Wednesday, September 30, 2009

white quotation of the week (shannon sullivan)

One thing that I've noticed about white people in the U.S. is that if you ask them which group or groups of Native Americans once occupied the land on which they currently live, they almost never know (if you live in the U.S., you can find out who used to live where you live here).

I think that repressing an awareness that we're living on stolen land is a common white habit. Where does that habit come from? Perhaps keeping that awareness more in mind, let alone doing something about it, would cause too much cognitive dissonance. Too much conflict between a conception of our lives as basically normal, benign and good, versus the reality of what many of our comforts have cost other people.

It's likely the case that most members of other non-Native groups in the U.S. also don't know which groups of people first occupied the land on which they live. Nevertheless, knowing that, and somehow taking responsibility for it, is a stronger ethical imperative for white people in the U.S. than it is for others. That's because the land was taken by white people, in the explicit name of white supremacy, and also because white people today still benefit the most from that theft.

In her book Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Shannon Sullivan explains the underpinnings of contemporary white justifications in the U.S. toward ownership, not only of formerly indigenous lands, but also of indigenous people themselves:

From white America's perspective, given that Native Americans did not know how to or lazily refused to work the land properly, it was appropriate that white Americans took it over. Such appropriation was not seen as theft, and not only because the United States sometimes paid for the land. More importantly, it was not theft because the lands were seen as vacant. Utilizing the environment by regularly moving from one place to another, Native American agricultural methods were not sedentary and were not recognized by Euro-Americans as signs of Indian occupancy of land.

With the rhetoric of vacuum domicilium, Euro-Americans declared these supposedly unoccupied, vacant lands as available for settlement. If Native Americans would not properly settle the land, nothing prevented white Americans from doing so. Morever, the Christian God, who was on the side of progress and civilization, required that Euro-Americans conquer the wilderness if Native Americans would not or could not do so.

Euro-American appropriation of land also was not seen as an instance of theft because there were no full persons from which to steal. Native Americans were merely subpersons because of their inappropriate relationship with the land. Even worse (from a Euro-American perspective), Native Americans' refusal to individuate themselves through land ownership meant that they were virtually indistinguishable from the land and the "wild" nature of which it was a part. In other words, white Americans recognized Native American kinship with the land only insofar as such recognition worked in favor of white America's interests in ownership.

On the one hand, white Americans often impatiently dismissed Native Americans' claims that the land was their kin and it should not be sold or farmed in Euro-American ways. As General Oliver Otis Howard responded to the Nez Perce chief Toohoolhoolzote while in negotiations with him, "Twenty times you repeat that the earth is your mother. . . . Let us hear it no more, but come to business at once." Native American kinship with the land was seen as irrelevant to the question of how and by whom the land would be used. 

On the other hand, Native American kinship with the land was extremely relevant to this question because it revealed the (alleged) inadequacy of Indian ontology. Native Americans were not people but part of the wilderness that was not (yet) under the control of "man." Native American kinship with the land was cruelly used against Indian tribes, promoting rather than hindering U.S. appropriation of Indian territory.

As part of the land in need of appropriation, Native American people became pieces of property to be owned and exploited by those (white) individuals who could bring wilderness under control. They could be moved around at the pleasure of white America, which demanded more and more land as the British colony and then new republic grew. Social evolution, the growth of nationalism, and the development of American political institutions were all seen as dependent upon the western movement of the frontier between civilization and savagery.

Americans were seen as embodying "an expansive power which [was] inherent in them" and which produced their "universal disposition . . . to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature" [Phillip Deloria]. Native Americans were merely one component of "inanimate" nature in need of such dominion. Forcibly moved westward and then restricted to discretely bounded reservations, Native Americans were the targets of a Euro-American geo-spatial agenda that both relied upon and reinforced a white ontology of ownership.

As the frontier began to close -- officially its end was declared in 1890, when all the territory occupied by the United States had at least two people per square mile -- white America began to romanticize nature, including the life of the "savages" who were part of it. Put in their proper place through the conquering of the wilderness, Native Americans now could be appreciated for their closeness with nature. The "primitive" setting of the uncivilized wilderness was seen as offering a needed antidote to the immorality, conflict, and materialism of the increasingly large urban centers of the United States. The wilderness of nature would help ensure that white Americans' refinement did not make them too soft. It also served as a cultural resource that proved the superiority of the United States to Europe, which was seen as artificial and inauthentic because overcivilized, and thus unnatural.

But the shift from a pioneer to a romantic attitude toward Native Americans did not lessen white America's appropriation of them. Native American were and generally still are considered as pieces of property owned by white America to do with what they please, only now this "knowledge" of Native Americans by white people is much more unconscious than conscious. White habits of ownership of Native Americans generally have not been eliminated; they have only changed the form of their expression. Rather than something wild to consciously set out to conquer, Native Americans -- espeically their religious traditions and rituals -- tend to be unconsciously appropriated as exotic objects for Euro-American use, pleasure, and consumption.

Because Sullivan's overview here focuses on what Euro-Americans have done and continue to do to Native Americans, it doesn't include a point that I think should be added -- it's not like Native Americans have taken all of this lying down.

Monday, September 28, 2009

see no problem with being surrounded by other white people

About a week ago, someone left a comment on this blog that seemed way off the post's topic. I published it anyway, because it expresses a common white sentiment:

im a white guy ... I just want to be around my own kind ... I dont hate anyone but thats how I fell most comfortable ... I don't begruge that of anyone ... Its a natural desire. when blacks or any other group feel this way ... Im cool with i t... thank you.

Surely there's something being expressed beyond these words. Something that this person won't come right out and say, perhaps even to him- or herself. I sometimes hear this commenter's claim from other white people, that they spend most of their time around other white people because they just like people who are like themselves, because they're also white people (which then makes me wonder, are white people really THAT much like each other?).

I think what goes unexpressed in this common white claim about spending so much time with other white people is something like this: "I don't like people who aren't white." Or, perhaps it's even more simple: "I don't like black people."

So, it's not really that most of us are surrounded by white people because we just prefer our "own kind." In many cases, it's more that we don't like other kinds. And that we know we're not supposed to say that, so we don't say it, sometimes even to ourselves.

So okay, it's easy enough to point out that when white people claim that if blacks or any other group feels this way too, that's "cool" -- and when they thereby anticipate and also deny the charge of racism -- this common white claim about sticking to our own kind is hypocritical, and even delusional. What interests me more about it, though, is another common claim buried within it: that there's something benign or "natural" about overwhelmingly white gatherings.

White people often think like that about the very white groups they typically find themselves in -- that's just the way things are. It's natural. Like, whatever, it's not racist, you know? Maybe you're the one who's being racist, by insisting on pointing out race, when none of the rest of us want to talk about it, let alone even notice it.

I've been thinking about white homogeneity lately, and I now see something that I didn't see earlier during my very white American life (which reminds me -- isn't NPR's "This American Life" almost always about white lives? A very, that is, "white" gathering? If so, why don't they just say so?).

I'll put what I now see this way, and call it a hypothesis for now:

A) Even though white people still make up over 70% of the U.S. population, whenever a fairly large or significant gathering is all white, or almost all white, that's not an accident

B) Whenever a white person spends almost all of his or her time with other white people, that's not an accident either. 

C) Neither of these cases is benign, or natural, or just a random coincidence; digging deeply enough will reveal that racism is a root cause.

D) If A, B, and C are true, very few white Americans know that, or care to know it. And yet, at some level, they probably do know it.

From what I've observed, in others and in myself, a common white tendency is to fail to even notice how unnaturally white the gatherings of people around us are. And thus to notice or even wonder how, in one way or another, racism accounts for that.

What I try to do now when I encounter yet another very, very white gathering is to figure out how it got that way, and how it stays that way -- what's kept non-white people out, and continues to keep them out? If I can't figure that out, I at least I try to keep the unnatural whiteness of the gathering in mind, and I also try to point it out to other people.

