Wednesday, April 30, 2008

teach their children to steal

We simply chose an Indian as the emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal.

--Eighth-grade student writing
about his school's mascot in 1997

Lurking within the collective consciousness of white America lies an awareness that we live on stolen land. Other people lived here before we did.

But did we really "steal" it from them?

As Shannon Sullivan points out in her book Revealing Whiteness, most of the 500 or so pre-Columbian groups didn't think of the land as theirs in the first place:

From an Indian perspective, land is not a piece of property to be bought and sold. Native relationships with it generally are not ones of possession and ownership, but rather ones of identity and continuity of life. As an anonymous Indian Chief asks when the "good White Chief" in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy Indian lands, "How can one buy or sell the air, the warmth of the land? That is difficult for us to imagine. If we don't own the sweet air and the bubbling water, how can you buy it from us?"

Does thinking of the white conquest as a "settlement" of land that no one actually owned let white people off the hook, setting them free from the charge of collective racial theft?

Maybe a strained argument of that sort could be made in terms of land. In other ways, though, the charge of white theft from Indians is harder to dismiss.

So is the white community's training of its own children to become thieves.

What, for instance, are white children learning to steal from Indians when their parents hang "dream catchers" in their bedrooms?

Last summer I was attending a work-related training in Portland, at a fancy mountain resort. In the kitchen of the dinning room was a dream catcher. Two of the Indigenous people who were also attending the training were incensed by the presence of a dream catcher, especially when it was apparent that no Native people were even working at the resort. My two friends complained to the kitchen staff that the dream catcher had to come down, and they used the moment as a teaching opportunity to enlighten the white staff about the cultural appropriation of Native Spirituality. (Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti, Community Organizer)

What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they go to see the Washington Redskins play, or the Cleveland Indians, or the Hooper Bay School Warriors, or the Grafton Elementary School Blackhawks, or the Tecumseh Middle School Savages, or any of the other
thousands of teams that claim to "honor" Native Americans with such romanticized caricatures?

Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida Nation... formed a multiethnic committee to oppose the Fightin' Reds mascot at Eaton High School--a caricature of a defiant Indian with a misshapen nose, eagle feather and loincloth. Ninham has called it "one of the most blatantly racist mascots in the country," but school officials have refused to meet with the committee to discuss concerns... The basketball team, made up of American Indians, Hispanics and Anglos, took the name Fightin' Whities as a jab at the nearby high school... Mascot protesters estimate that 3,000 high schools, colleges and professional sports teams use Native American nicknames and caricatures--including the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, with their grinning Chief Wahoo mascot. (The Pluralism Project)

What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they take class trips to museums?

Today, rather than something wild to consciously set out to conquer, Native Americans--especially their religious traditions and rituals--tend to be unconsciously appropriated as exotic objects for Euro-American use, pleasure, and consumption. One flagrant example of this unconscious appropriation involves the "museumification" of Native American sacred objects. These objects include pipes, feathers, drums, and other items for use in religious ceremonies. They also include the skeletal remains of dead Native Americans who were removed from burial grounds for archaeological and scientific study.

Displaying these items in museums made it possible for mass numbers of Euro-Americans to learn more about Native American rituals and peoples, but it also prevented many tribes from practicing their religions due to the removal of irreplaceable sacred objects. Even worse, the placement of religious objects in museums was and is a sacrilege from a native American perspective since their artificial preservation prevented them from decay through use, which is seen as their natural end. . . . Beneath conscious attempts to help Native American cultures and peoples, unconscious habits of white privilege reasserted the white "right" to ownership of all things non-white.
(Shannon Sullivan)

Children are not born white--they learn to become white. That means that they also learn how to think and act white. Much of this training process takes the form of learning what one is by learning what one is not.

As a white child learns about Indians, she learns that she is not an Indian. She also learns that since she is white, it's okay, and even a good thing, to steal from Indians.

(hat-tip to double consciousness for the FW logo)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

give good audio-visual

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

(props to aislinn dewey)

feel like they belong

The taxi's rearview mirror reflected a white man in his forties.

“How long have you been in this country?” he asked.

“All my life,” I replied, wincing. “I was born in the United States.”

With a strong Southern drawl, he remarked, “I was wondering because your English is excellent!”

Then, as I had many times before, I explained, “My grandfather came here from Japan in the 1880s. My family has been here, in America, for over a hundred years.”

He glanced at me in the mirror. Somehow I did not look “American” to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign.

--Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror:
A History of Multicultural America

I began thinking about the question of self-esteem precisely because of the extreme levels of self-doubt I was witnessing in the black students I encountered at the Ivy League schools where I taught. Many of these students were coming from materially privileged homes where they were loved and cared for, yet education in an unenlightened predominantly white context had engendered in them a fear of not being worthy. Tatum identifies this as the "syndrome of not belonging," stating that "the pressures of trying to fit in, conform or communicate in the 'acceptable' form of the majority culture results in an anxiety that literally interferes with one's natural abilities and modes of expression." . . . It is this feeling of not belonging that leads many black folks to self-segregate.

--bell hooks, Rock My Soul:
Black People and Self-Esteem

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. I could measure up to the cultural standards and take advantage of the many options I saw around me to make what the culture would call a success of my life. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as “belonging” in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. My life was reflected back to me frequently enough so that I felt, with regard to my race, if not to my sex, like one of the real people.

Monday, April 28, 2008

white life : restaurant work

When I was a teenager, I lived in the suburbs, where I didn't know anyone who wasn't white. There was an upscale restaurant about two miles away, and since I'd heard it was a good place to work, I was anxious to turn sixteen so I could get a job there. I wanted a car, but my parents said I had to earn it.

The day after my birthday, I rode my bike to the restaurant, went through the front door, and asked a woman who was greeting lunch-time customers how I could apply for a job. She said the place needed a dishwasher, and then she led me through the restaurant's dim interior, which was full of well-dressed diners.

"That's Jerry, the head cook," she said, pointing to a man who was flipping burgers and steaks at a grill. I noticed that the grill had flames above the meat, instead of below it.

Jerry paused to say that I should've come in some other time than the "lunch rush," but that I could go and wait for him in a back room. He pointed the way with a pair of blood-soaked metal tongs. A few minutes later, he came back, asked my name and where I lived, whether I was willing to work hard, and whether I could start today.

After nodding once in response to each of my affirmative answers, Jerry handed me a form, shook my hand, and pointed down a set of stairs. "Go get changed," he said. "See you in a minute, Jim over there will teach you what to do."

Jim was a middle-aged man who must've been a "dishwasher," since that's what he was doing. He seemed too busy to even acknowledge my presence.

