to feel at all "threatened" when we try to talk to them about racism. I guess if we did, they'd just up and run away!

Anyway, I could go on dissecting the saccharine nostalgia of this NPR piece (and I should add that, to Neary's credit, she does get around to injecting some realism, especially by mentioning the horrific and iconic death of Emmett Till). But I'd rather turn to a more critical and insightful view, of both the novel and its effects on different readers.

In a 2003 academic article (published in Race and Class), Isaac Saney wrote about successful black efforts against Lee's novel in Nova Scotia, efforts undertaken because it's a racist novel. In 1996, "intense community pressure" by the African Nova Scotian population managed to remove the novel from the Department of Education's list of recommended, authorized books; in 2002, a committee consisting of parents and educators, seconded by members of the Black Educators' Association (BEA), recommended that the book "be removed from school use altogether."

A report (by the African Canadian Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Education) "laid out the community's concerns":

In this novel, African-Canadian students are presented with language that portrays all the stereotypical generalizations that demean them as a people. While the White student and the White teacher many misconstrue it as language of an ealier era or the way it was, this language is still widely used today and the book serves as tool to reinforce its usage even further. . . .

The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word 'Nigger' is used 48 times. . . .

There are many available books which reflect the past history of African-Canadians or Americans without subjecting African-Canadian learners to this type of degradation. . . We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation . . . To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.

So aside from the multiple usages of the n-word, what exactly is it about the book that provoked such a strong black revulsion? (And I do not mean to imply with this question, of course, that I think all black readers respond to the book in just one way.)

After reviewing common white distortions in the media of this collective African-Canadian complaint,* Saney goes on to offer three primary and compelling reasons of his own for knocking To Kill a Mockingbird from its lofty perch:

1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.

Is not the mockingbird a metaphor for the entire African American population? [The metaphor says] that Black people are useful and harmless creatures -- akin to decorous pets -- that should not be treated brutally. This is reminiscent of the thinking that pervaded certain sectors of the abolition movement against slavery, which did not extol the equality of Africans, but paralleled the propaganda of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, arguing that just as one should not treat one's horse, ox or dog cruelly, one should not treat one's Blacks cruelly. 

By foisting this mockingbird image on African Americans, it does not challenge the insidious conception of superior versus inferior 'races', the notion of those meant to rule versus those meant to be ruled. What it attacks are the worst -- particularly violent -- excesses of the racist social order, leaving the racist social order itself intact.

2. The novel's noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.

Central to the view that To Kill a Mockingbird is a solid and inherently anti-racist work is the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus goes so far as to save Tom from a lynching. However, this act has no historical foundation.

The acclaimed exhibition Without Sanctuary: lynching photography in America . . . documented more than 600 incidents of lynching. This landmark exhibition and study established that 'lynchers tended to be ordinary people and respectable people, few of whom had any difficulties justifying their atrocities in the name of maintaining the social and racial order and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race'. In two years of investigation, the exhibit researchers found no evidence of intervention by a white person to stop even a single lynching.

(In sum, the noble, persistent, obstinate activism of Atticus Finch -- which garners the collective respect of the town's black people -- is a soothing white fantasy.**)

3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.

Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denail of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation.

There's the rub! The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movements for liberation and justice, from widespread African resistance to, and revolts against, slavery and colonialism to the twentieth century's mass movements challenging segregation, discrimination and imperialism. . . . The novel portrays Blacks as somnolent, awaiting someone from outside to take up and fight for the cause of justice.

It was African North Americans who took up the task of confronting and organising against racism, who through weal and woe, trial and tribulation, carried on -- and still carry on -- the battle for equal rights and dignity. Those whites who did, and do, make significant contributions gave, and give, their solidarity in response.

Yes, in response. I put those words in bold print because when I first read them, I realized just how white-centered the novel and movie are. I think that had it not been for the movie, especially Gregory Peck's depiction of Atticus Finch, the novel would not have the status it has today. Peck's Finch, in his upright disdain for racism, fully embodied a particularly white and male aspiration of liberal nobility. But he does it all on his own; it's white individualism all over again. And, ironically, non-white people are part of that portrait, but only as props, as accouterments that flesh out the portrait. Any black unrest and activism that would no doubt have inspired and aided any such white crusader is entirely erased.