I notice that in rare instances, some other white people do this too. Take Choire Sicha, for instance, who writes for the Daily Beast, and who certainly looks white in his author's photo. When Sicha wrote recently about the Emmy Awards, he noticed an overwhelming whiteness -- that of the award presenters, the award winners, and the crowd.

Sicha then acted like an abnormal white person, by seeing that overwhelming whiteness as a problem, and by trying to figure out what caused it:

As has happened before, last night brought that horrifying moment -- when the writing staff of many of the shows up for best comedy or variety show were displayed, including Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien's. Let's look for the people of color! Hey, there's Wyatt Cenac, the lone black man, hired last year by the Stewart team! And -- oh, no, that seems to be it. But at least that young white Simon Rich, the son of the
New York Times columnist Frank and also Harvard '07, is working as a writer for Saturday Night Live.

If you worked for one of those shows, could you really face the shame parade of all-white faces at next year's Emmys? Wouldn't you go back to work and try to fix it? Maybe not -- because you would have done it years ago. . . .

[Back in the late 80s,] we thought that was the beginning of the end of the "black men can't open a big movie" era, when black actors were also making inroads on TV. But sometime between the original
Melrose Place and the new one, all that progress stalled. What did we get last night? A lot of white people, a bunch of oddly nervous Kanye West jokes -- and a lot of people eyeing Tracy Morgan suspiciously. Looks like Mad Men is the perfect show for our time in every way.

As I said, I think these are unusual insights from a white person about a very white gathering. Actually, the comments below Sicha's post demonstrate a much more common white tendency, a blindness to the white elephant that squats in so many rooms (and newsrooms, and boardrooms, and studios, banquet halls, university classrooms, corporate offices, law offices, and on and on):

[Your] 'all the white faces, all these caucasians!' material was tiresome, especially coming from what appears to be a White Boy.

I didn't see quite so many white faces getting awards at the Essence Awards. Terrible isn't it?

Can anyone tell what this article is about? Three paragraphs in, I gave up. Not worth it.

Choire, we gave them BET -- isn't that enough? Seperate but equal is a viable business model, no?

Okay, that last one seems sarcastic. I hope it is. The other comments perform a common white refusal to talk about white dominance, even when someone else points it out and tries to talk about it.

Again, I now try to do what I think Sicha is doing here, by analyzing very white gatherings. I go against my white training by "denaturalizing" them, as scholars sometimes put that kind of thinking, and ultimately, by showing that racism accounts for them.

Here's one other example. Remember the Huntingdon Valley Swim Club? The one in Philadelphia that turned away a busload of inner-city, mostly black and Hispanic kids this past summer? And then claimed that racism had nothing at all to with that rejection?

According to CNN, a state panel charged with reviewing the case (the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission) recently disagreed. The commission issued "a finding of probable cause that racism was involved in the [club's] decision . . . to revoke privileges of a largely minority day care center."

So yes, as so many observers and protesters pointed out at the time, the swim club's rejection was clearly motivated by racism, as were the comments spat at the day-care children that day when they entered the pool.

But again, what interests me more is another detail in the CNN report, the club's stunning, overwhelmingly white membership:

The commission noted in the finding that none of the club's 155 paid members this year was African-American and that last year there were "179 paid memberships, none of whom were African American."

In addition, the commission said that in 2009, the Valley Swim Club "made a concerted effort to expand the geographic range of its membership by engaging in a marketing campaign. . . . The respondent efforts were mainly directed at areas with overwhelmingly caucasian populations. . . . The respondent made no effort to direct such marketing efforts at areas with significant African-American populations."

So what we have here in the Huntingdon Valley Swim Club is another overwhelmingly white gathering. As well as another gathering in which most of the members clearly see no problem at all with that. Another example of de facto segregation that probably seems perfectly natural to the white people involved, as well as comforting, safe, and even sort of "clean" (a cleanliness suddenly sullied by the entrance of black bodies into the mingled waters of the swimming pool -- a sudden impurity, which prompted some club members to pull their own children out of the pool).

Certainly that overwhelmingly white gathering would not strike most of the Club's members as "racist." That could never, ever be what accounts for all of us gathered here being members of the same race.

And so, as usually happens when the racially exclusionary practices that account for such overwhelming whiteness are pointed out, the white people involved contort themselves into rather desperate postures, suddenly reaching and stretching for alternative explanations. Instead of waking up to and admitting what's really going on -- racism.

As the CNN story goes on to say,

[Commission Chairman Stephen Glassman] said the swim club had 30 days to appeal the finding.

Joe Tucker, a lawyer for the club, said his client will do just that. "We believe this is wrong," he said.

"I believe the people at the PHRC are very good people, but they were put in a tough position. . . . If the PHRC would have decided against the children or in favor of the club, they would have been painted with the same unfair and untrue racist brush that the Valley Swim Club was painted with."

The day care center had originally contracted to use the pool during the summer, but the club canceled the agreement and returned the day care center's $1,950 check without explanation. The club canceled contracts with two other day care centers because of safety and crowding, swim club director John Duesler said.

Those facilities have not protested the club's actions.

The issue was exacerbated when Duesler told two Philadelphia television stations that the children had changed "the complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. The comment brought protesters outside the facility.

Duesler later said that safety and crowding, not racism, prompted the cancellation.

So what I'm really wondering is, why wasn't the overwhelming whiteness of this club already considered a glaring problem by its members? That whiteness is not "natural." It didn't just happen. It's not an accident. It's also not something that's ultimately good for the club's white members, including their children. Especially their children.

As for me and my own life, I'm still in the process of waking up to how delusional and oblivious the whites-in-a-group mindset is. And to the racism that produced it, and still sustains it.

Most Americans are not clustered into more or less homogeneous groups because they just prefer it that way, like the proverbial birds of a feather who naturally stick together. In terms of race, and how it continues to profoundly influence where people in the U.S. live and work, most white people gather in overwhelmingly white settings because they've fled from non-white people. And because they still have ways, whether conscious or not, of keeping most non-white people out.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

struggle to define "white culture"

So far I've avoided paying much attention here to the reactionary, absurdist melodrama that is Glenn Beck. He reminds me way too much of a neglected child, who will say and do anything just to get attention (like say, sneaking into the kitchen when Mommy's gone to boil a plastic frog).

Glenn Beck is like a troll, swimming around in the blur and glut of corporate media culture. As with trolls in the blogosphere, ignoring him seems like the best strategy.

But then along came Katie Couric, who interviewed Beck this week and asked him an especially interesting question. Beck had recently enhanced his notoriety by saying that Barack Obama has "a hatred of white people, of white culture"; Couric asked him what he meant by the latter, "white culture."

Beck initially responded like I think most white Americans would -- he stumbled and sputtered, and failed to define white culture. Then Beck carried on like so many conservatives do these days when their bluff is called -- by playing the victim card, which he did by insinuating that the question was some sort of "trap," sprung on him by another member of the so-called liberal media. His inability to answer the question became his refusal to play Couric's evil little "game."

So, aside from Beck's weasel-like squirming here, what do you think about the effort in this interview to define "white culture"?

Is there such a thing? If not, is that why Beck had trouble defining it?

I do think that white people have culture. But that's not quite the same, is it, as saying that there is one white culture.

Most Americans do have some idea of what "black culture" is, and could probably put together a definition of some sort pretty easily. But then, how accurate would that be? Is there really just one black American culture? So again, is there one white culture? Or, in both cases, and in the cases as well of other American subcultures, are there several, perhaps overlapping cultures within a larger subculture?

Complicated, isn't it? Not that I'm expressing any sympathy for Glenn Beck's struggle with Katie Couric's question.

