Thursday, April 30, 2009

feel bad about participating in gentrification

This is a guest post by Phoebe Caulfield, who blogs at Rectory Entrance. Phoebe says about herself, "I'm a twenty-something living in New York. I'm also semi-reformed white trash, an ex-christian, a feminist, and angry."

"How's that gentrification going?"

This might be TMI for an anonymous blog, but I live in Harlem. When we moved to New York, we had a weekend to find our place, and this was the second building we looked at. It was in our price range, on Manhattan, and in a great location relative to Boyfriend's work and where (we presumed) I was going to school at the time. The building was brand new, gorgeous, and just right for us. So we moved to Harlem.

At the time, I didn't think twice about it. My knowledge of New York City and its neighborhoods was pretty limited, and although I associated Harlem with its large African-American population, I knew little of this thing called "gentrification." That's a term that New Yorkers (and I'm sure residents in other cities) throw around pretty often. I didn't even hear it for the first time until we had been here for about two weeks. I can't remember where I heard the term or in what context, but something prompted me to look it up (Wikipedia, natch).

Gentrification is, as Wikipedia defines it, the change in an urban area associated with the movement of more affluent individuals into a lower-class area. Let's not forget that class is hopelessly entangled with race as well, and so in places like Harlem the more honest definition of "gentrification" would be: When rich, white individuals move into a poor, black and/or Hispanic neighborhood. For the city and the affluent people who move to lower-class areas, gentrification is a real boon. It produces more revenue for the city in terms of higher property taxes, changes the character of neighborhoods, and can reduce neighborhood crime rates. The City of New York would like to see Harlem and places like it gentrified. In fact, I believe my building was part of the city's conscious effort to do just that: The city auctioned off "postage stamp" lots for a bargain price of $1 million. My landlord bought one of these properties, and on it she constructed the building in which I sit typing this.

Unfortunately, it turns out those benefits for the city come at a cost. A human one. Higher property taxes mean the current neighborhood residents can't afford their homes anymore. Higher rents on gentrified properties drive up rents of surrounding buildings, and landlords force out their tenants with inflated rents. People who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations suddenly have to find somewhere else to live. People become homeless. And when I say that gentrification changes the "character" of the neighborhood, what that usually means is that it makes the neighborhood "whiter." Suddenly, a neighborhood in which residents have spent years socializing and bonding on their stoops and on the sidewalk is antagonized by white residents who don't understand the culture and make noise complaints. Instead of small, locally-run shops, a couple of Starbucks and Duane Reades move in. Although the wealthy white people who now occupy the neighborhood (and run the government) may see these things as an advantage, they are decidedly not beneficial to the already disenfranchised residents.

When I finally took the time to do some reading about gentrification, I was astounded and saddened at my own ignorance. I didn't know about it when we moved, and I was ashamed to be part of the problem. Correction: I am still ashamed that I am part of that problem. What I saw when we moved was a beautiful apartment in our price range, in a good location, that was well below what landlords in other areas were charging for units that weren't even as nice. We aren't "rich," and so we jumped on the find. But although we aren't rich, we're obviously better off than many of the other residents in Harlem, particularly those who live in the housing projects beside us and across the street. We're especially better off than those who stand in line for the food pantry every Sunday at the church on the other side of us. Oh, and did I mention that we're automatically more privileged in this society than every minority resident in Harlem simply by virtue of the fact that we're white?

So yeah, I feel pretty fucking bad about moving to this neighborhood. And it's not because it's "dangerous" or because residents harass us in some way. To the contrary, in the nearly-year that we've lived here no one has bothered or hassled us in any way that we haven't encountered in other city neighborhoods; I regularly stumble home drunk at 2 am feeling no more danger than I would stumbling home elsewhere at 2 am; and I've never lived someplace where the neighbors have been friendlier. I feel bad that the very act of signing a lease in this neighborhood poses a serious threat to the future of Harlem and its residents. I feel bad that the neighbors who are so friendly might be forced out in ten years' time, and that Harlem will soon become indistinguishable from Park Slope. I feel bad that it's my fault.

Maybe it's because I grew up without much money myself and have faced class discrimination that I empathize with the people whom gentrification adversely affects, but I thought any city resident would be able to see what a problem this is. I guess not, because this week a rich, white professional asked me, in cheerful and optimistic way, "So, how's gentrification going up there?" This is not the first time someone has asked me this question, and it is certainly not the first time someone has asked it as though they were inquiring whether my open, festering sore had healed nicely.

When asked in such a manner, that question boils down to this: "So, how's the forced evacuation of blacks and Hispanics going? And the poor in general? You've driven them out as well? Excellent."

I'm never sure how to answer that question. I try to be diplomatic and polite (something along the lines of "fine" and switching the subject usually works), but maybe I ought to be more direct about my feelings on the subject. What would I say? "Yes, depriving poor minorities of their homes and businesses is going swimmingly. I certainly love waking up each morning and thinking: What can I do today that will squelch the local culture into a bland, white mass?"

We were ignorant when we moved, but we know better now. We would like to move and not be part of this problem anymore, but I will admit that it is difficult, because we fall into what you would call New York's middle class (if it had one). We're somewhere between affording Harlem and affording Chelsea, but there isn't much in the way of accommodating that. We're recent college grads and it will take time before we are able to afford a place in an affluent neighborhood. But there's the rub: I can defend why we, and other gentrifiers choose these neighborhoods on the grounds that high prices elsewhere have driven us out; however, I can't defend doing the same thing to an even more disadvantaged group, especially when we have cause to believe we will eventually possess the earning power to move to those affluent areas that we can't afford now. Many residents of this neighborhood won't ever have that opportunity, and all we're doing is destroying the only place they have so we can have a temporary foothold on our way up.

So yes, we are looking for a new place at the end of this lease, in a different neighborhood. The shitty economy may work in our favor this time, as dropping rents may make those neighborhoods more accessible to us. I can't guarantee that we'll be able to find a place, and I genuinely enjoy our current apartment. But it would sadden me to be part of this problem for much longer, especially now that I know about it. That said, I realize that nothing is going to stop gentrification: What the local government wants, the local government gets. And really, nothing can change the fact that we've already contributed to the problem. But if we move, at least I can finally sleep at night knowing I'm no longer helping the government further disenfranchise the poor. And maybe the next time someone asks me the dreaded gentrification question, I can tell them how I really feel about it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

white quotation of the week (jourdon anderson)

When American slavery ended, some former slaves returned to their white "owners," lured by offers of payment for the work that they'd previously done for free. In the following letter, a freed slave named Jourdon Anderson replied to a written request for his return.

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson
Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves down in Tennessee.
" The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost Marshal General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly--and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve--and die if it comes to that--than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

[This letter appeared in The Freedman's Book, a collection of writings by "colored authors" compiled in 1865 by the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. These words appear above the letter: "Written just as he dictated it."]

Update: Thanks to commenter ZacMatic, who found the entire scanned book at Google Books; it's actually called The Freedmen's Book. Also, the letter was published in two different newspapers, the Cincinnati Commercial and then the New York Tribune, before appearing in Child's book.

Update II: There's a thorough, passionate discussion of the likelihood that Anderson actually produced this letter at Rad Geek People's Daily.