Despite these faults, and others, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be among the top three most-taught novels in American middle and high schools (another, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tends to be taught in similarly fantasized terms). Saney makes the sensible suggestion of supplanting such white-centric readings on racism with some more honest and black-affirming books, such as Ellison's Invisible Man, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved, and many others. I would add that many worthy novels were written throughout the twentieth century by other non-white writers as well.

So, what do you think? Do you have warm memories of this (white) "masterpiece," or not-so-warm memories? If you have read it, do you think your race had anything to do with your reaction to it?

Also, should teachers should stop teaching it? Or teach it differently? And do you know of other worthy replacements/successors?

* Saney writes that in the white-dominated Canadian press,

The arguments advanced by the Black community were consistently presented in a non-serious, even risible, light so as to give the impression that the Black educators and parents are ignorant of the merits of literature, mere emotional whiners and complainers, belonging to a hot-headed fringe. For example, after the decision was made to keep the books in the curriculum, the Halifax Daily News in an editorial was 'relieved cooler heads have prevailed', reproducing the racist notions of inherent Black emotionality versus the rationality of white society.

** In a New Yorker piece published last year, Malcolm Gladwell claims that Finch did resemble an actual white antiracist of sorts, Alabama Governor Jim Folsom. Even so, since Folsom was a sort of wishy-washy populist of all the people, rather than a genuinely dedicated reformer, the parallel still leaves Atticus Finch looking less than worthy of emulation. As Gladwell writes, "If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict [against Tom Robinson]. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds."

Friday, July 9, 2010

fear black men (oscar grant open thread)

Oscar Grant
(February 27, 1986 -- January 1, 2009)

I'm following Average Bro's lead here in opening up the comments to your thoughts and feelings on yesterday's Oscar Grant verdict. Given the racially disproportionate rates at which police brutality continues to occur in the U.S., there's a great chance that if you're white, your feelings are different today from those of a lot of non-white people. Especially a lot of black people, who still suffer the most from police harassment and brutality, as well as the more general American fear of black people.

At "The American Prospect," Adam Serwer made an especially good point yesterday, in a piece on common white fears of black men -- how they likely played a part in Oscar Grant's death, and how the justice system ended up ignoring, yet again, the ongoing history of America's murderous fear of black men:

Today Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who killed Oscar Grant while he was lying face down and handcuffed in an Oakland train station, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter -- his crime, according to the jury, was negligence in not knowing the difference between his heavy black gun and his light yellow tazer. Of the possible outcomes Mehserle was facing, involuntary manslaughter was the best he could have hoped for short of acquittal. He faces a maximum sentence of four years for the original crime, possibly more for the use of a firearm.

I want to focus for a moment on the distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. To convict on the higher charge of voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution would have had to prove that Mehserle's fear of Grant and his friends was "unreasonable." It decided the crime was involuntary. In other words, Mehserle's fear? That was reasonable.

Fear is at the core of questions of justice involving the deaths of black people at the hands of the authorities in the United States of America, dating back to when Toussaint L'Overture put the fear of G-d in slaveowners by revealing that their "property" might someday rise up against them. L'Overture still has that effect on some people. Following emancipation were the days when "justice" was meted out in the South by terrorists posing as vigilantes. Even then, when such atrocities were an accepted part of black life, people inside and outside the South found ways to sympathize with the anger and fear white Southerners felt towards their black neighbors -- The New York Times editorialized in the 1890s that no "reputable or respectable negro" had ever been lynched.

Even decades after the Civil Rights era, a cop shooting an unarmed black man is barely a crime -- a 2007 ColorLines investigation of police shootings in New York City found that in 12 instances when the victim was unarmed, only one officer was found criminally liable. There hasn't been a murder conviction on a police shooting in Oakland since 1983. As Kai Wright wrote in the aftermath of the Sean Bell verdict, "American law has been sanctioning the killing of black people to mollify white fear for centuries. . . We scare the shit out of America. And that fear excuses just about any reaction it spawns." Mehserle is profoundly unlucky to be punished at all.

Times change, but the radioactive fear of black people, black men in particular, has proven to have a longer half-life than any science could have discerned. This is not a fear white people possess of black people--it is a fear all Americans possess. It makes white cops kill black cops, it makes black cops kill black men, and it whispers in the ears of white and nonwhite jurors alike that fear of an unarmed black man lying face down in the ground is not "unreasonable." All of which is to say, while it infects all of us, a few of us bear the brunt of the suffering it causes. . . . (more)

Serwer also makes this point: "What's worse is that we we don't just fear, we fear talking about it."

