Friday, May 30, 2008

avoid the topic of race, especially whiteness

According to the hit counter at the very bottom of this page, this blog's readership is growing. Especially in the last couple of days. Recently the counter has been showing about five hundred page views per day, but that jumped to a couple of thousand in the past day or so.

A look through the counter's statistics reveals that the jump was mostly caused by the positive mention of this site by a reader in a discussion thread at another, very popular site, Jezebel, a fun and useful site that covers “Celebrity, Sex, [and] Fashion. Without Airbrushing.” I think it was a reader there named Sarah MC who first mentioned my blog (thanks, Sarah!), and then kept praising it throughout the 500-comment-long thread. Other readers then reported coming here to Stuff White People Do, or having seen it, and from what I could tell, black readers said they like it, and white readers mostly said, "Uh, thanks but no thanks."

I've been wondering who my readers are, and from the comments and emails I get, it looks like most of the regular and enthusiastic ones are not white people. Which is great, I welcome all readers, of course. But I also wonder--if the vast majority of Internet users in America are white, why is it that the majority of the enthusiastic readers of a blog on whiteness are not white?

I think it’s because white people will occasionally discuss non-white people, especially among themselves, but they’re not used to talking or thinking about whiteness. And when they are asked to think or talk about it seriously, doing so makes them feel attacked, guilty, confused, or angry. And so they turn away—“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Several readers at Jezebel confused this blog with Stuff White People Like, and that’s my fault for choosing such a similar name. I initially meant to refer to that blog with this one in a sort of corrective way, because that one trivializes serious racial problems—a lot of white people read it, but I doubt they’re being led by it to think about whiteness in more productive ways.

One Jezebel reader, apparently white, wrote in that comment thread about my blog, "I appreciate the point of this blog but find it's [sic] tone a tad 'White people should hate themselves just for being white' for my taste."

Comments like that remind me of a reader who used to comment here a lot, a white man who blogs under the name of Sagacious Hillbilly. I had a lot of respect for SH (as I called him), because although this blog made him uncomfortable, he kept coming back—for awhile, at least. He also said he's had extensive, long-term relationships with black and Indian friends, and it sounds like he’s done some racial justice work. If his blog is any indication, he also supports Barack Obama, though not necessarily because he’s black.

Sagacious Hillbilly also put me on his blog roll. However, instead of listing this blog with its correct title, he wrote, “Silly Whitey.”

At one point, when I put together one of my more abstract posts about the whole concept itself of whiteness, and about its ultimate emptiness AS a concept, SH announced in the comments that he’d had enough:


When you started this blog, you addressed some real issues. [They] were blatant and obvious. Sadly, you have become reduced to simply taking low level pot shots at stereotypes and other ridiculous exagerations.

Your self hared has really become absurd.

I'm done with this racist display of self loathing.

Wallow in it with your pitiful and equally self hating pseudo intellectual friends.

I haven’t heard from SH since. My blog is still on his blog roll, though he’s added some words to it—“Silly Whitey—a study in self loathing and hatred.”

I think SH's response to this blog is a pretty common one from white folks who encounter it. I’m glad that a lot of people of color and some white people are reading Stuff White People Do regularly, and I appreciate the positive interaction.

I’m left to wonder, though, what is it about my blog that provokes such common white responses? Should I make it more obvious that I don’t hate myself and other white people, and that I’m instead talking about whiteness, and how people are trained to be white, and how that causes all sorts of problems for both white and non-white people?

The problem I’m seeing isn’t surprising, since white people don’t like to talk about race, especially out in the open, and they especially don’t like to talk about whiteness, whether out in the open or in private. But I’m wondering, is it worthwhile to search for ways to attract more white folks? If so, what would it take to do that?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

name foreign places after themselves

Africa is a European invention. When the Romans finally defeated Carthage, they turned the place into a province and called it Africa. Originally this referred only to a small part of Tunisia and Algeria, but it later became the name of the entire continent. The same happened to Asia, another province of the Roman Empire, in what is now called the Near East. The names of the two other continents demonstrate even more obviously their European origins: America was named after an Italian traveler . . . and the term Australia comes from the fact that European voyagers who had some vague idea about the existence of this continent but knew nothing about it, called it "The Unknown Southland," Terra australis incognita.

