Wednesday, June 30, 2010

wonder if there's ever a wrong time to call out racism

A white reader named Margy wrote the following question, which some other white people undoubtedly have as well -- are there situations when it would be better to not step up and call out someone else's racism, even though we're ready and willing? If so, is the following one of them? And are there others?  ~macon

I have a question that comes from an experience I felt I handled badly. I was grocery shopping one day when I heard a middle-aged White woman refer to a Black employee as "young man." I was standing down the aisle from them, so I wasn't sure if I knew who she was talking to, but I was worried it might be a middle-aged employee that I knew.

As I moved closer, my hunch was confirmed that she had just called someone of similar age to her (he has greying hair) "young man." This set off alarm bells about the fictitious kinship/denial of adulthood White people use to keep POC 'in their place.' By the time I was close enough to call the racism out, they were each moving on in their business.

So, my question is this. Is there ever a time when calling attention to racism could cause more pain for a POC?

In this case, I was worried that by the time I recognized the employee for sure, I would be calling more attention to something painful that had already passed. But, it could very well have been my own moment of weakness.

Please answer if you can, for this situation and anything that could bring light to my question.

Thanks so much.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"honor" minority traditions in their own (racist) ways

Last week, a French dancer named Alizee Sery drew a lot of angry attention to one of her performances. Despite her subsequent claims to the contrary, getting into the international news cycle may have been her intention all along. At any rate, and whatever Sery's own racial makeup, what she did -- by traveling to Australia, climbing atop a site considered sacred by Aboriginal people, having herself filmed while dancing and stripping, and then defending her actions as a way of honoring Aboriginal traditions -- ended up being a common white thing to do.

First, here's a (safe-for-work) news-clip on what Sery did atop Uluru, a rock formation formerly known by the Australian white conquerers' name, Ayers Rock:

In a subsequent interview, Sery defended her actions by claiming, "What I did was a tribute to their culture, in a way. I think the way I was, was the perfect way to be up there, in total harmony with the land and with myself."

More ridiculously, Sery also said her self-aggrandizing publicity stunt was a tribute to the days when, you know, those groovy, close-to-the-earth peoples were even closer to the earth than we are by virtue of their lack of clothing:

I respect the aboriginal and their culture. What I did was a tribute to their culture, in a way. . . . What we need to remember is that traditionally the Aboriginal people were living naked. So stripping down was a return to what it was like.

Sery may have thought she was honoring indigenous traditions (though I doubt that she really cares about honoring much of anything, other than her own body). But seriously, shouldn't the estimation of whether such acts constitute an honorable, respectful "tribute" be left to the supposed honorees?

Various online reports suggest that Sery has no interest in actually listening to the people whose culture and traditions she claims to respect. If and when she does, she'll find out that a lot of them, including those who currently own Uluru, are angry.

As noted in the news-clip above, "traditional owners of Uluru" described Sery's stunt as "an insult, and they want the woman deported." According to the Brisbane Times, Sery

has been labelled "stupid" and local indigenous elders have described the act as the equivalent of defecating on the steps of the Vatican.

Alison Hunt, traditional owner and member of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of management said: "I am angry and disgusted at this stunt. This is an important spiritual place. It's not a tribute to the traditional owners, it's an insult.

"We try to share our land and work together and we think it is disgusting for someone to try and make money out of our sacred land."

Disgusting indeed, and again, a blatant attempt to make money and drum up publicity (interesting term, that -- "drum up" . . .). More to the "swpd" point, Sery seems to be furthering her dancing career in a common white way, by casting something authentically Aboriginal as a natural, romantic, wild, and exotic backdrop. This amounts to a racially white performance, because it's meant to evoke and profit from some of the many collective white fantasies about non-white people.

In this sense, Sery's actions, and her defense of them, echo similar ones committed in the U.S. by many white people, who also tend to romanticize and exotify indigenous people. To me, the most obvious parallel way they do so is by clinging to racist sport logos and mascots. White American sports fans cling to mascots that represent several racial groups in racist ways, but the overwhelming majority (past and present) represent Native Americans.

When white people defend such insults in the way that Sery did -- by claiming that they're honoring instead of disrespecting the human objects of their racist caricatures -- they're failing to listen to the other side. By doing so, they're ultimately failing to understand what a lot of people on the other side think, and feel. They're failing to empathize.

So, what to do, when confronted with such common white ways? I think that turning the tables, in the way an indigenous person described above did, can have some impact on such simplifying, appropriating, and insulting white people. I've actually seen it work.

Again, an Aboriginal person was paraphrased as having "described the act as the equivalent of defecating on the steps of the Vatican."* There you go, white people -- how would you feel, if your own sacred traditions were effectively shat upon? Would you really consider that a sincere "tribute"?

I remember hearing (or actually, seeing) another good example of that same kind of table-turning, during a talk by a Native American author, Sherman Alexie. Someone in the audience asked him about a local college's Native American mascot, which was currently under review. Alexie's answer was more of a demonstration, or a pantomime; the white people I attended his talk with later told me that it really got through to them. They even told other white friends about it later.

"Oh yes, I heard about that mascot," Alexie said, rather mischievously (he gets his points across with a lot of humor -- he's often hilarious). "And, I've been thinking about a replacement. Here's what I suggest."