It was my first real job, and it didn't take me long to become an able kitchen worker. Every single person working in the restaurant was white, and nearly all of the customers were too, though that fact didn't occur to me at the time; it just seemed normal. What did take me awhile to get used to, though, was being ordered around by people who seemed so much less intelligent than me.

The cooks and waitresses, the bartenders, the "hostess," even the manager--most of them seemed to swear constantly, and they said a lot of things that I just knew were stupid things to say. I often sat down and talked with them, sometimes to fold cloth napkins or fill salt and pepper shakers, sometimes just because business was so slow that there was nothing else to do. Compared to my parents and their friends, and even to the teachers and other students at my high school, most of these people generally seemed so uninformed, so unwilling to think through things, so . . . stupid.

I didn’t think of myself as an especially smart person, but as I worked behind the scenes of this restaurant, I learned to watch what I said and how I said it, so that the workers there wouldn't call me a "smart ass." When we talked about things like politics, or movies, or TV shows, or the various topics that made up the "news," I developed the strategy of literally biting my tongue.

There were other times, though, when I didn't have to do that, because I simply had nothing to say. I was shy around the women, who sometimes tried, but mostly failed, to get me to talk. The restaurant’s other suburban-teenager workers were all guys like me, and we found it easier to feel a part of things when the men started talking.

These men--cooks and dishwashers, bus "boys," bartenders, and managers--all traveled in from the city, since they couldn't afford the kinds of houses that were nearby. They usually talked about their outside interests, like spectator sports, or the cars they were rebuilding, or the weekly card games they played, or the bowling leagues they'd joined. Whenever that happened, I soon got lost in the intricate details. I could hardly begin to understand what was supposed to be important and what wasn't, like the values of different brands for car parts that I'd never heard of, or what kind of pitch had won the previous night's baseball game, or the types of oil used on the lanes at different bowling places.

These restaurant men often joked with me and each other about my efforts to keep up with their conversations. Although I didn't realize it at the time, they were too kind to call me "stupid." I in turn never thought to be impressed by their capacity to analyze and understand the intricacies of their interests.

They also displayed their analytical skills when they talked about the work they did in the restaurant, and about how the restaurant itself was run, but again, I never thought of their often startling insights in these areas as evidence of their intellectual capacity. "Smart" was a word for people who didn't swear a lot, and who didn't have long, detailed conversations about cars and bowling and baseball games. "Smart" was for people who didn't work in restaurants.

This episode in my own white life was an encounter between members of two social classes and one race. I went to a large public high school, one with, if I remember right, about 1,300 students. As I flip through my high school yearbook now, white faces smile back at me. Page after page after page of all-American white kids. I took a more careful look today, and I saw that four of the faces are recognizably black, two Asian, and one Middle Eastern. That's, what, 99.8% white?

This sea of white faces looks kind of weird to me now. Back then, though, as far as I could tell, no one found the way we’d been surrounded by whiteness worth mentioning, or even noticing.

My father's whiteness made it much easier, perhaps even possible, for him to get a "white collar" job, and then for our family to move from the city to the suburbs, and then to feel welcome and comfortable there. I now understand that black people in particular found it more difficult to get enough money together to move out there, and then to find a real estate agent willing to show them a house, and then to find a loan officer willing to set up a mortgage, and then to find neighbors who wouldn’t come up with ways of basically chasing them out.

White Americans became white by moving away from what they were before—by bleaching it out. My family’s ancestors had become “white” by dropping their nation-based, “ethnic” differences. Our whiteness eventually allowed us to make another move, away from the marked, noticeable difference of the “working class,” into what became a more “normal” life.

My own inherited whiteness landed me in a well-funded school, one with relatively well-paid teachers, smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, and an overall confidence-inspiring atmosphere. It also opened the door of a restaurant, where I became a sincere, hard-working dishwasher, as well as a friendly, companionable, well-meaning co-worker. But in a way, I was whiter than my white co-workers.

Just as my awareness of the significance of my own racial membership had been bleached away, so too did I fail to realize that I’d been trained to be a "classist" snob.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

lock their car doors

I'm sure you've noticed--when white people are driving and a black person looms into view, down go the locks.

Is it any wonder you've never seen a black hitchhiker?

Recently, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore did their best to start a national dialogue about such common white fears, having been inspired by Barack Obama's historic speech on race. Surely they deserve our gratitude for initiating this important conversation.

saturday book rec : the heart of whiteness

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

--bell hooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Check the "comments" for a note from Robert Jensen regarding this review.

Friday, April 25, 2008

white movie friday : the darjeeling limited

A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind?

--Chinua Achebe (1974)

Rushmore, released in 1998 as writer/director Wes Anderson’s second movie, has long been one of my favorites. I find the lovelorn struggles and hyperbolic ambitions of its high school striver, Max Fisher (played by a budding Jason Schwartzman) consistently clever, humane, warm, and other adjectives that often attach themselves to movies that I like.

As the years go by, though, and two more of Anderson’s films have appeared to widespread white-hipster acclaim (The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001 and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004), I can no longer overlook something blithe, annoying, and almost suffocating about Anderson's work—its whiteness. His handling and apparent attitude towards non-white people, and towards their differing perspectives, is especially disappointing, and nowhere more so than in his most recent movie, last year’s The Darjeeling Limited.

Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, and honored guest Adrien Brody, star as three American brothers who follow in the banal footsteps of innumerable white male adventurers. They climb aboard a train in India, and then meander through gorgeous, stunningly exotic scenery, which is populated by masses of undifferentiated, oddly untroubled dark people. Darjeeling provoked annoyance and dismay in the racially conscious portion of the blogosphere, and rightly so; Slate also provided an insightful analysis of Wes Anderson's whiteness. There’s more to say, though, about this movie's dressing up of white tourism as noble self-improvement.

White people make up a relatively small (though rather indeterminate) portion of the earth’s population. But in movies of this sort—from Queen of the Nile to Out of Africa, from Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Lost in Translation, from Tarzan of the Apes to Planet of the Apes—whites and whites alone occupy center stage, in lands populated almost exclusively by non-white people. Darker characters only emerge as individuals, and then only briefly, when the white central characters have some use for them.

These adventure films are “white movies” because they’re made by white people, about white people, in order to appeal to a white audience. They're also white movies because they exhibit a common, often unconscious tendency of white people, which is to "naturally" see themselves at the center of things, and to put themselves there when they’re not. This white tendency usually means that they most enjoy movies when they can imagine themselves as, or in some close relation to, the central characters. People enjoy movies when they can get involved with them, but the whites-in-foreign-lands movie usually offers few attractive points of entry for non-white viewers, even if the foreign land depicted happens to be their own.