Part of the problem that white people have in discerning any "white culture" is that whiteness has long defined itself implicitly, by defining what it's not, instead of explicitly defining what it is. Irish and Italian immigrants, for example, became assimilated "Americans," and thus white people, by suppressing that which marked them as "un-American," including their culture.

"American" meant "white," but the whiteness embedded within such concepts as "all-American" gradually became invisible to most white people (though not, I would imagine, to most non-white people). White people, and whatever could be called "white culture," morphed instead into "normal" and "ordinary."

Although I don't think Glenn Beck is normal and ordinary, his struggle as a white person to define "white culture" is completely familiar.

Interview transcript:

COURIC: A twitter question is, [from] adrianinflorida: "what do you mean by white culture?"

BECK: Um, I, I don’t…

COURIC: You said he had a deep-seated hatred for the white culture, what is that? What is the white culture?

BECK: I guess it’s…gosh. I’m so tempted to make news here today.

COURIC: No no, I’m just curious, this was actually adrianinflorida.

BECK: What to do? What to do? Adrian, Go to Listen to it. You can hear all of it.

COURIC: No, but you didn’t really address white culture, I think, in your explanation about President Obama, I haven’t seen the whole show, but can you? Just for our purposes?

BECK: Just for your purposes? So this will be a little secret between us?

COURIC: No, for this show, can you explain what you mean by the white culture? Because some people say that sounds kind of racist.

BECK: Really? It’s amazing to me that, for the first time, I think in history, somebody can ask a question and say, “Don’t you think that maybe we have several pieces here?” We have several pieces. George Bush says my grandmother was a typical African American that had, that had her views bred into her. You don’t think maybe we would ask questions about that comment? How is it that the first time I think in history, you should check on it, somebody says, “Hey. There’s some red flags here maybe we should look at?” has become the target. How am I? How am I the target for asking questions?

COURIC: People just want to know. What is white culture?

BECK: I’m going to see if I can play your game. People just want to know.

COURIC: You know, well, Adrian wants to know.

BECK: That’s good for Adrian.

COURIC: No but I mean it’s fine if you make a statement though, shouldn’t you be able to defend exactly what you mean by it. I’m not –

BECK: Katie, how many times have you said, how many times have you said something where you’re like, “I didn’t think. What’s white culture? I don’t know. What’s the white culture?”

What? What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap.

COURIC: Mm hmm.

BECK: You know what I mean?

COURIC: Yeah I’m not, I’m just, I’m not trying to trap you, I’m just, I think people wanted to know what that meant exactly.

BECK: Well we know Adrian does.

COURIC: Yeah, and you’re not going to answer her?

BECK: I’m not going to get into your sound bite gotcha game which we already are. We already are.

COURIC: No we’re actually, this is completely unedited so if you felt like you wanted to explain it, you have all the time in the world.

BECK: Mm hmm.

COURIC: No? Don’t want to go there?

BECK: Nope.

COURIC: But basically, you stand behind your assertion that in your view, President Obama is a racist.

BECK: I believe that Americans should ask themselves tough questions. Americans should turn over all the rocks and make their own decisions.

Friday, September 25, 2009

think the white house should be "white"

A: How many people in the U.S. think it's just plain wrong to have a "black" family in the "White" House?

B: A lot. Significant numbers. More than enough for it to be a
real problem.

A: I agree. So, how
many people in the U.S., when presented with photos like the following, would curse, and gnash their teeth, and like, hatch nefarious plots?

B: A lot. Significant numbers. More than enough for it to be a real problem.

A: I agree.

The White House, South Lawn
An event supporting Chicago's bid
for the 2016 Olympics
(September, 2009)

A: But then, Barack Obama's not quite the first "black" president, is he?

B: ??

A: Well, Toni Morrison said --

B: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Respect to Toni Morrison, but like, that was then.

George Clinton
"Paint the White House Black"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

fail to see how colonialism still poisons their conceptions of africans

swpd reader Victoria wrote the following email, which makes such a good and important point that I asked if I could reprint it here. If you have further suggestions, please do leave a comment, and I'll add them to this post.

After the backlash [in the comments] -- which I'm sure you're quite used to -- from the jungle-themed white savior music video, I thought it'd be good if people actually knew a little more about Blacks than just their interactions with them at present.

I think it's important that people understand more background than just "slavery" when it comes to Blacks. The only way Blacks are portrayed to Americans, unless they take a specific course documenting more, is as the descendants of former slaves. White Americans are never informed that we and our white ancestors from all over Europe have been screwing with Blacks and Africa long before we decided to drag them across the ocean to work on our plantations. Most white people are unaware that all the European countries gathered one day and literally divided Africa up amongst themselves (Scramble for Africa) without ever consulting anyone from Africa, without any thought that they were dividing them with lines that did not exist before. So tribes that were once just neighbors to one another were now being forced to live and work together.

They don't hear about how we enslaved them in their own countries and forced them to build railroads up, down and across Africa, or the way we told them it was for their own good that we were there, the way we introduced a religion and totally demolished theirs as best we could, the way we treated them like animals instead of people. White people don't hear about that sort of thing. We see our times in Africa during those days much like the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney World -- adventurous! Taming the wild! What we don't hear is how we tried to "tame" what we considered wild men (and women).

White people aren't told that Africans in all countries (not just the ones where their skin is lighter and their hair has a looser kink to it) had structure, rules, deep beliefs and traditions passed down since the dawn of man. White people are only told of how their ancestors tried to conquer Africa to make it "better". White people who don't know any better still hold the belief that Africans are savage, crazy-dancing, violence-loving ignoramuses. Hence the reason that video didn't appear the least bit racist to some people. And the reason they are still in the dark about why Africans fight in wars with each other to this day. We're all "save Africa" this and "save Africa" that, but we're the ones who put them at odds with each other in the first place.

Here are some books and short stories that helped me understand various African perspectives a little better.

Both of these novels are great for showing how structured and UNwild Africa was before the White man arrived on the scene and how whites demoralized them in the name of capitalism, Christianity, and control.
Short stories:
  • "The Museum" by Leila Aboulela (illustrates how colonization is justified even today -- and how it's not always easy to take on the burden of being the person who's going to teach the white man how to understand, and how not all Africans are big, scary, and black)
  • "Columba" by Michelle Cliff (illustrates how the colonized are often left without a feeling of identity or a closeness to their homeland -- also helps people to remember that Jamaica was indeed a British colony. It wasn't always the picture of Bob Marley, dreadlocks, and marijuana that many Americans like to imagine it as)
  • "The Gentlemen of the Jungle" by Jomo Kenyatta (allegorical story of colonization told in a way that even children can understand and relate to).
I have a few others, but I think those are good jumping off points. And I think your readers have many other books people could read that paint the story from the perspective of the people who were colonized, not the same old remorseful "you were slaves, that was bad, we're sorry" point of view.

I just think people don't realize what colonization is and what it does to people both while it's happening, and AFTER it happens, after the white men are done setting up shop there and leave. The way people are lost, their culture's depth forgotten and what the decades, scores, centuries of being told that they are inferior does to them. The only ways to understand that is to either get to know these people, which most Whites are not willing to go out of their way to do, or to read about them. And given the curriculum in America, it would require people going out of their way to do even that.

Do you have any reading suggestions to add to this list? Or any films, or other sources?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

white quotation of the week (robert terry)

The Parable of Ups and Downs

What makes an Up an Up and a Down a Down is that an Up can do more to a Down than a Down can do to an Up. That's what keeps an Up up and a Down down. The Ups tend to talk to each other and study the Downs, asking the Downs about what's up—or what's coming down, for that matter. The Downs spend a lot of time taking the Ups out to lunch or to dinner to explain their Downness. The Ups listen attentively, often in amazement, about the experiences of being down. They contrast one Down's experience with another Down's experience and don't worry too much about what the Downs are up to because the Downs never get together. If they did, the Ups would have to shape up.

