Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the 2008 "honky awards"

Is there an annual award out there for "white people at their whitest"? For those moments when white people perform and exemplify common white tendencies especially well?

If there were such an award, would it be offensive to call it a Honky? (Probably not, since white people usually brush off and laugh at anti-white slurs.)

Who do you remember from the past year who deserves such an award, for somehow acting especially white?

I often think at such times of the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper. Her works include the following, a simple card that constitutes a work of art, entitled "Calling Card." In addition to displaying this work in art galleries and museums, Piper, who identifies as black but is sometimes mistaken for white, has also passed it out during social events. This card almost seems like an award of sorts--a "white award."

(click for a larger image)

So who else deserved a "calling card" this year, a Honky Trophy, as it were?

Joe Biden was caught enacting more than one common white tendency, back when he complimented Barack Obama for being "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." So was William Bennett when he claimed, like many other oblivious pundits and more ordinary white folks, that because Obama won, racism is over. I acted especially white when I failed to take action more quickly against the racist death penalty. Some friends of mine acted in a common white way when they associated non-white people with pollution.

Who do you remember in an especially white moment? It could be someone famous, or it could be someone you know or encountered in your daily life. The white tendency they enacted could have taken one of many forms.

Maybe it was a co-worker who reached out to a black colleague and started playing with her hair.

Maybe it was a teacher who paid better attention to the white kids than the non-white kids.

Maybe it was a family member who complimented a black person for being "articulate," instead of listening to what he or she had to say.

Maybe it was a classmate asking another, Asian American classmate where she's from (and then asking where she's really from).

Maybe it was one of your parents, claiming that interracial marriages prove that racism has been solved.

Maybe it was your white friend, using "ghetto" as an adjective again.

Maybe it was a white person you overheard mentioning the race of a non-white person for no good reason at all.

Maybe it was your neighbor, complaining about the supposedly racist things that Obama's wife and pastor supposedly said, but not about the actually racist things that John McCain and other Republicans actually said.

Maybe it was your boss, forgetting or mixing up the names of non-white people that you work or do business with.

Maybe it was you, holding your tongue instead of calling out someone on another racist joke.

If someone's recent "white" behavior comes to mind, please memorialize it in a comment here.

Although white supremacy and the racism it inspires are nowhere near "over," identifying and describing their virtually innumerable manifestations in such moments is one step toward their eradication. And also, if you yourself are white, towards being resolved, as another New Year arrives, to do such things less often.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

listen to tom waits

Tom Waits
"Christmas Card from
a Hooker in Minneapolis"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

use illegal drugs with relative impunity

Matthew Fogg of Law Enforcement against Prohibition (LEAP) describes how the Drug War is a race war.

Matthew F. Fogg is a Chief Deputy US Federal Marshal who asserts that "Drug prohibition helps the US maintain a racial apartheid prison industrial complex." He's also a public speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

From LEAP's mission statement:

Founded on March 16, 2002, LEAP is made up of current and former members of law enforcement who believe the existing drug policies have failed in their intended goals of addressing the problems of crime, drug abuse, addiction, juvenile drug use, stopping the flow of illegal drugs into this country and the internal sale and use of illegal drugs. By fighting a war on drugs the government has increased the problems of society and made them far worse. A system of regulation rather than prohibition is a less harmful, more ethical and more effective public policy.

White users of illegal drugs are far less likely than non-white users to be arrested for drug use. When white users are arrested, the consequences tend to be less severe. In addition, the cumulative impact of the racist Drug War on non-white communities is enormous. As the Drug Policy Alliance Network notes,

Despite the fact that drug use is more or less consistent across racial lines, many punitive drug laws are based on beliefs that certain communities of color commonly abuse certain substances. Due to the racial injustices caused by the drug war, supporting drug policy reform can help end racial inequality.

Although African Americans comprise only 12.2 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, they make up 38 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 59 percent of those convicted of drug offenses, causing critics to call the war on drugs the "New Jim Crow." The higher arrest rates for African Americans and Latinos do not reflect a higher abuse rate in these communities but rather a law enforcement emphasis on inner city areas. . . .

Once arrested, people of color are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than whites. The best-known example of the inequality in sentencing is the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences. Crack and powder cocaine have the same active ingredient, but crack is marketed in less expensive quantities and in lower-income communities of color. A five gram sale of crack cocaine receives a five-year federal mandatory minimum sentence, while an offender must sell 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. In 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.

The racial disparities in drug arrests and convictions have had a devastating effect on families. Of the 1.5 million minor children who had a parent incarcerated in 1999, African American children were nearly nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children and Latino children were three times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than white children.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

white weekend links

"Katrina's Hidden Race War" (A.C. Thompson @ The Nation)

Over the course of an eighteen-month investigation, I tracked down figures on all sides of the gunfire, speaking with the shooters of Algiers Point, gunshot survivors and those who witnessed the bloodshed. I interviewed police officers, forensic pathologists, firefighters, historians, medical doctors and private citizens, and studied more than 800 autopsies and piles of state death records. What emerged was a disturbing picture of New Orleans in the days after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its government collapsed. . . . at least eleven people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.

The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs--Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of gang members" were marauding through the Superdome. Now it's clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males. So far, their crimes have gone unpunished.

"The Sounds of the Sixties: How Dick Dale, the Doors, and Dylan Swayed to Arab Music" (Jonathan Curiel @ Alternet)

Listen to the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black," which bolted to the top of the U.S. charts in 1966, and you hear echoes of Arab music's quarter tones and minor keys. Listen to the 1967 Jefferson Airplane hit "White Rabbit" -- especially its intro, which climbs a scale of dissonant notes, and its lyrics, which mention a hookah -- and you hear Arabic music fused with psychedelic sensibilities. And listen to The Doors' "The End" or "Light My Fire," both from the group's self-titled 1967 debut album, and you hear the influence of Arabic music. Ray Manzarek, The Doors' keyboardist, tells me that his group's connection to Arabic music is no accident. The Doors' guitarist, Robby Krieger, was a flamenco guitarist before joining the band, and flamenco is based on centuries of Arab music, which infused Spain's culture during Muslim rule over the country. Also, says Manzarek, all four members of The Doors -- he, Krieger, Jim Morrison, and drummer John Densmore -- were interested in Latin music, which (like flamenco) has been touched by Arabic music.

Referring to Arab music, Manzarek says one of his regrets is that "I wish we had gotten in more of it [into The Doors' music]. You can't do everything. You just don't have time to do everything you want to do, dammit." . . . Later on in our conversation, he tells me I was the only observer in his 40 years of playing to ask him about The Doors' connection to Arab music.

(from Dan Piraro's BizarroBlog)

"Nazis in the military: 'I'm so proud of my kills" (David Neiwart @ Crooks and Liars)

Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center ran a devastating report describing the infiltration of neo-Nazis into the ranks of the American military. The Pentagon's official response was steadfast denial of the problem.