In The Darjeeling Limited, instead of the American Wild West, the Great White North, the Dark Continent of Africa, or the Mysterious Orient, the staging ground for self-involved, self-interested white adventurism is Crowded, Dusty, Vaguely Spiritual India. After boarding the charmingly antiquated train that provides the movie’s title, the brothers Whitman (er, "White Man"?), namely Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman), busy themselves with pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, their prodigal mother, their dead father, their connection with each other, spicy interracial bathroom sex, and so on, alternately ignoring and using the Indians who continuously swirl around them.

It’s disappointing that Anderson would adopt such a tired, racist framework, because he seems so smart and talented. As Jonah Weiner writes in his analysis of the film, “for a director as willfully idiosyncratic as Anderson, it's surprising how many white-doofuses-seeking-redemption-in-the-brown-skinned-world clichés Darjeeling Limited inhabits. [This film] showcases an obnoxious element of Anderson that is rarely discussed: the clumsy, discomfiting way he stages interactions between white protagonists—typically upper-class elites—and nonwhite foils—typically working class and poor. . . . Needless to say, beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery. . . . “

The only way I might be able to defend the apparently unwitting whiteness of this movie and its characters is to see one or the other, or both, as ironic. After all, Anderson’s movies are always aware of themselves as movies, continually winking at the audience about their own staged, cinematic artifice, instead of pretending to be mere windows on the world. In this movie, for instance, the usual post-climactic character montage shows them in separate compartments of a moving train, each a clearly constructed, homemade-looking imitation of the characters’ settings—a bedroom, a hotel room, a train compartment, a bedroom, another train compartment, and so on. It’s a cleverly self-conscious twist on a cinematic storytelling convention, and it implies Anderson’s effort to let his audience in on what he’s doing as a filmmaker.

However, while Anderson does seem aware of race in a dutifully liberal way, since he makes some effort to diversify the casting choices of, at least, his secondary characters, the races he thinks about clearly do not include the white one. In the movie’s production notes, Anderson sounds just as blithely unaware as Francis, Peter, and Jack do of his privileged status as a First-World white adventurer, and just as willing to use places occupied by Other People for his own singular purposes: “I decided I would like to make a movie in India, I decided I would like to make a movie on a train, and I thought I’d like to make a movie about three brothers. Then I asked my friends Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola to join me in writing the movie and we all went to India” (Laurier). Again, Anderson may be speaking ironically here, downplaying what it took to make his movie, but the lack of interest in India and its people expressed by these words also seems expressed by his movie.

As that other, famous blog on white people wrote in its infancy, the “stuff white people like,” or at least a lot of them like, definitely includes Wes Anderson movies. But if a white person is among the fair-minded, socially conscious sort mildly satirized on that other blog, then enjoying The Darjeeling Limited requires overlooking not only its cartoonish, self-serving treatment of an entire nation and its individuals, but also the unexamined whiteness of its central characters. And to do that would surely make a person conflicted, on some level, between thinking that race doesn’t matter, and knowing that it does.

Why not take a journey, instead, into the heart of whiteness?

(here's the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

feel entitled

When I sat down in a restaurant the other day with a fellow white person, the food was good and the service was wonderful. The conversation was too, and so I felt good afterwards.

However, since I try to remain conscious about my whiteness, I also realized that the service, and maybe even the food, could easily have been different if the two of us were not white.

As I’ve noted before, a bad dynamic often exists between non-white people and those who serve them. Also, even today, many restaurants are notorious for providing worse service to non-white customers than the service that white people expect in any restaurant.

Because I am white, I tend to get better treatment in many, many other ways. And I understand now that my racial status itself has helped to make me feel entitled to good treatment. I have also come to understand that being white discourages me from realizing that many non-white people don’t expect such things in the largely white world. Those folks tend to know that because they’re not white, the treatment they receive in most areas of their lives can be hit or miss.

Many non-white people, that is, do not feel a general sense of entitlement that white people feel. White folks rarely realize that their general sense of being entitled to good treatment is a white sense of entitlement. As fair-minded people, they tend to think instead that everyone should be entitled to that which they have come to expect. What they also tend to think, falsely, is that with the exception of blatant, extremely uncommon incidents of racism, all Americans are entitled to the same treatment that they enjoy on a daily basis.

As a result of this delusional sense of entitlement, white people don't often realize that much of what comes to them does so because they are white. As I pointed out with my example above, if they go to a restaurant, they expect to almost always receive friendly, polite, reasonably quick service, something that non-white people have learned not to automatically expect. If white folks seek a mortgage or a car loan, they rarely realize that their race tends to register favorably in the eyes of the loan officer or the car salesman.

Most whites are fair-minded enough to believe that all Americans should be entitled to such things. Again, though, what they often fail to realize is that both conscious and unconscious racial discrimination is still common, and that as a result, what tends to come to whites automatically comes less often to non-whites.

So much of what whites feel entitled to, non-whites don’t.

Some of the people who best understand what being white means are those with “white” skin and features, but a non-white background. Artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, who thinks of herself as African American but can pass for white, has produced many insightful artworks and writings that explicate the ways of white folks.

In her essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” Piper explains the white sense of entitlement that tends to come over her while being (mis)taken for white:

A benefit and a disadvantage of looking white is that most people treat you as though you were white. And so, because of how you've been treated, you come to expect this sort of treatment, not perhaps, realizing that you're being treated this way because people think you're white, but rather falsely supposing that you're being treated this way because people think you are a valuable person.

So, for example, you come to expect a certain level of respect, a certain degree of attention to your voice and opinions, certain liberties of action and self-expression to which you falsely suppose yourself to be entitled because your voice, your opinion, and your conduct are valuable in themselves. To those who in fact believe (even though they would never voice this belief to themselves) that black people are not entitled to this degree of respect, attention, and liberty, the sight of a black person behaving as though she were can, indeed, look very much like arrogance. It may not occur to them that she simply does not realize that her blackness should make any difference.

Because this white form of understanding, about what comes to oneself versus what comes to others, amounts to a false view of the world, the social work scholar Ronald E. Hall has diagnosed it with an appropriate term, “Entitlement Disorder.” As Hall explains, this disorder is a delusional state inflicted upon white people (especially white men) by their having been trained into a false sense of their own individuality. The result is a “sense of entitlement that distorts their perception of fairness and impartiality.”

So if you look “white,” you might try keeping your eyes and mind open to how others treat you. And to how you expect to be treated. And to how others know they can’t expect to be treated.

You could start with your next restaurant meal. All you have to lose is your disorder.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

laugh at lol cats

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. . . . whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.

As I've said before
, I have a problem with how common it is to call attention to whiteness by laughing at it, instead of taking it seriously. However, some folks at LiveJournal have put together an irresistable photo essay, a must-see for concerned citizens everywhere.