If you go to Google today, you'll see the image above of mountain-climbers in the logo. If you scroll over this image, you'll be told that today is the "Anniversary of the First Ascent of Mount Everest." By using this name for the mountain and by celebrating its first ascent by Europeans, Google is promoting an outmoded, Eurocentric and colonialist view of the world.

This Eurocentric perspective, which pervades "Western" societies and much of the rest of the world, promotes an unthinking conception of Europe as the figurative and even literal center of the world. One of the ways it does this is by applying white Western names to non-Western sites, names that become largely unquestioned standards, obliterating local non-white perspectives and histories.

The mountain we think of as "Mount Everest" straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet, and the people of both of those places have their own names for it--Chomolungma for the Tibetans and Sagarmatha for the Nepalis. But the world knows it as Mount Everest because in the 1860s, it was given that name by Andrew Waugh, a British surveyor who helped with the imperial conquest of India, in honor of his predecessor, George Everest.

I noted a couple of days ago that Asian Americans usually don't like to be asked where they're from. Today I'll add that those with descendants from East Asia also don't like to be called "Orientals." "Orientals are rugs, not people," as an activist bumper sticker used to say. Fortunately, this particular tendency that some white people still enact doesn't seem to merit a blog post of its own, because the term is dying out.

The problem with the word "Oriental" is similar to the problem with the mountain name, "Mount Everest." Both are blithely Eurocentric, implying that it's the European perspective that matters, and that Europe is the center of the earth, and that European "civilization" is the pinnacle of human achievement. "The East" and "The Far East" are also problematic--east of what? Why, of Europe, of course. The word "Oriental" derives from a root meaning of "east," and "rising," as in the sun (people also "oriented" themselves with the position of the sun). The sun rises in the East, and the places and people over there were east of those in Europe, so they became the Orient and Orientals.

Google's celebration today of the ascent of "Mount Everest" promotes a similarly Eurocentric mindset, because it implies that the most important thing about that mountain is its ascent by European explorers. Never mind, Google implies, along with the rest of the West, whatever the mountain might mean to people on either side of it.

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari is a Tibetan who works with the Dali Lama, and like other Tibetans, he's called for changing the mountain's name. According to World View Magazine, which published his recent plea in this regard, Gyaltsen Gyari was born "in Eastern Tibet and recognized at the age of three as a reincarnate lama, [and] he is also known as Gyari Rinpoche."

Gyaltsent Gyari writes,

It is my view that the concept of renaming places is very much a part of a colonial and imperialistic legacy, which must come to an end. Besides the fact that Chomolungma is the tallest mountain in the world, it is also a very holy place to the Tibetan people, and I believe that places with historical and religious significance should be referred to by their original names. . . .*

Calling a holy mountain by its original name has significance to me and to the Tibetan people, particularly at a time when the very survival of the Tibetan culture, language and identity is at stake. By ensuring that our sacred places are named in our own language, we reaffirm our connection to our land and acknowledge that the great Himalaya, which I came to know so intimately during my journey into exile, has a greater and deeper meaning to Tibetans, beyond its dizzying grandeur.

For Americans, there is a familiar precedent for reclaiming original geographic names. In Alaska, the largest mountain was dubbed Mount McKinley in 1896, after the man who was about to become president. Many locals, however, knew it as Denali, or "the great one," as the Athabasca Indians called it. In 1980, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to Denali, which the state government of Alaska now recognizes as its official name. This example should remind us that when we think of the mountain in Nepal and Tibet as Mount Everest, we should at least keep in mind that there are other, less imposed names for it.

Aside from using the name Mount Everest and celebrating a Westerner's conquest of the mountain by climbing it, Google also promotes a Eurocentric world-view in another way. If you go to their search site's Images section and type in "world map," hundreds of maps appear. Among these, it's difficult to find one that isn't literally Eurocentric, with Europe right at the center of things--the center of everything.