The SPLC's David Holthouse just published a follow-up report, and found, predictably, that the problem is getting worse as the conflict in Iraq drags on:

A new FBI report confirms that white supremacists are infiltrating the military for several reasons. According to the unclassified FBI Intelligence Assessment, "White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11," [PDF] which was released to law enforcement agencies nationwide: "Sensitive and reliable source reporting indicates supremacist leaders are encouraging followers who lack documented histories of neo-Nazi activity and overt racist insignia such as tattoos to infiltrate the military as 'ghost skins,' in order to recruit and receive training for the benefit of the extremist movement."

The source of the problem, as the report explained, was the extreme pressure military recruiters were under to fill their recruitment quotas. "Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces," said Barfield, "and commanders don’t remove them . . . even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members."

"Structural racism and the Obama presidency" (John Powell @ Pamzuka News)

As we travel further into the 21st century, we are likely to see another kind of racialisation that will be informed by a different understanding of society and people.

So what does racialisation in the United States look like today? First, we are talking about a process that is too unsettled to define with exactitude, but one in which some contours are clear. We as a society are more socially conscious and racially egalitarian than at any time in our short history. However, this improvement in the societal position on race is not reflected in either our conscious attitudes or our inter-institutional practices and policies. Recognising this gap, scholars have pointed to a phenomenon called implicit bias. There is a growing body of work that documents that Americans have implicit, unconscious biases which can be tested. These attitudes can shift to be more salient in some situations rather than others. One cannot identify implicit racial bias by simply asking an interviewee, because the individual will not be aware of it. In spite of this, implicit attitudes can impact behaviour and choices. It is interesting to note that implicit bias is a social phenomenon reflecting the collective social culture. This means that even non-whites are likely to carry some level of implicit bias, but generally not to the same extent as whites.

"Black College Students Get Better Grades with White Roommate" (Ohio State University Research News)

A new study of college freshman suggests that African Americans may obtain higher grades if they live with a white roommate. A detailed study of students at a large, predominantly-white university revealed that while living with a white roommate may be more challenging than living with someone of the same race, many Black students appear to benefit from the experience.

For African American students, this could translate into as much as 0.30-point increase in their GPA in their first quarter of college. White students, on the other hand, were affected more by the academic ability of their roommate than by their race. . . .

The findings suggest that the interaction between a white and an African American student may help orient these minority students to a predominantly white university, Shook said. By living with their white counterparts, the African American students are finding someone with whom they can study and learn from in ways other African American students cannot offer.

"Certificate of Whiteness" (profacero @ Professor Zero)

The son of a doctor employed on a sugar plantation, nineteenth century Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde had to present a “certificate of whiteness” to enroll in school. These certificates were ostensibly proofs of lineage and purity of blood. They could also be obtained, as José Piedra reminds us, through a demonstration of literacy in Latin and Spanish, and of cultural allegiance to the Western world.

Now Barack Obama, for whom people did not want to vote because he was Black, has won the election--and people are saying he is not Black. They are even saying he is white. It appears to me they are awarding him a certificate of whiteness. . . .

Since the 1920s at least, people have been saying that mixture will create a bridge between the races and ultimately eliminate racism. I think the underlying assumption here is that race is a biological category. People appear to believe difference must be abolished so that racist attitudes can be abolished. Thus racism is naturalized. People think it is caused by the fact that people look different from one another and not by ideological factors.

"Coming Clean in the Inner City" (Christoper Hawthorne @ Los Angeles Times)

"In this neighborhood the most radical thing you could do was make a white building," architect Michael Maltzan told me on a recent afternoon as we toured the campus of Inner-City Arts, where his firm completed an $8.5-million expansion earlier this fall.

The ICA complex -- which indeed has the surprising brightness of a soap-opera actor's teeth seen up close, or the pages deep inside a newspaper that has yellowed on top -- offers classes in the arts to students bused in from a number of public-school campuses. Its 1-acre site, at 7th and Kohler streets near the edge of downtown's skid row, is surrounded by seafood and produce wholesalers, social service agencies, single-room-occupancy hotels and auto-parts shops. Bunker Hill's gleaming, mirrored-glass towers loom quite visibly to the northwest, but at ground level these blocks are dominated by roll-down security doors and loops of razor wire.

In that context, ICA's decision to paint its entire campus white is part provocation, part stubborn declaration of hope. The color is also an expression of commitment to several varieties of upkeep, a choice that says to the neighborhood: The buildings may get scuffed, or attract graffiti, but we will be here to keep them clean, and that cleanliness will suggest the steadfastness of what is going on inside. Whiteness equals constancy, and the brighter the better.

And finally, further encouragement for white people trying to get out of their socially constructed shells of corporeal inhibition. Don't just dance--sing!

Friday, December 19, 2008

listen to anti-racist music

Heard any good songs with good messages lately?

Living Colour, "Funny Vibe" (1989)
(audio of a better version here)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

white quotation of the week (george yancy)

[On the KPFA program "Against the Grain," C.S. Soong recently interviewed philosopher George Yancy about his new book, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race. Yancy's book explores the lived reality of black bodies within the context of whiteness. The following is a brief, transcribed excerpt; the full audio version of the interview is available below.]

C.S. Soong: At a recent conference convened by the American Philosophical Association, you had an informal encounter—this is between sessions of the conference—with a well-respected white philosopher. And this philosopher congratulated you on a book you had recently edited, I think it was entitled The Philosophical i: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy. And in that book, in your contribution to that book, you had used black vernacular language. So what did the white philosopher tell you in this very informal setting?

George Yancy: Yes, in many ways, I think his intervention, as it were, at the conference that day really sort of belied the logic of that text, because it was designed specifically to bring philosophy down to earth, to look at the relationship between philosophers, and what is it about their identities that got them into philosophy, and how do their identities speak to their philosophical projects.

So, he had read my chapter, and lo and behold, he said, “You know, I learned a lot about you that I hadn’t known previously.” And then he said to me, “Why is it that you use that language?” And of course he underscored “that language.” And the thing is, I mean, I was writing my own sort of philosophical biography when I wrote that chapter, and the assumption was that I worked with what linguist Geneva Smitherman calls “the language of my nurture.” That’s what she calls it when she’s referring to African American language.

So there’s a sense in which, you know, “that language” was the language of my nurture, so in order to articulate my identity, I had to use that language. And his question reminded me that he thought I was using an ersatz language, a child-like language, an inferior language, and that that language was incapable of communicating brilliant and profound philosophical ideas. So I think he brought that to that text a priori, you know. And some might, or one might, argue that it was a question of class only.

Now, while I argue that class was operative in that encounter, it was also about race. And the reason I argue that is because basically, I was being reminded not to speak like some of my black colleagues. Because interestingly enough, he went on to tell me about a black philosopher who he had seen, and heard give a lecture, and he talked about how “horrible” the English was. . . .

So there was something about that language and that black colleague of mine that he was trying to make a very tight connection with. And I was told, he said, “You speak well.” So in some sense, he meant that I speak well as a black person. So again, it was an insult, right? And if one takes the connection between language and identity seriously, which I do, then in some sense, I think he was saying, “Turn white,” basically. Which is problematic, right?