After a while, the Downs weary of talking to the Ups. They tire of explaining and justifying their Downness. They think, “If I have to explain my Downness one more time, I'll throw up.” And so they form a process which they call “networking and support groups.” This act makes the Ups nervous. Three Ups together is a board meeting; three Downs, pre-revolutionary activity. Some Ups hire Downs, dress them up, and send them down to see what the Downs are up to. We sometimes call this “personnel and affirmative action.” This creates a serious problem for the Down who is dressed up with no sure place to go. That Down doesn't know whether he or she is up or down. That's why Downs in the middle often burn out.

Sometimes what the Ups do to smarten up is to ask the Downs to come in to a program one at a time to explain their Downness. The Ups call this “human relations training.” Of course, the Ups never have to explain their Upness; that's why they're Ups rather than Downs.

There's good news and bad news in this parable. The good news is, we're all both Ups and Downs. There's no such thing as a perfect Up or a perfect Down. The bad news is that when we're up it often makes us stupid. We call that “dumb-upness.” It's not because Ups are not smart. It's that Ups don't have to pay attention to Downs the way Downs have to pay attention to Ups. Downs always have to figure out what Ups are up to. The only time Ups worry about Downs is when Downs get uppity, at which time they're put down by the Ups. The Ups’ perception is that Downs are overly sensitive; they have an attitude problem. It is never understood that Ups are underly sensitive and have an attitude problem.

I used to think that when Downs became Ups they would carry over their insight from their Downess to their Upness. Not so: smart down—dumb up.


I find this parable helpful to gain insight in my work and life. Very rapidly we move into up and down categories and misunderstand each other. If Downs want to understand why an Up doesn't understand an issue, all they have to do is think of their own Up category and see why that issue is not understood. Downs know more about Ups than Ups know about Downs, yet we tend to come out of our Down category first to make sense out of our experience. The Up category is taken for granted and is rarely under review.

Who often has more insight about how the society functions, how organizations function, what's really going on? Frequently, it's Downs, not Ups. Ups are too busy trying to maintain the system rather than generate insight about what's really going on or how to change it. So our source of new insightful information comes from Downs, not from Ups. Yet it's Ups who are the ones whom we often call leaders.

Read more here (PDF)

Robert Terry directed the Reflective Leadership Center at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and was the author of For Whites Only. He died in 2002.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

have an aversion to non-white names

I was at a party recently, talking to a young woman of Korean descent named Hae Sook. We'd just met, and as we were talking, a middle-aged white woman I knew approached us. Since Hae Sook didn't know her, it was up to me to introduce them.

"Hae Sook, I said, "This is Margaret. Margaret, Hae Sook."

As I told them a little more about each other, they smiled and shook hands, said "nice to meet you," and so on.

Then Margaret said, "Your name is really hard to catch! How about if I just call you Helen."

I didn't write a question mark at the end of Margaret's question, because her tone implied that she wasn't really asking a question. It was more like an announcement, a statement about something that she was going to do from now on.

Hae Sook's smile sort of froze in place, and she looked as if she felt stunned. I certainly felt that way.

"Um, well," Hae Sook said, "Helen's not my name."

Margaret has this way about her sometimes that I find hard to describe. It's a kind of insistence on getting her own way, but in a friendly way.

"Okay," she said, "well, I'll just do my best, then."

She acted almost . . . put upon. Burdened by an expectation that she take an extra moment to learn and use someone else's actual name, instead of the one that she'd been ever so kind enough to suggest instead. As the three of us chatted for a couple more minutes before Margaret headed off toward someone else she knew, she never asked for a repeat of Hae Sook's name.

"Do you get that a lot?" I asked Hae Sook. "About your name?"

"Sometimes. I've never had someone suggest Helen, though. A lot of people just don't ever bother calling me a name."

As I later told Margaret, her comment reminded of an incident involving Betty Brown, a Texas state representative who was speaking about voter registration problems with Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

As Ko explained some problems that arise when people of Asian descent transliterate their names into English, Brown said,

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese -- I understand it's a rather difficult language -- do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?

Betty Brown seems like a nice, well-meaning person, and she was quick to apologize to Ko (but also to say that she was "misunderstood" -- it can be so hard for white people to admit that they've done something racist).

"We're ready to work with any of these people who are having problems and have them educate us on anything that might be going on that we're unaware of," said Brown.

Among the things that Brown seemed unaware of, as did Margaret, was that her comments said a lot about who she presumes the real Americans are, and what should be done by others to accommodate them.

This aversion to non-white names can also have significant practical consequences.

For instance, researchers in Canada last year conducted a study of "English" versus "non-English" names on resumés. They "composed 6,000 resumés to represent applicants with English or non-English names and sent them to 2,000 different job postings offered by Canadian employers in the Greater Toronto Area." The researchers then discovered that "those with an English name like Jill Wilson and John Martin received 40 percent more interview callbacks than the identical resumés with names like Sana Khan or Lei Li."

In a similar study conducted earlier in the U.S., researchers sent out about 5,000 false resumés in response to want ads for jobs in two newspapers. According to Jet magazine, these researchers "analyzed birth certificates in coming up with what names to use. The White names include Neil, Brett, Greg, Emily, Anne and Jill. Some of the Black names used were Ebony, Tamika, Aisha, Rasheed, Kareem and Tyrone."

The results were even more stark than those in the Canadian study:

Resumes with White-sounding first names elicited 50 percent more responses than ones with Black-sounding names. . . . the "White" applicants they created received one response -- a call, letter or e-mail -- for every 10 resumes mailed, while "Black" applicants with equal credentials received one response for every 15 resumes sent.

Here's another example of the common white aversion to non-white names. A lot of white people who dislike Barack Obama do so in part because they think his name sounds so "un-American" -- that is, non-white. They often express their derision by including and emphasizing his middle name, Hussein. Birther movement leader Orley Taitz -- a woman dedicated to "proving" that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. -- does just that at about 1:45 in this clip.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's last name is another one that many white people couldn't be bothered to pronounce correctly. Writing for the National Review, Matt Krikorian spoke for many when he wrote,

Deferring to people's own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English . . . and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn't be giving in to.

[One] of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options -- the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

Oh, that damned multiculturalism!

I obviously disagree with Krikorian's plea for assimilation to (white) American standards. I think that instead of expecting non-white people to adjusting their names for the lazy comfort of white tongues and ears, white people should struggle a little more than they often do with names that they find unfamiliar -- it's really not that difficult.

Using a person's actual, correctly pronounced name acknowledges his or her individual humanity. White people in the U.S. should also practice correct name pronunciation because, as their demographic majority continues to decline, they're likely to encounter more and more people with names that they haven't heard before. I also think that if white people do feel uncomfortable when they encounter unfamiliar names, they should do some self-reflection about just what that discomfort means.

How about you -- have you encountered other instances of white aversion with non-white names?

Friday, September 18, 2009

use racially coded jungle settings to promote world peace

And now, some Friday music.

Have you heard of Sir Ivan? He's a well-intentioned performer of techno music with an interesting background (see below).

I really wonder just what Sir Ivan was thinking when he made the following music video. He appears here in his getup as "Peaceman" (complete with billowing cape), who springs into action to spread world peace by, um . . . getting tribal Africans to stop fighting and start loving?

Will this tired setup of individualized white performers backed by anonymous black people, in jungles and other settings, ever die?

At least when the California Milk Processor Board made a video like this to promote milk, they seemed to be parodying such racist, colonialist configurations (but then, maybe not).

"Sir Ivan" is the creation of a U.S. citizen named Ivan Wilzig. According to Wikipedia,

"Sir" Ivan L. Wilzig (born c. 1956) or Peaceman is a musician who is best known for techno remixes of 1960s songs such as "Imagine" and "San Francisco". He is also founder of the nonprofit Peaceman Foundation. . . . Wilzig is the son of the late Siegbert (Siggi) Wilzig, who as a penniless German Holocaust survivor earned a fortune through finance. 59 of Ivan Wilzig's relatives were killed during the Holocaust. Ivan was born in Newark and grew up in Clifton, New Jersey as the oldest of the Wilzig children. . . .