Perhaps there's little Google can do with such map searches to avoid promoting a Eurocentric, colonialist view of the world. However, Google should avoid promotions like today's image on its front page, including what the mouse scroll-over says from a particularly "Western" view about a particularly "Eastern" mountain. I sent a message asking that they do so, and you can send a request or demand here and/or here.

* I wonder, though, how the Nepalese would respond to a widespread adoption of the Tibetan name for a mountain that's in both countries.

[Hat-tip to Katie at KitKat's Critique]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

refuse to listen to black anger

[Update: This post deals with the difficult issue of racial anger. I've revised it somewhat in light of reader comments below, but I'm still not sure it says what it says accurately and fairly, especially in my efforts to account for common forms of black feelings and behavior. I do think there are common white and common black differences in this area, and I'm trying to spell out, especially, some common and domineering white modes of thought and behavior that often arise during conversations about race with non-white people. Finally, I'll add here that in a post entitled "The Privilege of Politeness" at Angry Black Woman, Naamen Gobert Tilahun says some of things I was trying to say here better than I did.]

Because black people have long had to study white people if they want to be safe and successful, and because white people rarely have to study black people if they want to be safe and successful, whites tend to have a harder time understanding blacks than most blacks do understanding whites.

White people also usually have a hard time realizing that in some ways, black people tend to see the world differently from how they do. Consequently, white people often get confused, dismissive, or frustrated if black people insist that they experience the world differently, and therefore see it differently.

If black people also insist that a historical legacy of mistreatment at the hands of whites also has a lingering effect on how they see the world, things can get so far beyond the range of white ways of seeing the world that they usually change the subject, or throw their hands up and turn away, or even leave the room.

As they do so, over these and other racial disagreements, these white people often say something like, "If you're going to get emotional, then I can't discuss this with you." For white people in such discussions, anger tends to be a dangerous force that blows out the light of reason. They may not realize it (middle-class ones, especially), but white people often insist that such discussions be conducted in their way. Their calm, rational way, that is, and if they're talking to someone raised to discuss "hot topics" in an more emotionally engaged way, they not that way. (And guess who's automatically at an advantage in calm, rational discussions, if they've been raised to discuss controversial issues in a calm, rational way?)

So white people can get confused or fed up in discussions about things that make some black people angry. That's understandable, really, when you realize that whites have been trained to think that the way they see the world is pretty much the normal way--the way everyone else does, unless there's something wrong with them. Unless they're "biased," or "subjective," something that (from a white perspective) being white supposedly doesn't do to a person, and something that being black supposedly does do to a person.

This unconscious presumption of white objectivity, as opposed to supposed non-white subjectivity, is also why white people who talk about racial issues get a lot more attention and credit from white listeners than people of color who say the same damn thing. This is the kind of blindly applied double standard that also happens with supposedly objective male speakers or discussants and supposedly subjective female speakers or discussants.

So because whites tend to be wrapped up this way--in their supposedly objective, ironically racialized perspective--one of the things that they never seem to quite get is collective black anger (which is not to say, by the way, that there are no common forms of collective white anger, such as ill-informed notions about affirmative action). This common white obstinacy became openly apparent when Barack Obama's pastor, Reverend Wright, expressed anger at America, and made an emotional call to God to "damn America" unless it started treating black people better.

Reverend Wright later said things that struck most white folks as so outlandish that Obama finally bowed to pressure by repudiating both the words and the man. The supposedly important connection between Wright and Obama is old news by now (not that some white people are going to let Wright and his words go away), but many white people still wonder—if Wright said things like that in church, then why did Obama attend that church for twenty years? I think it's probably because in that church, Obama cut Reverend Wright some slack.

I think that if Obama was in church on that particular day, he and the other people there would've understood that Wright wasn't actually asking God to damn America. Instead, one of a black reverend's functions in such moments, in many black churches, where people aren't so pent up and repressed that they've pretty much separated their emotional life from their religious life (if they have a religious life)--in those kinds of moments, what Wright may have been doing was helping his congregation express some of its anger. (Or maybe not--this is conjecture on my part.)