Monday, April 27, 2009

associate the term "white" with "white trash," and rarely with themselves

Someone arrived on this blog today by asking Google this question: "Can [a] white person call other people white trash?"

I don't know if I can answer that question; actually, in America, pretty much anyone can call anyone else whatever they like. The likely consequences, though, are more complicated.

How's that for avoiding the question?

Anyway, someone asking that question today is interesting timing, since I've been writing a post about white people who identify other white people as, basically, "white trash." Or "trailer trash," or rednecks, hicks, hillbillies, and so on.

So, when it comes to white people labeling other white people, here's a thing that I've noticed a lot of white people doing--limiting their use of the word "white" to descriptions of white people that they'd also describe as "white trash." When they talk about other classes of people, those are just people, or else "middle-class" people, or "upper-class" or "rich" people (or other kinds of people who happen to seem unremarkably white, like Catholics or Methodists, or New Yorkers or Californians or Midwesterners, and so on).

I think a lot of white people who don't consider themselves "white trash," or working-class, or lower-class, also don't commonly think of themselves as "white." It's a sort of unconscious given for them, a taken-for-granted, unremarkable, and thus (to them) unmentionable part of themselves.

These white people do of course realize that the word "white" describes themselves, especially if something reminds them that they are white, like being in an elevator with people who aren't white, or noticing when a taxi stops for them after passing up a potential black customer.

The word "white" itself has bad connotations. A lot of baggage, you know? Aside from the usual workings of social and cultural hegemony--whereby the dominant tend to see themselves as members of the dominant group less often, and less strongly, than those outside or "below" that group tend to see them that way--many white people don't like to think of themselves as "white" because the word conjures up nasty associations. Like racism, of course, but also specific examples of racism, like lynchings, white supremacists and the KKK, the Civil War, segregation, the Confederate flag, white flight, sterile white suburbs, a supposed lack of culture, bad dancing, and so on.

In the past, and still today, it seems that the white people who care about most of those things, and cling to them, also care about being "white." They even seem proud of being white. So, the thinking seems to go, if I'm white and I don't care about those things--and in fact, I hate those things--then why would I want to declare myself white? I think I'll just be "me" instead, and I hope you'll think of me that way too. (And hey, if you're black, I'll think of you that way too--I promise!)

I spent my adolescence in an upper-middle-class, very white suburb. Among the people I knew, we almost never used the word "white" to describe each other. However, we did use the term "white trash" to describe some other people, and that's basically what we meant when we also described small-town white people as "hicks." Their whiteness was somehow visible, and noticeable enough to label. And ours, we seemed to think, wasn't.

I was reminded last week of this denigrating and distancing thing that some white people do, when I read a column by a white liberal, "politically incorrect" commentator, Bill Maher. I often enjoy his sarcastic, sometimes scathing rants, but I've noticed that like so many comedians and other commentators, he often limits his use of the word "white" to those who are commonly labeled "white trash."

Unlike some other white comedians, Maher does not himself identify as a lower-class white person. Seemingly as a result, his references to lower-class whites are often disdainful. As Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz write in their book White Trash, "Americans love to hate the poor. Lately, it seems that there is no group of poor folks they like to hate more than white trash."

Most Americans know who "white trash" are, or rather, who they supposedly are. The stereotypes are solidly engrained in our culture, and continously regurgitated by corporate entertainment. The most relentless, sickening example I can think of is the 2001 movie Joe Dirt.

In the following scene, Joe (played by David Spade) acts out the stereotype that supposedly accounts for "white trash" stupidity--their sexual attraction to their own family members.

As far as I know, Bill Maher is a self-declared liberal, so you'd think he would be on the side of the poor, instead of the side of the rich (even though he himself must be relatively rich). And in most of the commentary that I've seen and read from Maher, he is on the side of the poor, at least in what he says.

So it becomes paradoxical, or maybe hypocritical, when he slings around classist stereotypes that signal a hateful disdain for poor white people. I noticed Maher doing this common, ironically white thing last week, in a Los Angeles Times column that he wrote about the recent Tea Party protests and the troubled Republican Party.

Right from the first sentence, Maher indicates that he was struck (as I was) by the overwhelming whiteness of the crowds. He also indicates that this whiteness is going to be a big part of his focus on the protesters:

If conservatives don't want to be seen as bitter people who cling to their guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiments, they should stop being bitter and clinging to their guns, religion and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In this allusion to Barack Obama's campaign-season comment about small-town voters, Maher not only begins by raising the specter of racial whiteness. He also immediately attaches the concept of "white," without even saying it, to lower-class white people.

Obviously, a lot of politically conservative white people--and thus, presumably, a lot of the Tea Party protesters--are not poor. In fact, since Republican policies generally favor the rich instead of the poor, it makes sense that a lot of people with money, white or otherwise, will vote Republican.

Nevertheless, Maher wants to joke sarcastically about Republicans, who are mostly white; since the white people commonly deemed worthy of prejudicial, stereotypical humor are poor white people, his jokes continue to descend downward on the class ladder. Early in the article, he writes,

It's sad what's happened to the Republicans. They used to be the party of the big tent; now they're the party of the sideshow attraction, a socially awkward group of mostly white people who speak a language only they understand. Like Trekkies, but paranoid. . . .

That's not especially classist yet, and in fact, I don't know about you, but I associate Trekkies with suburban, mostly white kids who spend too much time in their basements (not to fling around my own stereotypes). But then Maher continues:

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota recently said she fears that Obama will build "reeducation" camps to indoctrinate young people. But Obama hasn't made any moves toward taking anyone's guns, and with money as tight as it is, the last thing the president wants to do is run a camp where he has to shelter and feed a bunch of fat, angry white people.

Look, I get it, "real America." After an eight-year run of controlling the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, this latest election has you feeling like a rejected husband. You've come home to find your things out on the front lawn--or at least more things than you usually keep out on the front lawn. You're not ready to let go, but the country you love is moving on. And now you want to call it a whore and key its car.

That's what you are, the bitter divorced guy whose country has left him--obsessing over it, haranguing it, blubbering one minute about how much you love it and vowing the next that if you cannot have it, nobody will.

But it's been almost 100 days, and your country is not coming back to you. She's found somebody new. And it's a black guy.

How many "white trash" markers did you read?

Who else but those white people "below" people like Bill Maher are commonly described as worried about having their guns taken away; as "fat and angry"; as keepers of a lot of things on their front lawns; and as especially disgusted by the idea of interracial relationships?

At the end of his article, after castigating nearly the entire Republican Party in this classist mode, Maher suddenly shifts into a bifurcated conception of it:

And if today's conservatives are insulted by this, because they feel they're better than the people who have the microphone in their party, then I say to them what I would say to moderate Muslims: Denounce your radicals. To paraphrase George W. Bush, either you're with them or you're embarrassed by them.

A close look at Maher's attempt at humorous commentary reveals some bad logic. He goes from casting aspersions on the "trashy" lot of them, to perceiving them as a group with both loud, attention-getting extremists and moderates. This bad logic comes about because he's known as a humorist, and in order to write funny, he resorts to classist stereotypes, collapsing a bifurcated vision of Tea Party protesters into a singular vision of white trash lowlifes, who exist in a place that's definitely beneath people like Bill Maher. If his appeal to Republican moderates is at all sincere, I can't imagine why he thinks it would work.