African American philosophers make up about 1.1 percent of the profession of philosophers, so we’re already on the margins, as it were, in terms of numbers. But here I am, in this benign context, a social everyday encounter, where whiteness is operating at this very insidious level. And where, you know, race is being brought in at a very subtle level, in relationship to my language.

But it’s interesting that he happens to be the same colleague who says to me, “You know, George, you could be as good as, or better than,” and then he names a black philosopher. It’s almost as if I can’t be "as good as or better than" someone like Richard Rorty, or Aquinas, or Wittgenstein, or Kant. He always names another black philosopher, which again is an insult. . . .

C.S. Soong: You write about the white philosopher, this guy you encountered at this conference, "He remained silent to me about his identity as white, but his interaction with me served to constitute his whiteness." What did you mean by this?

George Yancy: By that I mean that as he gave me his advice—well, quote-unquote advice—in some sense, his whiteness remained invisible to him, so that he thought, he was under the impression, that he was giving me advice when he said to me, “Why did you use that language?” But in the process of defining the language that I used as “that language,” which clearly entailed again that “that language” was an ersatz, inferior language, he in some sense constituted me in ways that I did not see myself.

So, I saw myself as engaging in a philosophical project of making sense of who I am as a philosopher, and as a black philosopher in particular who has a specific history, and as such is ensconced within a particular linguistic community. And in doing so, that is a very positive spin, right? But he constituted me as this person who was sort of engaging in baby-talk, or engaging in slang or broken English, or something of the sort.

But in doing this--and this is the way power works, I think this is how whiteness works, rather, as a site of power--it remains invisible to itself. So it’s not that he, as it were, realized, “Hey, I’m speaking from this perspective of whiteness that mediates my judgment.” Rather, he saw himself as speaking the truth [laughter]. And the truth was basically to set me free of this distortion of the English language.

At another interesting level, in some sense he was saying that African American vernacular wasn’t really capable of communicating philosophical ideas, you know, there was something about it, unlike French or German or standard American English, that it just couldn’t articulate and express philosophical ideas.

So again, he was not only operating from a level of class, but he was operating from this level of whiteness as the transcendental norm, whiteness as the unnamed, the ex-nominated, as that site of privilege.

full one-hour episode
"Against the Grain"

George Yancy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University. In addition to being the author of Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race and numerous essays and reviews, he is also the editor of many books, including White on White/Black on Black and What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question.

[Thanks to SWPD reader redcatbiker for alerting me to this episode of “Against the Grain”]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

refuse to listen to foreign speakers of english

I ended up standing in a checkout line at TJ Maxx the other day, waiting to pay for some clothes. Since a lot of people were out shopping for the holidays, all of the cash registers were in use. Several customers were in front of me, and as I looked around, I noticed that there were no white cashiers. The one that I was about to encounter was a middle-aged Asian woman. She may have been Asian American, but her strong accent made me wonder how long she’d been in this country.

The customer in front of me was a middle-aged white woman, and she was buying a cartload of children’s clothes. As her turn came and she piled the clothes on the counter, she ignored the cashier’s greeting. When she finished, she stood still and alert, and I could see that she was watching each price as it came up on the cash register’s digital display. At one point, the cashier ran the price tag for a pair of pants over the scanner, and the customer stopped her.

“Wait, wait, that’s not right. Those are nine ninety-nine, not nineteen ninety-nine.”

“But, the tag, look,” said the cashier, extending the tag towards the woman. “It say nineteen ninety-nine?”

“What?” said the customer. “No, those were on the clearance rack. The half-price rack.”

“Nineteen ninety-nine. Look, it say so right here.”

“What? I can’t understand you.”

I thought this complaint was odd, because although the cashier did have an accent and imperfect grammar, I had no trouble understanding what she was saying.

“Okay, wait, I get it checked for you.”

“What? A check? No, I’m paying with a credit card. Look.” The customer suddenly sighed, with a show of heavy exasperation. “Look, I can’t understand you. Can I get some other help please? Can you call your manager?”

“Manager?” said the cashier. “No problem. I check price for you.”

“You what? No, I said, I can’t understand you. I need to talk to your manager. Please.”

The cashier shrugged her shoulders and left, then returned with a tie-wearing white guy, who confirmed that the price tag was indeed wrong.

“Sorry about that, ma’am,” he said to the customer.

As the white woman left, the cashier and I greeted each other, and she ran through my items quickly. I saw no sign of frustration on her part.

Probably happens all the time, I thought. Not because her English was all that “bad,” but rather, because I’d seen white folks do this many times before. For a lot of Americans, a foreign accent seems like a signal to stop paying attention, even though the English isn't all that hard to understand. Why do they do this? Are their thoughts sometimes as severely xenophobic as those of D-Fens, the archetypal fed-up American played by Michael Douglas in Falling Down?

Although I haven’t seen any studies or other “empirical evidence” to back up the following claim, I’ll make it anyway, tentatively. I think that the combination of a foreign accent with a non-white face makes many white Americans stop paying attention to English that’s actually easy to understand. What I’ve noticed is that white Americans often give up quickly in this situation, and further, that they're less likely to give up if the apparently foreign person talking to them is "white," that is, European.

I’ve seen white restaurant customers call for managers when they “can’t understand” their non-white waiter’s explanation of the bill. I’ve seen a white customer at a dry cleaner get loud and exasperated over disputed cleaning charges. I've also watched a relative of mine give up while talking on a speaker phone to a computer technician from India. I don’t think I have any particular talent for understanding accented and/or “broken” English, but in all of these cases, I had no comprehension problems. As in the TJ Maxx incident, I thought that the other white person gave up way too soon; it’s like they weren’t even trying. Like they didn’t think they should have to try.

And that belief, that they shouldn’t have to deal with imperfect English from “foreigners,” may be what’s behind at least some of these reactions to speakers of non-standard American English. That refusal to listen may be an attitude towards the accented speakers themselves, as much as the supposedly incomprehensible English that they speak.

Many of these white ear-closers probably also agree that those who want to stay in the U.S. need to demonstrate nearly perfect fluency in English when they apply for citizenship. They probably also groan in annoyance--is it a racist annoyance?--when they hear or see requests and instructions translated into Spanish and other languages along with the English ones. Or when they overhear two or more people speaking to each other in a different language (I once heard a white woman say to a Korean couple, in another checkout line, "You're in America, you know--you should speak English.")

Actually, they may also be the ones who will pay for a new service being offered by Dell Computers. As the Washington Post reports,

Catering to consumers put off by the accents of Bangalore, Manila and other call-center hubs around the globe, Dell will guarantee -- for a price -- that the person who picks up the phone on a support call will be, as company ads mention in bold text, "based in North America."

The Your Tech Team service, with agents in the United States, costs $12.95 a month for customers with a Dell account, or $99 a year for people who buy a new computer. It also promises that wait times will average two minutes or less. Without the upgrade, a customer is likely to get technical help from someone in India, the Philippines or the other places where Dell has operators. . . .