And as I understand it, yes, black people still do have a lot to feel angry about, and no, many of them won’t just bury or try to forget that anger like white people wish they would. Sometimes they let it out, which is probably healthy, and sometimes when they do so, they say things they wouldn’t say at other times.

White people often forgive their own friends or family members for saying things in anger that they wouldn't say otherwise. Why can't they do the same for black people?

I think they can't because it is "black anger," which as I wrote above, white people don’t understand, and sometimes don’t want to face up to, especially if they feel like a target for that anger. But white people also find it difficult to overlook black anger in a collective sense because white anger, when it's expressed, is more contained, more localized, and, from a white perspective, more individualized.

Most white people don't have a collective sense of themselves as a group nearly as much as many black people do (thanks largely to whites grouping blacks together for several centuries now, in order to treat them accordingly). So while white people get angry at work, or on the road, or in their homes or during a baseball game, they rarely get angry together as a racial group. That's because white solidarity has been atomized into supposedly non-white individuality. And also, after all, considering that as a group, whites are still by and large on top in American society, what do whites realitically have to get angry together over, as a racial group?

Again, black people understand white people better than the other way around, and one of the things they usually know is what I'm basically trying to say here--that whites don't understand collective black anger. White people don't understand the causes that justify it, so they don't understand most of what gets said, nor the ways in which it gets said. And finally, if that anger gets expressed in a manner or "tone" that differs from their own, they're apt to turn away, unless the discussion can be conducted in their preferred manner, instead of someone else's.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ask asian americans where they're really from

This example of a common white tendency is nothing new to Asian Americans, but white Americans (and maybe others too) need to be told about it--stop asking Asian Americans where they're from. Or rather, where they're really from.

The first question--"where are you from?"--can be a friendly question, a way of getting to know someone that Americans ask all sorts of other Americans. But if you then ask an Asian American this second question--"where are you really from?"--what you're actually asking about is their nationality, the country other than the United States that they're supposedly "from."

So here's what's wrong with that second question: since Asians have been coming to America from many countries for about two hundred years, the person you're talking to is probably "from" America, and his or her parents probably are too.

Although "Where are you from?" and then "Where are you really from?" might seem like friendly, politely curious questions, the Asian American that you're talking to probably finds them, at best, tiresome and annoying. They're another reminder that Asian Americans don't quite fit into the common perception of America, and that no matter how many generations back their American family goes, they're still stuck with the status of "perpetual foreigner."

Do European Americans ever get asked where they're from, in such a way that the questioner is really asking where their ancestors are from? (Almost never.)

Do African Americans? (Even less than almost never.)

Do Hispanic Americans? (Almost never, because they're all supposedly from Mexico.)

Do Native Americans? (Also almost never, because everyone knows that, ironically enough, Indians are the real Americans, because they're all from "here.")

Do Arab Americans? (Rarely, sometimes because they've assimilated to the point that they're taken as white, and sometimes because they haven't assimilated or because they're darker skinned, in which cases other Americans are afraid of them.)

Do European Canadians? (Never, because everyone thinks they're Americans.)

In his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, law professor Frank H. Wu (who is an American) explains what's wrong with this question better than I can, so I'll turn this post over to him:

"Where are you from?" is a question I like answering.

"Where are you really from?" is a question I really hate answering.

"Where are you from?" is a question we all routinely ask one another upon meeting a new person.

"Where are you really from?" is a question some of us tend to ask others of us very selectively.

For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unifies us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigners syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.

Often the inquisitor reacts as if I am being silly if I reply, "I was born in Cleveland, and I grew up in Detroit," or bored by a detailed chronology of my many moves around the country: "Years ago, I went to college in Baltimore; I used to practice law in San Francisco; and now I live in Washington, DC."

Sometimes she reacts as if I am obstreperous if I return the question, "And where are you really from?"

People whose own American identity is assured are perplexed when they are snubbed in this manner. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting. My white friends of whom I have asked the question are amused at best and befuddled at worst, even if one of their grandparents was an immigrant or all of them once were. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting to Asian Americans even if it carries no offensive connotations to them.