He and his brother, Alan Wilzig, assisted his father in running the Trust Company Bank of New Jersey. Most of Ivan Wilzig's work at the bank was in public relations and marketing; he tried one year as a corporate lawyer but hated it. In 2000 "Sir Ivan" abandoned his banking career to begin a career in music.

According to Sir Ivan's web site, he also established The Peaceman Foundation,

a private foundation which supports an array of charities dedicated to fighting Hate Crimes and treating the victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sir Ivan is donating 100 percent of his recording artist net profits from his album to his Peaceman Foundation. To further promote peace through his music and foundation, Sir Ivan always performs in peace capes, which has earned him the title “PEACEMAN,” the rock star superhero fighting for peace.

These efforts seem noble, and Sir Ivan's music has apparently acquired a fair number of fans, so charity funds are presumably reaching some people who could use them. Nevertheless, this video for his version of "Kumbaya" needs to be called out. Its arrangement of one white body and a lot of black bodies revives, as if from a collective white unconscious, a fantasized, paternalistic relationship. This is an old dream, a fantasy about superior white men who bestow their benevolence upon inferior, primitive, alternately childish and hypersexualized African "natives."

The problems with this fantasy are, of course, multiple and complex. The presumptuous white supremacy that has helped to justify several centuries of suffering and resource-plundering remains within the collective white psyche. This lingering presumption provides white people, even those with the best, most "charitable" intentions, with ready-made narrative structures. These narratives place white individuals at the center, and non-white, non-Western people at their service. Even today, as Sir Ivan and his Peace cape demonstrate, inserting oneself into such a narrative structure tends to produce little more than self-aggrandizing displays of white Western oblivion, arrogance, and ultimately, abuse.

However sincere Sir Ivan's philanthropic efforts may be, he does Africans (and other colonialized people) no favors with this portrayal of both them, and of himself in relation to them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

feel entitled to touch black women's hair

This is a guest post by Los Angelista, who writes of herself, "I live in LA but at heart, I'm your average Black/Irish Midwesterner who loves to write, read, eavesdrop and take photos. I'm a Baha'i, an insomniac, I ponder becoming vegan, I'm fanatical about chai and I will love you forever if you get me front row tix to a Depeche Mode show."

No, You Can't Touch My Hair

Earlier this afternoon I was at Los Angeles' Griffith Park public pool with my kids. We were having a pretty good time. And that's despite the fact that some random old man hobbled by me and said, "Nice tits."

I was pretty shocked by his comment but he was gone before I could respond. To make things even stranger, he proceeded to walk over to an overweight pre-teen boy and say the same thing to him!

It was definitely a crazy moment, but it was a gorgeous afternoon so I contented myself with watching my sons splashing in the water and reading "O" magazine.

Unfortunately, the madness wasn't over. A few minutes later, a woman, a white woman, approached me, her hand extended toward my head. "Ooh your hair is sooo pretty. Can I touch it?"

I immediately leaned away out of her reach and said, "No."

Her response? A shocked and outraged, "Are you serious? I can't touch your hair?"

"No, you can't," I replied. I guess she's never seen my #donotpetmyafro hashtag on Twitter.

Indeed, she had the nerve to look confused and offended as she asked, "Why not?"

Really, lady? You want me to explain to you why I don't want you to touch my hair? Let's see...

Because you're a STRANGER.

Because I'm not an animal in the zoo.

Because this is my body and I don't have to let anybody touch any part of it, EVER, if I don't want to.

Because my black ancestors may have been your ancestors' property, and had to smile while they got touched in ways they didn't want to, but I am not YOUR property and never will be so you'd best move your hand away from me.

I was so overwhelmed by anger that my mouth opened and no sound came out. I think my eyes must've had shown what I was feeling because she made this weird face, turned on her heel and huffily walked back over to her towel.

Unfortunately her towel was maybe 10 feet away from mine. Just great.

The pool was closing in 20 minutes so I yelled a five minute warning to my kids and got busy packing up our stuff. That's when I overheard the woman talking smack about me to her child.

"I'm a nice person and I try so hard to be nice to THEM, but I'm tired of trying to be nice to bitchy black women."

My kids hopped out of the water and began drying off, all while she threw me dagger looks and ranted to her child. "All I wanted to do was touch her hair. What's the big deal about that? She should be happy I asked to touch her hair."

My eight year-old caught on pretty quickly, "Is she talking about YOU, mommy?"

It made me so angry that my sons were being exposed to the situation. I wanted to hit something. I wanted to drag the woman to the side of the pool, hold her head under water and scream, "*&#*%^ TOUCH THIS!"

Instead, with as much dignity as I could, I hustled us out the door, tears of pure rage pricking my eyes.

I couldn't go over to her and explain why her request was not OK. Why should I have to explain, especially when I feel like nothing I would've said would've made it right? The only thing that would've made it all better is if I'd said, "I'm sorry you're upset. Go ahead and touch my hair."

She wanted to objectify me and have me go along with her request, a request that smacked of racial superiority and privilege. But when I didn't like it, I became the problem.

I know there are those who'll think this woman's behavior has nothing to do with racism and subconscious privilege, and is instead a matter of someone being rude and unable to respect personal boundaries.

Being rude and being racist are not mutually exclusive things. In this situation I'd say that this woman's attitude -- a black woman, with all her afro-y exoticness must let me touch her hair because I'm curious and I did ask-- is both rude AND racist.

In addition, her subsequent comments gave voice to the prevalent racist American stereotype that black women are bitches. But, like so many, this woman failed to recognize what role her own attitude may have in any negative interactions she may be having with black women.

With her comment that I should've been happy she said my hair was pretty, I found myself feeling like I could've been the slave that the missus had deigned to notice. "Isn't our colored woman's hair cute?"

I know there are those who think black women should let folks from other backgrounds touch their hair. How else will we learn about each other, right?

In that line of thinking, I was just being mean to someone who was merely trying to be open minded.

Here's the thing: I don't really like people touching my hair, period. I don't care who you are.

I don't ask to touch other people's hair, either. But if we have a relationship where we're really good friends and a piece of lint has blown into my hair and you're offering to get it out for me, OK, you can touch my hair.

Otherwise, let me say unequivocally, please don't try to use my hair as some sort of cultural learning experience. And don't expect me to be all, "Oh thank you, missus! You sho is thoughtful to notice ole nappy me!"

You want to know what a black woman's natural hair feels like? Get your own black female friends and ask them, not me. That is, if you can stop thinking we're bitches long enough for that to happen.

On the car ride home my sons rapid-fired question at me. They wanted to know what had gone down. As I explained to them what had occurred they were shocked and angered. "How dare she try to touch your hair! You're not her dog!"


Hours later, my eldest son keeps hugging me and saying, "I'm so sorry that happened to you, mommy. She had no right to treat you like that."

No, she had no right. But sadly, I'm sure this will not be the last time I have to say, no, you can't touch my hair.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

listen to jimmy carter

I don't know how many people in the U.S., white or otherwise, actually listen to Jimmy Carter anymore, but I think they should. Whatever the failures of his presidency, his ceaseless efforts since then to make the world a better place don't get the kind of attention they deserve.

In an interview marking his 85th birthday, Carter spoke out about the increasingly toxic political environment in the U.S., including what he called "the racist attitude that is the basis for the negative environment that we see so vividly demonstrated in public affairs in recent days."

Here's what Carter said about white racism in this NBC interview:

I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American. I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country, that's shared the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. That racism still exists and I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

Reporter Chuck Todd says in this segment that Carter did the Obama Administration no favors by calling out racism like this, because "this is something they know they're going to have to respond to, and they're not going to be very happy about it" because of their "fear of backlash."