Alexie then stepped to the side of the podium, spread his arms wide with his hands splayed towards us, pulled his toes together, and let his head droop forward. Many in the audience signaled that they got his point by applauding. Alexie offered no further explanation.

I've since confronted people in the U.S. who see no problem with team names and mascots like the "Indians" and the "Redskins" in a similar way.

"So you don't mind that?" I ask. "Really? Okay, well, what about a team named, say, the New Jersey Jesuses?"

This idea usually evokes a laugh. An uncomfortable one, especially if they themselves are Christian.

I'll then say something like, "Doesn't that sound great? The mascot could dance at half-time, like some of those 'Indian' ones do! And he could drag a huge cross around the basketball court, with a wheel on the end of it. And at the climax of his dance, he could spin the cross around and around, and actually dance with the cross!"

By this time, my point (or rather, Alexie's point) is usually made, and usually well taken. By which I mean, the person who'd just defended a racist, common white practice is now less enthusiastic about doing so. I can see it in their faces.

* The person who actually made this comparison is identified in this article as "Aborigine John Scrutton, who lives in the Northern Territory city of Darwin."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

fail to see how struggles are connected to one another

This is a guest post by Jessie Daniels, who blogs at Racism Review, where this post also appears. Dr. Daniels is a Sociology professor at Hunter College and the author of the books White Lies and Cyber Racism.

Judith Butler

Last week, noted social critic and philosophy Professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter). Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color. The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date. As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem. Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card. This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world; in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving. This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another. In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined. When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression. Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican). And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage. The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for -- as SUSPECT points out in their statement -- a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement. What might this look like? As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

make casual racist comments to their non-white friends

This reader says below that I'd know best how to answer her question, but actually, I'm sort of stuck with this one; I also think a lot of readers here could provide better answers than I could. . . what do you think this non-white person should say to her vexatious white teammate?  ~macon

Hi Macon! I am a frequent reader of your website, but have never commented or emailed before now.

I wanted to ask your advice on something because it seems like you'd know best. I hope you can answer!

My intramural sports team is my life--the people on it are some of the most interesting and fun people that I've ever met, and we've all bonded over time and become really close. Lately though, I've noticed some things about one of the newer members that bothers me a lot. I've tried to ignore it but I feel like I've gotten to a point where I will explode the next time it happens.

She's a really awesome girl, and apparently has many friends of color. . . but she has this nasty habit of emphasizing race over anything else in any given situation, and it makes me feel awkward. For example we played a team that had two really amazing players of color--one was black and the other asian. When discussing them/their performance, instead of calling said players by their team names or numbers, it was always "that black girl" or "that chinese girl" with that sort of inflection.

This is always the case...once, when describing her hometown and the differences between their dry summer heat and our moist, humid heat, she kind of jumped into this tirade without being prompted: "oh and the black people there are very different from here, they all act preppy and classy, y'know?" I didn't know what to say. It doesn't seem that she has any filter on this, and I'm not sure if she does it with her other friends of color...

I don't want to lose her friendship or alienate her in any way, but how do I tell her I dislike this without starting a huge fallout between me and her? I don't want anyone else to jump in it either and tell me I'm being too sensitive or any of that crap, but it's so frustrating and hurtful...*sigh* Please help if you can.

Torn in Mississippi

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

tell "you people" jokes

Swpd reader karinova wrote the following comment for an Open Thread post -- I think it should be its own post instead. And so, here we go.

I have a question for the commentariat. Mostly the white portion.

Back in the rush to the aid of crying white instigators of racism thread, a commenter noted that sometimes, when episodes like that occurred and the POC left the group upset, "the reactions [...] were everyone looking at each other, and then somebody would crack a racial joke or roll their eyes and make a rude gesture, and we'd all laugh and go on with our day."

Which reminded me of something I've been ruminating on; maybe you guys can shed some light?

So, there's this joke.

It's not really new, but it seems to be really really popular in the last few years -- specifically, in movies and tv (which is sort of the apex of the pop-culture feedback loop) -- and it's taken on a... different flavor.

The joke goes like this: a WP says something vaguely or overtly racist, or easily interpretable as such. A POC hears, is offended, and objects.

That's it. That's the whole joke.

I don't get it.

But those in the televisual arts can't seem get enough of it lately. I'll call it the You People joke. It shows up in "Tropic Thunder" -- and is so effing popular, you can get it on a t-shirt, which, let's face it, officially = Meme. (I submit that that entire movie is one long You People joke. God, I'm glad I didn't see it in the theatre. I live in an incredibly white town.)

Thing is, the exact same joke showed up in (off the top of my head) "Anger Management." And in "Me Myself & Irene." There are versions of it in the (terrible!) movie "How to Rob a Bank," in "The Hangover," and in an episode of "It's Always Sunny." I could go on.

WTF? Please. Help me out.

I've asked several white people, and no matter how non-threatening I try to be, it's gone... um, poorly. But I honestly want to know: Why is this "joke" funny? I want to hear from (thinking) white people especially. I can climb inside the white mindset very very well, but I can't quite grasp this. I really feel like it's a White Thing. (At any rate, I don't understand.)

Also, while I'm at it: d'y'all think any POC (specifically, BP) would buy that shirt?