Like many other people of color (or a few whites who have marked accents) who share memories of such encounters, I know what the question "where are you really from?" means, even if the person asking it is oblivious and regardless of whether they are aggressive about it. Once again, I have been mistaken for a foreigner or told I cannot be a real American.

The other questions that follow in the sequence make the subtext less subtle. Assuming that I must be "really from" someplace else and not here, even pausing for the preliminary "where are you really from?" some people proceed to ask me: "How long have you been in our country?" "Do you like it in our country?" "When are you going back?" and "Do you have the chance to go home often?"

I am asked these questions with decreasing frequency over time, but still too often, and I am surprised at the contexts in which they continue to pop up.

When I give a speech, every now and then a nice person will wait to chat with me and with utter sincerity and no hint of irony, start off by saying, "My, you speak English so well." I am tempted to reply, "Why, thank you; so do you."

I don't suppose that such a response would make my point to anybody but myself. I am disappointed by these tiresome episodes because strangers have zeroed in on my race and seem to be aware of nothing else. Taken together, their questions are nothing more than a roundabout means of asking what they know could not be directly said, "What race are you?"

Their comments imply that I am not one of "us" but one of "them." I do not belong as an equal. My heart must be somewhere else rather than here. I am a visitor at best, an intruder at worst. I must know my place, and it is not here. But I cannot even protest, because my complaint exposes me as an ingrate. I don't appreciate the opportunities I have been given. People who know nothing about me have an expectation of ethnicity, as if I will give up my life story as an example of exotica.

A few people, I suspect, ask where we are from out of a naivete blended with malice. If pressed about my origins, I answer that my parents came from China, lived in Taiwan, and then came here as graduate students in the 1950s. My interlocutors sometimes say, "Oh, I thought so," and end the exchange. They have placed me in their geography of race and somehow they know all they need to know. They must feel that they have gleaned an insight into me by knowing where I am "really" from and they can fit me into their racial world order.

What makes the incidents comical is that the person waiting in line, the clerk behind the counter, the stranger on the street, and whoever else turns around, leans over, or pulls me aside to ask "where are you really from?" does so as if they are asking me something I have not been asked before. They do not know that they are reenacting a hackneyed scenario. . . .

The question "where are you really from?" shows that we interact with others around us with a sense of race even if we are not mindful of it. Being asked "where are you really from?" likely will not result in my being denied an apartment or a job, except in isolated instances. I wonder what people are thinking, though: when I was interviewing for a position as a law professor only seven years ago, I was told by a senior faculty member at one school (in California no less), "How appropriate that we have the Asian candidate today"--he was referring to December 7, Pearl Harbor Day.

I believe the question is a signal, along a spectrum of invidious color-consciousness that starts with speculation but leads to worse. To be met with it so quickly and so often reminds me, over and over, that I am being treated differently than I would be if I were white.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

saturday book rec : killers of the dream

Lillian Smith’s 1949 memoir about her Southern upbringing, Killers of the Dream, has been difficult for me to write about. This is because it’s such a mixed bag of styles and genres, but also because it’s so richly and intricately insightful about the damage done to children by training them into whiteness.

Lillian Smith was a fighter, and some of this book consists of lengthy, rather dated tirades, on such topics as communism, which Smith considered “evil”; The Bomb, which deeply frightened nearly everyone at the time (it’s strange, when you think of it, how accustomed we’ve become to the ever-present threat of complete annihilation); and the places of Southern whites and blacks within overly broad contexts, including American and world history, the future of humanity, and even the entire universe. Instead of offering an overview of the entire book, I’d like to focus on Smith’s groundbreaking conception and analysis of white identity, as something inflicted on children as a form of psychological and emotional abuse.

It may be easy for today’s white readers to distance themselves from the sickness of the collective white Southern mind, which had to find ways to justify slavery, and then when that legally ended, lynching, racial apartheid, the widespread rape of black women, and communal terrorism. However, the real value of Smith’s portrait of the damaged white Southern psyche, and of the lies it had to convince itself that it believed, is the parallels that can be found in today’s collective white consciousness.