Occasionally, "we've heard from customers that it's hard to understand a particular accent and that they couldn't understand the instructions they were getting," said Dell spokesman Bob Kaufman. "This illustrates Dell's commitment to customer choice."

Complaints about customer service agents based in other countries are an everyday phenomenon across several industries. For many U.S. consumers, the diverse accents that come across customer service lines constitute one of the most pervasive reminders of globalization and the offshoring of jobs. That can make personnel in the call center targets for American anger.

And it’s not just Dell Computers; the Post notes that other companies also recognize the market value of catering to American impatience:

Jitterbug, a cellphone company that markets to older Americans, similarly boasts in ads that its operators are in the United States, but it does not charge extra to speak to them. The company's television spots advertise "U.S. based customer service" and show a headset draped in an American flag.

"You'd be amazed how many customers ask, 'Where are you based?' " said David Inns, Jitterbug's chief executive. "The response we get when we say, 'We're in Auburn Hills, Michigan, ma'am,' -- well, they love it."

The Post article quotes a sociology professor, Sharmila Rudrappa, who says that labeling such complaints “racist or nativist” is “too simple”: "If you need tech support, it already shows you're having a crazy time getting your Dell computer to work. And when things go haywire, you want assurance, you want familiarity, you want someone to hold your hand and say it's okay. What you don't want is to have to work at understanding the person on the other end of the line."

I agree that having to "work at understanding" someone’s English can feel like an extra hassle. However, I think it’s Professor Rudrappa’s explanation here that may be too simple. Again, my evidence is purely anecdotal, but I’ve often seen white Americans listen patiently to difficult English spoken by Europeans, and I’ve often seen that kind of patience and tolerance withheld from non-European speakers of difficult English. And again, in both cases, the accented or somewhat broken English wasn't all that hard to understand.

It seems clear to me that for many Americans, especially white ones, the quick refusal to listen to accented or misspoken English is less a response to the supposed incomprehensibility of what’s being said, and more a response to the person saying it.

[h/t for "The Bangalore Backlash": Angry Asian Man]

Monday, December 15, 2008

brush off and laugh at anti-white slurs

Here's some raw footage of the shoe-throwing incident that's been making the rounds today. I'm especially struck by George Bush's reaction afterward.

Bush's reaction seems to me like an intentional effort to show, for whatever reason, that the incident didn't faze him. Wagging his jaw around in that odd way he often has, he laughs it off, and then as his assailant is being muffled and wrestled to the ground, he jokes about the size of the shoes.

According to the New York Times, the protester shouted in Arabic, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” The shoe-throwing journalist was performing an act of political protest, and one implication of Bush's reaction is his total disregard for this protester's message.

I don't mean to suggest that throwing anything at a public figure is a valid form of dissent (unless, perhaps, the object is a pie). Nevertheless, this protester was expressing the disgusted sentiments of many other people, and Bush's cavalier attitude is painfully reminiscent of the disdain that he and his administration have always displayed for popular protest, especially that of the tens of millions who tried to stop an impending attack on Iraq.

Bush may have been trying to diffuse tension in the room, and he obviously does not understand Arabic. Still, his lack of interest in the motives and message of the shoe-thrower are a reminder of how wide the gap is between those in power and those who want to send a message to them. When asked about the incident later in the press conference, Bush said he “didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it,” and then turned it into a demonstration of American success in Iraq. “I don’t know what the guy’s cause is,” Bush said, adding that it’s the sort of thing that “happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves.”

The incident has already provided a bit of cultural education for non-Arabic people. Many of us now know that shoe-throwing, and other gestures involving shoes, are used to convey deeply hateful insults. I don’t know how much Bush’s status as a white American has to do with his apparent failure to feel the sting of this insult. However, his laughing response and his disregard for the intentions of the deliverer do bring to mind common white reactions to non-white forms of protest, such as anti-white racial slurs.

Like Bush in this incident, white people rarely feel all that stung or insulted by anti-white epithets. Instead, words like “honky” or “cracker” usually strike white people as more humorous than insulting. The impact of such words can of course vary, depending on the context and the attitude of the speaker, and on what kind of white person is hearing them. Generally, though, anti-white slurs just don't have the impact of the racist ones that get flung at people of color by white people.

Why is it that such words as “honky” and “cracker” lack the bite of “nigger,” or “wetback,” or “gook”? Why is it that as I typed that last sentence, I was tempted to censor the latter words (with such euphemisms as “the n-word” or “the g-word”), but not the former? We never say “the h-word” for “honky,” and if we ever do say or write “the c-word,” the word we’re referring to is not “cracker.”

This difference brings to mind an old “Saturday Night Live” skit, with Richard Pryor playing a job applicant being interviewed by Chevy Chase. As Chase's character conducts a word association test that quickly veers into racial slurs, notice the different connotations for anti-white versus anti-black slurs. Notice also the different reactions each man has to the racial slurs about himself.

I don’t think this skit is merely provocative or controversial. Instead, it’s an effective example of satire, with important points to make about the differences in power between the white race and others.

For one thing, American English contains far more negative words for non-white people than it does for white people (notice how, by the end of the skit, Richard Pryor’s character runs out of anti-white slurs). More importantly, non-white people tend to have a stronger memory of the legally sanctioned abuse and violence that used to accompany non-white slurs, and sometimes still do.

That white people remain relatively more empowered by that history can be seen in the greater insult and hurt delivered by slurs for non-white people, and in the relative ease with which white people can usually brush off, and even laugh at, anti-white insults. As for George Bush, his careless, joking arrogance makes him resemble other white Americans, more than most would probably care to realize.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

white weekend links

"Racism Revealed in Comments about Custom Browser" (Jesse @ Racism Review)

Mozilla, the folks that created the browser Firefox, have released a new browser called Blackbird, that offers customized search engine results thought to be of particular interest to African Americans, or in the short hand of one blogger, it’s a browser for black people. Blackbird is operated by 40A, Inc., a company founded by three African American entrepreneurs, Arnold Brown II, Frank Washington, and H. Edward Young, Jr. . . .

What’s interesting to note for my analysis here is the kind of white-liberal-racism that’s erupted in the comments section at TechCrunch, a popular technology blog, following the announcement of this custom browser. . . . What those white folks at TechCrunch fail to grasp is that the notion of a “color-blind web” is just as fictional as the notion of a “color-blind” society. Indeed, as noted scholar Henry Jenkins wrote way back in 2002 (light years in Internet time), the notion of a color-blind web is little more than a fantasy to assuage liberal guilt. White people need to stop denying race and racism, then crying “foul!” anytime race unexpectedly (for white people) comes up.

Yellow Rage
Michelle Myers and Catzie Vilayphonh
(Profanity Alert; h/t Renee @ Womanist Musings)

"What if you’re not sure whether you’re sexist and racist or just prejudiced and bigoted?" (The Professor @ Professor, What If . . . ?)

All white male cabinets and supreme courts and juries and school boards and city councils and committees and etc, etc were the name of the game (without much dissent) until quite recently. Yet, when suggestions are made to make things all female, or all POC, people start screaming about racism and sexism. And, typically, it’s the same people who thought letting white males run the world was A-OK who cry “sexism!” or “racism!” when those in power begin to reflect the diversity of the world’s populace.