So why do some white people do what Maher does here, that is, limit their explicit identification of whiteness to lower/working-class white people?

I think the primary motivation, a mostly unconscious one, is pretty simple. As
Wray and Newitz write, "The term white trash helps solidify for the middle and upper classes a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority."

By explicitly or implicitly highlighting the whiteness of "white trash," middle and upper-class white people can escape, once again, the discomfort of being labeled white themselves.

Friday, April 24, 2009

listen to racist music

I've blogged before about the anti-racist music that some white folks enjoy. However, I've yet to call attention to the blatantly racist music that a lot of other white folks enjoy.

Why, for instance, is the following song still in heavy rotation on "classic rock" radio stations and such?

Can you think of other songs that are popular despite their racist content?

As I write, this version of "Brown Sugar" (one of many others on YouTube) has been viewed 1,113,772 times.

(By the way, does the Rolling Stones' tribute to Angela Davis make up for it?)

Brown Sugar

(The Rolling Stones)

gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doin' all right.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.

brown sugar
how come you taste so good
brown sugar
just like a young girl should

drums beating cold
English blood runs hot
lady of the house wondrin
where its gonna stop.
house boy knows that he's doin' all right.
you shoulda heard him just around midnight.

brown sugar
how come you taste so good
mmm, brown sugar
just like a young girl should

aw, get down on your knees
brown sugar
how come you dance so good?
aw, get down on the ground
brown sugar
just like a young girl should

I bet your mama was a tent-show queen,
and all her girlfriends
were sweet sixteen.
I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You shoulda heard me just around midnight.

brown sugar
how come you taste so good
aw get down
brown sugar
just like a young girl should.

I said yeah, yeah, yeah,
how come you taste so good?
yeah, yeah, yeah.
just like a young girl should.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

white interview : damali ayo

damali ayo's award-winning art has been shown at galleries across the world. She has spoken to colleges, high schools, non-profits and communities in 20 U.S. states and Canada about race, diversity, art and eco-living. damali ayo and her work have been featured in over 100 publications world-wide including Harpers, the Village Voice,, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, as well as CSPAN2's "Book TV" and Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

damali's name means "beautiful vision of joy," which is also the name of her
blog. She's the author of the books How to Rent a Negro and the upcoming Obamistan! Land Without Racism: Your Guide to the New America.

macon: So what are you doing these days? You've done so much to shed light on matters of race, and whiteness. Are those still topics you're still working on?

damali: Yeah. So, yeah. I'm still working on race. I tried to get away from it for a while and opened an eco-friendly clothing company but the recession ate that and honestly, what I needed was a vacation, not a small business.

I came back right before the Obama election, just after someone called me "nigger" on the street. It was quite the moment. Anyway, I found this world where people think that now that Obama is in office, racism has ended, so that made it even more clear that my work isn't nearly finished. To that end I am writing a new book called OBAMISTAN! LAND WITHOUT RACISM, hopefully to explode the notion that racism is over.

I am also trying to find ways to do this work while finding a sense of joy and levity in it, so the more I work on it the more I turn into a stand-up comedian. My lectures have totally turned into a stand-up routine, which I love. I'm working up a full-fledged routine to launch this fall. I'm thinking of calling it "I Love White People." So yes, I'm still working on race. :)

Well I'm glad you are, and thank you for so many educational and inspiring projects. It sounds like you still have a lot to say on the topic of race, and I think your work so far says a great deal about it--and about whiteness more specifically--that most white people don't know about. And yeah, I think you're often funny too.

Your new book sounds like satire, which is how I read
How to Rent a Negro. Satire is risky, of course--some people just won't get it. Did you have that problem with Rent a Negro? I noticed, for instance, that some people went to the web site and actually tried to "rent a negro"!

Yeah. I mean as if I didn't already feel marginalized as a woman, and as a black person, and any other number of oppressed groups that I belong to, I decided to be a satirist. Joy.

But when the world is so absurd, it seems like the only recourse. And sadly, yes, people take it seriously. Sometimes I wonder if there's any hope for progress as long as people are so darn literal.

So given that you're often a satirist, I take it from your new book's title that you see America with Obama--or "Obamistan! Land without Racism"--as a land that is NOT without racism. Is its racism any different from before Obama? Has it decreased significantly, or is it pretty much the same old batch of problems?

Today on the radio I heard Mara Liasson (a fellow Brown alum) say "Obama has 10 people who would fall into the category of 'women or minority' in his cabinet and the fact that we haven't made any comment on that shows us how far we've come." My out-loud response was "AWESOME! TEN people counting women AND minorities, that really makes a revolution in our representative government. Thank goodness! We have come a long way baby."

It's ridiculous. People are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back about this election. There is still so much to be accomplished, I can't even start to say. People think the change is subtle and a famous Desi DJ tweeted the other day that she couldn't get served at a restaurant, and a month before the election someone called me a nigger on my street in my own neighborhood.

So, no. We've still got racism, and with the extra layer of post-Obama denial, it's going to be even harder to get people to fess up and grow. People are lazy, really lazy. The hardest thing about fighting racism is that it requires people to actually do personal growth and analysis--beyond race, just about themselves. This is something most people spend their lives running from, so by the time i come along and ask them to grow, evolve personally with regards to race, they are already pissed off, defensive, and tired.

How did
Rent a Negro come about? Was it around the same time that you did your "Reparations" performance art? Did those two projects go together at all?

No. Those two projects didn't go together. During that time I was creating art constantly--it was a great time. I was also learning web design and had just learned how to make forms. It was so long ago--before blogs! Can you imagine? 2003. Anyway, I was excited about making forms and also really burnt out about racial crap and feeling like a black person for hire--the two things entered into my brain and out popped

Similarly with panhandling for reparations--I was creating a work about panhandling as work and it wasn't turning out as i wanted. At the same time there was a lot of coverage of reparations on Capitol Hill. The two went into my head and--whammo--within a few months I was panhandling for reparations.

I suppose satire can lose its punch when you explain it, but if you're willing, could you explain what you were basically getting at with the
Rent a Negro project?

Satire does lose its punch when it is explained, which is why the site doesn't have an explanation. One of my grad school profs once told me that i needed to pass out flyers explaining my panhandling performance and i felt like he had lost all touch with the fact that it was a work of art. Sad.

But anyway.

It's like this. My friend is a mechanic. If she's at a party and people ask her questions about cars, she tells them to come back to her office during office hours and she charges them. Fair, right? But if you are a person of color in our culture, people feel like they can bombard you racially not only with questions but with ignorance, need for absolution, touching, feeling, singing, rhyming, rapping, and mimicking what they perceive to be your language and culture. This is not only deemed acceptable behavior in our culture, but when people of color speak out against it we are treated as if *we* are the ones stepping out of line.

I decided to explore that experience, and what i see as extremely rude and poor-citizen behavior, by positing this as a commercial interaction--that like the mechanic, have people treat me like a professional person of color.

And in this country, this world, once you put a price on things--people suddenly perceive it to have a value. I wanted people to see that they were 1) treating people of color like servants 2) expecting us to work for free and 3) show how much that service should really be valued at-- which is a way to get at the cost of ignorance. In addition, I wanted to modernize the language of "ownership" of black people into a legal modern-day post-slavery form. I discovered that "renting" summed it up in that white people think they can borrow that racial experience and then return or reject it when it no longer suits their tastes, needs, whims, or folly.