Their postmodern montage will resonate more with people who spend a lot of time on the Internets, and thus know what LOL Cats means, and also to people who have more than a passing familiarity with the concept of "white privilege," and thus know what the Invisible Knapsack is.

But evn if ur nawt 1 of thoze peepulz, chances ar u still enjoy. Reddy? Go:

(hat tip to Baudrillard's Bastard--thanks, Ortho!)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

impose their beauty standards on others

Try this thought experiment sometime. Say the following to an American:
I'm going to say a phrase, but before I do so, you have to close your eyes, and clear your mind.

Then I'm going to ask you what picture popped into your head in response to the phrase.

Okay, got your eyes closed? Good.

Got your mind as empty as you can get it? Good.

Now here's the phrase: "All-American girl."

Okay. Now describe the girl who came to mind for you--what does she look like?
In my experience, the vast majority of respondents say things like "cheerleader," or "she has long hair." Then, usually, "blond" and "blue eyes." If the respondents are non-white, they tend to quickly use the word "white" to describe the girl who popped into their minds. If they're white, it usually takes them longer to say the word "white," but it almost always comes for them too.

What this experiment demonstrates is that the category of "All-American," the category of American "ordinary," is occupied by white people in the minds of almost all Americans, be they white or not.

The occupancy of whiteness on America's cultural center stage has widespread effects throughout nearly every element of American culture, as well as within nearly every American mind. One sad effect is the favoring of white beauty standards, even among non-white people.

A lot of Asian women, for instance, have eye operations to widen their eyes. They do so for various reasons, but a common one, sometimes conscious and sometimes subconscious, is to make their eyes less "narrow." Narrow compared to what? one might ask. How did other, wider, non-Asian eyes come to be a standard for beauty that made Asian eyes seem not normal, but narrow in comparison?

Similarly, black women straighten their hair and use skin lighteners. They do so for various reasons, but an often subconscious reason is to make their appearance more like that of white women.

Women of color can now win local, national, and international beauty contests that are not in some way specific to particular races and ethnicities. But they can only do so if their appearances match a set of criteria initially established by previous white winners, and by a broader social and cultural emphasis on the beauty of white women. This set of criteria also holds true, in most cases, for the talent portions of such contests, and any demonstrations of markedly non-white talent only win if they are toned down, smoothed out, made palatable, or "decent"--and thus in effect, "whitened" as well.

A brilliant high school student named Kiri Davis recently made a poignant, informative, seven-minute analysis of this problem, demonstrating some of the insidious effects of the imposition of white standards on non-white people:

UPDATE: Not that the imposition of beauty standards is just a black-and-white thing:

Slip of the Tongue,
directed by Karen Lum

Monday, April 21, 2008

compliment black people for being "articulate" (instead of listening to what they have to say)

Johnny is generous enough to remark upon how "articulate" I am! That makes me feel good!

--facetious black testifier,

I once went to a professional presentation given by a black woman. I was impressed by what she had to say, but I was especially taken by how she said it. Unlike previous white presenters on the topic, she spoke with obvious passion and energy, as well as what I considered a certain artful attention to her words and their arrangement.

When I met a black colleague the next day, he asked me what I'd thought of the presentation.

"I loved the way she spoke," I said. "So passionate, so, I don't know . . . eloquent!"

It wasn't until much later that I understood my co-worker's reaction: instead of saying anything in return, he looked aside with a sort of sad smile, shook his head, and then just walked away.

I felt I'd been accused of doing something wrong, but I had no idea what. How, I wondered, could expressing enthusiasm for the performance of a black person to another black person possibly justify such a reaction?

But that was exactly problem--I was praising the black speaker's performance, rather than what she had to say.

I now realize that the word "eloquent" must have sounded all too familiar, all too much like the more common word used by whites to praise black speech--"articulate." Whites often use this word to compliment a black person for speaking "standard" English, or rather, white middle-class English.

This common white behavior, that of noticing how black people speak instead of listening to what they have to say, is messed up in a lot of ways.

A few months ago, Senator Joe Biden responded to the ascendancy of fellow Democrat Barack Obama this way: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Soon enough, and rightly so, Biden had a lot of explaining to do. Not only had he used that red-flag word in this context, "articulate"; what the hell did he mean by expressing surprise that a black man would be "clean"?

Biden's subsequent statements on the matter enacted the next common white tendency in such cases--instead of expressing a new understanding of why such words strike many as offensive, he and his campaign workers repeatedly argued that he hadn't meant for them to be offensive.

"Clean is a synonym for fresh and new," Biden campaign spokesman Larry Rasky told ABC News. "And if you look at the context of the quote it's obvious that's what he meant. And certainly anybody who knows Sen. Biden wouldn't question that."

Biden then "issued" a written apology, again stressing what he'd meant to say, rather than an understanding of the effects of what he did say:

"I deeply regret any offense my remark might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Sen. Obama."

So we have at least two common white tendencies going on here. In addition to noticing how black people say things before or instead of addressing the content of what they have to say, white people often argue that their words or actions couldn’t have been racist because they hadn't meant them to be racist. Black people, on the other hand, tend to notice the effects of racist words and actions as much as the apparent intention, or lack of intention, behind them.

In terms of effects, praising blacks for their mastery of "standard" English has the effect of conveying condescension. A problem here is that those who condescend to others rarely realize they're doing so--that's rarely their "intention." But it can be the "effect."

Anna Perez, who once worked as a deputy assistant to President Bush, says praising black speech exemplifies "the soft bigotry of low expectations. It literally comes down to that. When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person."

In a recent New York Times article that explained the issue for white folks, Lynnette Clemetson offered many examples of black exasperation with such "damning praise."

For example, Clemetson writes, "The comedian and actor D. L. Hughley, a frequent guest on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, says that every time he appears on the show, where he riffs on the political and social issues of the day, people walk up to him afterward and tell him how 'smart and articulate' his comments were."

I think that while white praise of black eloquence can come across as surprise that a black person could be so articulate, it can also convey, sometimes, an appreciation for an extra element--sometimes style or grace, sometimes wit or rapidity of ideas--extra layers of oratory that white speakers commonly lack. But again, to express even that different and more nuanced form of appreciation of the way a person talks, before addressing the content of what that person says, can come across as the same, tired old white condescension. And it's not all that difficult for this white guy to see why.

Finally, aside from conveying condescending surprise that a black person could speak well, and implicitly trivializing what that person has to say, such white praise overlooks a common black ability that many whites lack, something linguists call “code switching.”

As Michelle Johnson explains in her handbook for black navigators of the white workplace, Working while Black (a book that white folks should also read),

Code switching—the term used to describe being bicultural (operating simultaneously in two different cultures)—for most blacks in the workplace is just something that we have to learn from the time we leave our parents’ home to go out into the world. Another term I’ve heard used to describe code switching is functional multilingualism. An example of that is saying “excuse me” when you accidentally bump into a white coworker and reflexively saying “my bad” when you accidentally bump into a black coworker later that day.