I have a real problem with these “reverse” ideas of -isms (such as reverse racism) as they discount the power dynamics and the institutionalized nature of socially sanctioned inequalities. In fact, I am of the camp that believes you cannot be “racist” against whites. You can be prejudice or discriminatory, but not racist.

"Post Racial Racism in the Post" (Derrick Muhammad @ Common Dreams)

As we come closer to the "post-racial age" of a Barack Obama presidency, I am intrigued to find that post-racial racism is already being propagated in the pages of the Washington Post. In "An Enduring Crisis for the Black Family," Kay Hymowitz blames the economic disfranchisement of African Americans upon the personal behavior of Black people and the silence of Black leaders concerning this behavior. Ms. Hymowitz portrays the massive national growth of single parent homes as a Black pathology. She uses the real challenge of the breakdown in the traditional family to further stereotype and lay blame on African Americans for racial inequality in this country.

As one who studies racial inequality and the African American condition in particular, I have often been told to ignore the studies that show there is still racial prejudice in employment, homeownership, and predatory lending, and to instead look at the rapid decline of two parent households for African Americans. In the report "40 Years Later: The Unrealized American," I looked at the decline of the two parent household for Blacks and whites and found some surprising results. Using data from the 2007 State of Our Unions report I discovered that the share of Black children living in a single parent home increased by 155% between 1960 to 2006. The share of white children living in single parent homes increased by 229% during this same time period. The white two-parent family has declined at a faster rate than the Black family. Yet, Ms. Hymowitz never once mentions that the increase of single parent Black families exist in a context of an even greater rate of increase in single parent white families. Ms. Hymowitz attacks Black leaders for not addressing this issue yet as a white woman she never sees fit to mention this issue as it relates to white Americans.

"Medal of Honor: The All-white War" (Gwen @ Sociological Images)

[On the covers of every eidtion of the Medal of Honor series of video games, the image] is that World War II was an all-White war (or that gamers will only identify with a White soldier).

It is true that during most of WWII, Black soldiers were segregated in their own units. Initially they were not allowed to fight on the front lines, but that policy changed. . . .

There were also 22 Asian American soldiers fighting for the U.S., according to this
New York Times article. Medals of Honor were belatedly awarded to several in 2000 (though at least some had received Medals at the time of the war, unlike African American soldiers). And the Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimates that up to half a million Hispanic soldiers served (the exact number is unknown because the government did not keep track of “Hispanic” ethnicity in the Armed Forces at that time). Finally, 44,000 American Indian soldiers joined the war effort (and according to the Department of Defense, that was out of a population of only 350,000 at the time).

Ok, so it’s a video game. Fine, whatever. It’s probably not a place to look for accurate depictions of anything. And of course there were more White soldiers in the war (though minorities were over-represented compared to their percentage of the overall U.S. population). But not even one non-White soldier on any of the covers? Really?

"The Broken Home: Napoleon Dynamite, Brady Bunch, and the Split-Level House" (Shane Waggoner @ Drinking Upstream)

I myself am the product of a generational culture for which the split-level house has served as the backdrop for recurring fantasies of attachment.

In the ‘seventies, ‘The Brady Bunch’ depicted two families sutured by the conciliatory space of the split-level house. It ‘was the story’ of the reconciliation of a sexualized rupture.

The force of the show was its hard-working symmetry – a woman and four girls paired up with a man and four boys, all with corresponding ages, tidily placed and positioned by narrative and physical space. The dropped den of their split-level house acted as a visual model of mended domesticity.

Book-ending my generational experience - in step with our commodity-culture’s habit of nostalgically recycling the past - was the indie hit, ‘Napoleon Dynamite’. Napoleon’s split-level ranch house staged another take on the attachment fantasy, consciously parodying the idealism of those earlier shows.

"In racially exclusive neighborhood, residents worried Bush will make it a 'target'" (Andrew McLemore @ The Raw Story)

[The] exclusive Dallas community the Bush family will soon join has a troubled history of its own.

Until 2000, the neighborhood association's covenant said only white people were allowed to live there, though an exception was made for servants.

Enacted in 1956, part of the original document reads: "Said property shall be used and occupied by white persons except those shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of different race or nationality in the employ of a tenant."

The entire covenant can be seen here [pdf].

"Aspiring to Whiteness" (Tanglad; h/t: Racialicious)

Filipinos can be quite forthcoming when talking about race. In news interviews in the Philippines and in Pinoy gatherings, many immigrant Pinoys have made it abundantly clear that their “discomfort” over Barack Obama is not due to the rumors that he’s an inexperienced, socialist, Muslim politician. Their discomfort is from Obama’s blackness.

Filipino Americans have long been proud of our ability to assimilate into American society. Decades of colonization helped ensure that Filipinos buy into the American Dream completely — minimal input from a government that back home is often corrupt, working hard to pull oneself up, and evidencing said hard work through conspicuous consumption.

But as writer Benjamin Pimentel points out, buying into the American Dream also includes embracing “the views of the dominant white society – including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks.”

And finally, another installment in this blog's occasional series on dancing white people. Dance, white people, dance!

Charlie Chaplin
Gold Rush (1925)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

travel to exotic, distant lands, meet exciting, unusual people, and feed them hamburgers

What do you think of the burger-sharing white folks who travel around the globe in this short Burger King advermentary (or if you like, docutisement)?

If you've seen ads from this new campaign, you probably know that this American film crew manages to find people who've never had a burger before. They label these curiously pre-modern people "Whopper Virgins." Then the white folks generously help the curiously pre-modern folks lose their virginity.

Are these white American burger-bearers benevolent cultural emissaries, helping to spread American goodness? Or are they intrepid and courageous foot soldiers, helping to enhance the great good of American corporate profits in a mercilessly sagging economy?

These taste-tests were conducted in Thailand, Romania, and Greenland. Does race matter here?

h/t: Gwen at Sociological Images, where there's more on this ad campaign

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

fear black crowds

Several years ago, on a warm and sunny day, I was walking across a college campus. I was heading for a bus stop so I could go into town for lunch, when I heard some thumping music up ahead. As I approached a plaza in front of the “student union” building, I saw a large crowd, and I could see immediately that it was entirely black.

As I slowed down a bit, I felt something, maybe a mixture of feelings, none of which I identified at the time. I saw that the group, two hundred or so large, was having some sort of event or festival, with big audio speakers, and tables and food. A few of them were handing out flyers to people passing by, some were eating, and a few others were dancing together, though in a sort of reserved way. Everyone looked happy to be there.

I quickly resumed my normal pace during the twenty or so steps that it took to get to the bus stop, and then continued watching the crowd, which was now about fifty feet away. I felt curious, and I couldn’t tell what the event was all about.