Laughing at it as it goes by in the mixed company of a movie theatre (yet again) is one thing; we're trained to go-along-to-get-along. But sporting a shirt like that seems unlikely to me. Although... it's interesting to note that in the movie, that line, "what do you mean, 'you people'?!" is spoken twice -- once by AC (a white character who wears blackface for 90% of the movie) "in character" to another white guy, and then immediately by an offended Lazarus (an actual black guy), to AC.

Which character did you think of when you saw that shirt? Which do you think the buyers of that shirt are thinking of? What would you think if you saw a BP wearing that shirt? Would it be funny? Would you laugh? (Not the same question, btw.)

I'm almost tempted to make (not buy) one, just to, I dunno, culture-jam the meme.

Monday, June 21, 2010

hypersexualize latino boys

This is a guest post by Gwen Sharp, an assistant professor of Sociology at Nevada State College. Gweb blogs at Sociological Images, where this post first appeared.

A reader who asked to remain anonymous sent in a video about a recent interview by Star Jones with the lawyer for Kelsey Peterson, a teacher accused in 2007 of fleeing to Mexico in order to live with a 13-year-old student of hers (he was 12 at the time they began having sex together). In the interview, the lawyer for Peterson says he “resents” the boy being referred to as a child because he is a “Latino machismo teenager” (a phrase that doesn’t even make sense) and “manly”:

Notice that the lawyer also argues, at about 1:25, that teen boys have a high sex drive, which somehow excuses an adult woman having sex with a 12-year-old. In addition, at 3:30 in Jones mentions that some individuals have implied the kid couldn’t be a victim because he was physically larger than other kids his age (5′ 6″ in 8th grade, which doesn’t sound super unusual to me); it sounds like Peterson’s defenders have questioned his age because of his size.

Jones calls him out on his implication that Latino teens are hyper-sexual and therefore this boy shouldn’t be seen as a victim. At about 5:45 one of her guests discusses the adultification of non-White children -- that is, the way they are often treated as adults, regardless of their age. Ann Arnett Ferguson discusses this process at length in her book, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. This adultification includes assumptions that they are sexual at earlier ages than White children.

From what Jones and one of her guests say, it also appears that the fact that he was an undocumented immigrant has also been used as a way to undermine his ability to claim victim status. At about 7:55 a guest discusses the way that referring to people as “aliens” dehumanizes them, making it easier to deny them equal legal protection. (Side note: Jones mentions the history of immigration in the U.S. and in doing so says everyone in the U.S. is descended from immigrants, something Native Americans might find surprising, though I suppose if you go back a few thousand years to the migration from Asia to North America, technically yes, they are immigrants.)

When I searched for news stories about the case, I came across one at ABC news in which the boy is described as “a sexually-active sixth-grade student with a crush on her,” which seems to me to be reminiscent of the way female rape victims are often asked about their sexual history, as though they cannot be true victims if they have been sexually active.

The ABC story contains this quote from Peterson’s lawyer:

From the beginning, he was trying to entice her. There’s no question about that. . . . He would try to kiss her, he would grab her, he would do these things. She didn’t initiate this relationship. That young man did.

Again the blame is placed not on the adult woman but on a 12-year-old boy. Peterson says she was shocked the first time he kissed her, which was in her kitchen -- a place that maybe a thinking person wouldn’t have a 12-year-old student in. She also says his parents knew about and were fine with their sexual interactions; they dispute this.

Perhaps drawing on the stereotype of macho Latino men, her lawyer said,

He used to tell her what she could wear. And whether she could wear makeup and the length of her skirts in terms of where they were gonna go and what they were gonna do…He had a very, very strong influence over her in terms of controlling her behavior.

The comments to the ABC story are pretty fascinating too.

This is a disturbing example of the way that boys, and particularly non-White boys, are generally denied victim status when it comes to sex because our cultural beliefs include the idea that boys want sex and attempt to get it at an early age, and thus can’t really be vulnerable to sexual assault or coercion. For another example, see this post about how Jimmy Kimmel reacts when Lil’ Wayne confirms that he lost his virginity at age 11.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

pose in cowboy drag

Most of the time, I'm like just about everyone else in at least one way -- I don't much care who occupies the position of "Alabama Agricultural Commissioner." In fact, I didn't even know such a position exists. But then I saw a couple of ads for Dale Peterson, a current GOP candidate for Alabama Ag Commish. Peterson's ads immediately register as very, very "white" to me, and now I'm trying to count the ways.

Among the most obvious appeals to conservative white voters here is the nostalgic evocation of the Independent (White) Cowboy Myth. If you say "cowboy" to most white Americans, they'll immediately think of a hat-wearing, horse-riding white man. And yet, as Mel at BroadSnark explains (in a post on "White America's Existential Identity Crisis"), real cowboys weren't actually all that white, nor all that independent:

There is a certain segment of the American population that really believes in the American foundational myths. They identify with them. They believe that America was built by a handful of white, Christian, men with exceptional morals. Their America is the country that showed the world democracy, saved the Jews in World War II, and tore down the Berlin wall.

These people have always fought changes to their mythology. They have always resented those of us who pushed to complicate those myths with the realities of slavery, Native American genocide, imperial war in the Philippines, invasions of Latin American countries, and secret arms deals.

And we have been so busy fighting them to have our stories and histories included in the American story that we sometimes forget why the myths were invented in the first place.

No myth illustrates the slight of hand behind our national mythology quite like the myth of the cowboy. In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.

Peterson's follow-up ad is even, um . . . better?