Will the corporate media use yesterday's verdict to talk about it?

The answer is easy -- no. But hey, look over there! Violence in the streets of Oakland! Some violence, anyway. Violence in the wake of racial injustice is what gets the attention of the white-framed media, not the injustice itself. As I write this, CNN finds the news of a basketball player's team-switch bigger news; readers have to search more carefully for a link that says, "Hundreds protest after BART verdict."

Would "thousands" have bumped the story up the page? "Hundreds of thousands"? Whatever the number, it's the protests that the white-framed corporate media focus on today as the "story" here. Not the searing injustice of yet another light sentence for the state-sponsored killer of yet another unarmed black man.

What are you thinking and feeling today? And, since this is swpd, are you seeing other common white tendencies in response to yesterday's verdict?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

wonder if they should call out what looks like racism when non-white people do it

Two readers wrote this week with what amounts to a similar question -- is it ever okay for white people to blame non-white people for actions that they would blame white people for?

What do you think?

Reader 1 writes,

I read your blog regularly (it is a great help, thank you) and know you must receive a lot of emails from clueless white people but I’m still new and learning so I really haven’t seen much about this and I thought you could help.

Sometimes when I watch a show that originates from a non-white majority group or nation I will occasionally see racist caricatures or at least what looks like one from my white, US-based experience. Today, I saw what appeared to be a Golliwog on Univision. The character Simon from Durarara!! has been making me uncomfortable for a while because of his resemblance to black-face characters.

But is it really my place to feel anything toward these? It is my first inclination to treat it the same as racist material that originates in the US but then I think that I have no right to negotiate the racial politics of a non-white nation when, as a white person, I’m helping to contribute to white supremacy. So I guess I’m just asking: what is the proper way for a white person to react to racism in non-white nations? Thanks.

Reader 2 writes,

I want to preface this by saying a few things: I am white. I am not trying to derail the discussion, to make it all about me, or to make myself look good. I know that merely by writing you I am opening myself up to being corrected, exposed as racist, and eviscerated. I accept this.

I'm a cashier in a mixed neighborhood. When WP are openly racist, I give them my death stare, and say, "If you're going to talk like that, don't come back." Yet, when confronted with a POC telling a racist joke or anecdote (normally about some 3rd race, less frequently about WP, and rarely about BP) I carry on like I was momentarily deaf. I ignore it totally.

So what can/should I do? I'm not going to attempt to educate POC about how they should behave in the world, but I don't tolerate that behavior from WP. Am I fostering a racist atmosphere at work? I keep quiet out of the fear that I'll be seen as one of those WP who knows everything about POC/PC behavior and can't wait to let everyone know how "good" I am, and that in an of itself is racist, arrogant and lame.

Any thoughts, even blistering ones, would be great. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

quotation of the week (paul mooney)

Paul Mooney

In his book Black Is the New White, comedy legend Paul Mooney writes the following about breaking into stand-up in 1970, at Ye Little Club, "Joan Rivers's joint in Beverly Hills." Caution -- unrestrained language ahead:

Joan opens the place so she and her comedian friends have a place to try out material. It's small, casual, intimate, a jazz club for jazz people. . . .

My comedy is a nuclear bomb inside my mind. It's a weapon that's never been tested. It just blows up and flattens everybody. I start out talking about the funniest shit I know, which is race.

Thank God, Paul Revere was white, because if he was black, they'd have shot his ass. "He done stole that horse, let's kill him! Kill him!" And who do they say sewed the flag, what's her name? Betsy Ross? Now, come on -- they had slaves back then. Betsy Ross was asleep at six. You know some big black mama was up at night sewing that flag! "Honey, oh, Lawd, have mercy, I'm just up so late sewing this flag, I'm seeing stars!" And she's thinking about the stripes on her back, from the whip. So there we get it, the stars and stripes. But as soon as the white men got there, the white lady Betsy Ross jumped up, "See what I did?"

Right away, I notice something. The black people in the audience react to me way differently than the white people. Like in this routine. White people like the killing of the black horse-thief. They like the coon talk of the slave woman.

But the white folks get tight-faced and nervous when I start making fun of the white lady Betsy Ross. I know they like history. White people like going back in time, which is always a problem for me. I can only go back so far. Any farther and my black ass is in chains.