In 1897, Lillian Smith was born into a large, prosperous family in Jasper, Florida. When she was seventeen, her father’s turpentine mills failed and the family moved to Georgia, where Smith worked as a counselor at another business of her father’s, the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. She pursued an interest in music, which she briefly taught at a girl’s school in China. When she returned to work at the camp in Georgia, she began a relationship with a woman who became a life-long partner. The two of them started a literary magazine, and in 1944, Smith published her most popular book, Strange Fruit. This novel was banned in various places, such as Massachusetts, and refused delivery by the U.S. Postal Service, all because it sympathetically depicted that strongly forbidden thing, an interracial relationship.

Although Strange Fruit sold well, Smith felt slighted by some racially progressive Southern reviewers who generally snubbed it, perhaps in fear of its incendiary message. As much a radical social critic as a novelist, Smith may have been spurred by critical rejection into using her next book, Killers of the Dream, to burrow deep into the white Southern mind, exposing its pain, sickness, and misery. For Smith, who was heavily invested in the general Freudian conception of human development, the Southern white consciousness was largely informed by its subconscious (or in Freudian terms the unconscious), which in turn was largely developed by significant relationships and events in early childhood.

In the South, these early formative experiences consisted of an intense mix of sex, religion, and racial obsession, all lorded over by the looming ghosts of Southern history. “Even its children knew the South was in trouble,” Smith writes in the book’s opening lines. “No one had to tell them; no words were said aloud.” Smith graphically depicts a process white children still go through (though in most cases, perhaps, to a milder degree), that of being trained by the white community into splitting their psyches. One side had natural curiosities, affections, and desires, and another was formed when they learned that so many of those natural feelings were “wrong.”

For many white Southerners, a more specific emotional split came from being raised by what amounted to two mothers, one black and one white. Regarding her own black one, Smith writes,

I knew that my old nurse who had cared for me through long months of illness, who had given me refuge when a little sister took my place as the baby of the family, who soothed, fed me, delighted me with her stories and games, let me fall asleep on her deep warm breast, was not worthy of the passionate love I felt for her but must be given instead a half-smiled-at affection similar to that which one feels for one’s dog.

I knew but I never believed it, that the deep respect I felt for her, the tenderness, the love, was a childish thing which every normal child outgrows, that such love begins with one’s toys and is discarded with them, and that somehow—though it seemed impossible to my agonized heart—I too, must outgrow these feelings. I learned to use a soft voice to oil my words of superiority. I learned to cheapen with tears and sentimental talk of “my old mammy” one of the profound relationships of my life. I learned the bitterest thing a child can learn: that the human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in.

Smith goes on to examine the damaging psychic effects of such relationships on white girls, and on white mothers and wives, in a time and place “that values color more than children.” As for boys and men, as other writers have since explained (including perhaps most vividly, James Baldwin, in a short story about a lynching called “Going to Meet the Man”), being suckled and raised by a mammy instilled a life-long confusion about sexual desire. Heterosexual white male desire became torn between forbidden, and thus exciting, black women and exalted, and thus undesirable, white women.

As Smith writes of white boyhood,

Because white mother has always set up right and wrong, has with authority established the “do” and the “don’t” of behavior, his conscience, as it grows in him, ties its allegiance to her and to the white culture and authority which she and his father represent. But to colored mother, persuasive in her relaxed attitude toward “sin,” easy and warm in her physical ministrations, generous with her petting, he ties his pleasure feelings. . . .

A separation has begun, a crack that extends deep into his personality. . . . He feels deep tenderness for his colored nurse and pleasure in being with her, but he begins to admire more and more the lovely lady who is his “real” mother.

As a result of these and other fundamentally confusing lessons, Southern white men were often rendered emotionally impotent, and they responded by taking their repression-induced frustrations out on themselves, their families, and on black people. Smith doesn’t flinch from pulling the curtain back on these shame-ridden areas, including the most horrific results of the Southern dedication to whiteness, rape, mob violence, and sexually obsessive lynchings, where the private parts of male victims were commonly cut into pieces and distributed as souvenirs.