It'll be interesting to see how the White House responds, if at all. Maybe the people there won't bother -- I doubt they listen to Jimmy Carter much more than most other Americans do these days.

I'm suddenly hearing, reading, and seeing a lot more talk this week about this issue -- whether racism is a significant factor fueling opposition to health care reform, and to Obama more generally. Are you hearing more of it too?

One of the better points I've read about it all comes from Danielle Belton at The Black Snob:

No one thought the world was ending when Bill Clinton tried to kick start Universal Healthcare. There were complaints from the Republicans and the industry and Harry and Louise ads and mocking tones about "Hillarycare." But there wasn't crying and screaming in the streets mixed with gun toting and swastikas by a recalcitrant minority of people who seem unable to grasp that election '08 is over and Sarah Palin lost.

Could the growing concern about racism actually be a concerted, increasingly successful Republican effort to make this health care fight all about race, all the while denying that their protests have anything at all to do with that? Could this be a "Southern Strategy Redux"?

What do you think is turning up the heat? The most recent teabagger protests? Joe Wilson's "You Lie!" outburst during Obama's health-care speech?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

cling to racist mascots

This guest post (which originally appeared at Sociological Images) is by Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of Sociology at Occidental College.

Angry Asian Man wrote about two East High Schools–in Rochester, New York and Akron, Ohio–with a peculiar mascot: the Orientals.

East High School merch (Rochester, New York):


Screen shot of the East High School website (Akron, Ohio):


Notice the Asian-y font and the stylistic dragon.

When high schools and sports teams recruit a type of person as a mascot, it objectifies and caricatures them. It also encourages opposing teams to say things like “Kill the Orientals.” This can only be okay when we aren’t really thinking about these kinds of people as real humans beings.

This reminded me: As an undergraduate, I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Our mascot was the Gaucho, which I remember being described as a Mexican cowboy (though South American cowboy may be more descriptive). I went by the UCSB website and found these two logos. There is a story about the first identifying it as a brand new logo; the second is for kids:



I am troubled by the Gaucho mascot for the same reasons that I don’t like the Orientals mascot, but at least authentic gauchos are not likely to enroll at UCSB the way that “Orientals” are likely students of the East High Schools.

Then again, this is the image on the front page of the UCSB athlectics website:


It does indeed read: “GLORY. HONOR. COURAGE. TORTILLAS.” This seems to invalidate any argument that the use of the Gaucho mascot is “respectful.”

Thinking about the Orientals and the Gauchos, alongside the many American Indian mascots still found in the U.S., Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and the soccer team in the Netherlands who call themselves the Jews, may give us some perspective on this mascot phenomenon that thinking about them one at a time doesn’t.

If we feel that one of these mascots is less discriminatory than another, what drives that feeling? And is it logical? Or does it stem from a trained sensibility that isn’t applied to all marginalized groups across the board? Or is it in response to different characteristics of these different groups? Or different contexts?

Maybe all five mascots are equally offensive and offensive for the same reasons. But thinking about them together may also be useful for teasing out how, exactly, they are offensive. What do you think?

Monday, September 14, 2009

leave snarky comments on anti-racism blogs

At least, I'm pretty sure the following is a snarky comment, and that it was written by a disgruntled white person. But sometimes with these things, I'm not sure.

What do you think?

In response to the last post here, Sams384 (who, if memory serves, has never commented here before) left this totally OT comment:

Stuff White People Do:

Take a music award that belongs to a black woman

Piss off black tennis players and take a point because they're black

White people are getting arrogantly racist these days and it sickens me how obvious they make it. Even when it is in front of cameras without stress.

Did you see how racist Taylor Swift's body language was when Kanye took the mic?

I suspect this comment is bait from a troll. Am I wrong?

For one thing, when Kanye took the mic, I saw no racism whatsoever in Taylor Swift's body language. I mean, give me a break -- what would that even look like?

Here's what I suspect: that Sams384 found a rather snide way to say that thing that white people often say, you know, something about "the race card," something about how "black people and those wimpy whites who support them will always find some way to cry racism. Even when black people are the ones who did something wrong!"

And so on.

I think some white folks out there are waiting, and searching, and ready to pounce on complaints about racism in such incidents as these two, just to "prove" their belief that those who point out racism these days are way, way too anxious to do so.

Some of those folks might even be leaving snarky comments on anti-racism blogs, hoping to provoke such "cries" of racism.

But then, maybe I'm reading too much into a comment that's actually nothing but sincere. As I said, sometimes with these things, I'm not sure.

Friday, September 11, 2009

lead unethical lives

Wallace Shawn is a playwright, actor, and essayist, as well as the son of William Shawn, a long-time editor of The New Yorker magazine. In a radio interview with Doug Henwood prompted by his latest book, Shawn said the following:

Henwood: You have an essay on morality in this collection. . . . You grew up with a sense that you’re supposed to be moral, but then you’re thrown into this world that is very immoral, and you’re supposed to somehow separate your morality from the immorality of the world that you’re living in. How do you do it? I mean, is there a way to lead a moral life in a world that is so corrupt and violent?

Shawn: Well, very strictly speaking, I mean if you’re gonna put it so bluntly, not really. Because simply by living a bourgeois life, you’re consuming more than your fair share of the world’s resources, and you’re benefiting from a status quo that oppresses people all over the world. And that’s not even getting into the fact that it’s very hard to make a bourgeois living in a corrupt society without being mired in corruption. That’s very hard to do. People, you know, most people are doing things that are reinforcing the ugly realities of the world.

I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy involved in, for instance, people like myself denouncing, let’s say, the crimes of people like Dick Cheney and the crimes of the Bush administration. Yes, we’re right to denounce them, but when they say, “Hey, we’re doing it for your benefit! Don’t you want the oil that makes your home, you know, warm in the winter and cool in the summer? You do want the oil. Well, we're getting it for you, so shut up!”

And they’re right in that demand that you should admit that you like it, and admit that they’re doing it for you. You know, this is where there’s hypocrisy involved in the life of somebody like myself. So the true answer, if we’re being bluntly honest, is that it’s not very likely that you can live a bourgeois life, and consider yourself someone who follows ethical principles.
. .

In a recent blog post entitled "God Shed His Grace Ennui," Dennis Perrin posted the following images and captions:

To demonstrate his determination to win the Afghan war,
President Obama began eating his hand --

Delighting his liberal supporters.

Despite suffering massive burns from a US air strike on her Afghan village,
nine-year-old Nadia Sahar urged American liberals
to not protest President Obama's war,
as it might hurt his re-election chances.

Heeding Nadia's plea, liberals immediately showed their solidarity.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the author of several inspiring books. In Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, Jensen writes of his encounters with two students several months after the events of 9/11:

One young woman came to my office the day after we had watched a documentary in class about the 1991 Gulf War and its devastatingly brutal effects -- immediate and lingering -- on the people of Iraq. The student is also active in the movement to support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and the day she came to see me was during a period in which Israeli attacks on Palestinians were intensifying.

We talked for some time about a number of political topics, but the conversation kept coming back to one main point: She hurt. As she was learning more about the suffering of others around the world, she felt pain. What does one do about such a feeling, knowing that one’s own government is either responsible for, or complicit in, so much of it? How does one stop feeling that pain, she asked.

I asked her whether she really wanted to wipe that feeling out of her life. Surely you know people, perhaps fellow students, who don’t seem to feel that pain, who ignore all that suffering, I told her. Do you want to become like them? No matter how much it hurts, would you rather not feel at all? Would you rather be willfully ignorant about what is happening?

I could see tears welling in her eyes and feel them in my own; it was an emotional moment for both of us. She left my office, not feeling better in any simplistic sense. But I hope that she left at least with a sense that she was not alone and did not have to feel like a freak for feeling so much, so deeply.