At Ye Little Club, I always drop some history into my act. It's knowledge. There's always a message in my comedy. But it's like a time bomb. The audiences might not get it right away. But they get it later that night, the next day, a week later. Then they understand.

I start to study white audiences. I see their reactions. I get my first walkouts. A lot of white people remind me of scared rabbits. When the wolf comes out, they run. They twitch their little pink noses and haul ass out of there.

When I imitate middle-class white speech, I see a flicker of unease cross the faces of the white people in the audience. Then, when I go into ghetto riff, the smiles return. They're fine as long as I am making fun of the same kind of people they make fun of, chinks and spics and niggers. But as soon as I start talking about them, I can clear a room.

My favorite is Lassie. Is that dog smart. Goddamn that dog is smart. They talk to Lassie like Lassie is a person. "Lassie, hey, Lassie, how's your mom? I love you! Call me in an hour!" I saw one episode, Grandpa has a heart attack? Lassie drove him to the hospital. And made a left turn. I said, Goddamn, Lassie, this is a smart dog. . . .

When I'm up onstage, I'm watching the audience like a hawk. I'm analyzing little tics, tells, and reactions they don't even know they are having. I study them. I have jungle eyes, I don't miss a thing.

I start to get so I can orchestrate my act. Some nights I feel like I'm Quincy Jones, like I'm playing the white audience like an instrument. That line'll make 'em nervous, but this line'll bring 'em back. I tease it to the edge.

It's funny, isn't it? Most of the white folks at Ye Little Club laugh about everyone else, but when I talk about them, they suddenly lose their sense of humor. They freeze up like an engine out of oil. If I do it enough, if I push it too far for them, they get up and leave.

So I think, Fuck them. I do it more than enough and I push it too far. Some nights I'm not happy until I provoke a walkout.

That's when I find my true audience. Black people, who are always with me, and brave white people. The non-rabbits of the bunch. The ones who can laugh at themselves.

Paul Mooney is the creator and star of Know Your History -- Jesus Was Black ... So Was Cleopatra and Analyzing White America. Mooney has also worked widely as an actor (Hollywood Shuffle, The Buddy Holly Story, Bamboozled), as a screenwriter (Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling), and as a television writer (Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Richard Pryor Show, In Living Color, Chappelle's Show). Mooney's memoir Black Is the New White, which focuses largely on his relationship with his life-long friend Richard Pryor, is a great read -- insightful, hilarious, revealing, and everything else that Dave Chappelle says about it in the book's Foreword.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

think that because openly declared white supremacy is marginalized now, racism is dead

Comedian John Oliver of "The Daily Show" is at it again, making light of racism in Africa. Last year, he provided a pungent example of hipster racism during an interview with Zachary Muburi-Muita, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations. In that skit, Oliver tried to get his Kenyan interviewee to admit he misses the good old days of white colonialism. Oliver's white hipster irony became insufferable when Muburi-Muita objected to Oliver's trivialization of such a serious and painful subject, and Oliver just kept going, with what amounted to a rude and (truly) ironic racist joke.

Yesterday, Oliver struck again. In the following skit, he rides the World Cup bandwagon to South Africa, pretending to be a tourist on the hunt for "the good stuff" -- "vintage" racism, in the forms of hardcore bigotry and "real live race riots!"

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

The joke here is that although Oliver seems to search high and low, interviewing both black and white people, he just can't find racism anywhere -- "No matter where I looked, I couldn't find a single racist!" Until, that is, he encounters the lunatic, far-right fringe, in the form of a whacky, self-declared white supremacist. Oliver then lets Dan Roodt, an "activist for an all-white, separate nation," spout some ugly nonsense about crime and IQ differences and so on.

The problem with this skit's central joke is that it's based on a false premise. Oliver is playing a fool who doesn't realize something that everyone else supposedly knows, but that something actually isn't true; the skit's false premise is that racism is now effectively dead in South Africa. It's not.

What this skit does, in typical white-liberal fashion, is individualize racism. The far more damaging and insidious form -- institutional racism, a form very much alive in South Africa -- goes ignored.

In 2008, the country's Commission for Employment Equity released the results of a study of institutional racism. The commission's chair, Jimmy Manyi, said then that racism in South Africa "still rages":

"The only difference is that previously it was more overt, but now it has assumed sophisticated forms in day-to-day work practices," Manyi said.

Handing over the annual 2007/2008 report to Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana, Manyi said the "finite data" received from large employers showed the "gross under-representation" of Africans, Coloureds and people with disabilities in the top three levels of management and that Whites dominated.

