Tuesday, February 24, 2009
February 22, 2009 — Restructure!
When I checked Stuff White People Do and saw a post originally titled, “Stuff White People Do: Laugh at Asian English”, I felt racism fatigue, and responded with a half-hearted and uninspired, “I am offended at your post,” followed with a description. I fully expected to be accused of looking for racism again by some commenter in a comment that closely followed mine, which has become almost a tradition at Stuff White People Do. (Sometimes this commenter is Macon D himself.)
Unsurprisingly, I was accused of “looking for something to pounce on Macon for” by a commenter named “haley” half an hour later. Surprisingly, however, the normally-defensive Macon D took my complaint seriously and tried to think of alternative ways of phrasing the title. In the end, Macon D actually took my suggestion seriously and changed the post’s title to “Stuff White People Do: Laugh at “Engrish”.”
I’m not entirely sure what happened, but perhaps my uncharacteristic comment, which left me vulnerable to the accusation of oversensitivity, didn’t trigger a defensive reaction on the part of Macon D.
Normally, I almost never criticize racism with “I am offended” or “I take offense”, because when racism is framed as “something that offends people”, then accusations of racism are portrayed as “political correctness” catering to the hypersensitivities of minorities who supposedly always force the majority to accommodate them. Even when I almost never use the terms “offense”, “offended”, or “offensive”, people have told me that I was oversensitive about racism, that I need to grow up, that I cannot always break down and cry every time someone is not sensitive to my feelings.
The people who say these things appear to think that racism occurs rarely, and that when a non-white person complains about allegedly “trivial” instances of racism, it means that she is like a young child who hasn’t yet learned that not everyone in the world is obligated to be nice to her. In reality, however, I have experienced racial microaggressions since childhood, and I am well aware that the world is not a safe space for people of colour with respect to race. I point out racism not because I’m noticing it for the first time, but because I want to bring it to the attention of others who have grown up shielded from the daily realities that people of colour have to endure. I point out racism because I want to point out injustice, not because I am some selfish oversensitive child who wants the world to revolve around me and my feelings.
Instead of “I’m offended!”, I tend to say, “That’s racist!” However, this method has its own problems, because although you are not calling someone a racist, the accused perceives it that way, that you are personally attacking their character. Calling someone racist, they argue, is an ad hominem and therefore not a valid argument. They say that you are characterizing them as a bad person so that anything they say is characterized as illegitimate. They make it all about them instead of about the action being criticized. They claim that they are being silenced if I use the word “racist”, so that I even considered using the terms “racialist” or “racial discrimination” instead to make the criticism more acceptable. Sometimes I did this, until I realized that even if you use a less offensive word, they still became defensive because they could not accept the idea that racism isn’t over, or that they could be racist (adjective, which is a different concept than being a racist, noun). I also realized that I was bending over backwards as to not hurt their feelings, instead of the other way around, the latter being the illusion that they maintain through repetition.
The idea that finding racism requires searching is based on the idea that racism is rare, or that racism is rare in the United States (or rare in Canada), or that racism is rare among liberals, or that racism is rare among the left, or that racism is rare among anti-racists who happen to be white. These types of delusions are rooted in the need to elevate the group they identify with, and separate themselves from “those other white people” who are “the (real) racists” (noun phrase). Unfortunately, arguments like, “I’m not racist. I’m Canadian,” or “I’m not racist. I’ve read books by black authors,” or “I’m not racist. I’m an anti-racist activist,” are non sequiturs. Identifying with a specific group does not give anyone immunity from having racist thoughts, even if both white people and people of colour wishfully think that there are racism-free spaces. . . .
[The rest of this post is at Restructure!'s blog; see also a reaction at Abagond. Restructure! writes of herself, "I am a heterosexual, cisgender, and currently able-bodied Canadian woman of colour. I make use of the 'illusion of objectivity' when I write posts for this blog, Restructure! I avoid the words “I” and “we” as much as possible in my posts, in attempt to throw off the white gaze and the male gaze from myself, and to throw the gaze on to whites and males."]
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Phillip Atiba Goff is an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology, where he conducts research on racial attitudes and beliefs. When he recently published the results of a five-year study of common psychological associations between black people and primates, his anxiety about the anticipated response was deeply personal.
"When I first analyzed the data, I spent two days under the covers," Goff said. "I was sick and depressed. When I left my apartment, I felt everyone looking at me would see a monkey."
For those who like to praise America for making great strides toward racial equality, Goff's findings should have sobering implications. Perhaps the most fundamental one is that a long history of white supremacist assumptions that black people are related to apes and monkeys is not just history. Instead, as Goff has demonstrated, those racist associations remain embedded within the minds of most white people, affecting their opinions and their behavior.
Goff's work may also help to explain the motives, conscious or not, of Sean Delonas, the cartoonist who created the dead-monkey image that's provoked so much discussion and outrage this week (you can see the cartoon here). Goff's research results demonstrate that such images are not only offensive and repugnant, because they dredge up age-old associations between black people and primates. They're also flat-out dangerous, because those associations are still active within the recesses of most white minds.
In a series of six different studies, Goff and his fellow researchers subjected hundreds of participants to an array of image- and word-association tests. In an overview of the series, Tom Jacobs writes that in Goff's first study,
The participants were "primed" with one of three sets of images: 50 photographs of black male faces, 50 photos of white male faces or an abstract line drawing. As is standard practice on such tests, the images were flashed onto their computer screens too rapidly for them to consciously register.
The students then watched short films of animals, which were obscured in such a way that it was difficult at first to make out exactly what species they were seeing. Gradually, the image became clearer, so the animal could be identified.
The disturbing result: Participants who had been primed with black male faces required fewer frames to identify the animal in question as an ape. In contrast, those primed with white male faces required more frames to make the identification than those who saw the racially neutral line drawing.
"The effects were quite large -- distressingly large," Goff said. "There was a decent amount of variance, but there weren't a whole lot of folks that didn't demonstrate the effect.
"The difference between when the black face was primed and when the white face was primed was about six frames, which was about three full seconds. In cognitive terms, where you're staring at a screen you're just a few inches from and trying to tell what an object is, three seconds is a profound difference!"
Because the results from each of Goff's six studies show that racist connections between black people and primates are anything but a thing of the past, they have deep and immediate social implications. Goff's work helps to illuminate the pervasive undercurrents of white condescension, suspicion, and fear that black people routinely encounter in non-black environments.
For instance, another of Goff's studies suggests that ongoing associations between blacks and primates tend to make whites more approving of police abuse, if the victims are black instead of white.
In that project, white male students were initially briefed with words commonly associated with either apes or large cats. They then watched a video of a policeman beating a man:
Half were told the man (whose image was unclear on the film) was white; the other half were told he was black.
The students who were primed with cat words considered the beating unjustified. So did those who were primed with ape words but were told the victim was white. But those who were primed with the ape words and told the victim was black were far more ambivalent in their reaction.
"The association between black and ape left our white respondents more open to the possibility that police violence might in fact be justified," Goff said.
In the sixth and final study of his series, Goff's results also help to explain why the residents of death row are so disproportionately black. Goff analyzed newspaper reports of trials in which both black and non-black defendants were eligible for the death penalty. He found that descriptions of the trials for black defendants included far more primate-related language, such as "ape," "beast," "brute," or "jungle":
"It turned out African Americans had significantly more ape-related images ascribed to them than did whites. And among African Americans, the more ape-related images you had in your press coverage, the more likely you were to be put to death."