As I stood on the sidewalk, a fair number of people were walking back and forth, mostly students with backpacks. Some of them stopped to wait for the bus. This was a public campus, the state’s main one, so the pedestrians were mostly white. What I soon found more intriguing than the crowd of black students were the faces of the walking white ones. In most cases, as they came closer and the event caught their attention, their faces changed. Most of their expressions went through the same set of stages—from normal pedestrian calm, then to a look of alarm, which was accompanied by a slower walking pace, and then to a look of relief. And then came, as they resumed their normal walking pace, a sort of wry smile.

As it happened again and again, that wry, almost bemused smile became especially interesting to me. Among the white pedestrians, both the men and women usually ended their quick appraisal of the black crowd with that same, semi-private smile. What did it mean? As I stood there and watched a steady stream of white individuals go through these same stages of reaction, I thought that smile looked almost . . . condescending.

But then, that may have been me, “projecting,” as Freud might have said. For one thing, this campus was deep in the American South. Since I’m from the Midwest, I had a sort of anthropological interest in discerning what I could about race relations while visiting this place. As a non-Southerner, I’d been trained in various ways to think of white Southerners as much more racist than white Americans elsewhere. So maybe that’s why I saw condescension in those smiles.

At the same time, I knew that white Americans in general still think, or else feel unconsciously, that black Americans are inferior. And that they’re dangerous--especially the men--and that white people better watch out and stay away when large numbers of black people get together. Thanks to repeated exposure to selected historical imagery, the word “riot” is more likely to conjure up black rioters than white ones. If whites imagine other whites doing that sort of thing, they’re “protesting,” not rioting. Whites may also fear black crowds, again perhaps unconsciously, because they suspect that blacks want revenge for having suffered so long at the hands of whites. We somehow learn that if that's true, then we'd better watch out for a group of black people with enough power over a white person to inflict that vengeance.

I think that white fears of black people in groups are common, and also that, like many other fears, they’re irrational. In Ruth Frankenberg’s deeply insightful study of racial attitudes and feelings among white American women, she points out that white fears of black people are an “inversion of reality”:

In general, people of color have far more to fear from white people than vice versa, given, for example, the ongoing incidence of white supremacist terrorism around the United States, which targets African and Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Jewish Americans (in addition to gay men and lesbians); and the problematic relationship with the police that leaves many communities of color with, at the very least, a sense that they lack legal and physical protection.

In many other ways, a black person has more reason to fear being outnumbered by whites than whites do the opposite. And yet, blacks are the ones who usually enter or live in largely white spaces every day, and very few whites ever do that.

As for me, I’d like to think that on that warm and sunny day, I was less afraid than the other white pedestrians of a large group of black people. But then, even after I saw that it was a perfectly innocuous, friendly gathering, I never thought to go over there and join them. Maybe by staying put, I missed out on a good alternative to the off-campus lunch I was headed for, among other things. Now I think white fear probably was a reason that I remained in place at that bus stop. If so, it was a feeling that I couldn’t quite acknowledge enough at the time to call it "fear," let alone a "white fear."

Also, as I walked toward that crowd and saw that it was black, and then slowed my own walking pace for a moment or two, maybe my mouth also formed a little semi-private smile. If so, it might have been a smile of relief, prompted by the realization that while this was a crowd full of black people, it was a safe, controlled crowd of black people.

I think the white reactions in this scene can be extrapolated to a more general, collective white feeling--a fear of black crowds that’s buried within the psyches of most white people. Those who investigate white consciousness often emphasize what amounts to the opposite, a lack of a collective white consciousness. Whites are said to be “atomized” instead, hyper-individualized by a steady barrage of social and cultural implications that their whiteness doesn’t have much of anything at all to do with who and what they are.

It does seem true that a conscious and embraced sense of connection to other white people was not something that I learned while growing up in a white Midwestern suburb. But I think most white folks do share a fearful, almost besieged wariness of black people. Most of us do not, for instance, venture into the “black” parts of town (assuming we or our ancestors haven't already retreated to a town that doesn't even have a black section). We claim that’s because they’re “dangerous, high-crime” areas; we usually don’t admit, not even to ourselves, that black areas, whether high in crime or not, are more frightening to us than white areas that we know have a high rate of crime. Black parts of town are also scary to white people because we’re used to being part of the numerical majority. The opposite makes many of us feel surrounded, and insecure.

A collective white consciousness can be tough to put a finger on and prove, and I don’t mean to say or imply that every white American is tapped into it, nor that all have this particular fear. But to me, it’s clearly there, and an unreasonable fear of black crowds is a part of it. If so, the intensity and the particular symptoms of this white fear no doubt vary in different parts of the United States; a complicated history, as well as our uneasy awareness of that history, put it there. Some part of us also probably knows that that history isn’t over, that it still affects the present, and that white America is still unfair to black people.

So I think that as I stood on that campus sidewalk, I was watching a collective white racial consciousness do its work. It may be that most of the white Southern students had a reaction to that black crowd that differed from my Midwestern one, and it would be interesting to observe white reactions to a similar event in American settings outside of the “deep South.” Nevertheless, this Midwestern white guy clearly shared some similar feelings with those Southern white folks, including what amounts to a common, unwarranted white fear. No matter how little we were aware of it, or how little we would admit it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

use "ghetto" as an adjective

"Dudes, that's so ghetto!
Okay, now, just a sec, don't start smiling . . . "

One bit of slang that I find annoying, and that I'm hearing more and more often from white folks these days, is the conversion of a particular noun, "ghetto," into an adjective. I'm not a grammar cop, so it's not the "incorrect" usage of "ghetto" as an adjective that bothers me. I just think that since the noun brings to most American minds stereotypical images of exclusively non-white urban areas, the white use of it as an adjective is racist. And since the noun also denotes an impoverished urban area, and the people I hear using it as an adjective are mostly middle- and upper-middle class white folks, it's also classist.

I also find the word irksome because for white people, it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it. To illustrate what I mean by that, ask yourself why, when white folks use the word "ghetto" to describe another person's clothing or accessories, or their car or something about the way they're acting--why don't they use the words "trashy" or "trailer park" instead?

It's true that those words, which bring to mind classist notions of "white trash" or "rednecks," sometimes don't fit, because what's being described conjures up for the speaker certain stereotypes about black people, instead of stereotypes about poor white people. But that specifically "black" connection is often only there in what's being described because the speaker is using the word "ghetto," instead of "trashy" or "trailer park." There's nothing especially black about fixing things with duct tape, for instance, or eating inexpensive foods, or otherwise saving or stretching a buck. So why say "ghetto" for such things, instead of something else?

I think that for a lot of white people, using the word "ghetto" as an adjective has an extra element of daring and hipness to it, and also an air of knowingness, about the noun that is, the actual places called "ghettos." It's almost as if the white person is claiming (in a way that's nearly always unwarranted) that they really know what "the ghetto" is like because they've been daring enough to actually go there. And it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it because although the speaker is conjuring up and basically uttering racist stereotypes, that's supposed to be okay because there's something hip about saying "ghetto" like that.