As Mel goes on to explain,

Read Richard Slatta’s Cowboys of the Americas and you will get a very different picture. In reality, the first American cowboys were indigenous people trained by the Spanish missionaries. In reality, more than 30% of the cowboys on Texas trail drives were African American, Mexican, or Mexican-American.

And cowboys were not so free.

Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la "Bonanza"). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.

I think Dale Peterson (or rather, his handlers) may also be consciously echoing Ronald Reagan's cowboy persona. In turn, Reagan may have been consciously echoing another rough-and-tumble political poser, Teddy Roosevelt. In all three cases, a white male politician evokes a myth that seems even more "white male" than the man himself. And a crucial part of that white myth is the direct exclusion and erasure of non-white people.

In her book-length study of Roosevelt's self-fashionings (Rough Rider in the White House), Sarah Watts explains the political reasons for periodically dusting off and deploying this hoary white-male myth -- it's a recognition of, and pandering to, ordinary white-male American anxieties, anxieties that still exist today:

Roosevelt emerged as a central purveyor of the cowboy-soldier hero model because he more than any man of his age harnessed the tantalizing freedom of cowboys to address the social and psychological needs that arose from deep personal sources of frustration, anxiety, and fear. More than any other he sensed that ordinary men needed a clearly recognizable and easily appropriated hero who enacted themes about the body; the need for extremity, pain, and sacrifice; and the desire to exclude some men and bond with others. In one seamless cowboy-soldier-statesman-hero life, Roosevelt crafted the cowboy ethos consciously and lived it zealously, providing men an image and a fantasy enlisted in service to the race-nation.

In keeping with changing models of masculinity . . . mass-circulation magazines began to feature a Napoleonic "idol of power," a man of action who used iron will and "animal magnetism" to crush his rivals and dominate nature. Biographers of plutocrats and robber barons encouraged readers to envision themselves in a social Darwinist world of ruthless competition where character alone appeared effeminate and sentimentalism dangerous. Earlier notions of manliness had counseled reason over passion; now the hero must unleash his "forcefulness."

Enter a new type of charismatic male personality after 1870, a cowboy-soldier operating in the new venue of the American West on sheer strength of will and physicality. Eastern readers instantly recognized him as more masculine precisely because he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.

Writers pitched the cowboy ethos against Christian values of mercy, empathy, love, and forgiveness, against domestic responsibility and the job demands that complicated men's lives and dissolved their masculine will. The cowboy was not interested in saving souls or finding spiritual purity or assigning meaning to death. His code of conduct arose as he struggled against the overwhelming wildness of men and beasts and carved out a prairie existence with guns, ropes, and barbed wire. Readers suspended ordinary morality as they fantasized about life at the margins of civilization and sampled forbidden pleasures of taming, busting, subduing, shooting, hanging, and killing.

In addition, and more to the ("swpd") point, the falsified racial identity of this ideal cowboy-soldier effectively erased the fact that demographically disproportionate numbers of "cowboys" were not white.

"Many real cowboys were black ex-slaves,
whereas the Hollywood heroes were always white."
Nat Love, African American cowboy, 1876

At the same time, the cowboy myth was imagined in opposition to darker, dehumanized Others. Whitened cowboys of yesteryear were lauded in Roosevelt's time for having helped to vanquish Indians, of course. However, as Watts explains, a growing nostalgia for antebellum Southern plantation life, including the racial control it represented, also helped fuel the collective desire for such a virile, specifically white ideal:

Northerners adopted a more sympathetic view of Southern white manhood, one in which Southern elites came to be admired for their racial acumen. Northerners abandoned critical views of slavery for nostalgic reminiscences of plantation life in which white Southern men had effectively managed a racial society, keeping blacks where they belonged and protecting white women's virtue. In the theaters, novels, and traveling shows of the 1890s, popular themes of happy plantation slaves reflected Northern acceptance of the Southern white view of race and the Jim Crow limitations on suffrage, mobility, education, and economic life.

Even if many, though not all, Northerners drew the line at excusing lynching, Silber observes, they nevertheless accepted the idea that Southern white men lynched black "rapists" in the attempt to prove themselves men. Concerns about protecting Southern womanhood reflected Northern men's anxieties about promiscuous sexual behavior and the preservation of women's proper sphere. Finding a common ground of white manliness among former enemies . . . helped Northern whites to "cast African-Americans outside the boundaries of their Anglo-Saxon nation," to romanticize Southern notions of chivalry, and to justify turning Southern race relations over to Southern whites entirely.

Born into a wealthy Eastern family, Teddy Roosevelt was a physically weak and asthmatic child. When he joined the New York state assembly at the age of twenty-three, Roosevelt struck others as "unmanly." As Watts also writes, "newspapers and his fellow assemblymen ridiculed his 'squeaky' voice and dandified clothing, referring to him as 'Jane-Dandy,' 'Punkin-Lily,' and 'our own Oscar Wilde.' . . . Duly insulted, he began to construct a new physical image around appropriately virile Western decorations and settings, foregrounding the bodily attributes of a robust outdoorsman that were becoming new features in the nation's political iconography."