Smith’s greatest talent lies in conveying the tortured contortions that the minds of such children learned to perform in response to harsh, yet barely spoken commands about race, sex, religion, and their own bodies. These are the kinds of scripted behaviors that become habits in adulthood:

We believed certain acts were so wrong that they must never be committed and then we committed them and denied to ourselves that we had done so. Our minds were split: hardly more than a crack at first, but we began in those early years a two-leveled existence which we have since managed quite smoothly.

The acts which we later learned were “bad” never seemed really “bad” to us; at least we could find excuses for them. But those we learned were “bad” before we were five years old were CRIMES that we could not excuse; we could only forget. Though many a southerner has lived a tough hardened life since the days his mother rocked him until his eyes were glazed with sleep, his anxiety is, even now, concerned largely with the moral junk pile which he wandered around in when a little child.

These directives are Smith’s “killers of the dream,” that dream being, as John Inscoe writes for the Georgia Encyclopedia, “mankind’s [sic] dreams of freedom and human dignity.” Ritualized, nearly constant forces of repression in a white child’s life meant, Smith writes, pushing natural dreams and desires back into “the Dark-town of our unconscious,” while the conscious mind learned to value such things as money, purity, status, and, as much as anything, whiteness.

Now, though your body is a thing of shame and mystery, and curiosity about it is not good, your skin is your glory and the source of your strength and pride. It is white. And, as you have heard, whiteness is a symbol of purity and excellence. Remember this: Your white skin proves that you are better than all other people on this earth. Yes, it does that.

Smith goes on to remark, well ahead of her time, that it wasn’t until adulthood that she learned that “no one had thought much about skin color until three or four centuries ago when white folks set out from Europe to explore the earth.” As her memoir shows, and as the manifestations of today’s racial trainings continue to show, the significance placed on fictional differences in skin color since then is incredibly persistent, and in many ways, simply astonishing.

One especially strange feature of the dominant group’s racial identity is a certain blankness that results in defining itself in terms of purity, in terms, that is, of what it is not, as much as what it is. White people don’t like to think as deeply as Smith asks them to about what it means to be white, perhaps because, “most of all, we dread to confront the emptiness that is revealed at the center of our peoples’ lives.”

While Killers of the Dream sold poorly and faded from view as Smith went on to produce other works of fiction and non-fiction, she published a revised edition in 1961, and its insight found an appreciative audience among fighters of the Civil Rights Movement. As John Inscoe writes, “The black college students who staged the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 stated that they were most influenced by the ideas of the economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, the leader of India and proponent of nonviolent protest Mahatma Gandhi, and Smith.”

I find Smith’s book so compelling today because what she describes as “the training given white children” still happens. Of course, very few white children have black “nurses,” and such things as legalized racial segregation and organized lynchings are things of the past. Thus, the training itself is different. But it still happens.

If, for instance, it’s fairly common knowledge that non-white children continue to struggle with a false, socially induced sense of inferiority, then don’t many white children also enjoy the opposite? As I’ve written before, white children do generally enjoy a sense of superiority, and it’s just one of the many lessons imparted by the white community’s ongoing efforts to teach their children to act white.

But while this sense of superiority is usually life-enhancing in material and other ways, it's also delusional, and it's just one of many delusions about life in America that are inflicted on white children. Their inability to really see and understand their own racial membership, and its significance to their own lives, to the degree that black children quickly do, is another one, and so is the consequent and false sense of themselves as mere individuals, instead of as people affected in innumerable ways by their racial status. Being rendered delusional, then, is one general form of racial abuse inflicted on white children, and it's only one of several others forms.

What we could use today is another Lillian Smith, a deep-diver who can show us how the white community continues to inflict emotional and psychic abuse on the hearts and minds of its own children.

have wonderful weekends

Social commentary from Steve Harvey on the ways of white folks (there's a bit of NSFW language here--please grin and bear it).

Here's hoping that you're ALL having a wonderful weekend.