Goff is not claiming a causal relationship between the stories and the death sentences; juries, he noted, are routinely ordered not to read press accounts of their cases. Rather, he concluded, "the representation of African Americans as apelike is so present in the cultural ether that both the press and the juries were drawn toward it."
With, in some cases, lethal results.
If some part of a white person's mind has been trained to continually and habitually connect black people with primates, how likely is it that a white manager will treat a black job applicant fairly? How likely is it that a white police officer will treat a black suspect with an appropriate amount of respect and restraint, if some part of the officer's mind is associating that person with an ape? And isn't it likely that such subconscious associations also prevent many white teachers from crediting their black students with the same intellectual capacities as other students?
So no matter what the editors of the New York Post claim in their thoroughly unapologetic apology, a cartoon that ties together a bloody, assassinated monkey and a bill that was signed by a black president is not only racist. It's also dangerous, because as Phillip Atiba Goff's profoundly revealing work demonstrates, such images reach into the depths of white minds and reinforce the common, demeaning, and dehumanizing imagery that's already there. That's why I can't see Sean Delonas' cartoon, nor the Post's non-apology, as anything other than illustrations of a smug and vile type of irresponsibility.
And for any young white folks who think that racist ideas of black people as ape-like are mere relics of a forgettable history--Goff found that such images also exist in the minds of people who don't know anything about that history:
Goff found that even contemporary college students who had no idea this connection had ever been made apparently had this notion in their subconscious. (For one of the studies, the participants were specifically asked whether they were aware of the stereotype of blacks as apelike. Only 9 percent answered affirmatively.)
As the many clueless defenses of the Post cartoon demonstrate, Phillip Atiba Goff's valuable work deserves wider recognition. His results thoroughly demonstrate the tenacity of the associations that most of us still make between black people and primates. For white people, his work suggests that unless we work to understand that which is buried--and yet lives--deep within ourselves, we're likely at some point to enact dangerous and even lethal racist tendencies. No matter how much we might like to praise ourselves and our country for moving beyond racism.
[h/t to Kit, who alerted me to Goff's work in a post at the new Afropeace Forum. Phillip Atiba Goff's written reaction to the Post cartoon can be found here. I also recommend this excellent set of tips for cartoonists, via Ampersand.]
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Maybe the white folks around this Asian guy thought that exaggerated squinty eyes and buck teeth were some sort of affectionate tribute to him? Whatever. It's just wrong, because it's racist. As I've heard from more than one person of Asian descent, using your fingers to do that to your eyes is the equivalent for Asian Americans of the n-word.
Got that, you decent, well-meaning white folks? As I understand it, pulling the sides of your eyes like that is pretty much the same as calling a black person that word you would never, ever call a black person.
Okay. So, what about basically doing the same thing with your tongue? That is, instead of trying to provoke laughter by distorting your eyes, doing so by distorting words instead?
I don't mean imitating an Asian language, as in the Rosie O'Donnell debacle, when she said "ching chong ching chong" on TV. I mean messed-up English. English that's supposed to be funny because it's messed-up.
I think a lot of non-Asian Americans already know what's wrong with saying "ching chong ching chong" and the like. However, I think a lot of those same people still see nothing wrong with laughing at "bad" English supposedly uttered or written by Asians.
This kind of humor is widespread among white Americans who would never consider their actions racist. Actually, I've done it too. It wasn't long enough ago, for instance, that I finally stopped trying to amuse children with the following riddle. This one went along with a non-racial joke, "Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine!":
When is it time to go to the Chinese dentist?
Um, I dunno.
Terrible jokes, both of them, but they sometimes got laughs. Now, however, I regret teaching kids that it's okay to laugh at what amounts to "bad Asian English." And to in turn associate real Asians and Asian Americans with bad English. And in the process, to feel sort of, superior to Asians, because your English is "better" than theirs.
As I said, this kind of humor is widespread, and I'm wondering just what lurks within the non-Asian laughter it provokes. Superiority, I think, for one thing. Condescension, too, which goes along with superiority. It's in those innumerable blog entries that find humor in the broken English splashed across various Asian products, like t-shirts and lunch boxes.
As Lorain Blanken notes in a brief article on Japanese t-shirts, this kind of English is sometimes called "Engrish":
In case you haven't heard of it, this is a phenomenon on the internet that has proficient English speakers chuckling at their laptops. 'Engrish' is the result of the Japanese producing t-shirts with English screen print without the consultation of an English speaker. Some of my favorites are 'Donkey Brings You Happy with Joy!', 'Truck, Smell the Pleasure', 'Cute Numb, Strenuous Heartthrob' and the one pictured here, 'Your Boyfreind Seen Nice'.
The ostensible purpose of Blanken's article is to admonish Japanese clothes makers: "What happens to the people wearing these shirts when they go on vacation overseas?" Blanken can't seem to stick to that point, though, and her overall message is that for proficient English speakers, these t-shirts are just good, chuckle-inducing fun.
Ashley, a commenter on Blanken's article, agrees:
this was one of my favorite things about Japan!! trying to decode their “english” shirts was so much fun. many people on the trip bought them to bring home, a popular one was something about ridding a pirate . . .
my favorite one was “the story end with happiness and deeply love” . . . i have a framed picture of it and it makes me happy every time i read it.
Now that I see what amounts to racial condescension in this kind of humor, I don't find it funny, and it doesn't make me "happy." It makes me cringe. Pretty much like I did when I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany's again, and white American actor Mickey Rooney's sickening yellowface shtick came on:
This morning, I encountered another example of "Engrish" humor, one of those "fun" emails that people keep forwarding, seemingly forever and ever. Here's a taste of it; notice how the "bad" English is supposed to enhance the humor:
Man who run in front of car get tired.
Man who run behind car get exhausted.
Man who scratch ass should not bite fingernails.
Man who eat many prunes get good run for money.
Baseball is wrong: man with four balls cannot walk.
War does not determine who is right, war determine who is left.
Wife who put husband in doghouse soon find him in cathouse.
Man who fight with wife all day get no piece at night. . . .
Crowded elevator smell different to midget.
Person who deletes this has no humor!!!
Now send it to 1 or more people. Nothing will happen but 1 or more people laugh.
Again, what's really behind the humor here? And who is it for?
I think that before people who are not of Asian descent forward or otherwise relay such humor, or for that matter any other racial or ethnic humor, they should think first about whether a member of that race or ethnicity would find it funny. And about how it would probably make them feel.
I'm sure that like many white Americans, the friend who sent me this email could easily see what's wrong with the ugly yellowface antics of Miley Cyrus, Rosie O'Donnell, and Mickey Rooney. But apparently this friend did not see anything wrong with laughing at "Engrish." I hope that soon, more people will see that attempts to provoke non-Asian laughter at renderings of "Engrish" are just as ugly as white people become when they narrow their eyes, stick false buck teeth or chopsticks in their mouths, and babble in fake foreign tongues.
[This post was originally entitled "laugh at asian english," which was changed to "laugh at 'engrish,'" which was eventually changed to the current title. Thank you to Restructure! and resistance for posts and comments that pointed out the problems with those two titles.]