But then, this piece of slang is becoming so common that it's already losing that kind of edge, as well as much of any connection to the places and people brought to mind by the word "ghetto." Kind of like the word "gay," which so many white kids use to describe something they think is wrong, or awkward, or "stupid." I've called kids on this usage of "gay," and then asked if they know what "homophobic" means, but they acted like they'd temporarily forgotten that the word they were using means "homosexual."

For an example of how "ghetto" is also moving away from its original meaning, listen to this one-minute video that a guy made about his lawn mower; notice how (from what I can tell) he uses "ghetto" and "redneck" interchangeably:

A lot of slang gains currency precisely because it's inappropriate. Many of the elders still do not approve of racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and sacrilegious language, so the rebellious young ones still use and abuse it. But slang also gains currency from novelty; new words and phrases get old fast, and then move into the realm of cliché. As slang words get old, many of them also lose their forbidden edge by drifting away, for their users at least, from their inappropriate racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.

As for the racism of the adjectival "ghetto," I looked up the word at Urban Dictionary, which describes itself as "the slang dictionary you wrote." I don't know how "urban" this popular, user-written site really is, and you also usually can't tell who's contributing a definition. A white person's casual use of "ghetto" is certainly different from that of a non-white person's, as is a white person saying it to white versus non-white people. Still, the debates that develop at Urban Dictionary over certain words and terms can give a good overall sense of what they mean, and as an added bonus, the poetry that slang has always had is often on display (okay, it's sometimes on display).

Readers there have contributed dozens of suggested definitions for "ghetto." Some insist that the word is a noun and should stay that way, while others recognize that it's now widely used and understood as an adjective, and insisting that it remain a noun isn't going to change that.

What do you think? Should people, white or otherwise, stop using ghetto as an adjective? Are there good or bad ways of using it? Do other objectionable words or phrases like this one come to mind?

For the uninitiated, I've copied below some of the contributors' examples, where "ghetto" is used the way I've been hearing it. (Note to grammar cops--I haven't edited these sentences . . . so I hope they don't make you [sic].)

Marcus's South Pole jeans that sag down past his knees are very ghetto when paired with a doorag.

Replacing a broken window with a trashbag and ducttape is ghetto.

"Look how ghetto I look!" Muffy said as she put on her gucci sunglasses.

Jane hid her head in embarrasment as her mom shamelessly committed the ghetto act of stuffing the restaurant's bread rolls, sugar packets, and silverware in her purse.

You might be ghetto if your car has rims which cost more than the car itself.

Yo Koolaid got so much sugar in it, that it's Ghetto.

Your Cd player has dents in it. It's so ghetto.

Word. That backpack is so ghetto! Where did you get it? At the Ghap?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

white weekend links

"Derek and the white-power dominoes" (David Neiwert @ Crooks and Liars)

White supremacists have been trying to reinsert themselves back into the mainstream (where once upon a time they were common) for a long time now. One of the chief avenues for this effort has for years been the Republican Party in the South, particularly in places like Louisiana, where David Duke operates, and Mississippi, where the Council of Conservative Citizens has a friend in Gov. Haley Barbour. It's all part of the legacy of the Southern Strategy.

In Florida, Republicans are now being confronted with the legacy of the Southern Strategy in the person of Derek Black. . . . "Black says 'of course' he will attend a meeting Wednesday for new members of Palm Beach County's Republican Executive Committee. Never mind that the party chairman says Black's 'white supremacist' associations are not welcome and he will not be seated.

'I was elected,' Black, 19, says."

"Which Side Are You On?" (Suzanne Vega @ The New York Times' Measure for Measure Blog)

In the last few months I have had a chance to review a song I wrote in October of 2007. It’s called “Daddy Is White,” and I haven’t sung it out loud yet in front of an audience except to record a demo of it. My daughter worries that people might make fun of me. However, I feel that it is a truthful song.

The last verse was inspired by a real-life discussion I overheard at a bar in Baltimore. A black man and a white woman were discussing a recent sports event. He called her “baby” playfully. She called him “stats boy,” meaning, I guess, someone well-versed in statistics. The conversation escalated quickly into a loud yelling argument, as he did not feel he was a boy of any kind and that word had racist overtones. Maybe the recent election means my song is on its way to being obsolete. I hope so.

"Teacher Ties Up Students In Slavery Lesson" (CBS/AP)

A white social studies teacher attempted to enliven a seventh-grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting outrage from one girl's mother and the local chapter of the NAACP.

On Nov. 18, Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships. She bound the two students' hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience. . . .

Wilbur Aldridge, director of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the history demonstration, first reported in The Journal News, "went wrong when she started to do that binding."

Aldridge said he feared that the teacher still "didn't get it" after their meeting. He said the teacher apologized "because Gabrielle was upset, not because she admitted she did something wrong."

"White" (Becky @ Racism Is Over: Tales of Life in the New America)

Hey guys? Guess what?

I’m white!!!

Yep, I’m white. I’m white, I’m white, I’m white, I’m white. White, white, white, white, white.

I. Am. White. Wow it feels soooo good to say that!

I have spent so much energy thinking of other things to call myself so that I don’t have to admit that I am white and I was starting to run out of things to say. I had tried “I’m Caucasian” but then someone told me that that is an anthropological category that includes lots of brown-skinned people (oh, it's also a breed of dog). I tried “I’m Irish” but then I was told that that is an ethnicity (not a race) and that once again, brown-skinned people can be that too. Then I tried “I’m 1/16 Native American,” but that was just a lie.

Now I can just say “I’m white!” So cool!

"Standing in Someone Else's Shoes, Almost for Real" (Benedict Cary @ The New York Times)

The technique is simple. A subject stands or sits opposite the scientist, as if engaged in an interview. Both are wearing headsets, with special goggles, the scientist’s containing small film cameras. The goggles are rigged so the subject sees what the scientist sees: to the right and left are the scientist’s arms, and below is the scientist’s body.

To add a physical element, the researchers have each person squeeze the other’s hand, as if in a handshake. Now the subject can see and “feel” the new body. In a matter of seconds, the illusion is complete. . . .

The evidence that inhabiting another’s perspective can change behavior comes in part from virtual-reality experiments. In these studies, researchers create avatars that mimic a person’s every movement. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.

National Buy a Book by a Black Author
and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month

Friday, December 5, 2008

never admit to being a hipster

I’ve been wondering lately about the whiteness of hipsters. I’d like to interview some white, self-declared hipsters about just what their racial status means to them. However, while I do know some people who clearly fit the profile, none of them are willing to admit to being hipsters. I have trouble deciding whether someone really is a hipster, because one defining characteristic seems to be the adamant refusal of the hipster label. That paradox of identity further intrigues me, because it so closely parallels a similar denial of a seemingly self-evident label, “white,” that white people in general commonly perform.

The following video helps me think through this conundrum. It features Jessie Cantrell, of “Black20 News,” talking to people about what the word “hipster” means; almost all of them seem to fit the hipster profile, yet none will admit to being a hipster. So this video brings a question into sharper focus--why is the term “hipster” so thoroughly rejected by the people it seems to fit? I think part of the answer might lie in the largely unexamined racial status of most hipsters, who together form what can be usefully labeled a white youth “movement.”