In a move reminsicent of George W. Bush's brush-clearing photo-ops on his own "ranch," the young Roosevelt moved to the Western frontier, in order to "harden" his body, but also to wear a series of conspicuous, meticulously detailed frontier costumes. Like the younger Bush, Roosevelt also bought a ranch, apparently for similar self-staging purposes (it's worth noting that the retired George W. Bush now spends most of his time in a suburban home outside of Dallas; he rarely visits his ranch anymore, and if the New York Times is right, when he does, he spends most of his time there riding a mountain bike instead of a horse).

Teddy Roosevelt posing as a cowboy
(at the age of 27)

As Watts writes of this photo,

In 1885, returning East after a bighorn hunting trip to Montana, Roosevelt had another studio photo made. This time he appeared as a self-consciously overdressed yet recognizable Western cowboy posed as bold and determined, armed and ready for action. "You would be amused to see me," he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge in 1884, in my "broad sombrero hat, fringed and beaded buckskin shirt, horse hide chaparajos or riding trousers, and cowhide boots, with braided bridle and silver spurs." To his sister Bamie, he boasted, "I now look like a regular cowboy dandy, with all my equipments finished in the most expensive style." Only the fringed buckskin shirt remained from his Leatherstocking outfit.

Buckskin, he said, represented America's "most picturesque and distinctively national dress," attire worn by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and by the "reckless, dauntless Indian fighters" who led the "white advance throughout all our Western lands." Buckskin and whiteness notwithstanding, this 1885 image still seems forced, and his attention focused on the costs, accoutrements, and style of cowboy life. He does not even wear his glasses, without which he could see only poorly.

All of which makes me wonder just what kind of man Alabama's Dale Peterson really is, behind the pose of that everlasting, gunslinging, and white cowboy myth. The pose he's striking in cowboy drag just seems so obviously that -- a pose, and a mighty forced one at that.

Nevertheless, claims are now being made that Peterson actually is that cowboy. As Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., the writer/director of Peterson's ads, explains,

“I decided to stick him on a horse, give him a gun, and make it a John Wayne movie. . . . Some jerks are saying, ‘Oh, it makes us look like rednecks!’ Well, maybe in New York you wouldn’t make an ad like that, but this is Alabama, and here, people ride horses and shoot guns.”

When Peterson saw the ad, he “loved it,” Ehlinger says.

“Because I was basically doing a portrait of him,” he explains. “Not a campaign ad, but a portrait.”

To which I can only say . . . O RLY?

Friday, June 18, 2010

endlessly tweak their blog layouts

Just a random, Friday-type note here -- my thanks to those readers who have commented on swpd's new layout. I hope it's a refreshing change for most of you.

I'm still considering one more change -- what do you think?

(If you're one of the two or three people in the world who doesn't get the reference, go here.)

Actually, what I'm really trying to say is -- we haven't had an Open Thread here in a long time.

Feel free to use this post's comments for your current race-related thoughts, questions, ideas, etc. Self-linking is entirely welcome and encouraged too.

finally see undocumented immigrants as human when they announce that they're going to kill themselves

This is a guest post by Daniel Cubias, who blogs at The Hispanic Fanatic, where this post first appeared. Cubias also writes 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. . . . the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male in his late thirties. He lives in California, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in the Midwest, but he has also lived in New York."

I want to thank Chris, Rose, and Ankhesen Mie for their recent comments, as well as everyone who responded to my most recent article for the Huffington Post. The 160 or so comments I got on HuffPo are the most I’ve received for one article. And only a few people there were nuts and/or unruly.

That post, of course, was about the shooting death of a teenager, which clearly is a depressing topic. So these days, I’m looking for a sliver of optimism out there. I may have found it.

Now, I’ve written before that I’m a fan of PostSecret. This is despite the fact that too many of the secrets are actually just sappy affirmations. And I also think it’s odd that the creator of the site includes at least one image of a female breast in every week’s batch (that’s not a criticism; just an observation).

In any case, PostSecret may have achieved a goal that all we bloggers have, which is to save a life. This accomplishment has, for some reason, eluded me on this site.

But PostSecret may have done it. A few weeks ago, the site ran the following:

Yes, for some inexplicable reason, the illegal immigrant who made this card feels that Americans would be happier if he just dropped dead. I don’t know where he got that idea. . . unless it was the nonstop barrage of right-wing media outlets blaming the undocumented for everything from the economic collapse to imaginary crime waves, with rage-filled commentary that implied individuals without papers are less than human.

But really, I’m sure that had nothing to do with it.

So did the illegal immigrant jump to his or her death? No one knows.

With hope, however, this person saw the response that the secret provoked, and maybe this changed his or her mind.

“Time” magazine reports that, because of the postcard, “within 24 hours, nearly 20,000 people had signed up for a Facebook group titled ‘Please don’t jump,’ which was . . . linking in thousands of supportive comments.”

PostSecret adds that in the week since the secret was posted, “over 50,000 of you joined an online community offering encouragement and help” and that earlier this week, “hundreds are meeting on the Golden Gate Bridge to take a stand against suicide.”

I have to admit that this is quite a showing of support for one scared illegal immigrant. The outcome serves as a much-needed antidote to the hateful comments about the shooting death of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca (again, see my previous post).

Does this mean that there is still a kernel of compassion left in the increasingly jingoistic American soul? Is it possible that many people see the undocumented as fully human rather than as pests to be exterminated?