Update: Losts of excellent thoughts on racist jokes, and advice on how to handle them, at this Racialicious post.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Printed version, AGNI Magazine:
by Patricia Smith
They call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty.
It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,
it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious.
I sit in my dim matchbox,
on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell,
slide razors across my hair,
count how many ways
I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin.
These are the duties of the righteous,
the ways of the anointed.
The face that moves in my mirror is huge and pockmarked,
scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked,
I am filled with my own spit.
Two years ago, a machine that slices leather
sucked in my hand and held it,
whacking off three fingers at the root.
I didn’t feel nothing till I looked down
and saw one of them on the floor
next to my boot heel,
and I ain’t worked since then.
I sit here and watch niggers take over my TV set,
walking like kings up and down the sidewalks in my head,
walking like their fat black mamas named them freedom.
My shoulders tell me that ain’t right.
So I move out into the sun
where my beauty makes them lower their heads,
or into the night
with a lead pipe up my sleeve,
a razor tucked in my boot.
I was born to make things right.
It’s easy now to move my big body into shadows,
to move from a place where there was nothing
into the stark circle of a streetlight,
the pipe raised up high over my head.
It’s a kick to watch their eyes get big,
round and gleaming like cartoon jungle boys,
right in that second when they know
the pipe’s gonna come down, and I got this thing
I like to say, listen to this, I like to say
“Hey, nigger, Abe Lincoln’s been dead a long time.”
I get hard listening to their skin burst.
I was born to make things right.
Then this newspaper guy comes around,
seems I was a little sloppy kicking some fag’s ass
and he opened his hole and screamed about it.
This reporter finds me curled up in my bed,
those TV flashes licking my face clean.
Same ol’ shit.
Ain’t got no job, the coloreds and spics got ’em all.
Why ain’t I working? Look at my hand, asshole.
No, I ain’t part of no organized group,
I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.
Then there’ll be three million.
I tell him that.
So he writes it up
and I come off looking like some kind of freak,
like I’m Hitler himself. I ain’t that lucky,
but I got my own beauty.
It is in my steel-toed boots,
in the hard corners of my shaved head.
I look in the mirror and hold up my mangled hand,
only the baby finger left, sticking straight up,
I know it’s the wrong goddamned finger,
but fuck you all anyway.
I’m riding the top rung of the perfect race,
my face scraped pink and brilliant.
I’m your baby, America, your boy,
drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.
And I was born
Patricia Smith is a four-time national individual champion of the Poetry Slam, the most successful competitor in slam history. She was featured in the film Slamnation and is the author of five books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. An instructor of performance, poetry, and creative writing, Smith is a Cave Canem faculty member, as well as a former Bruce McEver Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech University. She is currently at work on Fixed on a Furious Star, a biography of Harriet Tubman, the verse memoir Shoulda Been Jimmie Savannah, and the young adult novel The Journey of Willie J.
Friday, February 13, 2009
I'm not sure of the origin of the phrase, but it sure is useful these days. In a discussion of the notorious New Yorker cover that featured the Obamas dressed up as terrorists as an example of hipster racism, AJ Plaid attributes the term to Carmen Van Kerckhove, and defines the phenomenon as "ideas, speech, and action meant to denigrate [another person's] race or ethnicity under the guise of being urbane, witty (meaning 'ironic' nowadays), educated, liberal, and/or trendy."
Plaid's definition fits a lot of hip, sardonic, or otherwise supposedly witty approaches to race, but I think it can be refined. For one thing, while most white practitioners of hipster racism do mean on the surface to denigrate another's race or ethnicity, their ultimate, ironic intent is to show that they don't really mean it, and thus, that they themselves are anything but racist. This seems to be how the upcoming Pauly Shore movie that I wrote about recently works, and as the clip below illustrates, it's sometimes how "The Daily Show" works.
The following skit, with John Oliver "traveling" to Kenya, is a good example. The segment begins as a trip meant to inform ignorant American viewers about the country that helped produce Barack Obama. When Oliver sits down with Zachary Muburi-Muita, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations, the skit devolves instead into a sad instance of hipster racism, with Oliver playing a British moron who has no sense of what was wrong with England's racist colonial rule of Kenya.
As you watch, notice how at one point, when Muburi-Muita tells him that what's he's saying is "not funny," Oliver keeps going. In effect, a non-white voice of protest goes ignored and disrespected. Viewers hear Muburi-Muita's protest, but in the context of the skit, they're invited to laugh at it, and thus disrespect the person delivering it--"He can't even see that Oliver's joking! Look how far Oliver is willing to push this joke!"
As with other forms of satire, this type of humor goes wrong when it goes too far. In terms of race, one way that hipster humorists can go too far is by using people of color, who may or may not be in on the joke, as mere props in their own performance. By pretending to ignore the Kenyan ambassador's indignant response to a mock colonialist attitude, John Oliver demonstrates this failure. Whether the ambassador is in on the joke or not, the skit invites viewers to disregard and laugh at his perspective. That perspective is also trivialized because it's being used in a skit that's all about the performance of the white person at the center.
Self-reflecting irony of this sort is a crucial element of the hipster attitude, and as I understand it, hipster racism often arises in attempts at ironic humor. As Oliver demonstrates, this type of humor consists of acting like some sort of clueless, offensive bigot--be it a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe--for an audience that's supposed to know that you yourself are not really a bigot. You tell racist jokes or say and do racist things, but you're really making fun of bigots, so the humor is a supposedly legitimate form of satire.
White hipster humor about race is often meant to point out racism, but not in order to fight against it; the goal instead is ultimately narcissistic. The performance is an effort to get laughs, but it's also the comedians' self-centered effort to show that underneath it all, they themselves are not racists. This form of humor thus does little to dislodge the obstinate centrality of whiteness, because again, it's really all about the supposedly non-racist white performer, and not about the abuses endured by the targets of racism.
White people have a long history of defining themselves in opposition to the supposed inherent qualities of other races. When white people defined non-white people as savages, or as hypersexual, unintelligent or enslaved, they also defined themselves as the superior opposite--as civilized, restrained, intelligent, and free. In the same way, many white interactions with non-white people continue to be narcissistic, because they use non-white people to reflect back in a self-defining way on themselves.
When white hipster humorists perform a racial identity that involves interaction with non-white people, it's often all about the white person at the center. Using people of color so that you can pretend to be a racist in order to get laughs because you're mocking racists is not a genuinely respectful and anti-racist form of racial interaction. Instead, it's a way of acting in an ultimately racist manner, by using overt racism to suggest covertly, but falsely, that you yourself would never do anything racist. And since it's all really about you, and you're just using people of color for your own self-defining purposes, it amounts to little more than white self-centeredness all over again.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
This story is told in a movie that I'm looking forward to, Prom Night in Mississippi. Directed by a Canadian, Paul Saltzman, it covers Morgan Freeman's successful effort to end this racist tradition, by offering to pay for an integrated prom. Or rather, his successful effort to almost end it. Although last year's integrated prom at Charleston High School was a success, a group of white parents still held a separate prom for some white students.
And what are white parents' justifications for allowing their children to attend school with black students, but not the prom?
Saltzman, the film's director, provides this answer: "When I was doing the research and asking people 'What was the problem in having the prom together?' what whites usually said is, 'You know, blacks are into drugs; they're into violence' and on and on and on."