Finally, i was excited to carry the work of Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge, who originally coined the term "rent a negro," into the 21st wired century.

At one point, the book advises those who are planning to rent about how to start a conversation with the black person that they're renting. It suggests that they begin by approaching them as an expert about blackness, with questions like, "I bet you have an interesting opinion on this, being black and all," and "I have a situation I bet you could help with . . . there is this woman at my job, and well, she's black . . ." Your point there seems clear--"White folks, don't expect expertise about blackness from black folks."

I'm wondering, though, about something that's sort of the opposite. That is, I think black people often know some things about white people that white people themselves don't know. If that's true, then they often are sort of like experts on race, but not necessarily the kind of experts that whites expect them to be. Should white people start listening more to non-white people about themselves, and about racism? If so, how could that listening be encouraged or facilitated?

Nice observation. I often feel like I am an expert on white people. The thing that people do not understand is that when you are treated as a second-class citizen in any society--you are required both legally, institutionally and for your own survival to be well versed in the ways of the first-class citizens of that society. Thus people of color spend a lifetime learning about white people, observing white people and learning how to interact with white people on a variety of levels--from how to get ahead, to how to not get killed.

White people must start listening to the observation and experiences of people of color with regards to whiteness. We'd all move along so much faster then. In my "" project, the second step for white people is "LISTEN." It's just that simple. You don't know it all--in fact you know very little because you are only required by our society to know about yourself. For a change of pace, stop thinking about yourself, your reactions, your 401K, your right or wrong, your defensiveness and all the white people you are afraid you'll be compared to and just hear people of color. Just listen.

Yes. Along those lines, I've been interested in the word "ignorance" lately, especially how it's related to the word "ignore." I think a lot of white ignorance or naivete about racism comes from ignoring it. It's often not that they don't know about it; it's more that they don't want to know about it, or they pretend they don't. Is that anything like what you were getting at in your book with SIS, the "Selective Ignorance Syndrome"?

HAH! i forgot about that. yes. i also call it willful ignorance or for short, laziness.

In this world of resources-at-our-fingertips there is simply no excuse for ignorance about anything. My biggest pet peeve lately is that white people always want a new and fresh explanation, as if the ones that people of color have been writing and saying for centuries just aren't good enough. It goes to that spoiled thing that happens when you are the center of your society--you get lazy and want everything brought to you on a platter.

People are going to be pissed that i said that.

I think some white readers who basically get what you're saying with this satiric handbook could still sort of fall back on themselves with it, instead of becoming more genuinely anti-racist. By that i mean, they might just see its many insights into black/white relations as recommendations for merely learning how to seem less racist themselves. Do you see that as a potential problem with How to Rent a Negro?

Not so far. It doesn't allow that. I am proud of that book. It holds the reader accountable and that's good. The feedback I've gotten is that there's no where to squirm.

The kind of racism that the book addresses seems mostly to occur on an individual, interpersonal level. Has the book been criticized at all for not addressing systemic or institutional racism? Do you think it actually does address racism's broader contexts and effects?

The book hasn't been criticized for that but I have. However, it's part of the racist system that we expect the people of color who speak up to be experts and active on every single corner of the universe while white people are still contemplating why they can't use the "n word."

Okay, now all your readers had a moment to contemplate that and we can get back to the convo.

See how easily distracted white people are?

Anyhoo . . . I don't do institutional oppression. I know it, I've studied it, if pressed I could write a darn thorough paper on it, but the place in which I have chosen to situate myself is between and among people and our interactions. I think there is a way that the learning that happens (if it is true good, effective learning) between people can "trickle up" to the powers that be.

And, in my understanding--for example, when I work with young white men, I feel that they are very likely the future "powers that be," so my work with individuals eventually finds its way into those power structures via the people who build them. I feel proud that one of my "kids" has been a legal clerk, a military lawyer and will probably run for office one day. Every time he's in a room, I'm in the room. I know that for sure. I think it's actually quite subversive, the way I approach things.

That makes sense to me. So, you said that your lectures are becoming like a stand-up routine. Is that a tactic for addressing what I'm guessing are largely white audiences more effectively? Or is it a result of your personality, or maybe both?

My whole life I've said "if i had any balls, I'd be a stand up comedian." I guess I'm finally growing a pair.

Can you share a bit of your current humor with us? Or if that won't translate here--are there particular topics or behaviors that you joke about?

OMG. Well. hm. i am working some with race and some with just my societal observations--it's a cool doorway into things. One joke i am working up goes something like "so, if you think that your dog is racist--don't you think you should do something to address this?" I mean I have really met people and their dogs--who bark at me and then the person says, "my dog is so racist" like it's funny. This makes me equally mystified and angry, and i think this kind of behavior is emblematic of our larger problem.

Any idea when your new book will come out? And do you have other projects in the works that you can say anything about yet?

2010 for the book. As far as other projects...not at the moment. I am really loving doing my "I Can Fix Racism" lectures though, and they are very funny. All of your readers should go to my web page right now and invite me to come to their school or community. It's a night you will not forget.

Thank you so much for your time, damali, and I'm really looking forward to your next book. And, I hope, to seeing your anti-racism stand-up routine some time.

Macon--let me thank you. It is so refreshing to see someone take on the role of holding up a mirror to white people that I think is so important. and white people can do it and not get as tired, angry, or downright bored as I have gotten at times. I really hope you and others like you send me quickly to a happy retirement.

We'll try to do our best. One other thing--you got around some when How to Rent a Negro came out--what was it like to be on Bill O'Reilly's show? And is he as much of a mega-jerk as he seems to be?

Bill is a giant white man with a shit-ton of make up on. He was oddly nice to me. No, really. The producer and my publicist, who was there, were all freaked out. The pre-interview the producer did with me was ten times harsher than ol' Bill. My mom liked it. She told me to send him a card. I did, I sent him one of my "we don't talk about racism" race greeting cards.

damali ayo's bout with Bill O'Reilly is on YouTube here, as is some documentation of her piece "Living Flag: Panhandling for Reparations." She explains the latter here, and her own extensive site is here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

feel uncomfortable about hugging

This is a cross-post from Daniel Cubias's blog,
The Hispanic Fanatic. Cubias also does a column for the Huffington Post, and he writes of the Hispanic Fanatic, who may or may not be an alter-ego, that he "has an IQ of 380, the strength of twelve men, and can change the seasons just by waving his hand. Despite these powers, however, he remains a struggling writer. . . . the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male in his late thirties. He lives in a Midwestern city, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in another Midwestern city, but he has also lived in New York and California. He and his wife own a house where two cats and a dog call the shots."

prepare for impact

It wasn’t happy hour. It was more like unhappy hour, and it was held at a bar near my former place of employment. At the end of this going-away party for all of us who had just been downsized (see my earlier post on this), the time came to say goodbye to my former colleagues, make sincere but doomed promises to stay in touch, and exchange final hugs.

Actually, I pretty much had to skip that last one.

You see, I live in the Midwest, and most of my ex-coworkers are born-and-bred white middle Americans. As such, they are as comfortable with the idea of hugging as China is with dissent.