"Institutional racism continues to reign supreme," he said.

"The actual data we are getting from the companies is telling us that the people who are benefiting from recruitment and promotions in the majority are white," he said.

The report also shows that while South Africa's "Economically Active Population" is about 88% black, their proportion at top management levels in 2007 was only 28.8%. Affirmative Action policies have been in place as a corrective, in terms not only of race, but also disability and gender. However, Manyi said, "Only white women seem to be benefiting disproportionately in terms of this legislation [which allows for affirmative action] and black women are really lagging behind" (the report thus resembles results in the U.S., where the largest beneficiaries of Affirmative Action have also typically been white women).

I often enjoy the more biting satire of "The Daily Show," including that of John Oliver. However, when the topic of race comes up on the show, so do my hackles (though I do think their "Senior Black Correspondent," Larry Wilmore, consistently skewers white racism effectively). Laughing at hardcore racists might work to further marginalize them, but it's also a way of ignoring more refined, significant, and damaging forms of racism.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

continue to embody the "real americans"

We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of slave owners who wanted to be free. So they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people.

You know what the motto of this country ought to be? "You give us a color, we’ll wipe it out."

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. . . .

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. . .

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—The United States Declaration of Independence,
adopted on July 4, 1776

Be in enacted by the State and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof . . .

—"An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,"
ratified on March 26, 1790

Autonomy is freedom and translates into the much championed and revered "individualism" . . . . Eventually individualism fuses with the prototype of Americans as solitary, alienated, and malcontent. What, one wants to ask, are Americans alienate from? What are Americans always so insistently innocent of? Different from? As for absolute power, over whom is this power held, from whom withheld, to whom distributed?

Answers to these questions lie in the potent and ego-reinforcing presence of an Africanist population. This population is convenient in every way, not the least of which is self-definition. This new white male can convince himself that savagery is "out there."

—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark:

After 1870, Blacks as well as Whites could naturalize, but not others. . . . from 1870 until the last of the prerequisite laws were abolished in 1952, the White-Black dichotomy in American race relations dominated naturalization law. During this period, Whites and Blacks were eligible for citizenship, but others, particularly those from Asia, were not. Indeed, increasing antipathy toward Asians on the West Coast resulted in an explicit disqualification of Chinese persons from naturalization in 1882. . . .

In 1935, Hitler's Germany limited citizenship to members of the Aryan race, making Germany the only country other than the United States with a racial restriction on naturalization. The fact of this bad company was not lost on those administering our naturalization laws. . . .

In 1952, Congress moved towards wholesale reform, overhauling the naturalization statute to read simply that "[t]he right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married." Thus, in 1952, racial bars on naturalization came to an official end.

—Ian Haney López, White by Law:
(1996, 2006)

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. I could measure up to the cultural standards and take advantage of the many options I saw around me to make what the culture would call a success of my life.

My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as “belonging” in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. My life was reflected back to me frequently enough so that I felt, with regard to my race, if not to my sex, like one of the real people.

--Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege and Male Privilege:
A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences
through Work in Women’s Studies" (1988)

Deep within the word "American" is its association with race. . . . American means white . . .

--Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

[Long-time readers of swpd might recognize this post as a version of a post from last year's United States Independence Day. Sadly, such things bear repeating.]

Saturday, July 3, 2010

fight islamophobia, even though they're outnumbered

Lots of email this week! The conversations at swpd about some readers' stories and queries have clearly helped to discern the intricate workings of de facto white supremacy. Another reader, M, seeks your thoughts about the following incident.

I read your blog almost every day and it is a small source of comfort for me. I have never emailed you with a conundrum, and I see that people often write you with conundrums, but I thought I might give this a go and see what the people on your blog think about how the situation was handled.

I am an African woman in an interracial relationship. My boyfriend is white. My boyfriend is part of a world wide organization that comes together to work on speeches and to critique each other in small groups. These meetings are often 95% white where we live (I've seen one Latina and one Asian man at the meetings).

My boyfriend has been trying to get me to join the group with him to work on our communication skills. I went with him to a few meetings to sort of feel out the group and see if it was the best fit for us. They were all very nice, but I just felt like something was amiss with the group. There were a few very subtle things that made me uncomfortable. My boyfriend did not pick up these things when I did. Nevertheless, I thought the group was good for him and I wanted him to keep attending to improve his communication skills.