How many white people can easily switch between their commands of communication styles for two such differing cultural realms?

Condescending white praise is full of painful ironies. Not only does praising someone for speaking your way as well as you do trivialize whatever that person has to say; it also overlooks how in most cases, that person has mastered twice as many ways of saying it.

Update: An extensive article at Racialicious analyzing praise in these terms for Barack Obama.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

fail to realize they've been divided and conquered

In his own inimitable style (which can take some getting used to), Tim Wise breaks down a misery-inducing result of the creation of white privilege--the failure of most whites to realize that the fictional concept of race has been used as a tool against their own economic interests.

A PDF version of the transcript for Wise's entire talk is available here.

hire migrant workers

A common method migrant workers use to find work is to stand in appointed places and wait for someone to hire them for "day labor." It's ironic that while white people do most of the hiring of day laborers for work they don't want to do themselves, white people also do most of the complaining about their presence in America.

Studies demonstrate that three-quarters of day laborers in the U.S. are illegal immigrants from Central America. White Americans usually classify them, though, as "Mexicans."

In 1940, as Ariela J. Gross points out, the U.S. Census began to classify Mexican immigrants to America as "white," unless they were "definitely Indian or of other non-white race." Nevertheless, ordinary Americans went on treating Mexican Americans in general as if they were not white.

Will enough Mexicans and other Central Americans come to America so that someday, they too can finally enjoy the freedom to do the things that white Americans do?

Friday, April 18, 2008

saturday book rec : white privilege

There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.

--James Baldwin

White Privilege: Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Paula Rothenberg, is an essay collection that could serve as a handy primer on a side of white people that they should know more about. "White privilege" is a term that has gained some widespread currency over the last decade or so, thanks in large part to an especially lucid essay on the topic by Peggy McIntosh (an abbreviated version of which appears in this collection).

However, among those who concern themselves with the topic, the effectiveness of telling white people that they have unearned privilege has come into question: if white people do come to understand that they have it, how many would really be willing to give it up? And what about the other side of white privilege, the costs for whites of their racial membership? Might addressing those costs as well, or even instead, be a better way to convince white folks that they have a stake in understanding their own whiteness?

An earlier writer, James Baldwin, devoted enormous energy to getting white folks to think more deeply about the racial sides of themselves. Writing during the mid-twentieth century, Baldwin was probably the most critical, incisive, and loving observer of whiteness that white folks have ever had the opportunity to ignore. In addition to writing such renowned novels on black life as Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and on gay white life in Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin published many remarkable essays on the people he and his fellow black Americans had been studying for centuries.

Focusing with intensity and compassion on the job of waking up white folks to their own ways and to who they were, Baldwin illuminated psychic spaces that history and ideology had shut behind doors, spaces rarely explored even by whites themselves. White people in the mid-twentieth century had largely come to acknowledge that conditions for "Negroes" should improve, but for whites the problem was always about "them"--what to do with them and for them--instead of about white people, and how they needed to do some work on themselves. White people, Baldwin said, are "still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. . . . White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this--which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never--the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."

What Baldwin was asking for, far ahead of his time, was a collective release for people of all skin colors from the abuses of race, including those with hues labeled "white." White people are still labeled "white," but the significance of that status to who and what they are tends to be much more obvious to non-white people than it is to whites themselves. One result is that when white people participate in discussions of race with non-white people, the latter often feel dismayed by the lack of white self-awareness, because this lack causes all sorts of unwitting biases and blindspots.

One good starting point towards white self-awareness would be Rothenberg's collection of nineteen short essays and book excerpts. Many of today's best observers of white folks are represented here, and they discuss much more than the topic of privilege. In addition to McIntosh’s foundational essay, Richard Dyer addresses the question, “Why do most White people not see themselves as having a race?” bell hooks explains that for black people, whites do have a race; she also notes that coming to understand this critical gaze on themselves can upset white people at first, since “they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear.”

David Roediger and James Barrett explain how white people got that way in the first place, and Karen Brodkin explains how Jewish Americans in particular did it more recently. As Brodkin writes, Jewish American soldiers returning from World War II benefitted from “the most massive affirmative action program in U.S. history,” the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which were “decidedly not extended to African Americans or to women of any race.” Other key voices, such as George Lipsitz, Charles W. Mills, Robert Jensen, and Tim Wise, also provide convincing evidence of the detailed benefits enjoyed by those with exclusive membership in the great white club.

Rothenberg divides the readings into four sections, the titles of which emphasize a particular word: "the power of invisibility" (which means, as the essays in this section explain, that whites commonly fail to see themselves as white, but also that such invisibility is empowering), "the power of the past" (the historical formations of whiteness and how they still benefit white people today), "the power of privilege" (how contemporary privilege works to empower white people), and "the power of resistance" (what caring, anti-racist white people can do to counter racism).

It seems, then, that in addition to being automatically privileged, white people are very "empowered" by their whiteness. However, this point can be a tough sell to those who are just trying to get by, and who don't see how they're hurting anyone. Learning about what whiteness lends to oneself is a valuable education, but it would probably be easier to swallow if accompanied by recognition and explanation of the downsides, for whites themselves, of being classified as white. And that would mean much more than just listening to uninformed complaints about the "reverse discrimination" of such things as affirmative action. Rothenberg is right to note in her introduction that "white privilege is the other side of racism," that it's the counterpart to racial oppression for non-white people. But whiteness has an opposing side for whites themselves, something that naturalist writer Wendell Berry described almost forty years ago as "white misery."

As Barack Obama noted in his recent speech on race in America, "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." Obama went further than perhaps any major politician ever has in acknowledging the anger and resentment of both non-white and white people. I think he rightly cited anger across the racial divide as a distraction from the real "culprit" that increasingly assaults most American lives, a class-based system that increasingly favors the rich, takes from everyone else, and uses racial issues to distract those who might otherwise band together and oppose those above them.

But even in such a detailed dissection of current racial divisions, Obama had little time or space to address the misery brought on white people by their own racial membership. Failing to see the root causes of their own economic decline, and instead blaming their dwindling opportunities on the threat of blacks or Mexicans taking their jobs, is only one of many misery-inducing white misconceptions.

Nevertheless, among the many factors impinging on the lives of various sorts of white people, their racial membership itself is something that they usually take for granted rather than understand. And they do so even though their whiteness is something that almost always counts in their favor, rather than against them. The authors in Rothenberg’s book offer many avenues toward understanding by whites of their own privilege. I do wonder, though, what more it would take to push them beyond merely counting their blessings.