One of my friends, a woman I had worked with for years, announced beforehand that she rarely hugged her family members and never her friends, so I would have to settle for a handshake. Her preemptive strike was because she knew my propensity to embrace people.

It’s not that I’m touchy-feely. Indeed, I’ve been accused of being reserved, aloof, and even insensitive. On any given personality test, I always come back as introverted and quiet (not shy; there’s a difference). Bubbly and outgoing are among the last adjectives one would use to describe me.

So where does all this hugging come from? You guessed it: the Latino gene.

Hispanics hug out of instinct. We hug loved ones and acquaintances. We hug when saying hello or goodbye. We hug when overjoyed and when offering condolences. And yes, we will even hug you.

The cultural reasons for this are unknown to me. But it’s a very real phenomenon. Suffice to say, we’re perplexed at white America’s reticence and (I’ll just say it) uptight attitude about being touched.

This can lead to painful interactions, which I have witnessed at times, where the white person sticks out a hand, and the Hispanic person looks at it as if mystified at what to do with the offending object. Depending on the relationship and the setting, you may as well spit in a Latino’s face if a handshake is the best you can offer.

Even my wife, of fine German-Irish stock, was thrown off by my tendency to wrap my arms around people. I hugged her once when we were still in the “just friends” stage of our relationship, and she figured I was up to something . . . ok, she was right about that one. But that’s not usually the case.

The point is that my wife, who is extroverted and expressive, was confused by my behavior. These days, of course, she reciprocates the bone-crushing clasps that my family dishes out as greetings. It’s what we do.

And on a larger level, and at the risk of getting all New Agey, isn’t this the exact right time to hug? With a collapsing economy and nonstop wars going on, I would think more Americans would appreciate a comforting embrace.

But in fact, just the opposite is true. Over the last few years, for example, several public schools have tried to ban hugging among students. It’s supposedly to decrease the odds of a physical confrontation. The irony, of course, is that a hug is the least threatening gesture that one can make. Such policies are clearly more about America’s sex-phobia and the discomfort that adults feel whenever they see teenagers touching each other. But that’s another post.

What it all means is that at some point, every American has to decide if he or she is going to follow the example of Hispanics (who, as I’ve stated many times before, are clearly taking over the country) or withdraw into a cold world where the nearest one gets to being touched is receiving an extra emoticon on the latest text message.

In any case, if you’re meeting a Latino for the first time, remember that we’re ok with a handshake for the initial encounter. After that, however, it has to be a business meeting or similarly inappropriate setting to keep us from wrapping you up.

Either that, or we really don’t like you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

laugh at overbearing white guys

Now that Barack Obama's been elected and he's hiring all sorts of non-standard people--like women, and brown people, and such--is the white American male in decline? Could the white male even be said to be "in crisis"?

How about it, white guys--are you feeling a loss of power? Is your self-confidence slipping, along with the sense of entitlement that people like you used to be able to count on?

Over at, they're dispensing advice on how to boost your confidence. But then, who do they choose for the article's accompanying photo of supremely self-confident masculine success? A black guy!

As the guys at know, it's important to not only feel confident, but also to project confidence. It needs to radiate from you, like musk, and if it doesn't, you've gotta find ways to pump it up:

Even if you're reasonably assured most of the time, it is beneficial to do a little mental strengthening every once in a while. It feels good to be self-confident, which perpetuates more confidence, impresses people and brings you success.

A difficulty here is that you not only have to project confidence, you should feel it too. And for American white guys, who get bombarded more and more with Sarah Palins, Barack Obamas, Tiger Woodses and Nancy Pelosis, and then get represented themselves mostly by clowns and losers like Joe the Plumber, Jay Leno and Timothy Geithner--well, it's hard sometimes to keep feeling that confidence that you're nevertheless supposed to project.

So what's a white guy on his way up supposed to do these days? How about . . . design a new business card! Or maybe, make money by convincing other, less confident guys to redesign their business cards. . . and act very, very confident while doing so . . .

Actually, the guy in this video is a motivational speaker named Joel Bauer. He's also the author of a book with this charming title: How To Persuade People Who Don't Want To Be Persuaded: Get What You Want--Every Time! Videos of Joel Bauer selling various sorts of manly advice are popping up all over the Internets. He's getting lots of laughs, in ways he probably wouldn't appreciate.

Here's another one that's making the rounds. In this clip, Bauer (who identifies himself here as "a real person") promotes a self-defense boot camp, with the help of his understandably sullen daughter.

What I'm wondering about this latest Internet sensation of sorts is--as people laugh at the "douchebaggery" of Joel Bauer, are they also laughing at a certain kind of white guy, the assertive, entitled, hyper-masculine white guy? If so, does that laughter also register this kind of guy's declining power these days?

As scholars and philosophers and such tell us, socially constructed modes of identity are really all just performances. Society presents us with various scripted roles, and we reject or adopt them as we sit fit (or sometimes, as we feel pressured).

Maybe this kind of white American masculinity, which Joel Bauer performs and promotes with such clueless sincerity, is being laughed right off center stage. Let's hope so.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

fail to realize that "the war on drugs" is actually a war on people

American Violet is a new movie that exposes the racist effects of America's decades-long "War on Drugs." It tells the true story of Texas resident Regina Kelly, a young mother of four who was swept up during a series of racially motivated drug raids.

Film reviewer Clay Cane declares American Violet "the first must-see film for African Americans in 2009." I haven't seen it yet, but it looks like a must-see for white Americas too, since most of them fail to realize that the "War on Drugs" is actually a war on people, most of them black and most of them poor.

This movie had a limited release a couple of days ago--if you've seen it, would you recommend it? And are there other films or resources you'd recommend on this topic?

For many Americans, the election of President Obama was the final nail in Jim Crow's coffin.

But it only takes fifteen minutes in any courthouse, watching the parade of black defendants arrested on drug charges, to realize racism still haunts us. Ostensibly color-blind, the enforcement of the US drug laws disproportionately targets black Americans.

Across the country, whites smoke weed and snort cocaine with relative impunity. Blacks and whites engage in drug offenses at roughly comparable rates, but the heavy hand of the law falls on the darker shoulders.

Blacks, for example, are currently arrested on drug charges at more than three times the rates of whites. They are sent to state prisons with drug convictions at ten times the rate of whites. Although there are approximately six times as many whites who use and sell drugs as blacks, almost half of state prisoners sentenced for drugs are black.

Researchers have documented and advocates have decried these racial disparities for two decades. But they are no accident. Although there have long been far more white drug offenders than black ones (not surprising given that blacks are only 13 percent of US population), the "war on drugs" was not created to curb white drug use. It was born in the mid-1980s when crack hit the streets; it was quickly demonized, and it was widely thought (albeit erroneously) to be linked exclusively to blacks. While "drugs" and "tough on crime" were the words used by politicians wooing an anxious white electorate with draconian new drug laws, the real, although unspoken, subject was race. The image of black drug dealers lurking in alleys rivaled that of Willie Horton in the panoply of white fears. . . .

--Jamie Fellner,
senior counsel of the US Program at
Human Rights Watch

Friday, April 17, 2009

appreciate opportunities to release their repressed racism in public

(Huffington Post; if you don't get
the reference, click here)

A lot of white Americans just can't swallow the idea of a black president. Especially one with Islamic something-or-other in his background, a supposedly uncertain place of birth, and a name that's so un-American it rhymes with that of a world-famous terrorist.