Chasidy Buckley, a black student who attended the integrated prom, provided a similar answer: "A lot of the white parents were concerned about safety. They were afraid that fights were going to break out, but the prom went smoothly. It was great; nobody got hurt or anything."
A rich irony is that while the integrated prom went smoothly, a fight broke out at the whites-only prom.
While unfounded fears of violence fueled white parents' fears, it seems clear that there's another, more covert reason that some don't want their children dancing and partying with black kids--their heads are filled with stereotypical images of black hypersexuality. Many parents fear drinking and fighting at such events, but they also fear heightened possibilities for sexual contact. And, as one white student notes in the clip from Prom Night in Mississippi below, that includes sexy dancing, especially "grinding."
White kids often grind when they're dancing too, but black and white kids grinding together? "Heavens no," many white parents think, "not my daughter!"
I remember talking once to a young white woman from another deep Southern state about her dating experiences in high school. She said she'd only dated white boys, "because like my mother always warned me, everyone knows that black boys are only after that one, single thing."
"Oh really? And what's that?" I asked, thinking that if it was the one thing I thought she meant, a lot of white boys are pretty much only after that one thing too.
"Sex," she said. "Especially with a white girl!"
"Oh come on," I said. "Do you realize what you're saying?"
"Right," she answered, "I know it sounds racist, but my mother was right. I proved it."
"You're kidding. How?"
"Well, there was this one time that a black boy sat next to me in the cafeteria. And guess what? He asked me out on a date!"
"Um, okay. So? Hasn't a white guy ever asked you out on a date?"
"Sure lots of times." She furrowed her brow in thought. "But it's different, you know? Because like, I'm white. So, it's easier for white guys to ask me out."
"You mean, it shouldn't have been that easy for that black guy to ask for a date?"
"Right. But he did ask, right away like that. So it was obvious, if he was going to ask so soon, even though it was harder to ask, then all he wanted was sex."
"Needless to say, you didn't give it to him. I mean, you didn't agree to a date."
"Of course not. I knew what he was after. My mom was right. I'll never date a black guy."
Now, this was about ten years ago. I hope that attitudes among today's younger white Americans have changed, and that their parents are also less delusional about supposedly predatory black sexuality, and the supposedly heightened threat from black kids of drug use and violence.
Fortunately, that such a generational change is happening appears to be one point of this intriguing new film, Prom Night in Mississippi. From what I can tell, it still lacks a distributor; if so, I hope it finds one, and soon.
*According to CNN, "Federal courts forced schools in Charleston, Mississippi, to desegregate in 1970, but no judge ordered the high school proms to merge."
[h/t to Jessica Yee, who wrote at Racialicious about white oblivion in Canada, where she attended the opening of a photo exhibit based on this film]
Monday, February 9, 2009
[partially cross-posted at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish]
I have a lot of sympathy for the general point that PETA is trying to make in its intentionally "controversial" campaigns. Their acronym stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and I generally agree that human animals should stop habitually and heartlessly abusing other animals.
However, PETA's penchant for stunts that are shockingly sexist, and often shockingly stupid, has often made me wonder if they're secretly funded by the beef industry.
Their latest stunt has me wondering again. Here's a photo of PETA supporters Caleb Wheeldon and Andrea McIntyre handing out leaflets outside a dog show in Madison Square Garden today. Notice what they're wearing.
That outfit is what it looks like--a Ku Klux Klan robe. No, undoubtedly not the real thing, since PETA members never get anywhere near Klan members. These animal-rights advocates are dressed this way because they're accusing members of the Westminster Kennel Club of abusing show dogs, by trying to breed them into a "master race."
As the Associated Press reports,
Crowds gawked at a table set up outside Madison Square Garden on Monday afternoon, where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was protesting the start of the Westminster Kennel Club show. PETA contends that the American Kennel Club promotes pure-breeding of dogs that is harmful to their health.
“Welcome AKC Members,” read a banner hanging from the table — with AKC crossed out and KKK written above it. Two PETA protesters dressed as Ku Klux Klan members, while other volunteers handed out brochures that read: “The KKK and the AKC: BFF?”
“Obviously it’s an uncomfortable comparison,” PETA spokesman Michael McGraw said.
But the AKC is trying to create a “master race,” he added. “It’s a very apt comparison.”
No, actually, it's not a very apt comparison. As I said, I have some sympathy for PETA's cause, and there's even some cleverness to this attention-getting stunt. However, any points in PETA's favor are grossly outweighed by the stupidity of trivializing the threat that the KKK has represented to non-white people, and black people especially, by comparing that threat to animal abuse.
While the point about show dogs is that they're being abused in order to create a favored, but congenitally unhealthy and in some cases freakish "master race," the parallel abuse alluded to by the mock Klan robes is that suffered at the hands (and rifles and ropes) of the KKK by its victims. Thus the implicit, boneheaded comparison that PETA makes here is that of KKK victims, primarily black people, to dogs.
You'd think PETA's event planners would've learned from the outrage provoked by some of their earlier, similarly racist campaigns. In 2005, disgusted civil rights groups and other protesters forced PETA to cancel one entitled "Are Animals the New Slaves?" According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this campaign featured a "12-panel display juxtaposing such images as noosed black men hanging from trees with photos of slaughtered cows . . . "
Then there was their "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign, which juxtaposed photos of penned and slaughtered Holocaust victims with animals processed in the corporate meat industry. For that one, PETA pulled the "Whipping Out Your Best Friends" maneuver, by claiming that the campaign was "funded by a Jewish philanthropist." This supporter supposedly agreed that "the victimization of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others characterized as 'life unworthy of life' during the Holocaust parallels the way that modern society justifies the abuse and slaughter of animals." If one of those victims says our questionable methods are justified, why then, they are! Right? Right?!
PETA surely know ahead of time that these specious parallels are going to piss off a lot of people. Indeed, that's clearly their purpose, as they repeatedly hail their own campaigns as "controversial," and thus attention-getting. There's no publicity like bad publicity, their thinking seems to go.
But I wonder--aside from these racist campaigns being wrong because they're racist, aren't they also counterproductive? Don't they turn off as any many or more people to PETA's cause as they attract to it?
If so, PETA people must be oblivious to how they keep shooting their organization in its foot. Another source of their oblivion is, undoubtedly, their overwhelming whiteness (unnamed Jewish donors notwithstanding). Indeed, as Tim Wise writes, these sorts of animal-loving extremists could be labeled "animal whites," not only in terms of their race, but also in terms of their habitual racial insularity:
That PETA can't understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn't the least bit shocking. After all, the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression.
Perhaps if animal liberationists weren't so thoroughly white and middle-class, and so removed from the harsh realities of both the class system and white supremacy, they would be able to find more sympathy from the folks of color who rightly castigate them . . .
Here's the rest of the brief AP story on this latest PETA farce. What do you think of PETA's appropriation of racially charged, white supremacist imagery?
David Frei, spokesman for Westminster and TV host of coverage on USA Network, said: “I can’t speak for everyone, but the vast majority of the people exhibiting and handling and showing at Westminster are more interested in the health of dogs than anything else.”
“We want to produce the next generation of healthy and happy dogs,” he said, “not just for the show ring but for the couches at home.”
Most passers-by seemed more puzzled than offended, though those who didn’t stop walked away thinking they really had seen the KKK. The most common reaction was to pull out a cell phone and start snapping photos.