PS--If you're still wondering just what "white privilege" is, you could take a look at the 26 examples listed in this online abbreviation of Peggy McIntosh's essay; the full version has a list of 46 examples.

white movie friday : dangerous minds

It may seem to white folks like a strange thing to say, but a lot of movies out there are especially white movies. Unfortunately, what's especially white about them rarely gets any attention. In an ongoing attempt to address this cinematic attention deficit disorder, I plan to devote Fridays to reviews of especially white movies (and by the way, watch for "saturday book rec" again tomorrow).

My inaugural selection is an especially effective Hollywood portrayal of white do-gooderism, Dangerous Minds.

In this 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle, which is based on a true story, LouAnne Johnson is a white ex-marine who finds a job teaching English in an inner-city high school. Hired on the spot, Johnson's job is to deal not only with the "dangerous minds" lurking inside the skulls of inner-city teenagers. The one class she teaches is filled with what she fearfully labels "the rejects from Hell," the students who are in this "special" class because they couldn't make it in the regular ones. Putting on her tough-guy face, along with her marine boots, Johnson tries to connect with the students, almost all of whom are black or Hispanic (her two or three white students continually sulk in the background, never emerging as named, full-fledged characters).

When the students yawn and snarl at Johnson's attempts to get them interested in traditional poetry authored by dead white men, she takes what's portrayed as a radical step, junking the textbook and switching to music. It never seems to occur to Johnson that her students already listen to music, and that much of it has lyrics worthy of study. Instead, her choice is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan, another old white guy the students have never heard of.

Pfeiffer’s Johnson does try to connect--she chooses Dylan’s song because it’s about drugs, a topic she knows the kids can “relate to.” But as Roger Ebert astutely notes in his review of Dangerous Minds, when the real LouAnne Johnson switched from poetry to lyrics, she chose rap lyrics. Shifting rather deftly out of his own white perspective, Ebert also writes:
Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don't care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out. Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.
Throughout the movie, Pfeiffer’s character continually holds up white culture and values as the ones the students should aspire to, denigrating pretty much everything about their current lives and backgrounds in the process. In order to further “get through” to her students, who start warming up to her after she demonstrates her martial arts skills by flipping a couple of the bigger boys, Johnson takes to bribing them. She tosses them candy bars for correct answers, takes them on an unauthorized class trip to an amusement park, and then announces that if they win a contest that involves matching Bob Dylan’s words with those of another dead white guy, Dylan Thomas, they could win the grand prize, dinner with her at an expensive white-tablecloth, white-customer, white-food restaurant.

Along the way, various non-white student personalities emerge, including, as Ebert describes them, “Emilio, the obligatory rebellious class leader (Wade Dominguez), and Raul, the class brain (Renoly Santiago), and Callie (Bruklin Harris), the bright girl who gets pregnant and is headed for ‘unwed mothers classes’ when Johnson discovers she can stay in school if she wants to.” Johnson wedges her way into these students’ personal lives, doing all she can both inside and outside classroom to save them, apparently from themselves.

In her discussion of white efforts to empathize with the difficulties of non-white people, African American philosopher Janine Jones labels people like this movie’s LuAnne Johnson “goodwill whites.” Such people are praiseworthy for the concern they have for others, but what they don’t realize is that their efforts amount to more than just helping others—they’re trying to help others become more like themselves. And this means assuming, unconsciously in most cases, that their beliefs and ways are the “best” beliefs and ways, rather than just another set of beliefs and ways. According to Jones, goodwill whites offer their assistance from such a condescending position because they don’t actually see themselves as white, and thus don’t understand how that has come to inform so deeply who and what they are. For goodwill whites, Jones writes,
race is something that others possess. Whites are just ‘normal.’ Whites’ inability to form the belief that they are white skews the nature of the relationships that exist between whites and blacks. It affects their ability to empathize because they are unable to import an ingredient essential to empathy: an appreciation of their own situation.
Educational theorist Henry Giroux has written insightfully about Dangerous Minds, demonstrating that this movie is not only about a white teacher trying to do some good in a non-white world. It's also about whiteness itself--how white assumptions and values subtly, and not so subtly, determine both Johnson's teaching methods and the movie's overall message about race. As Giroux writes, "the film attempts to represent `whiteness' as the archetype of rationality, authority, and cultural standards." Johnson could have been portrayed as willing to learn from her students (and from their parents when she visits them), particularly what they could teach her about her own values and ways as just another set of values and ways, rather than "better" ones. And perhaps this is what the real-life Johnson did, given her willingness to teach her students about poetry with their own music. But the cinematic version of Johnson remains, from beginning to end, entirely confident that the outside world she is trying to expose her students to, a world that is markedly white compared to theirs, is an entirely better world than theirs.

Ultimately, the worst thing implied by this film's portrayal of Johnson as a "goodwill white" is that the world outside the ghetto offered to these students, and to its viewers, is a world full of people who don’t have “dangerous minds.” People who are better, that is, than those filling the seats in underfunded, poverty-stricken, racially oppressed inner-city classrooms.


I'd like to offer the movie's trailer here, but it doesn't seem to be available online, so here's a music video that came out of the film. It contains scenes from the film set to 2Pac/Tupac's "Changes."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

argue that their ancestors had it bad too

When African Americans or others cite slavery as one of the root causes for current disparities in living conditions between black and whites, many whites bring up their own ancestors. "My Irish ancestors suffered too," they'll say. Or if they're among the few whites who know something about the history of whiteness, they'll say, "The Italians weren't considered white when they got here--the word 'black' was actually used for them too!"

What these white people are saying is that their people generally worked their way up to the level of other whites, so why can't the black community too?

This claim overlooks, of course, the fact that nearly all people who became white "emigrated," a word that means they came by choice. It also trivializes the brutal realities of the Middle Passage and of slavery in America.

Do the whites of today who play this ethnicity card compare the sufferings of their opportunity-seeking ancestors to those of kidnapped black ancestors because the collective white psyche is so repressive and forgetful?

Update: See Richard Jensen on the prevalence of an apparent myth among Irish Americans, that their ancestors commonly faced signs saying "Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply!":

The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." This "NINA" slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a "golden mountain" or had "streets paved with gold." But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.

The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

give birth to black children

Did you ever notice that white women can give birth to black babies, but black women can't give birth to white ones?

If a white woman gives birth to a baby that looks more or less black because the father was black, most people today still say the baby is black. But if a black woman gives birth to a baby whose father was white, that baby also becomes a black person, whether the baby looks black or could pass for white.

In 1996, James McBride published a popular book called The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. Why is it that a white person could never write a tribute to his or her black mother?