Now that Sarah Palin is no longer winking her way through racist innuendos at Klan campaign rallies, public expressions of white resentment are by and large verboten. Aside from muffled conversations with co-workers, and frustrated rants behind the closed doors of their homes, these people have had few chances to get together with others of their own kind and publicly unleash their white resentment.

But then this week, along came a chance for the repressed to return, in the form of nation-wide Teabagging Parties. Thousands of right-wing protesters turned out to (cluelessly) protest high taxes, in crowds that were at least 99% white. Not all of them could be fairly called "racists," but such homogeneous gatherings certainly attracted those who proudly wear that label.

"Stand idly by while some Kenyan tries to destroy
America? WAP!! I don't think so!!!

As some intrepid reporters noted beforehand, white supremacists made plans to seize this day. Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times quotes the following note of encouragement, which appeared on a white nationalist web site:

"I think every [White Nationalist] needs to not only attend the April 15th Tea Party nearest you," writes one online boot boy, "but then stay involved and help provide leadership to this movement."

He continues, stating, "I believe that this is the white revolution we've been waiting for. It doesn't look what we expected but this is it...For the first time, white people (a.k.a. the lemmings) are finally awake and taking to the streets...Right now the movement is about taxes . . . but with leadership and guidance we can help turn this movement into a lot more.

"So turn off the computer. Take off the red laces and fold your jeans over your Doc Martins [sic]. Hang the storm trooper uniform in the closet. Take off the robe. Reverently fold your Confederate flag and put it away for now. Become one of them. Join the marches and help organize future events in your neighborhood. Go slow . . . don't hit people with WN philosophy all at once."

Clearly, most of the protesters were not hardcore white nationalists. Indeed, much of the racism on display was rather muted; most participants seemed to know that if what they had to say was to be taken at all seriously, they had to downplay the racist elements of their ostensibly anti-taxation message.

Then there were the tone-deaf, ahistorical trivializers of an earlier outbreak of virulent racism, the Holocaust:

When white protesters happened upon the jarring sight of a rare, conspicuous negro in the crowd, most of them probably flashed an approving grin of surprised delight. And then kept moving, of course.

The Tea Party protests got plenty of corporate media coverage--far more, it seems, than the millions more who protested the impending invasion of Iraq, such a long time ago.

Remember those protests, and how little coverage they got? Why did these people think that their protests would get much attention? Oh, wait, they did get attention, a lot of attention . . .

But what didn't get covered much at all was the white elephant in the room, or rather, out on the street. Did you hear any mention on TV--let alone any analysis--of the overwhelming whiteness of these crowds, and of their varied expressions of white racism?

Unfortunately, that's a rhetorical question, since I'm pretty sure you didn't.

And that's sad, and frightening. The racism of the Tea Party "Movement," such as it is, deserves extensive coverage, because it's not a merely marginal phenomenon. And it's not a declining one either. As a recent Department of Homeland Security report notes, "the economic downturn [is] invigorating rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements."

We shouldn't let the anti-taxation message of these protesters override the other forms of resentment they feel. When these folks say they're "not going to take it anymore," some of what they're referring to is their trumped-up, racist fear, of supposedly invading hordes of people with non-white skin.

I'll leave the final word to Jill Tubman, who writes over at Jack and Jill Politics,

My main concern here is that the heated rhetoric around the protests could lead to violence against African-Americans, Jews and Latinos if some Tea Party recruits go from non-violent to violent. That’s why it’s important to drag the masked racism here out into the daylight, so we can deal with it and force denials from their movement leaders before certain elements become more brazen and people start getting hurt.

Most of the images above are from here; more documented atrocities here and here (actually, the supply is virtually unlimited).

UPDATE--A couple of gutsy white folks who also attended the protests--race traitors?


Regarding the whole "Obama's a tax-and-spend Socialist!" canard:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

call black people "canadians"

Recently I was perusing this blog's viewer-statistics, when I noticed that someone arrived here by asking Google this question:

Why do white people call black people Canadians?

Actually, that Googler arrived at a recent post that dealt with racialized restaurant encounters, where a commenter named I Punched a Werewolf in the Face wrote,

I had a friend who worked as a server at the Cheesecake Factory. They used to call black people "Canadians" in code. It's really disgusting. Now I'm worried every time I go out to eat what the server is thinking of me b/c I'm black.

In pursuit of an answer to the Googler's question about why white people use this odd coinage, I checked the Urban Dictionary, which has seventeen contributed definitions of the "urban" meaning of "Canadians."

Among them, those related to African Americans offer the following definitions:

What you call black people when they could hear you use a more offensive term.

"Don't park your car here. I don't like this neighborhood, it's full of Canadians."

A term that describes black people and use in order to get around politically correct language.

Sorry, I cannot hear you. There are a bunch of goddamn Canadians playing rap music.

Trent was trying to enjoy the movie but Canadians would not stop talking to the screen and using their cellphones.

And one definition related specifically to restaurants:

A code word that white waiters sometimes use to speak about rude black partrons.

Damn, I hate waiting on those Canadians. They run my butt off, send perfectly good food back, complain about the amount of the bill, then only tip 10 percent!

What we have here is an example of a phenomenon that I've noted before, that of "whispering the word 'black.'" In certain situations, some white people use "Canadians" to refer covertly to black people when they think they shouldn't use another word. That other word probably isn't "black people" or "African Americans," but instead, a "worse" word. A more overtly racist word.

So white people apparently use "Canadians" this way because they might be overheard by the black people they're referring to. However, I suspect that in some cases, they use it because they don't want to be seen or heard saying the "worse" words by not just by black people, but by anyone--maybe even themselves.

If white people sometimes resort to this euphemism instead of a more clearly racist term when no black people could actually overhear them, then they're demonstrating something about the common workings of white psychology. Sometimes, when white people have racist thoughts or feelings, and we know we would look bad openly expressing them, we still manage to find other ways to express them. These are ways that we think don't make us look bad, but also ways that nevertheless also allow us to communicate the racist thought or feeling.

In this case, an extra bonus is included in the exchange. When we say "Canadians" this way, accompanied by a knowing look or a sarcastic sneer, we're also expressing our frustration or contempt for "political correctness," that set of restrictions on "free speech" that's supposedly enforced by some amorphous gang of "PC police."

It seems to me that white Americans who use "Canadians" to refer to "black people" need to educate themselves. They need to realize, first of all, that there actually are people who commonly and openly refer to themselves as "black Canadians."

In fact, here's a perfect way for these PC-resistant white Americans to begin their re-education:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

applaud piracy when white people do it

Is the Somali pirate story being filtered to Western audiences through a racially white perspective? Are the pirates presented any differently to us because they're black than they would be if they were white?

Would Johnny Depp's beloved pirate character, Jack Sparrow, be less beloved if a black actor played him instead?

Here's one alternative view on the Somali pirate story, a post in the "rants and raves" section of Craigslist in San Francisco--is this writer writing any truth, or just ranting and raving like a crazy person?