Police monitored the situation from nearby, but the scene was mostly calm. One shouting match broke out during the hour-long protest.
Earlier, a man strode away yelling, “That’s disgusting! I’m going to buy more fur!”
Fatima Walden, who spotted the protest during a shopping trip, called the KKK imagery inappropriate no matter what the message.
“They could have used something else as an example,” she said. “You should be considerate to everybody.”
Saturday, February 7, 2009
"Ongoing Echoes from the Women of the Long House" (Kai Chang @ Zuky)
There are, of course, contradictions, complexities, and cross-currents contained within the writings of early US feminists about the Haudenosaunee. After all, they were still white people; which means that they were cognitively indoctrinated to view people of color through a dehumanizing lens of Otherness, with a certain arrogant distaste and a feeling of their own innate cleanliness and beauty, despite all the overwhelming in-your-face evidence of the ongoing stream of barbaric violence which white civilization unleashed upon the peoples of the world and upon the Earth itself. Even as European American feminists were writing admiringly about the role of women in Haudenosaunee society, Quaker missionaries were "Christianizing" them by having men farm the fields and putting women to work strictly within their homes. The "pagan" branches of the Haudenosaunee resisted this social upheaval, believing that the fields would not be fertile if there were no women there.
Moreover, the point here isn't to deny the influence of European thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft. There's no doubt that early US feminists saw themselves as inheritors of a distinctly European American intellectual tradition. But my perspective is that narratives such as the ones I'm presenting here can only add to, not subtract from, the sum of our knowledge. Most people who have any interest in feminism know about Susan B. Anthony, but how many know about the Women of the Long House? It seems to me that they, too, have important things to teach us.
"The Nativists Are Restless" (Editors, New York Times; h/t: nezua)
The relentlessly harsh Republican campaign against immigrants has always hidden a streak of racialist extremism. Now after several high-water years, the Republican tide has gone out, leaving exposed the nativism of fringe right-wingers clinging to what they hope will be a wedge issue.
Last week at the National Press Club in Washington, a group seeking to speak for the future of the Republican Party declared that its November defeats in Congressional races stemmed not from having been too hard on foreigners, but too soft.
The group, the American Cause, released a report arguing that anti-immigration absolutism was still the solution for the party’s deep electoral woes, actual voting results notwithstanding. Rather than “pander to pro-amnesty Hispanics and swing voters,” as President Bush and Karl Rove once tried to do, the report’s author, Marcus Epstein, urged Republicans to double down on their efforts to run on schemes to seal the border and drive immigrants out.
This is nonsense, of course. . . . Americans want immigration solved, and they realize that mass deportations will not do that. When you add the unprecedented engagement of growing numbers of Latino voters in 2008, it becomes clear that the nativist path is the path to permanent political irrelevance. Unless you can find a way to get rid of all the Latinos.
"White supremacism lies at the root of the 'respectable' nativist right" (David Neiwart @ Crooks & Liars)
We've known for some time -- ever since the Southern Poverty Law Center first reported it back in 2002 -- that there was a web of interests and backgrounds that connected some of the most prominent conservative anti-immigration "think tanks" to white-supremacist organizations, all revolving the activities of an environmentalist-turned-nativist named John Tanton.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, though, that this was the case, these groups -- particularly the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA -- have continued to enjoy mainstream respectability, in large part because they have continued to deny the connections to Tanton and to each other.
Now, the SPLC has definitively established the connections, thanks in large part to reporter Heidi Beirich's intrepid investigative work digging through Tanton's own papers and examining the groups' leaders records. One can only hope the report will finally persuade genuine conservatives and thoughtful Republicans that they would want nothing to do with either these organizations or their largely fabricated disinformation, which disguises a hateful, white-supremacist agenda. . . . The result of the activities of groups like these has been profound -- a grotesque distortion of the immigration debate in America.
"Sign of the Times - Gold for Sale in New Orleans" (Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis)
My friend Marty writes ...
Got the photo from a friend. The white sign that has been blacked out used to be the Toy Center. The biggest & best toy store in New Orleans in the late 50's early 60's. The Coca Cola bottling plant & Tulane Shirt Company were just to the left on S. Jefferson Davis Parkway.
Times have changed.
All kinds of assets are going to be for sale in the upcoming months. This is just a start of what's to come.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock
"When Utopia Crumbles: Why Revolutionary Road Was Shut Out at the Oscars" (Kim Nicolini @ Counterpunch)
As the economy sinks lower and lower, people lose their homes and their jobs, and businesses collapse, there is no denying that the Depression is now. So maybe uplift and triumph is what people need. Apparently the Academy thinks they don’t need a movie like Revolutionary Road which provides a relentlessly brutal critique of the shallow illusion of the American Dream and the inherent fallacy of the institution of marriage. Revolutionary Road basically says that everything America pretends to be through its policies of blind acquisition, status through material gain, and a self-deluded vision of Norman Rockwellesque family life is a toxic lie. Well, isn’t it? Of course it is, but now that most Americans have had to look the lie in the face as the veneer of their American Utopia has crumbled under their feet, I guess they don’t want to see it in the movies too.
I liked seeing it in the movies. Revolutionary Road is incredibly tight filmmaking. Set in the 1950s, it shows how a young couple, the Wheelers, falls into the trap of the American Dream (the suburban home and the family) only to find themselves strangled by their circumstances. Love becomes toxic hatred. The home becomes a lifeless tomb. Dreams become bitter ashes. Certainly the critique of the American Dream is nothing new in art, whether cinema, painting or photography, and indeed this film functions best as art. The power of the film is not in the narrative which we’ve seen and read a million times before. It is in how the narrative is delivered. While the movie is full of toxic moments, the most resonating scenes are ones of quietude where the entire environment resonates with a silent toxic death and an impossible longing.
"The Audacity of Whiteness: Framing Obama" (Jill Nelson @ Huffington Post)
[A] look at the unbearably white American media reminds us that even with a black president little has changed in terms of who frames the issues. With the exception of CNN, which probably employs more black people than BET and definitely has more news coverage, for the most part media looks like a meeting of the White Citizens Council, circa 1956. As determined to retain control of the dialogue as those racists were to maintain the Southern way of life.
Why is it okay for George Will to have President Obama to dinner with conservative journalists with not a black face in the room? How many journalists attended parties in Washington during the inauguration where there were no journalists of color present? Isn't it disturbing to the journalistic establishment that the vast majority of journalists, commentators, talking heads, pundits, and experts discussing the new president and his administration are white? In 2009 can anyone seriously argue that there aren't more than a handful of black, Latino, Asian, or Native Americans who fit these categories? Is this time for change we can believe in, or is it still time for black to get back?
A Texas district court judge Friday reversed the conviction of a man who died in prison nearly a decade ago, almost two decades into a prison sentence for a rape he swore he did not commit, CNN affiliate KXAN reported.
Timothy Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1985 rape of 20-year-old Michele Mallin. He maintained his innocence, but it was not confirmed by DNA until years after his 1999 death, when another inmate confessed to the rape.
In the courtroom of Judge Charlie Baird Friday afternoon, Mallin, now 44, faced Jerry Johnson, the man who confessed to the rape.
"What you did to me, you had no right to do," she told him angrily, according to Austin's KXAN. "You've got no right to do that to any woman. I am the one with the power now, buddy."