I find this video annoying in several ways, including some flashes of lazy profanity, but you’ll get more out of this blog post if you watch it:

All of the people interviewed by Jessie seem like hipsters to me, in part because they reject that label. They’re almost all white too. Why are so many hipsters white? And what in particular is white about them, and about what they do?

I hereby offer tentative stabs at some answers.

Like earlier young white folks who ran away from their ordinary backgrounds in distinct, labeled waves, hipsters seem to feel a certain emptiness in the self they’re leaving behind, an emptiness they fill up with adornments from other romanticized, seemingly preferable identities. In the 1950s, for instance, the Beats appropriated the romanticized blackness of jazz, and the supposedly free-spirited wandering of hobos and Mexican migrant workers. The Hippies of the 1960s borrowed from both American and Asian “Indians,” and in the 1980s, many American Punks adopted what they saw as the authentically downtrodden existence of inner-city residents.

Hipsters don’t seem all that interested in direct cultural appropriation across racial lines (aside from the keffiyeh), but the taste many of them have for cheap beer, retro cigarettes, white t-shirts and so on does constitute a reach across a gap in terms of social class, especially for those who come from wealthier backgrounds.

One thing that hipsters also like to adorn themselves with is retro stuff--stuff that used to be cool that they revive and make cool again, like Ray Bans from the Fifties and plaid flannel shirts from the Nineties, all of which they adopt while trying to look like they’re not trying to be cool. In a way, as author Benjamin Nugent sort of points out in the above video, the term “hipster” itself could be considered retro, since it was used back in the Fifties to refer to the Beat Generation.

So it might make sense for today’s young white anti-conformists to embrace the “hipster” label because it’s retro, but again, they resist being categorized that way. And also, it seems, in any other way--they seem to reject the word “retro” too. In their haphazard mixing and sort-of matching from earlier styles, and in their refusal to commit to much of anything collective beyond irony, apathy, and a vaguely anti-consumerist, anti-conformist idealism, they’re staunch individualists. Kinda like those falsely individualized white conformists that many of them like to think they’ve left behind.

Hipsters are often the target of satiric derision, and it’s all too easy to point a condescending finger at the hypocrisy of a claim to individuality that involves looking and acting like other hipsters, living in the same types of urban areas, going to the same parties, and listening to the same kinds of music, mostly performed or DJ-ed by more hipster lookalikes. I think it’s worth spelling out, though, how much that hypocrisy, if that's what it is, resembles a more general white claim to individuality.

In terms of identity, whiteness can be paradoxical; one of the whitest things a white person can do is fail to grasp the significance of their racial group membership. White people don’t normally go as far as “hipsters” do, by flat-out denying that the term “white” applies to them. They do know they’re white, but they rarely think about it, much less understand it. To the extent that they don’t think about it, they remain oblivious about what it means to their own lives, and more to the point, they falsely think of themselves as merely autonomous, free-floating individuals instead. White hipsters probably do have the term “hipster” in mind much of the time, as can be seen by how readily they run away from it. But how often do they have their own whiteness in mind as well?

I wonder, then, if one reason that white folks who pretty much fit the hipster profile refuse to embrace that group membership is because they’ve already been inclined by a largely unconscious training into whiteness toward a falsely individualized sense of themselves. This is not to say that all hipsters are white. It seems likely, though, that those who aren’t white are more often aware of their racial status and all that it means than their fellow white hipsters are of theirs.

So as in previous, more cohesive white youth movements, including Beats, hippies, Punks, Goths, and maybe even flappers, many hipsters are fleeing from their more conventionally white backgrounds toward that which represents the opposite. And since that’s a common thing for white youth to do, they’re still dragging their whiteness along with them as they do so.

However, compared to members of previous youth movements, white hipsters might be even whiter, in that they steadily refuse a group-bound label that others see as clearly suitable for them. If there is such a thing as a hipster “movement,” it’s another, familiar attempt to move away from a more conventional mode of whiteness, and yet, a further movement away as well, from identification with the new group (or “movement”). This further movement further evinces a failure to leave behind a white identity, particularly its illusory inducements toward individualism.

I should also point out that the metaphor of movement, in terms of motion, helps to pinpoint the whiteness of hipsters in one other way as well. From what I’ve gathered, hipsters in urban areas are largely from elsewhere, especially suburban areas. My friend Dave, for instance, moved from a suburb in the Midwest to Brooklyn, where he’s trying to get a career going, on his own terms, with his creative talents.

Dave is white, single, and in his mid-twenties. He has scruffy hair and a tattoo, he wears big sunglasses, and his wardrobe is a studiously casual mix of thrift-store gleanings and American Apparel. He buys the latter reluctantly, because of their sexist advertising and classist labor policies.

It’s no surprise that Dave refuses the label of hipster for himself. He does admit that he’s white, and he says that he’s thought about it, because when he goes into Brooklyn “bodegas,” he usually gets a cold shoulder.

“I see this one Puerto Rican bodega-owner guy almost every day, and I always greet him and so on, but he still acts like he doesn’t recognize me.”

“Why do you suppose that is?”

“I don’t know! Maybe he thinks I’m like, just one of the other white people in his neighborhood, invading the place, you know? But I’m not, I’m not a gentrifier! I’m just trying to get by, and I moved to Brooklyn because it was a more affordable place to live.”

“Right. Which is probably why those other young white people moved there. Which is probably increasing the rent in Brooklyn.”

“Right. But no, that’s not right, because I’m not like those other ‘young white people,’ if that’s what you want to call them. I’m not out there partying all the time, living off of mom and dad’s trust fund or whatever, taking a break in life before heading back to where I came from. I’m working hard in New York, trying to get a life going. I’m not like, taking a break from my life.”

We talked some more about his life, but I didn’t tell Dave that I think he’s been acting white in at least two ways. For one thing, he’s resisting a category that seems to fit him well--“hipster”--and for another, he doesn’t think he’s part of a reverse white-flight movement, but he is.

A lot of the people who were living in Brooklyn before he came probably do resent the increasing numbers of people like him. As in other instances of gentrification, the hipster ability and willingness to pay higher rent drives up rental rates, thereby driving out those who can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods. This geographical dynamic amounts to an invasive “movement,” with effects that are both racist and classist.

As one of Jessie Cantrell's interviewees says, perhaps with a level of self-aware irony, hipster is “a term that you use to offend people that are gentrifying your neighborhood.” And this kind of hipster gentrification isn’t only happening in New York. Hipster clusters can be found in most American cities, and thanks to the commodifying reach of corporatized American culture, in cities around the world as well.

Again, not all hipsters are white, but the numerical preponderance of whites among them makes it fair to identify hipsterdom as another in a long series of white youth movements. For many individuals, it’s also a movement away from more conventional, unremarkably “white” places and modes of being, a former existence that encourages individuality in white people by continually suggesting that their whiteness is insignificant. If that's true, then in terms of their racial identity, these white birds have flown right back to where they started.

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