Why is it that everyone is criticizing and condemning these brutally poor pirates from Somalia who were mostly abused and raped as children, beaten for hours, many had been tortured and starved, and then on the other hand, it's treated as a Noble, Liberal Cause when Johnny Depp does it, when the character he plays easily could have gotten a decent job, even is offered decent jobs in the movie, but it's noble for him to be a pirate because he didn't want to live the square life of everyone else, be limited in income. It's hands across America for a white pirate because he prefers a life of murder, theft, drunken-ness, debauchery and sex and adventure over a life of hard work and toil, and liberal white people in San Francisco even sell pirate goods in the Mission in the same place they tutor kids, so many San Francisco white people murder and steal and do piracy, there's even a store for them. Johnny Depp is a hero to the racist pseudo-liberals of San Francisco.

These people in Africa are just a black version of Johnny Depp. It should be hands across America for them, but everyone hates them because they're black. If they looked like Johnny Depp they'd be on death row where they'd never get executed and getting conjugal visits and free food and TV and a beautiful wife like the one who has sex with the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez every week, give me a break. This is pure racism!

As Americans learn in school--and on TV--bad acts are only bad when faraway dark people do them, not when big, good, mostly white countries do them.

As far as I can tell, that's a lesson that most adult Americans haven't forgotten.

Who says the American indoctrination education system is broken!

h/t for the viddie: Myca

Monday, April 13, 2009

fail to distinguish enough between womanism and feminism

This guest post (which originally appeared here) is by Renee, who blogs at the excellent, prolific, and always powerful Womanist Musings. Renee lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada with her two "darling little boys" and her "unhusband." She writes about herself, "I am a committed humanist. I believe in the value of people over commodities. I believe in the human right to food, clothing, shelter, and education. I am pacifist, anti-racist, WOC. My truth may not be your truth, but I intend to speak it nonetheless."

Can A White Woman Be A Womanist?

imageI was asked recently in an e-mail whether or not I believed that a white woman could take on the label of womanist. I will openly admit that I found this question deeply troubling. I understand why womanism seems attractive from the outside. It truly advocates for the equality of all beings; however, it is a movement spawned by the rejection of WOC; more specifically black women by mainstream feminism.

When we look at social justice movements across the western world they all have one thing in common, they are led by whiteness. Despite a claim that said movements are about equality, the racial dynamics are positioned in such a way as to reaffirm our dissonance in worth and value. This purposeful erasure, or more specifically absence of power, is a result of the social belief that whiteness is not only naturally fit to lead but ordained to do so.

How many times have blacks and whites worked together in various organizations only to find that our voices are silenced? We continually make suggestions for activism only to have it denied and then later accepted when it is rephrased by a white member of the organization. The racism in this activity is never acknowledged and the white person is given the credit for the idea. When we make a comment as to how race interacts with an issue, we are again silenced and told that we “are imagining racism”, as though whiteness is any position to decide what is and isn’t racist.

In a recent post Monica of TransGriot suggested that feminism needs to work on its own issues first and I must say that I highly concur with this point. There are so many divisions in feminism that we cannot even begin from the basic idea that all women are equal and face multiple forms of oppression. What we find is that different offshoots tend to privilege their experience over that of another and then declare themselves fit to judge how other women live their lives. We have radfems slut shaming sex workers, third wave feminists stumbling on their privilege while ignoring critical anti-racist work, eco-feminists who promote environmentalism based in an essentialist understanding of gender, Marxist feminists that are blind to anything that is not related to finance and liberal feminists who only want to be the “equal to a man”, never thinking about what constitutes “woman”. While there can never be a monolithic woman, the lie that sisterhood will save us all continues to be repeated. Privilege has always been and always will be the Achilles heel of women's organizing; though feminists couch it in a “fear of watering down feminism,” to me it smacks of reaffirming hierarchies and the ideology of difference as inherently unequal.

image Womanism seeks to place women of color in the center of all debate and all activism. To advocate with proficiency one should at least possess basic knowledge and yet daily across the blogosphere womanist and radical woman of color blogs are assaulted by commenters who have not even bothered to learn 101 basics. When I have to continually define racism as prejudice + power, clearly there is a lack of effort to learn about issues that are critical to improving the social understanding of not only what constitutes racism but how it functions to marginalize bodies of color.

There is also the issue of family business. Whiteness is intrusive, and unless you are sitting at home with the television, radio, and computer turned off, a person of color will be assaulted repeatedly by images that seek to promote whiteness as a universal good. This meant to appear passive however, in actuality it is quite aggressive and meant to reaffirm the racial power structure. Spaces that are inhabited solely by POC are very few and it is only in these gaps that we are able to engage in conversations free of the performance expected by many whites.

When one dares to question whiteness, it is quite typical to be accused of racism, or to be told that one has a chip your shoulder, because whiteness is understood to be naturally paternalistic and therefore daring to suggest that it can act systemically as a coercive force is being unnecessarily divisive and rebellious. Whiteness doesn’t necessarily want to eradicate us but it certainly wants a submissive class that it can exploit at will and will therefore perform whatever disciplinary action that is necessary to reduce, or end any action on the part of POC to be autonomous beings.

To suggest that white women could enter into a womanist forum or space and not engage in activities to promote racial privilege is ridiculous when most people cannot even make it through the day without performing , thinking, or expressing, some form of racism. Often it happens on an unconscious level because we have been steeped in a racist culture from birth. Ideas must be actively unlearned one concept at a time and to be honest with all of the issues currently facing black women today, to expect that we devote large sections of our time to educate whiteness about its short comings is to once again make whiteness the center of the debate.

POC need a space solely devoted to our issues and this is not a selfish act when we consider that much of our social energy is spent promoting whiteness. How many times must we hear the backlash about BET, Black History Month, Jet, or Ebony? Must we continually point out that most forms of media actively promote whiteness? It seems that every time POC organize something to promote our interests, whiteness either rises to condemn it or attempts to interject itself and this is one of the purest expressions of white privilege.

While I cannot say that someone cannot and should not identify as a womanist, I would ask that they consider why such an action is necessary. Why is it so hard to allow people of color a space to speak candidly about issues that affect us, and why is it so important that whiteness be included in every conversation?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

recreate jesus in their own image

Here's the last of my one-year-anniversary re-posts; this one seems appropriate, given that today is a moveable feast, with so many people celebrating the resurrection of a very powerful being.

How did the common American conception of Jesus Christ get so white?

from "Black Jesus," Episode 2 of the first season (1974) of Good Times
YouTube has the entire episode, starting here

In the New York Times, Charles Grimes writes about the artist who produced America's most familiar image of a whitened Jesus:

With the race for best-known artist of the century nearly over, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol are running neck and neck, with Andrew Wyeth a respectable third. But when the official tally is made, all three are likely to be buried in a landslide vote for Warner E. Sallman.

Warner Sallman?

Sallman, who died in 1968, was a religious painter and illustrator whose most popular picture, "Head of Christ," achieved a mass popularity that makes Warhol's soup can seem positively obscure.

"Head of Christ," created in 1940, was reproduced more than 500 million times, appearing on church bulletins, calendars, posters, bookmarks, prayer cards, tracts, buttons, stickers and stationery. Tens of thousands of wallet-size copies were distributed to servicemen during World War II. In the mid-1950's, Sallman's soulful, back-lighted Jesus with flowing, shoulder-length hair gazed out from the Inspira-Clock and the Inspira-Lamp, tie-in products intended for the pious Protestant home.

