Wednesday, December 3, 2008

white quotation of the week (maurice berger)

Maurice Berger,
author of White Lies:
Race and the Myths of Whiteness,
which includes the following insights

In her book The Rooster's Egg, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams offers several examples of the ways economic class matters when white people assess their black colleagues and acquaintances. More often than not, she observes, white people force black people into neatly compartmentalized categories of class.

In one instance, a candidate for a high Massachusetts public office publicly asks why he should bother to go campaigning among the "welfare mothers and drug addicts" of Roxbury. Roxbury, however, is not the decrepit ghetto of his fantasy; it is, in fact, a fairly sedate, middle-class black community. . . .

White people are often invested in the myth that African Americans are either impoverished or belong to an elite of celebrities, politicians, and athletes. In this mythic, either-or view of black life, African Americans are rarely understood to share the middle- and working-class allegiances of most whites. Such myths about race and class selectively come into play to disguise or justify negative or ambivalent views of blackness.

Well-meaning white people, trying to fit their black acquaintances and colleagues into "some preconceived box of blackness," often search for the ghetto child behind the successful adult. The writer and editor Brent Staples, for example, suspected what he was really being asked about his past when he was interviewed for a job with The Washington Post: "[The interviewer] wanted to know if I was faux, Chevy Chase, Maryland, Negro or an authentic Nigger who grew up in the ghetto besieged by crime and violence. White people preferred the latter, on the theory that blacks from the ghetto were the real thing."

Williams herself remembers being asked about her background by one of her white students, culminating in the bizarre question of whether the house she had grown up in was freestanding.

The comforting idea of the black middle class--an amorphous designation into which other economic categories of black life in America, from working class to wealthy, are merged--allows white people to distance themselves from their own racist feelings. White people often think that middle-class blacks no longer suffer the indignities of prejudice.

Unlike their less fortunate ghetto brothers and sisters, the reasoning goes, middle-class blacks have economic and social standing to insulate them from crude attacks, insults, and slights. As Williams suggests, white people point to the black middle class to comfort themselves with the notion that racism isn't so bad anymore, that "but for a few rabble-rousing rioters . . . the black middle-class is so darn happy, so well-off, so privileged it positively whines."

Extending this idea of the contented black middle-class further, white people (as well as many African Americans) often see middle-class blacks as the antidote for the ills of black America--lifesaving role models who can inspire the less fortunate to transcend their malaise and dispossession.

The myth that the problems of the inner-city are due to a lack of middle-class role models, however, ignores the well-documented sociological and economic reasons for urban poverty. The effects of urban blight and displacement, of the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism that decimated millions of black people's lives, and of the still relentless if passive racism that damages black people's sense of security and power: these cause harm that is unlikely to be cured by parading middle-class exemplars before poor people.

The white person's belief that any black person who works hard enough can succeed and subsequently transcend the harsh realities of poverty and racism was made clear by the reactions of white viewers to The Cosby Show, the highest-rated situation comedy of the 1980s. In an insightful survey of the program's fans, Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis reported that many white people felt the series, which portrayed a successful upper-middle-class black family, showed a "world where race no longer matters"--a hopeful view that enable whites to "combine an impeccably liberal attitude toward race with a deep-rooted suspicion of black people."

In other words, Bill Cosby's reassuring portrayal of hardworking, upstanding obstetrician Dr. Cliff Huxtable and his respectable brood did little to dispel the myth that most other, less fortunate black people are bad or lazy, or that well-to-do blacks are somehow unfairly benefiting from white benevolence, affirmative action, and quotas. The Huxtable family became white America's model of upper-middle-class black self-sufficiency and transcendence; if only poorer blacks could follow their example!

The opposition between the black underclass and the black middle-class tends to leave out the working-class or lower-middle-class people who make up a majority of the black population. Most blacks are not different from their white counterparts in terms of the sacrifices they make to remain economically solvent. Most black men and women work hard to feed and clothe their families and themselves. Their lives are far different from those of the coterie of famous and wealthy black men and women--Cosby, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey--whose status in the media triggers admiration and, at the same time, overshadows the real problems and success of middle-class and working blacks.

Maurice Berger is the author of eleven books on American art, culture, and race. His 1999 memoir, White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (excerpted above) helped to explore the idea of "whiteness" as a racial concept for a broader audience, beyond the readership of academic "critical whiteness studies." Berger, a cultural historian, art critic, and curator, is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, and Senior Fellow at The Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School. Among the exhibitions he has curated is "White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art," which includes artists whose works (as he says in this audio-visual commentary) "make whiteness visible, and thus available for discussion."


  1. I had to laugh when he used the example of Roxbury, MA. I went to college in Boston, and our campus was a few blocks from the Boston proper/Roxbury border. For a class assignment freshman year, a group of us had to visit a couple of sites in Roxbury. I distinctly remember one of the girls in the group telling me that I was their "passport" to Roxbury. I guess because I was (half) black, she considered me their cultural broker to the ghetto despite my suburban/rural upbringing. She was so worried about those ghetto black folks that she changed out of her regular clothes and put on ratty jeans and a sweatshirt so we wouldn't get mugged or something. This kind of attitude about Roxbury was so common, and it just made me shake my head. I went to a church in Roxbury all 4 years of college, and it was in a nice, residential neighborhood, and the people there were the warmest, most genuine people I have ever encountered. And my sheltered, mostly white classmates were so afraid of people like them... those scary black folks across the border in Roxbury.

    I see it now in Chicago. People in my well-to-do neighborhood on the North side talk about the SOUTH and WEST of the city like they are big bad scary places.

  2. Most whites may use the Black middle class as an example of America's fairness.
    But how many of those middle-class would have been upper-class if America was actually beyond race?


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