A couple of hours later another student came by. After dealing with the classroom issue she wanted to discuss, we talked more generally about her interests in scientific research and the politics of funding research. I made the obvious point that profit-potential had a lot to do with what kind of research gets done.

Certainly the comparative levels of research-and-development money that went, for example, to Viagra compared with money for drugs to combat new strains of TB tells us something about the values of our society, I suggested. The student agreed, but raised another issue. Given the overpopulation problem, she said, would it really be a good thing to spend lots of resources on developing those drugs?

About halfway through her sentence I knew where she was heading, though I didn’t want to believe it. This very bright student wanted to discuss whether it made sense to put resources into life-saving drugs for poor people in the Third World, given that there are arguably too many people on the planet already, or at least too many poor people in the Third World.

I contained my anger somewhat, and told the student that when she was ready to sacrifice members of her own family to help solve the global population problem, then I would listen to her argument. In fact, given the outrageous levels of consumption of the middle and upper classes in the United States, I said, one could argue that large-scale death in the American suburbs would be far more beneficial in solving the population problem; a single U.S. family is more of a burden ecologically on the planet than a hundred Indian peasants.

“If you would be willing to let an epidemic sweep though your hometown and kill large numbers of people without trying to stop it, for the good of the planet, then I’ll listen to that argument,” I said.

The student left shortly after that. Based on her reaction, I suspect I made her feel bad. I am glad for that. I wanted her to see that the assumption behind her comment -- that the lives of people who look like her are more valuable than the lives of the poor and vulnerable in other parts of the world -- was ethnocentric, racist, and barbaric. That assumption is the product of an arrogant and inhumane society.

I wanted her to think about why she lived in a world in which the pain of others is so routinely ignored. I wanted her to feel what, for most of her life, she has been able to turn away from. I wanted her to begin to empathize with people who aren’t white like her and not comfortable like her, people whose suffering is far away from her.

I do not want to overestimate the power of empathy to change the world. But without empathy, without the ability to move outside our own experience, there is no hope of changing the world.

Andrea Dworkin, one of the most important feminist thinkers of our time, has written, “The victims of any systematized brutality are discounted because others cannot bear to see, identify, or articulate the pain.”

It is long past the time for all of us to start to see, to identify, to articulate the pain of systematized brutality. It is time to recognize that much of the pain is the result of a system designed to ensure our pleasures.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

do less than they could to make black students feel welcome on campus

Regular swpd reader LaSmartOne left a comment this morning that I'm turning into a guest post. In response to a satirical line in yesterday's post about how "whenever white people congregate these days, high concentrations of racial homogeneity are just pure coincidence," LaSmartOne offers much insight into life as a black graduate student at an elite, largely white research university.

These comments are off-topic, but I really need to vent. I am a graduate student at a major biological "research institution" in New York City. You wouldn't know this is a graduate/research program if you stumbled onto this campus. This exclusive, highly maintained campus feels more like Sandals resort with all of the young upper-middle class white or white male/asian female couples roaming around hand-in-hand during the evenings. Groups of white or white-and-asian students roam with tennis rackets on their way to the on-campus court. Or they congregate in packs at the on-campus student lounge with a personal bartender. Or the white and asian students have parties in the hotel-like student lounge of the dorms.

Most of the groups of people you see dotted around campus are all-white or white-and-asian. The campus is mostly white with a substantial number of asians but has a serious dearth of black or latino students--and I almost never see the other black students.

You wouldn't believe the amounts of implicit racism I've experienced here. Twice while coming on campus I've been stopped in a hostile and condescending manner by newly-hired guards who, having seen my ID, told me that I am 'ok' since I was a groundskeeper or a day worker for the animal facility, whose staff is mostly black and latino.

Coming to my dorm, almost every six months someone gives me a hostile look in the foyer as if I'm some intruder. When I attend lectures, I meet the same hostility until I ask a serious academic question of the lecturer.

When someone new comes to my lab, they'll automatically either intentionally ignore me or attempt to condescend to me. Scientific sales reps will intentionally ignore me and proceed to the white guys who are also just students. Believe it or not, this one white girl who rotated in the lab would speak to me in a passive-aggressive/patronizing manner. And almost everyone in the lab, despite my being there for years and attempting to form working relationships with them, never come to me casually or attempt to have conversations (work or otherwise) with me unless I initiate the conversation, and never at the casual or intelligent level they have with each other.

I noticed the other two black guys, who are accommodationists (and overrepresented with respect to the real dearth of black students on campus), also attempt to have conversations with the white people in the lab, but they are always the ones to initiate the conversation.

After five years of being here, the only thing I've learned is that white and asian people are the only people competent enough to be scientists.

A maintenance staff guy wrote an article in the student rag praising the university's president in light of the great hall of European philosophers like Kant and Hume and the great European scientific tradition. Additionally, the sense of ownership and privilege among other students is just incredible.

I'm beginning to think that biomedical science is almost a white supremacist enterprise by default. Science is supposed to be a collaborative endeavor with a free collegial exchange of information and support, but when people are constantly patronizing or condescending to you, such is a psychological assault informing you that you are inconsequential, "tolerated" or unwelcomed. I read a report somewhere that around half of black graduate science students drop out of their programs. If they meet the same kinds of hostility or implied white supremacy I meet, small wonder.

I've especially felt a sort of patronizing attitude right off the bat from many of the white female students on campus. White women, with the help of affirmative action, have made great gains in both scientific student bodies and faculty, but you would still be wont to find black faculty and only a little more lucky in locating black students in scientific graduate programs across the country. That aside, most of my interactions with white females on campus has been unnecessarily hostile and patronizing.

There are two other black male students who happen to be in my lab; they're very sycophantic towards the white male students, which surprised me. They're always kissing up, laughing nervously, you know that trying to court your attention laugh, around these other white males who are just graduate students like them. They prick up their minds and attempt to engage the white guys with crisp, intelligent conversation. They'll go to the white guys equally whenever they have a problem as if they are the fount of knowledge (I've never seen them approach any of the white girls or the Indian guy when they have problems, but they will approach them for prick-up-your-mind 'casual' conversation, more than they give me [or each other]). When explicitly in the company of the white guys (which never seems to be together with each other), they intentionally ignore me or will attempt to condescend to me. It's irritating to watch white guys no better than the average black guy get their egos stroked day after day by white girls and sycophantic blacks while they also slap themselves on the back. It's not like they're especially brilliant or that this science is just so difficult that only superiorly intelligent white supremacists like James Watson can do it.

I don't even want to get into the student listserve conversation I had to observe in the wake of James Watson's comments back in 2007. Some of them practically endorsed the man with statements like "science is about objective data, not political correctness" or "what does giving a writing prize for his autobiography have to do with him making statements that any old man would make"?

What could white students, staff, and faculty do in everyday situations to be more inclusive of black students? How could they reduce levels of what LaSmartOne labels here "implicit racism"?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

object to having their children "brainwashed" by a black president

Despite a lack of solid empirical evidence to back me up, I would bet cash money that the vast majority of the people who objected to President Obama's speech to children in school today were white (98%? 99?).

But that doesn't have anything to do with fear of a black president. Nothing whatsoever at all.

After all, whenever white people congregate these days, high concentrations of racial homogeneity are just pure coincidence.


At this point, the feared effects of Obama's speech don't seem to have kicked in yet. As the Field Negro noticed,

so far there have been no 911 calls from middle A-merry-ca that little Johnny is trying to work on his basketball moves. And that little Heather, all of a sudden, has a crush on Bow Wow. Kids weren't walking around the school yards like Zombies chanting "yes we can."

Do you know anyone who kept their children home to protect them from our irresistibly hypnotizing leader?