Well, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

think of black people as hyper-aggressive and physically tough

Here's a video of police-and-citizen interaction that's been making the rounds lately. The commentary everywhere seems to center around the questions of whether the white cop here did anything wrong, and whether the two black teenagers did anything wrong (aside from their initial offense -- jaywalking).

A different question came to mind for me as I watched; it's the same question asked by M, an swpd reader who wrote to me about this incident -- "Would he have punched that blonde white woman standing in the background like that?"

Again, would this police officer have punched that blonde white woman standing in the background like that?

We can never know for sure, of course. However, as M wrote to me in his email about this officer's "lack of hesitancy in striking that black woman in the face,"

The “ingrained” white truth is that black women aren't human enough to garner the same respect a white woman would in that situation. He didn't hesitate did he? I mean, he punched her right in the face like a man. We've seen it countless times -- he would have talked to the white woman -- he would have gone out of his way not to bring harm to her delicate features. I have never seen a white police officer punch a white woman in the face, now that I think about it.

I would bet that the question of whether this police officer, and most others, would punch a white woman (or man) like that, as readily as he did a black woman, is far less likely to occur to white viewers than non-white ones. The latter tend to have more direct or indirect experience with police brutality, and they also tend to know that perceptions of race have an awful lot to do with that difference.

And again, the question I'm interested in here is not whether either party did the right thing (so no comments about that, please); instead, it's whether a white police officer would be as likely to treat white citizens this way. Actually, to me, that's not an open question -- the general racial disparity in the treatment of suspects by police is widely known (among non-white people) and widely documented.

A further factor here is the supposed toughness of black women, and the supposed delicacy of white women. I suspect this white officer threw that punch so quickly -- more quickly than he would have had the receiving face been white -- because something in him said that black women can take it. And worse, that black people often "need" to be treated like that, because "that's the only way to get through to them."

The reader who wrote to me about this video also sent this tv-show clip for comparison (the show is identified at YouTube as "Smoking Gun's World's Dumbest Partiers"). Here, a white person, labeled "Bubba" by the show's writers, does something far worse than the above black jaywalker did, and yet the police officer practices amazing restraint. I doubt that's just because he's dazed by what happens.

White people clearly tend to believe that black people, both men and women (and children), are more able to withstand physical punishment. They also tend to fear black people -- because we've been trained to perceive them as dangerous and hyper-aggressive, but also, I think, because we suspect that in a confrontation, they'd take our hits better than we'd take theirs.

As M wrote,

White men do not fear other white males to the point of shooting first and asking questions later. Do you think this white police officer would be as patient and careful with his gun if that had been a black male? He was violently attacked from behind and Bubba just kept coming. He did not use his weapon even though he was at risk. He even went on to intervene on the man's behalf, sparing his life. . . .

I think this is why so many blacks males get shot down by white officers who hail from the suburbs, and white males don’t. It is a fear of the unknown. Most don’t know black males personally/intimately, so they have learned to fear the black male, based upon anecdotal information gleaned from friends and the mainstream media. Best to shoot first and ask questions later.

POC see this all the time.

I think a good research study would be to show these two videos to "subjects" from different racial backgrounds, and then analyze their expressed reactions. I can guess what the results would be. After all, as brain research shows, white people lack empathy for people who aren't white.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

quotation of the week (w.e.b. du bois)

(a currently available t-shirt,
at a site to which I will not link --

In 1920, in the aftermath of World War I, W.E.B. Du Bois published a searing essay, "The Souls of White Folk." The following excerpt seems especially relevant in light of today's "news" (even as fools rush in to deny the relevance of this "news"). Du Bois describes how white people considered the "world war" an especially horrible war in part because the white people in it killed other white people -- instead of just exploiting, abusing, and killing the usual victims, darker peoples. Du Bois also had a clear eye for how darker peoples fit into the standard white logic of war:

War is horrible! This the dark world knows to its awful cost. But has it just become horrible, in these last days, when under essentially equal conditions, equal armament, and equal waste of wealth white men are fighting white men, with surgeons and nurses hovering near?

Think of the wars through which we have lived in the last decade: in German Africa, in British Nigeria, in French and Spanish Morocco, in China, in Persia, in the Balkans, in Tripoli, in Mexico, and in a dozen lesser places -- were not these horrible, too? Mind you, there were for most of these wars no Red Cross funds.

Behold little Belgium and her pitiable plight, but has the world forgotten Congo? What Belgium now suffers is not half, not even a tenth, of what she has done to black Congo since Stanley's great dream of 1880. Down the dark forests of inmost Africa sailed this modern Sir Galahad, in the name of "the noble-minded men of several nations," to introduce commerce and civilization. What came of it? "Rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form," wrote Glave in 1895.

Harris declares that King Leopold's regime meant the death of twelve million natives, "but what we who were behind the scenes felt most keenly was the fact that the real catastrophe in the Congo was desolation and murder in the larger sense. The invasion of family life, the ruthless destruction of every social barrier, the shattering of every tribal law, the introduction of criminal practices which struck the chiefs of the people dumb with horror -- in a word, a veritable avalanche of filth and immorality overwhelmed the Congo tribes."

Yet the fields of Belgium laughed, the cities were gay, art and science flourished; the groans that helped to nourish this civilization fell on deaf ears because the world round about was doing the same sort of thing elsewhere on its own account.

As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battle smoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture -- back of all culture -- stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived -- these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted. Here is whither the might and energy of modern humanity has really gone. . . .