Last night, he went to a meeting alone to perform his speech. Following his speech was a white veteran of the club, a very talented, very libertarian, very respected speaker. His speech that day was supposed to motivate the audience to question the ideas that ware taught to them (and replace them with the ideas that Fox News teaches apparently? lol). He started off talking about his life experiences as a pilot, and how it gave him a view of the world from up high. That is where he says gets his perspective on life from apparently...

The speech got a lot darker when he started talking about world views, and started focusing on Islam as a world view. He explained that Islam was a world view that leads to violence and extremism. He went on to talk about 9/11 and how Islam led the attackers into committing the attacks. The logic he used was that the word Islam means "submission", and that while it "supposedly" means submission to god, it "actually" means submission to the world view of violence and hate.

The man won "Best Speech" that night at the meeting.

My boyfriend was pretty stunned by what the man had said, but he was even more disturbed that his words earned him a "Best Speech" award. It felt like the entire club was condoning his views. He came home and told me about it, and as I finished scraping my jaw off the carpet, he decided he wanted to address the speech through an email to the entire group and force them to examine what was said.

I was kind of hesitant to let him do that, because I have been in situations where someone says something ugly, I try to call it out, and a shit storm ensues. I have grown thicker skin, and have learned to deal with it, but he's kind of new to all that. Despite my uneasiness, he wrote and sent the email.

The email explained, in quite a reasonable way, that by allowing this sort of rhetoric into the group, they would be saying to a lot of people of color that they are unwelcome in their group.

He then said to them, "If we had a guest tonight who was of the Muslim faith, we could be assured that he would not be returning. He would have felt isolated and alone, and like we didn't accept him because of his religion. Is that the kind of group we are? Is that how we should treat people?"

He sent it, and then came the responses...this one is from the speaker. This is just a little piece:

"We live in a difficult world. That's normal, and if you believe that everyone should always avoid telling the truth so as not to hurt someone else's feelings, or cast aspersions on their worldview, then you believe in a fantasy world where everybody's worldview should be forcibly made to be the same and we all "just get along" because someone told us that we must."

There was also more flag-waving about freedom of speech and censorship. No one came to my boyfriend's defense in any way, shape or form. He was on his own.

I don't want to be long winded, but I just wanted to ask:

Should I have stopped him from sending the email out? Was he wrong in wanting to make the group think about what was said in that speech? Is he infringing on the speaker's freedom of speech?

He feels what he did was right, but I wanted to know what everyone thought about it.

Thank you so much for listening.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

infiltrate non-white spaces

KB, a non-white reader, wrote about the following situation, wondering if the feelings it provoked are legitimate. Can you offer this person any help?

I just came back from college and received one of the biggest culture shocks of my life. I was raised in one of the last remaining all-black neighborhoods in Los Angeles; it's called Leimert Park. I had very few friends that were white, and at the time it bothered me. I wanted to find someone with whom I could discuss my love of Coldplay and Bjork (which is probably a stereotype in itself).

So, I thought going to a small liberal arts college would help me meet open-minded people of all races. I was fully aware that most of these people would most likely be white. However, through a series of unfortunate events, I became aware of the prejudice and outright racism alot of white people, and even some other POC, have toward Black people. Most of them have to do with the alleged lack of intelligence that Black people have.

So, when the time came to go home, I couldn't wait to return to my Black family/community that held the same beliefs as mine, and where my intelligence was celebrated and never doubted. Rising house prices have caused many white families that lived further inland to move to Leimert Park and other Black communities that were once considered "bad neighborhoods."

On Sunday, there was an artwalk in the market place of Leimert Park. There was a drum circle, everyone had on dashikis, or some other type of afrocentric garb. Almost everyone there had dreadlocks or afros. All of the featured art depicted the black struggle or black leaders. It was basically a BLACK event, or an event for POC. I was sooo excited to finally experience MY culture in MY community after a whole year!

But while I was dancing in the drum circle, a group of white onlookers caught my eye. And as the day progressed, I saw more and more. They were all pretty young and hipster-y. When I saw them, I felt completely deflated, I didn't even want to be there anymore, I had this sudden flash of xenophobia and fears of gentrification.

 I felt like if this kept happening, there wouldn't be any events like this in Leimert Park ever again. I feel really guilty for feeling like this.

Is it wrong for me to feel like this?

Please Help!!!
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