[h/t: David Neiwert @ Crooks and Liars]

Monday, September 7, 2009

labor day movie rec : salt of the earth

FlintPublic, who posted the 1954 film Salt of the Earth in sections on YouTube, writes that its dramatization of an actual labor strike during the 1950s was

produced, written and directed by victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Unable to make films in Hollywood, they looked for worthy social issues to put on screen independently. This film never would have been made in Hollywood at the time, so it is ironic that it was the anti-communist backlash that brought about the conditions for it to be made. In many ways it was a film ahead of its time. Mainstream culture did not pick up on its civil rights and feminist themes for at least a decade.

You can watch and/or legally download the entire film for free at the Internet Archive.

At, Doug Cummings calls Salt of the Earth "a movie the FBI and the Hollywood industry did everything they could to destroy."

Cummings also writes,

Based on a true story about a 1950-’52 strike by zinc miners in Silver City, New Mexico, the film is a rousing depiction of a community of Mexican-American workers and their efforts to demand equal rights with other (white) miners. It was financed by Local 890, the union depicted in the story, and made by one of the “Hollywood Ten” filmmakers, director Herbert J. Biberman, as well as other blacklistees: producer Paul Jarrico, composer Sol Kaplan, and writer Michael Wilson . . .

Detailed in James J. Lorence’s 1999 book, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (as well as Biberman’s own published account), industry string-pullers such as Howard Hughes banned laboratories from processing any of Salt’s footage or offering post-production services of any kind–initial editing was done secretly in a temporary setup in the bathroom of the still-extant Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena. (One of the several editors who abandoned the project was reportedly planted by the FBI.)

The FBI also deported the film’s star, Rosaura Revueltas, midway through filming (insert footage was subsequently and illegally shot in Mexico, where political pressure succeeded in banning the film’s production there as well) and after the movie managed to be completed, the industry’s projectionists’ union refused to screen it. After a handful of theatrical engagements in New York (where it was critically well-received), the film was promptly shelved until its “rediscovery” many years later. But in a twist of history (or was it?), the Library of Congress’ Film Registry celebrated the movie forty years later through its 1992 inclusion with the most “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant [American] films.”

The filmmakers intended the movie for a mass audience, so it’s quite accessible filmmaking, wearing its emotions and values on its sleeve. In fact, seeing it today could easily provoke bewilderment from viewers familiar with the film’s tortured history: why on earth would such a seemingly straightforward and melodramatic picture be treated with such vehement opposition? Recognizing this disparity reveals the astonishing extent to which anti-communist hysteria prevailed at the time.

The movie focuses on Ramon (Juan Chacon, a real-life union leader) and Esperanza (Reveultas) Quintero, a young married couple who illustrate the human side of racial inequality as well as gender tensions. As the company and local police put the heat on the male strikers, their wives volunteer to march the picket line in their places, creating a reversal of traditional gender roles: the women stage the rallies and spend time in jail while the men stay at home, wash dishes, and take care of the children. In many ways, the film is a progressive statement for the ’50s as several of the men begin whining about their domestic chores. (The film’s distributor, Organa, offers this QuickTime scene, which illustrates the growing friction between the conservative Ramon and the progressive Esperanza.)

The film’s style is social realist, with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. The troublesome sheriff is played by blacklistee Will Greer, who many associate with his later portrayal of the grandpa in the television show, The Waltons. The underground nature of its production guarantees some rough technical edges (the sound suffers the most, with fluxuations in quality throughout) but also places it alongside the postwar masterpieces of Italian neorealism, even if Salt is more clearly rooted in Classical Hollywood style with its strong narrative, three-point lighting, and continuity editing. It’s not a film renowned for its aesthetics – adequately wrought though they are – but a movie valued for its political stance and historical significance. More than the typical Miramax/Tarantino extravaganzas, it’s films like this that establish the historical precedent and importance of truly independent American filmmaking.

[Read the rest of Cummings' review here]

refer to people as "orientals"

The first time I felt the full force behind the word “Oriental,” I was 13. My music teacher was explaining the phrasing of a difficult passage to my string quartet, and we all nodded. Suddenly he turned to me, the only Asian in the group, and said, “Oh, stop being so Oriental and nodding.” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

New York's Governor David Paterson signed legislation last week banning a word that I still hear white people use sometimes. New York's new law forbids the reference in all state documents to any person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage as an "Oriental." According to National Public Radio, the state of Washington took similar steps in 2002, when that state's governor was Gary Locke, a Chinese American.

Apparently some Asian Americans applaud attempts to banish the term, while others are cynical about the motives driving such efforts (no surprise there, given that Asian Americans obviously don't think with any more of a single, collective mindset than do the members of any other group).

In an NPR interview, SF Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang said he's glad about the news from New York, because the term Oriental "feels freighted with luggage. . . . It's a term which you can't think of without having that smell-of-incense and sound-of-a-gong thing going on in your head."

Yang also cited the term's imprecision -- "Orient" basically means East, which could be any place in that direction, and which "only really applies in a flat world. I mean, you keep on going East, you end up 'West.'"

When asked if the word isn't already dying out anyway, rendering such legislative moves against it a waste of time, Yang said he actually has heard the term applied to himself, and it felt wrong. He added that other Asian Americans also feel uncomfortable with it, "so to have it stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways. I think people probably feel a little kind of curious as to why it took so long."

In an old Usenet posting, circa 1993, Alan Hu takes a different view on efforts to ban the term. Hu blames such efforts on "exploitation-types," who he says "have realized that saying 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental' is the cool thing to do, without changing any of their stereotypes and misconceptions. (You can force a person to change his/her behavior, but you can't force a change in thought.)"

Hu also writes that the exoticizing usage of "Oriental" has survived a long time,

and it still frequently carries all of the exotic/foreign/inscrutable/mysterious connotations. These connotations happen to coincide with many of the stereotypes held of Asian Americans. Furthermore, by definition, the word "Oriental" is Eurocentric, referring to things east of Europe. For these reasons, some Asian American activist types decided that "Oriental" was a Bad Word, and that "Asian" was more accurate, less Eurocentric, and less loaded with strange connotations. No big deal, right?

Well, a lot of people didn't want to change their language usage. Some people grew up using "Oriental" and saw nothing wrong with the word. Others came from other parts of the world, where hip-activist-American-English-linguistic-evolution hadn't hit. Still others never encountered anyone aware of Asian American politics, so had never heard of this word usage change. Some people were exploiting the exotic mysticism connotations and resisted change. (Very early on, you would see articles about business and trade in Asia, whereas the travel articles would talk about visiting the Exotic Mysterious Orient.) Finally, some people were convinced that this was a typical case of left-wing-politically-correct-thought-police-mind-control (which it was) and decided in typical right-wing-politically-correct-knee-jerk-response that the word usage change was intrinsically evil and had to be resisted at all costs.

Over at Asian American Movement, an anonymous blogger calls New York's new law

largely a symbolic gesture–not unlike the US Government’s recent “apology” for the enslavement of Blacks (over 140 years after the fact), or the state of California’s apology for racist laws against Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century, or Bill Clinton’s apology for America’s illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.

These actions are ultimately designed to burnish the USA’s propaganda image. The American establishment loves these kinds of meaningless gestures, as they have very little cost politically and are a great public relations exercise.

Indeed, the election of Barack Obama should be considered a prime example of this type of political rebranding on a grand scale.

They don’t call it poli-tricks for nothing.

So what do you think?

Is the explicit and legislative rejection of the term "Oriental" usually a hypocritical PC ploy? Or is it instead a welcome attempt to describe a diverse group of people more accurately?

If you overhear someone describing another person as an "Oriental," do you consider it worthwhile to correct them?

For further discussion, see:

"What's the Matter with Saying 'The Orient'?," Christopher Hill, Japan Society

"Oriental: Rugs or People?," Leaya Lee, NYU Livewire

"What Does It Mean to Be Asian American?," Jeff Yang, San Francisco Chronicle

Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (book), Robert G. Lee

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