Manifestly it is expansion overseas; it is colonial aggrandizement which explains, and alone adequately explains, the World War. How many of us today fully realize the current theory of colonial expansion, of the relation of Europe which is white, to the world which is black and brown and yellow? Bluntly put, that theory is this: It is the duty of white Europe to divide up the darker world and administer it for Europe's good.

This Europe has largely done. The European world is using black and brown men for all the uses which men know. Slowly but surely white culture is evolving the theory that "darkies" are born beasts of burden for white folk. It were silly to think otherwise, cries the cultured world, with stronger and shriller accord. The supporting arguments grow and twist themselves in the mouths of merchant, scientist, soldier, traveler, writer, and missionary. Darker peoples are dark in mind as well as in body; of dark, uncertain, and imperfect descent; of frailer, cheaper stuff; they are cowards in the face of Mausers and Maxims; they have no feelings, aspirations, and loves; they are fools, illogical idiots -- "half-devil and half-child."

Such as they are civilization must, naturally, raise them, but soberly and in limited ways. They are not simply dark white men. They are not "men" in the sense that Europeans are men. To the very limited extent of their shallow capacities lift them to be useful to whites, to raise cotton, gather rubber, fetch ivory, dig diamonds -- and let them be paid what men think they are worth -- white men who know them to be well-nigh worthless.

Such degrading of men by men is as old as mankind and the invention of no one race or people. Ever have men striven to conceive of their victims as different from the victors, endlessly different, in soul and blood, strength and cunning, race and lineage. It has been left, however, to Europe and to modern days to discover the eternal worldwide mark of meanness -- color!

There is a chance for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples. It is here that the golden hand beckons. Here are no labor unions or votes or questioning onlookers or inconvenient consciences. These men may be used down to the very bone, and shot and maimed in "punitive" expeditions when they revolt. In these dark lands "industrial development" may repeat in exaggerated form every horror of the industrial history of Europe, from slavery and rape to disease and maiming, with only one test of success -- dividends!

This theory of human culture and its aims has worked itself through warp and woof of our daily thought with a thoroughness that few realize. Everything great, good, efficient, fair, and honorable is "white"; everything mean, bad, blundering, cheating, and dishonorable is "yellow"; a bad taste is "brown"; and the devil is "black." The changes of this theme are continually rung in picture and story, in newspaper heading and moving picture, in sermon and school book, until, of course, the King can do no wrong -- a White Man is always right and a Black Man has no rights which a white man is bound to respect.

There must come the necessary despisings and hatreds of these savage half-men, this unclean canaille of the world -- these dogs of men. All through the world this gospel is preaching. It has its literature, it has its priests, it has its secret propaganda and above all -- it pays!

There's the rub -- it pays. Rubber, ivory, and palm oil; tea, coffee, and cocoa; bananas, oranges, and other fruit; cotton, gold, and copper -- they, and a hundred other things which dark and sweating bodies hand up to the white world from their pits of slime, pay and pay well, but of all that the world gets the black world gets only the pittance that the white world throws it disdainfully.

Small wonder, then, that in the practical world of things-that-be there is jealousy and strife for the possession of the labor of dark millions, for the fight to bleed and exploit the colonies of the world where this golden stream may be had, not always for the asking, but surely for the whipping and shooting. It was this competition for the labor of yellow, brown, and black folks that was the cause of the World War. Other causes have been glibly given and other contributing causes there doubtless were, but they were subsidiary and subordinate to this vast quest of the dark world's wealth and toil.

Colonies, we call them, these places where "niggers" are cheap and the earth is rich; they are those outlands where like a swarm of hungry locusts white masters may settle to be served as kings, wield the lash of slave drivers, rape girls and wives, grow as rich as Croesus and send homeward a golden stream. They belt the earth, these places, but they cluster in the tropics, with its darkened peoples: in Hong Kong and Anam, in Borneo and Rhodesia, in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, in Panama and Havana -- these are the El Dorados toward which the world powers stretch itching palms.

cf. the apostasy of John Perkins and Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. Can you recommend others?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

support black women artists

This is a guest post by RVCBard, a Black woman and HBCU graduate too close to thirtysomething for her own comfort. Playwright, web marketing strategist, and sometime film and theater reviewer, RVCBard identifies as a lot of things: queer, Black, Jewish, woman, and more. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, she now lives in Brooklyn.

Starting in October of last year, I've been putting together Tulpa, or Anne & Me, my second full-length play.

It started as something of a lark. Frustrated with discussions about race going in predictable directions (definitely including much of what gets said here at SWPD) and still not feeling heard or understood, I dug into my passion for theatre to create examples of how those conversations should go. Since then, expanded into a series of vignettes and then the first (and second and third -- now fourth) draft of a play. Even the very rough drafts of Tulpa, or Anne & Me have received some encouraging feedback, which motivated me to stick with it even through my own insecurities and apprehensions about putting it on stage.

The writing of Tulpa, or Anne&Me led to forming Crossroads Theatre Project. Crossroads is my answer to Dead White Guy theatre and Chitlin Circuit plays. Basically, Crossroads Theatre Project empowers Black playwrights by giving us a more central role in the development of our own work. None of that submitting our scripts to contests, festivals, artistic directors, and so on and hoping that someone will find us worthy to put on stage. We're geared more toward seeking collaborators who understand our works and want to put them on their feet. We're not asking if people want to do our work. We're saying, "We're doing this. Are you coming with us?"