"Head of Christ" (1940)
Warner Sallman

At CrossLeft, where some bloggers are "balancing the Christian voice [and] organizing the Christian left," Landon writes:

Here's how the cycle goes: From our younger days when our critical thought process is non-existent or not fully formed, we are inundated with images featuring a Jesus that does not look like he actually would have. "This is the Son of God" we are told, "This is God incarnate." So, we guess, God must be white.

It never occurs to us that God is not white when we are growing up, and the dominant image that we get of Jesus is a white guy with flowy hair. As such, if God gets equated with white then "good" also get equated with white. (you see where I'm going?) If white is good, then that means (in the little ego- and ethno-centric mind) that "not white" is "not good."

Regarding what Jesus actually looked like, Mike Fillon writes,

In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists' cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. "While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic."

And so the fundamental question remains: What did Jesus look like?

An answer has emerged from an exciting new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history.

Friday, April 10, 2009

saturday book rec : the heart of whiteness

Here's another in this week's series of one-year-anniversary re-posts; this book review first appeared here last April.

One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness. It would just be so interesting for all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness. In far too much contemporary writing—though there are some outstanding exceptions—race is always an issue of Otherness that is not white: it is black, brown, yellow, red, purple even. Yet only a persistent, rigorous, and informed critique of whiteness could really determine what forces of denial, fear, and competition are responsible for creating fundamental gaps between professed political commitment to eradicating racism and the participation in the construction of a discourse on race that perpetuates racial domination.

--bell hooks

Robert Jensen is the author of three recent books, each of which demonstrates that normal and seemingly healthy American lives are actually anything but normal and healthy. For one thing, instead of being the norm, their modes of “normal” thought and behavior are those of a small, insulated, and relatively well-off percentage of the world’s population. And instead of being “healthy,” ordinary American thought and behavior take forms that are debilitating and destructive, both to “ordinary” people and to those they unwittingly inflict themselves upon.

In Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (published in 2007), Jensen writes self-consciously, as a man, of the growing acceptance of pornography. He argues that the increasingly abusive, misogynistic behavior depicted in much of today's porn helps to convince men that abuse of actual women is okay. In Citizen of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004), Jensen writes as a self-conscious citizen, clarifying the moral responsibilities of individual Americans who contribute (through their tax payments, voting practices, consumer purchases, and other actions) to the latest wave in their country’s bloody history of global racist abuse and rapacious resource-grabbing.

In his books and many other writings and appearances, Jensen continually does what amounts to an un-American thing—he faces up to the repressed histories and ongoing abuses that undergird so-called normal, healthy living. In The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, published in 2005, Jensen writes as a self-aware white person, detailing his own efforts to resist his culture’s messages that he should simply relax and enjoy his good fortune. Jensen simply can’t just lighten up, because his hand so firmly grasps his proverbial moral compass. In terms of race, that compass steadily guides him toward action that counters the effects of his white training on himself and others.

Because Jensen has done so much work toward understanding the norm in its many guises, what he has to say about it (and in this book, about the norms of whiteness), will strike many other white people as bizarre, outlandish, or downright offensive. “I believe that love matters in this world,” Jensen writes in his introduction, reasonably enough. But then he goes on to say, “I don’t think that white people should love their whiteness. Better for everyone, I think, if they take a shot first at hating it.”

Jensen often makes such blunt statements, claims that many ordinary people would find absurd. In this case, they might think that Jensen hates white people themselves, people who are guilty of nothing more than the simple coincidence of having been born with white skin. However, understanding Jensen’s statement that way requires decontextualizing it, and then reacting with a knee-jerk unwillingness to find out why another white person would say such a thing. Jensen goes on to explain that he doesn’t “mean that white people should hate themselves for having white skin, something they were born with.” Instead, they should acknowledge that they “live in a white supremacist society and benefit from white privilege. We should hate that fact . . .”

In five main chapters, Jensen explains in detail many of the ways that white people, including himself, live their whiteness. The ways that especially concern him are those that most white people prefer not to acknowledge: they send their children to schools that remain highly segregated and relatively overfunded; they’ve been trained to fear people of color and feel superior to them; they let vague feelings of racial guilt halt them from doing anything about racial injustice; they complain about affirmative action for people of color without understanding the affirmative action otherwise known as white privilege; they accept a whitewashed, romanticized version of their country’s history and their own people’s part in it; they deny themselves meaningful interaction with non-white people, often simply in order to avoid the possibility of doing or saying something racist; and much, much more.

Jensen frequently pauses amidst his candid assessments of white people and white supremacist institutions to acknowledge his own part in them. He describes, for instance, feeling superior to black colleagues, listening to racist jokes, and doubting the abilities of non-white colleagues because they’re non-white. White readers brave enough to resist their trained oblivion by grappling with their own whiteness will find some comfort in Jensen’s willingness to demonstrate with his own slip-ups how hard such work can be. Not that Jensen has much interest in comforting his white readers. He believes instead that dealing honestly with whiteness—having, that is, some of one’s fundamental illusions about oneself and one's society shattered—can be, and should be, anything but comfortable.

As may be clear by now, Jensen’s basic argument--that white people benefit immorally from the rapacious practices of an increasingly racist, abusive, greed-inspiring system, and that they have a basic human responsibility to do something about these facts--will be a hard sell for most Americans, including many non-white ones. It can take an ordinary person a long time to realize what gets covered up and ignored in the process of learning and accepting many social norms.

As I’ve written before, the term “white supremacy,” for instance, is hardly even in the vocabulary of most white Americans, even though the briefest consideration of ongoing and increasing racial disparities would demonstrate how relevant the term still is. Most whites also don’t think their whiteness privileges them, and even if they will admit that general American institutions and their practices have racist effects, both in America and abroad, they still have trouble connecting their own actions, and inaction, to those effects. Nevertheless, for those willing to listen, the concise, straightforward logic of Jensen’s argument is difficult to deny.

Jensen ends by declining to offer what such books usually offer, a bulleted list of suggested actions. He explains that solutions are always contextual, that they “depend on the specific problems we face in the world in a given time and place.”

Nevertheless, Jensen does go on to describe what amount to steps that white people can take, both to better understand their own whiteness and to counteract its effects. His closing suggestions actually can be gathered into a bulleted list:

  • “The first step for whites is simple: to acknowledge that we are white people living in a white-supremacist society.”
  • The second step is to realize that America doesn’t have problems with people of color; those people are considered a problem because white people think so. White people are the problem, then, and they need to acknowledge that.
  • “As we struggle with how to confront systems of power and privilege, we should go toward that which most frightens us.”
  • Work “to equalize resources for all students and end de facto educational apartheid.”
  • Find “a place in organizations run by non-white people, fitting ourselves into the agendas that they have set.”
  • Seek “ways to connect across racial lines in a society that for many of us is still largely segregated in housing and social patterns.”
  • Go forward “with passion and a sense of commitment in what one is fighting for, while at the same time being realistic about just how much one really understands a complex world.”

The Heart of Whiteness is direct, concise, and jargon-free (and even inexpensive). It's also, for truly open-minded, open-hearted readers, utterly convincing. I would offer my own conclusion, but Jensen says something near the end of his book that is said, like the rest of the book, so much better than I could say it:

We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness. Strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white. Steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be the problem?”

[Check the original comments for a note from Robert Jensen regarding this review.]

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