[W]hile in prison, Cole rejected an offer of parole that would have required him to admit guilt. "His greatest wish was to be exonerated and completely vindicated," his mother, Ruby Session, told KXAN.
But the asthma that plagued Cole throughout his life brought about his death on December 2, 1999. The cause was determined to be heart complications due to his asthmatic condition. He was 39.
"On Little Black Girls, Beauty and Barbie Dolls" (Danielle Belton @ The Black Snob)
I would take out my Barbie coloring book and select the yellow crayon for her hair, the blue crayon for her eyes and the pink "flesh" colored crayon for her skin. I would make her "beautiful" in what my little noggin thought was beauty.
What's funny is my parents, like many black parents, were trying their hardest to make sure myself and my sister had positive images of other black women and ourselves. My mother constantly fought with the toy store owners about getting in more black dolls because she wanted to buy me Barbies, but worried about how having a gaggle of blonde Malibu and ballerina Barbies could effect my young mind. She immersed us in our culture. She told us we were beautiful all the time.
Yet I still drew and colored nothing but white people.
Then one day, at that kitchen table, my father approached me. Rather than go into a lengthy speech or be embarrassed or shame me, he approached me as you would approach a five year old.
He asked if he could color with me. . .
Friday, February 6, 2009
I disapprove of the way golf courses are basically gigantic lawns. I dislike lawns in general, and I think people who have them should convert their plots of land to natural plants or gardens. Then they would stop wasting water, pesticides, gasoline and other forms of energy, all for the sake of a sterile, monotonous, monochrome carpet. When such a flattened and tamed landscape takes on the dimensions of a golf course, it reminds me of the American white supremacist conquest and "taming" of lands that were occupied, and often cultivated, by supposedly "savage" Native Americans. That's why the joy of golfers strikes me as "arrogant."
And then there are other connections between golf and whiteness, such as the nearly all-white cast of players, the racial exclusivity of "country clubs," and the use of the game by wealthy, well-connected white men as an especially cozy node in their Good Old Boy networks.
Has the non-white mastery and dominance of Tiger Woods really changed the pervasive whiteness of golf? Isn't the common claim that "golf isn't racist anymore because its best player is black" just as ridiculous as the claim that America is suddenly post-racial because its president is black?
In a discussion of the whiteness of professional golf, Ken Jones makes an interesting observation about the golf world's paradoxical appreciation of Tiger Woods: "The impression you sometimes get is that people [white people, that is] try to forget that Woods is black when revelling in his triumphs." But then, again as with Barack Obama, white people often hold up this heroic black figure because he's black (or supposedly black), in an effort to prove that white racism no longer exists.
Of course, Woods himself has also been accused of trying to forget the common perception of himself as "black," by labeling his mixed self "Cablinasian" instead, and also by shying away from public statements about racism, in golf and elsewhere (last year, when a reporter began a question about Obama, Woods reportedly smiled and said, "Oh, God, here we go."). I've often wondered if Woods' evasions of this sort, if that's what they are, seem necessary to him so that he can focus on his game; maybe facing up to the ongoing, overwhelming whiteness of golf, and to that world's racially vexed adoration of himself, would be, at the very least, distracting.
Anyway, it's Friday, and I originally meant for this to be a lighter, more humorous post about the blithe, rather oblivious whiteness of golf. To that end, I'll turn things over to George Carlin, who might provide further fodder for your thoughts, should you feel inclined to address in a comment the whiteness of golf. Or its elitist classism, which I guess I've almost completely overlooked here. And, as usual with this dearly departed genius: ALERT, CRANKY PROFANITY AHEAD.
UPDATE: Here's a solution! Okay, it's just a fantasized solution--from Japanese Manga artist Shintara Kago:
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Here's a typical example of Martin's style:
Martin has a new program coming up on Comedy Central called "Important Things," and yesterday's Hartford Advocate provided an intriguingly race-oriented review of the show's first few episodes. Brianna Snyder's assessment of "Important Things" and of Martin's comedy in general is mostly critical, but I'm especially interested in her almost anthropological assessment of Martin, and his primary audience, as a certain kind of white people. Hipsters, to be exact.
Synder's review is entitled "Stuff White People Like," but the subtitle is more specific: "Demetri Martin is funny, if you're a white hipster male who loves Wes Anderson movies, the Moldy Peaches and T-shirts."
Snyder further describes Martin and his humor in the following ways. What is it that's "white," or maybe "common among white people," about all this?
Martin is boyish and handsome, with a shaggy bowl cut (those must be ironically OK now) and deadpan delivery that might be his "signature" now, or will be eventually. He manages to be likeable, despite not being uniquely funny. His comedy is derivative, blandly simplistic, generally unsuccessful in fulfilling its ambition, and very tame. . . .
Martin's ironic, indie, self-referential, smartass-white-boy-in-a-T-shirt gig has made him fairly successful in the comedy underground league, alongside guys like David Cross (who sort of just barely fits in that category anymore, but still manages to retain the association), Todd Barry, Eugene Mirman, Michael Showalter, Jon Benjamin and others. He's best known for his role as a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," but if you remember him there, you've likely already noticed him elsewhere. (Fans of this genre of comedy are all over his cameo in an episode of "Flight of the Conchords.")
"Important Things" is an indie variety show of sorts; it has the grainy, diffused look of a Wes Anderson movie and I suspect its musical interludes (the ones that aren't performed by him) might be sung by that dude from the Moldy Peaches. Its comic tone echoes Mitch Hedberg (or, for earlier generations, Stephen [sic] Wright).
I suspect that in addition to providing a white form of humor, Martin has a fan-base that's mostly white as well. If so, why? What about it makes it funnier to white people?
I'll take a tentative stab at isolating one element of Martin's humor that might be especially white: his deadpan delivery. Snyder compares Martin to a white comedian from awhile back who was especially deadpan, Steven Wright. Here's an example of his style:
As with Martin, when Wright delivers a punchline amidst his abstract meanderings, there's little or no indication in his face or body language that he's told a joke--which is of course what "deadpan" means. As a result, the audience has to pay more attention to the words themselves to catch the joke. Sometimes, the audience is slow to figure out that what it's just heard is a punchline (as with Martin's joke in the clip above about how oranges must have been named before carrots).
This element of Martin's style, his deadpan delivery, stands out to me because I tend to like it, and also because I sometimes do that too. In daily interactions, I sometimes say things to others in the hopes of making them laugh or smile, without at first laughing or smiling myself. This sometimes causes a delayed reaction, until the listener realizes that despite my deadpan expression and delivery, what I just said was supposed to be humorous. (I wish I could provide a good example, but these are spontaneous and ephemeral moments, and the humor is usually the "you had to be there" sort.)
Of course, some non-white comedians, and some non-white ordinary people, deliver deadpan humor too, and laugh it. Maybe that's even far more common than I realize, and deadpan humor isn't a particularly white thing at all.
But then, it may be worth noting here how, when the idea of a "white race" was still a new idea, white people partially defined themselves in relation to supposed qualities in other races. Native Americans and Africans, for instance, were basically perceived by Europeans in bodily terms, and European "whites," especially white men, in more cerebral terms. All cultural groups have their own ways of restraining their bodies, but one reason whites thought they were superior was because they thought they had better control over their bodies, as well as a generally higher level of intelligence, than the supposedly oversexualized, less restrained, and less thoughtful darker races.