Recently, I thought this paradox might be changing when I saw this headline: "Black Women Giving Birth to White Babies on the Rise." However, as the article explains, this phenomenon is happening in Europe, not America, and furthermore, it doesn't mean that the age-old idea that black women can't give birth to white babies is fading away, even in Europe. Instead, as the article also explains, the "number of Black women who are giving birth to White babies has been on the rise [because of] the increasing number of infertile White couples choosing cross racial surrogacy across Europe. . ."

Presumably it's still the case, then, that if a "Black" woman in Europe had a child through normal reproductive methods whose father was "White," the child would be considered "Black," and if a "White" woman had a child with a "Black" man that way, that child would also be considered "Black." (The comments below that article bear this out--notice how many people there were initially shocked by the headline.)

Such bizarre differences would seem to expose the absurdity of the whole notion of "race," and one might hope that we're moving beyond such double standards. However, despite the inclusion of a new check-box on the most recent (2000) U.S. Census, which for the first time allowed people to declare themselves biracial or multiracial, the tenacious grip of traditional racial categories remains strong. This racial conundrum also determines how we label and perceive the man who seems likely to be our next president, Barack Obama.

Obama's parents were a white woman from Kansas and a black man born in Kenya. He may well have checked the multiracial box on the 2000 census, but in the eyes of America, and no doubt the world, he would still be America's first "black" president. A label that we almost never hear for him is the accurate one, America's first potential "biracial" president.

Obama's mother is white, but we usually consider him black, especially because he looks black. But if his mother were black and his father white, we would still consider him a "black man," whether he looked black or white. We perceive our possible future leader through the lens of this double standard because it's still the case that white women can have black babies, but black women can't have white ones.

Is your head spinning too?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

doubt black achievement

When white Americans encounter black Americans who have achieved educational or professional success, they tend to doubt that success. They do so because the ordinary white mind transmogrifies the notion of "affirmative action" into "giving unqualified black people an advantage."

There's a sad irony in the white doubting of black achievement. Black professionals know that others doubt their qualifications and abilities, so they tend to make absolutely certain that they are qualified and able. Personally, if I had a choice between two doctors, and all I knew was that one was black and one was white, I would choose the black one:
One way that African Americans consume personal energy is in determined efforts to succeed in the face of racism, including overachieving to prove their worth in the face of whites' questioning black ability and competence. . . Several respondents felt that it was common for black employees to prove themselves in white settings to overachieve, doing more than white employees with similar resources and credentials would have to do.

This extra pressure dealt with by successful African Americans does have an upside for them, as one law professor in the study notes: "Once you succeed, you know that you have the ability. There's no question about it, because you've had to do a little bit more than the next guy to even get through."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

party in talking clusters

This image is a recent painting entitled "Party," by the German-Chinese artist and designer Yang Liu. In her fascinating series, "East Versus West," Liu illustrates various behavioral differences between German and Chinese culture. These include contrasting ways of eating, standing in line, expressing anger, dealing with problems, and many more. Each of the works consists of a blue "Western" side and a red "Eastern" side.

Throughout the series, which consists of thirty or so paintings, the blue sides also correspond very well with common white American behaviors. At parties, white folks do tend to talk together in small, separate clusters (especially, for some reason, in the kitchen). East Asian parties tend to consist of one large group, all partying together--eating; drinking; singing songs, both together and individually for the group; and leaving more or less together, all at the same time. African American parties tend to consist of loud music (and thus little talking), a lot of dancing, and a lot of food.

I can personally attest to the partying styles of these three different groups, and I should add that there's at least one more type of white party (a type more often indulged in by whites with money), the dinner party. At these less common gatherings, if the group is small enough, white folks interact together more as one group, like the partiers represented in Liu's red square. I should also add that "Asian" in this case often differs from "Asian American"; depending on the degree of assimilation to American culture by East Asian immigrants and their descendents, their parties can resemble the red square above instead of the blue one. And if they're young enough, thanks especially to the widespread popularity of hip hop culture, their parties can resemble African American parties, which probably deserve a differently colored square of their own.

In her book It's the Little Things, Lena Williams describes the contrast between white and black parties:
At white parties, people arrive on time prepared to wine, dine, and talk about office politics, child-care problems, summer rentals, and maybe--to liven things up--the local sports teams. They stick around for two hours at most, then they're off to the suburbs to relieve the baby-sitter. Eat beforehand, 'cause all you're going to be served, most likely, is finger food or hors d'oeuvres. When, and if, there is dancing, any black person present is expected to get out on the dance floor and perform for the whites gathered.

Blacks, however, don't consider a social gathering a "PAAR-TAY!" unless there's music and dancing. No respectable black person would arrive at a party on time. [Talk] is usually minimal. Besides, it's hard to carry on a conversation when the music is at an earsplitting volume and folks are shaking booty in your face. Three to four hours later, we might be ready to wind down, or maybe not. And one expects a spread--which means ham, chicken, cheese, crackers, chips and dip, not to mention a variety of desserts. Anything less would be uncivilized.
The common white party style seems to reflect the average white person's more individualistic sense of him or herself. As scholar Ross Chambers puts it, whites perceive themselves "as individual historical agents whose unclassifiable difference from one another is their most prominent trait. Whiteness itself is thus atomized into invisibility through the individualization of white people."

One of Liu's other paintings, "Way of Life," captures well this difference between white and non-white identities (again, blue is the Western side, red the Eastern):

Since white people don't usually think of themselves as members of a racial group, that is, since they usually lack a group-oriented identity, it makes sense that their social gatherings would be more fragmented. And because, throughout the developing history of race relations, bodily qualities have been relegated to "inferior," non-white groups, and mental, rational qualities to the "superior" white group, whites are trapped inside bodies that don't feel much freedom to move. So it also makes sense that the amount of eating, dancing, and booty-shaking at their parties is relatively limited.

ignore our holocausts

Somewhere down in our guts we understand that in an oppressive system such as white supremacy, the unearned privileges with which we live are based on the suffering of others. We know we have things because others don’t. We may not want to give voice to that feeling, but it is impossible to ignore it completely. And it doesn’t feel good, in part because to be fully human is to seek communion with others, not separation from them, and one cannot find that connection under conditions in which unjust power brings unearned privilege. To be fully human is to reject a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else’s pain.
--Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness

If white folks decide to raise an unpleasant topic or issue, they often preface what they're about to say with these apologetic words: "Now, this might be disturbing, but . . . " People also receive warnings about movies this way, and certain web sites, as well as nearly anything having to do with race. In our current time of war, press photographers are forbidden from "disturbing" us with photographs of the coffins of returning soldiers. Graphic imagery from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also doesn't reach us, since reporters there are "embedded," and thus effectively blinded and muzzled. The horrific images from Abu Ghraib were a mistake, a leak, something else that wasn't supposed to disturb our complacent calm.