For now, Tulpa, or Anne & Me is the play in the hot seat. Tulpa, or Anne & Me is a full-length, quasi-autobiographical play that confronts the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality through pop culture, womanism, and Tibetan mysticism.

What would you do if Anne Hathaway crawled out of your TV? What would you talk about? If the conversation turned to race, what would you say? How would you reach across America's thorny racial history to connect with each other as human beings?

Raw, intimate, and unapologetic, "Tulpa, or Anne & Me" begins the conversation about race that Black women and White women have never been allowed to have. Until now.

So far, Tulpa, or Anne&Me has had a cold reading at The Cell Theatre (as part of the Blackboard Play Reading Series), an improv staged reading at WOW Cafe Theatre, and is currently working with Cinder Block Theatre Company for a staged reading. Of course, I'd love to see how far this project can go, but my goal is a 2 or 3 week run of a full production here in NYC (although if there are some folks in other cities who want to put this piece on after that initial production, shoot me an email: rvcbard[at]gmail[dot]com).

So if you're wondering how to fight racism, seeking reassurance that you're not racist, struggling to find a place in social justice efforts, or going through stages of anti-racism awareness, you could do a lot worse than supporting Crossroads Theatre Project. Unfortunately, you won't be able perpetuate the idea that LGBTQ means White, forget that Black women are more than just strong, or touch Black women's hair (although Anne does that -- so if you're in NYC on June 23 at 8PM, you can experience it vicariously!). At the very least, you can donate money and know where it goes.

Donate now!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

rush to the aid of crying white instigators of racism, instead of the victims

William Ayers recently published a comic book, To Teach: The Journey, In Comics (illustrated by Ryan-Alexander-Tanner). At one point, Ayers pauses to describe the classroom of this teacher, Avi Lessing:

Ayers then describes (and Alexander-Tanner illustrates) the following, relatively common incident, which happens while a white student of Lessing's is presenting a story that takes place at a skating rink.

What happens here is a common form of white solidarity:

It's worth noting that the victim of racism here -- a double victim, actually -- is a black woman. Given the images of black women that commonly lurk in the white imagination, I wouldn't be at all surprised if such white bumblers would be less likely to spark such incidents with their tears if the victim of their actions were another sort of person of color. I think even the tears themselves would be less likely.

In a blog entry on some differences between white women and women like herself, Dr. Renita J. Weems writes of "the vivid memories lots of black women have of white women whose tears promoted their causes over that of the black women":

Many of us, myself included, have stories to tell of white women crying and taking on postures of weakness to avoid conflict with black women. They cried, they shut down, they ran out the room, and feigned helplessness -- especially when confronted with the criticisms black women had about their racism. It’s almost a rule of thumb that senior black women pass along to younger black women to expect white women to faint, get weepy, and come up with stories about their one black friend when the time comes to talk openly and honestly about their complicity in the status quo. Watch for the dagger that follows, I was once told by my own mentor.

Beliefs informed by stereotypes can be so strong that we take them for granted. As black women we know what it is to be saddled with the stereotype of being strong, aggressive, and animalistic in our sexuality. Stereotyping and projecting our worst memories on each other allow both white women and black women to maintain our places in the status quo. It keeps us from finding common ground and from joining forces to battle against the forces bent keeping women sex objects and breeders.

But when is something a stereotype, and when is it true? Not every white woman you and I know has used tears to get her way. Just a lot. Just one too many. Just enough to keep the stereotype alive, I guess.

Yes, this common white tendency -- and I'm sure there are white male versions as well -- is really a way of avoiding conflict, isn't it? And when it's a black woman, a seemingly (O noes!!) Angry Black Woman, then acting as if you're the injured party can seem especially, and ridiculously, prudent. The tears* can function like a false flag, which that loudly signals "Injury!", but also hides fear. I was about to surmise that running away in tears at such moments is also a way of maintaining dignity, but I think what's actually being maintained is a white sense of superiority.

It seems to me that white people who recognize how they're continuously encouraged to be racist by the world around them should prepare themselves for this kind of moment -- a moment in a discussion of racism when someone white suddenly claims that they've been hurt. We should think about how something like a reflex may well lead us to jump to the aid of the perpetrator of racism, instead of helping out or standing by the victim.

I think we should ask ourselves how, instead of expressing solidarity with the white "victim," we could instead express solidarity with the real victim. We should also think about why the latter doesn't immediately feel right. Until it does immediately feel right.

* I like the name that Ayers gave to the crying white girl -- "Misty." What Misty does in that cartoon, of course, is a classic form of a white pathology, widely known as White Women's Tears.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

seek reassurance from non-white people that they're not racists

Here's a clarifying cartoon by Barry Deutsch about a common white tendency. I think it speaks for itself.

(for a larger version, click here)

My thanks to Barry Deutsch, who's got me thinking now about the times that I've been this white person (because I'm sure I have), and just what forms my asking for such reassurance have taken.

Have you encountered this common white tendency, either in yourself or in others? The more I think about it, the more I think it's very common, so I'd bet that you have encountered it. Or, if you're white, that you've enacted it, in some way or ways . . .

Other excellent cartoons on racism by Barry Deutsch appear here. Scroll down, for instance, to the one on "White Lies."
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