I hope my own predilection for deadpan, seemingly cerebral humor is not, in this sense, a racial inheritance. But at this point, in my continual effort to come to terms with common white tendencies in both myself and others, I think it might be.
What do you think? And do you see anything else in Demetri Martin's performance style that's particularly white?
There's one other white thing that might be worth saying here, or rather asking about, since I'm feeling speculative today. Brianna Snyder also writes in her review of Martin's show that when it airs, "I predict his fanbase will quadruple, he'll star in his own cutesy indie rom-com and he'll release no fewer than three full-length records of him, his guitar, his harmonica and his bells." She then writes, "The hipsters are taking over."
But I wonder about that last claim. Hipsters are indeed taking over in another, geographic sense, as they fill up inner-city areas, drive up rental rates, and thereby drive out other residents. But then, as I read the rest of Snyder's review, it registers a certain weariness with hipster humor (if that's what Martin and his ilk really represent). Isn't hipster humor, and white hipsterdom in general, getting kind of tired by now? Kind of played out?
If so, maybe one reason is that it's so nearly, purely white. Maybe we're entering a new racial era, one where racism certainly isn't over, because it's again taking on new forms, but also one where non-white people and cultural forms are more prominent than ever before. For Brianne Snyder, there's something about Martin, his new show, and his brand of entertainment in general, that's very white. And something rather tiresome too. Maybe those two qualities go together.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Online Action Center
Urge Gov. Perdue to Support Clemency for Troy Davis
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Troy Davis faces execution for the murder of Police Officer Mark MacPhail in Georgia, despite a strong claim of innocence. 7 out of 9 witnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony, no murder weapon was found and no physical evidence links Davis to the crime. The Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles has voted to deny clemency, yet Governor Perdue can still exercise leadership to ensure that his death sentence is commuted. Please urge him to demonstrate respect for fairness and justice by supporting clemency for Troy Davis.
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Monday, February 2, 2009
I was delighted and honored recently to receive an invitation to write a guest post from one of my favorite bloggers, Renee at Womanist Musings. If you're not reading her blog, you should be! Her analysis consistently gets me thinking in new ways, especially about the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways that power operates, both to oppress and to maintain itself. Here's a topic that I've been thinking about, which I turned into a guest post--the original and some comments appear at Renee's blog here. As always, I invite your further comments, there or here.)
Soon after the presidential election, many Americans—most of them white—beamed with nationalistic pride over Barack Obama’s victory. “Only in America!” they said with a patriotic smile and a hand on their hearts.
Well, okay, few of them actually had their hands on their hearts when they said that. But as the Obama administration gets underway, the patriotic pride such people continue to express when they talk about Obama, especially with that phrase, “only in America,” has struck me as excessive.
What are white people really saying when they say “only in America” in reference to Obama?
When Obama won, editorial writers across the country used the phrase in the titles of their jubilant celebrations of his victory. Or rather, their jubilant celebrations of America as a supposedly exceptional country, because it chose a black leader.
In “Obama . . . Only in America," which appeared in the Orlando Senior Examiner, Tom Holbrook wrote (amidst an array of oddly irrelevant numbers),
Only in America!!! On July 27, 2004, at the Fleet Center in Boston, MA, a young Illinois State Legislator, 8 days shy of his 43rd birthday, approached the podium and before thousands of screaming Democratic National Convention delegates delivered one of the most talked about and remembered Keynote Addresses of any political convention.
Fourteen weeks later this same young man would win the election for United States Senator from Illinois. Exactly 1,493 days later we would accept his party's nomination for Presidency of the United States and 66 days after that, at the age of 47, he stood before a live audience of 125,000 and a TV audience of many millions throughout the country and the world, and gave his victory speech as the 44th President-Elect of the United States of America. As I said at the top... only in America!!!
Holbrook emphasizes Obama’s youth here, as if that’s what makes his rise exceptional, but he soon moves on to his real cause for joy, Obama’s race. Or rather, the idea that despite Obama’s race, America elected him. And so, Holbrook’s real object of celebration is America itself, not an individual named Barack Obama:
For America, with an ugly history of black oppression and suppression, this momentous election is indeed an historic one and should speak loudly and clearly that the American credo of ‘In America anything is possible for anyone, who wants it and is willing to work for it,’ is still true.
In another example of this common white usage of Obama, also entitled “Only in America,” the editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune declared Obama’s victory “a profound testament that America is the land of opportunity. Less than 50 years after Jim Crow laws kept many blacks living second-class lives, a black man has been elected president. This is astonishing and heartening.”
So what are white people really doing when they express their appreciation for Obama this way?
It seems to me that they’re not really celebrating Obama himself; they’re using him to celebrate the supposedly exceptional country that elected him. They’re doing so in order to proclaim America an exception because its people have gotten over race to such an extent that they’re even willing to elect a black president. And so what they’re really talking about, when they say that such a thing could only happen in America, is white Americans.
I think that ultimately, this claim that Obama’s story is only possible in America could be a tacit assertion, or perhaps a recognition, that white Americans are still in power, as well as a claim that because they elected Obama, their racial group in general is no longer racist (never mind, of course, that only about 43% of white Americans voters voted for Obama).
But then, if the phrase “only in America” in this context has such racial, ultimately racist undertones, why did Obama himself often uses such terms to describe himself during his campaign? As New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes, Obama often framed his own rise the same way: “'In no other country on earth is my story even possible,' Obama is fond of saying.”
‘That is true,” Rich writes, “and that is what the country celebrates this week.” In his article—a meditation on the meaning of Obama’s ascendancy for race in America—Rich indicates that what he thinks America should be celebrating is not so much Obama himself, but rather a major milestone in ever-improving relations between black and white people, as manifested in a shiny new, black president. Once again, the real message is that white Americans can use Obama’s victory to pat themselves on the back for their collective goodheartedness.
During the campaign, Obama seemed to recognize a common desire among white Americans to congratulate themselves and their country this way. Although he rarely spoke directly about race, he (and/or his campaign staff) clearly recognized how that phrase, “only in America,” strikes a racial chord for many white Americans. In Obama’s one major speech that did focus directly on race, which he delivered in March of last year, he said,
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. . . . I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. [emphasis added]
Obama apparently delivered that speech in response to the Reverend Wright debacle, which tied him in racial terms to comments made by the preacher of his church (never mind, white Americans seemed to say, the far more outrageous comments made by John McCain’s spiritual advisor). If white concerns about Wright’s remarks did push him to make that speech, then what he said was largely addressed to white Americans, especially those who felt anxious about his blackness. Implicitly praising America for an exceptional egalitarianism that allowed his ascent, despite his racial makeup, was one way to calm such anxieties.
It is of course common wisdom that in order to get elected, politicians must cater to various voting blocks. Obama clearly addressed white voters at times, and one way to do so was by declaring America a great country, particularly because it is, supposedly, the only country where a rise like his is possible. This strategy was especially evident last August, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination.
Afterward, the Democratic Convention closed with a song that had already been used on other patriotic occasions, "Only In America," by the country music duo Brooks and Dunn. The lyrics to “Only In America” actually express some ambivalence about American opportunity, and the official video includes a fairly diverse cast of “Americans.” However, the Brooks and Dunn audience is pure, flag-waving, “red, white and blue,” by which I mean, almost exclusively white. So again, attaching Obama to that phrase, “only in America,” resonates in especially racial terms, and specifically for white hearts and minds, as a way to celebrate America, more so than Obama himself.