But really, what's so wrong with being disturbed? Shouldn't Americans be more disturbed, more in touch with realities that have to do with themselves and that are disturbing?

Shouldn't we prefer, for instance, real images from our current wars to the one that's become its poster image, the photo of an all-American (and thus, white) soldier emanating grit, pride, and resilience?

The man in this photo, US Marine Lance-Corporal Blake Miller, was photographed during the battle of Fallujah, an event that took the lives of up to 50 US troops, an estimated 1,200 "insurgents," and an uncounted number of civilians. One thing that I find interesting about this photo, genuinely "disturbing" in fact, is that the man it depicts has since spoken out about it, and he says that he felt nothing at the time like the stoic fortitude that patriotic fellow Americans read into his portrait.
The former Marine says he now questions the US tactics and believes troops should have been withdrawn some time ago. He said: "When I was in the service my opinion was whatever the Commander-in-Chief's opinion was. But after I got out, I started to think about it. The biggest question I have now is how you can make a war on an entire country when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew some stuff up and Iraq started a war against us because of that." (commondreams)
So while our current war should be disturbing and upsetting more of us than it is, we also shouldn't be holding up all-American white men as the most exemplary fighters in it, especially when they hated being there and now regret it deeply, and especially when non-whites comprise such a large percentage of U.S. fighting forces, and especially when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fighters and citizens are being killed by our soldiers' bullets and bombs. Isn't that a "holocaust" that we're ignoring?

But let's go back, as we always seem to do, to "the Holocaust." Now that's something we all seem to agree is very disturbing, and yet, it's also a major disturbance that Americans all seem to know about, very well. We don't turn away from that one. Could it be that one reason we stay focused on this one is so that we can avoid focusing on other ones?

I've also been wondering, when it comes to white people, do they have some different feelings about the Holocaust from those of other Americans?

Consider for a minute that term, "the Holocaust." White people in particular rarely question the capital H, nor the definite article in front of it--the "the," that is. The implication of that capital H, and of "the" (instead of "a" or "an"), is that there was only one holocaust in recorded history, only one genocide. Or that if there were more, this one is the one most worth remembering. The word "holocaust" comes from two Greek words meaning "completely" and "burnt." Six million or more Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and others died in an incredibly organized, systematic attempt to burn them completely from the earth, and that focused intentionality is indeed peculiarly horrific.

But if white Americans ever stopped to think about the phrase "the Holocaust" in these etymological terms, and then understood how that phrase implies the event's absolute singularity, something buried deep inside themselves would probably start to stir. It might even feel like indigestion. Unsettling feelings would likely arise because goodhearted, reasonably well-informed European Americans are conflicted about this issue. They accept the presumption of absolute uniqueness presented by that term, "the Holocaust," but they also know that unwarranted killing of millions, both deliberately and indirectly, has happened before. And not on some other continent, but here, on their land, and to more than just one group of people. And not at the hands of some other, seemingly crazed people, whose apparent collective insanity is evoked with the mere utterance of one word, "Nazis." Rather, these American holocausts were meted out by people like themselves, at least in name--"white" people.

In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison won enormous acclaim with her depiction of a victim of one of these holocausts. When Sethe, an escaped slave, realizes that she's about to be captured and sent back, she decides to kill her own daughter, rather than have her grow up as a slave. To reveal that about the novel's plot isn't really giving anything away, at least not to those who know some history. In 1856, a woman named Margaret Garner escaped as far North as Ohio, with her husband Robert and their four children. As captors surrounded her, she managed to injure several of her children, and then she killed her two-year old daughter with a butcher knife.

That's a tragic death, a most singular murder, but it's not a holocaust. It is, however, part of a larger, prolonged, mass death at the hands of others, a mass death large enough in number that it could be called a holocaust. When white people pick up Morrison's novel and see that it's dedicated to "Sixty million, and more," they may have no idea what that number means, nor that the child killed in the novel was based on one of them, one of the estimated sixty million Africans and their descendants killed in the giant free labor system known as the slave trade. This free labor system did include Africans who kidnapped and sold other Africans, but the majority of the slavetraders, owners, and beneficiaries were white people, who used all that free labor to enrich their social institutions and their own future descendants.

These are horrible, guilt-inducing facts for white Americans, who would rather just forget. In a way, though, they can't, because a countervailing American emphasis on fairness and justice and equality means that such collective racial crimes should be acknowledged, and even compensated for. White Americans, then, are conflicted about their history, feeling a moral confusion that they usually just repress, mostly so that they can carry on with feeling good about themselves.

If you're white, you also might find another bad patch of American history "disturbing." Ask a white American sometime, "What group of people used to own the land you're standing on, or the land that your house or apartment is squatting on?" "Oh, Indians," they're likely to say. "Native Americans." Then ask, "Well, which ones? What was their name, the name of the tribe that lived on the land you now live on? The land that your white ancestors tricked away or just plain stole?"

Embarrassed that I myself don't know the answers to these questions, I asked them recently to a fellow white American. He shrugged them off, saying with a wave of his hand, "Yeah, it was all terrible, it's true, but doesn't it always happen? Isn't history everywhere the history of taking land from other people? And anyway," he went on, "didn't a lot of Indians die of diseases and such?"

Apparently a lot of Indians did die that way, perhaps the majority of them. But enough were left to resist "Manifest Destiny," the seemingly organic Westward expansion across the continent that, according to historian Reginald Horsman, was loudly proclaimed at the time as the inevitable destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. That is, the real Americans, the white race, an exclusive club which immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other European countries were gradually allowed to join. "The United States," Horsman writes in his book about race in the mid-1800s, "shaped policies which reflected a belief in the racial inferiority and expendability of Indians, Mexicans, and other inferior races, and which looked forward to a world shaped and dominated by a superior American Anglo-Saxon race."

These ugly historical realities are difficult for the collective white psyche to absorb, too much, really, to even acknowledge. For to acknowledge the enormity of such crimes and, especially, the part they played in elevating white Americans as a whole to the top of the racial hierarchy, where they still reside in so many respects--to acknowledge that would mean acknowledging that America is not the benevolent, fair-minded, justice-seeking land of the free that it claims to be. It would mean acknowledging that it's actually been a brutally unfair place, and that it remains so. And if that's true, then our own moral standing in racial terms, as "white" Americans, isn't as clean as it seems to be.

No wonder us white folks are so repressed. No wonder some of us lash out.

UPDATE: For a solid explanation of how white denial of historical significance works on a broader scale, see Kendall Clark's argument that "one of the ongoing privileges of White Empire is its careful, unblinking avoidance of any responsibility for past horrors." ("The Global Privileges of Whiteness")
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