Aside from the underlying racism of white American fondness for the idea of Obama’s rise as a singularly American possibility, there’s also the disillusioning fact that this claim isn’t true. Many other countries have seen the rise of minority figures to national leadership (and never mind, the American triumphalists again seem to say, the many other countries that have also elected women as their leaders).
As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview with Amy Goodman, Obama’s
election was described as an extraordinary display of democracy, a miracle that could only happen in America, and on and on. . . . [But take] the second poorest country, Bolivia. They had an election in 2005 that’s almost unimaginable in the West, certainly here, anywhere. The person elected into office was indigenous. That’s the most oppressed population in the hemisphere, that is, those who survived. He’s a poor peasant.
Chomsky also cited the election in Haiti of populist candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide; Venezuela’s election of another first-time indigenous candidate, Hugo Chavez, seems to me another example. As David Berreby points out in a Slate article, many historical precedents also exist, as “people who came out of stigmatized ethnic minorities or ‘foreign' enclaves to lead their governments . . . are an uncommon but regularly recurring part of history”:
Alberto Fujimori, who held both Peruvian and Japanese citizenship, was elected president of Peru in 1990. Sonia Gandhi, born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in northern Italy, led her Congress Party to a resounding victory in India's 2004 elections. Daniel arap Moi is from the Kalenjin people, not the Luo or Kikuyu who are the nation's largest ethnic groups and its centers of political gravity. But this did not bar him being president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.
Obama himself may well believe that America really is the only nation on earth where a rise to the very top by someone like him is possible, but it seems to me that conceiving of his ascendancy that way is especially gratifying, and soothing, to white Americans. Like the suddenly prevalent claims that Obama (and even his daughters) are biracial, thinking of Obama's story as an "only in America" story also helps them feel like more a part of that story. It bridges a gap that many white Americans feel at some level between a president who's black and themselves as white.
As Toni Morrison writes of another cherished idea, the American Dream, "only in America" is a "well-fondled phrase." It seems to me that the Americans who fondle it most dearly are usually white Americans, and they do so because they want to hold onto a cherished and increasingly brittle conception of American greatness. They seem to feel that America’s supposed moral leadership is slipping away, and so holding up Obama as an example of America’s superiority, rather than as an individual, potentially great leader, becomes a way to use Obama’s blackness to assert a national delusion.
And so, finally, to celebrate Barack Obama’s rise to leadership as an “only in America” story is an insult—it’s a way of using him for one's own, ultimately racist purposes, like a cartoonish, blackfaced puppet.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
It's a sad day for Charles Tyson and it's a shameful day for the state of race relations in our country. Tyson is stepping down from his post as Mayor of South Harrison Township in New Jersey. He says the death threats and racist vandalism he and his family have endured are not worth it anymore. . . .
Not long after being elected two years ago, Tyson said he received emails and phone calls warning him that he was being watched and calling him a “dead man.” No arrests were ever made in relation to those threats. Investigators said whoever made the calls used disposable phones.
Tyson also had his tires slashed and a sign on his lawn bedecked with “KKK.”
"RIGGING THE RACE: Stop With the Race Orders, Already!" (Davita Cuttita @ pregnant drug-dealing prostitutes)
There are a few things I really don’t get—no, a few things that really confuse me when having a discussion about racism or slavery with certain White people.
They get nervous. Why?
Typically, that same White person has the argument of “Well, I, personally didn’t do ANYTHING wrong! All those slavery supporters are dead; it has nothing to do with me!”
Yeah, OK. I agree with most of the above statement but then I usually have to point out a few things before we continue with our conversation . . .
"Researchers Try to Cure Racism" (Brandon Keim@ Wired)
As the first African-American president in United States history takes office, researchers have shown that it may be possible to scientifically reduce racial bias.
After being trained to distinguish between similar black male faces, Caucasian test subjects showed greater racial tolerance on a test designed to to measure unconscious bias.
The results are still preliminary, have yet to be replicated, and the real-world effects of reducing bias in a controlled laboratory setting are not clear. But for all those caveats, the findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that science can battle racism.
"Any time you can get people to treat people as individuals, you reduce the effect of stereotypes," said Brown University cognitive scientist Michael Tarr. "It won't solve racism, but it could have profound real-world effects."
"The 'Obama Effect,' and Holding Blacks to Higher Standards" (Mary Sanchez @ Midwest Voices)
Researchers from three major universities have released preliminary findings of a study that suggests that Obama’s rise to the presidency has already improved the abilities of black test-takers.
The joint study by Vanderbilt, San Diego State and Northwestern tested the verbal abilities of black and white people at various points during the presidential campaign, culminating in an exam after he was elected.
The study is a fascinating look at the ability of a powerful role model to affect performance. Before Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate, black test-takers scored substantially lower than their white counterparts, but after Election Day they effectively closed the performance gap.
As impressive as that is, another important Obama Effect is occurring as well, though less studied. As Obama was sworn into office, a huge chunk of the national patience with the grievances of race just dried up. You hear the sentiment sometimes in hushed tones, sometimes stated outright: “If he can do it, what’s wrong with the rest of you?”
African Americans now sense they will be held to higher standards. As one black elected official put it to me bluntly: “Black people know we have no more excuses. We cannot fail.”
Obama’s image for white America is that powerful. He confirms a belief many Americans hold dear: that personal initiative does more to determine a person’s life chances than do the effects of racism.
"The Future of U.S. Race Relations: Are We Starting to Think Like Brazilians?" (Erik Loomis @ Alterdestiny)
[Of} course race still matters in this country. A lot. The rise in people denying this seemingly obvious fact begs the question: Are we beginning to copy the Brazilian model of race? I really think the answer might be a qualified yes. . . .
Basically, most Brazilians deny that racism exists in their society. They point to never having a system of legalized segregation, as opposed to the United States, the ability of individual people of African descent to rise to positions of power, and the interracial mixing of the population as reasons none of this matters. While all these points have merit, it serves to obscure the severe racial problems in Brazil that extend back to slavery. The darker you are, the higher the chance that you are poor, live in a favela, experience police brutality, have limited opportunities for education, economic advancement, and access to health care. . . .
Essentially, Brazil is a society with massive racial problems and a total unwillingness to admit that any of those problems have anything to do with race at all.
"Asian Teen Has Sweaty Middle-Aged-Man Fetish" (The Onion)
AOMORI, JAPAN—At first glance, 17-year-old Misaki Nakajima seems like any other shy and submissive Japanese schoolgirl. She loves shopping, text messaging, and the color pink. But beneath her wholesome exterior lies a wicked secret: Misaki Nakajima is consumed by sexual fantasies involving sweaty, middle-aged American men.
"I can't explain it," said Nakajima, dressed in a pleated miniskirt and pure white knee socks. "There's just something about American men who are at least twice my age and nearly three times my body weight that totally drives me wild."
Added Nakajima, "They're so hot."
Though she finds all pasty, middle-aged men intoxicating, Nakajima said balding Midwesterners who carry most of their weight in their stomach particularly turn her on. According to the sexually inquisitive teen, she often daydreams about sleeping with a 43-year-old divorcé with poor hygiene habits.