Friday, May 23, 2008

tell black people they don't think of them as black

"White Oprah Winfrey"
(from the Mugcut Gallery
at Acting White)

Regular reader S, a self-identified black man, sent the following email, which he said I could reprint:

I have a question for Macon the White Guy—can you tell white folks to stop telling me they don’t see my blackness? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, in a way that I guess is supposed to be a compliment, “I don’t even notice that you’re black!” or, “You know, you don’t really seem black to me.” And “I don’t even see race. I’m colorblind.”

Sometimes white people pat me on the arm when they say this. It usually seems like they’re trying to reassure me of something.

The message I get is a different one from what I think they want to say. I think they want to say something to me about themselves, like how open-minded they supposedly are. But what I’m hearing is that old racism, as in, “You’re a credit to your race.” I feel like I’m being told that I’m better than other black people (which is actually, “better than the image I have in my head of black people.” And you’re going to tell me that you don’t even see race?!).

So my question: what do you think is going on in these white heads? And my first question too—can you tell white people to stop doing this? Then white people could be a credit to their race.

I think you told them better than I could, S, but okay, I’ll tell them too—all you white folks reading this blog, stop telling the black people you know that they don’t seem black to you, and/or that you don’t see their blackness. It’s embarrassing, for them and for you.

Telling black people that they don’t seem black to you is an insult to their racial group, and it says more about you than it does about that racial group. The second comment of this sort, that you don’t see race, is simply and obviously untrue—you’re saying you don’t see a black person’s blackness because that person is black.

T asked what’s going on in white folks’ heads when they say these things, and I think he’s pretty much answered his own question. They’re saying something that's more about themselves than about the person in front of them, projecting something from their white psyches onto that non-white person in front of them. That projected something is often an anxiety, or a fear, about how he or she is coming across to a person of another race.

So in a way, another common motivating feeling here is a good one—a desire to establish a good relationship with a person of a different race, based on an expressed willingness to treat that person the same as he or she would treat anyone else. Anyone else who’s white, that is.

And therein lies a problem with such comments—the message after all is, as T points out, that the non-white person being addressed is somehow different from other members of that group, and so somehow more like people outside that group, and more like an individual. Somehow, that is, like white people. So you can see where the path of this logic leads—it’s ultimately good for a black person to not seem black to a white person because white people are better than non-white people. This isn’t what the friendly white person is usually thinking consciously, but the unconscious bias that favors whiteness does emerge in such instances.

Another form of white projection usually going on here, and perhaps a more benign one, is the common white tendency to see other whites as individuals, instead of as “white people.” White people tend, of course, to be most comfortable with other white people, though again, they’re not seeing them as white people, in the sense that, say, black or Mexican American people see and understand each other as black or Mexican American people when they’re together.

So because white people see themselves and the other (white) people that they’re comfortable with as individuals, when they get to know a member of a non-white group that they normally think of in homogeneous, non-individualized terms, they want to see that person as an individual too. Thus, the common statement, “I don’t even see you as black,” can often also be translated as, “I’m getting to know you as an individual. You’re emerging that way from the black, group-based associations that you’d been conjuring up for me before. It’s nice to get to know you as you.”

Given the training into whiteness that white people go through, and the common tendency that such training induces to not even see one’s own whiteness most of the time, it’s not surprising that so many whites have such thoughts and feelings about non-whites that they’re getting to know as individuals.

What white folks should realize in all this is that they should keep such thoughts and feelings to themselves, instead of verbally projecting them onto non-white people. They should also work against two of their common, socially induced tendencies--to overlook whiteness, and to overemphasize non-whiteness.

white movie friday : legally blonde

[I was going to write today about the portrayal of whiteness in this especially white movie,
Legally Blonde, the 2001 Reese Witherspoon vehicle. I'd been wondering whether the movie's makers would challenge the sense of blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty as the standard, "all-American" beauty, or instead feed and cash in on that widespread, racist fantasy (sadly, the movie does the latter).

As I was doing background research, I found that someone else has already analyzed
Legally Blonde in precisely these terms. And done so as well or better than the bluster that I could've mustered about it. So, today's White Movie Friday is a guest review by James Morrison, a reviewer for the Independent Weekly, who focused directly and insightfully on this film's portrayal of race.

I have some minor quibbles with Morrison's review* (I think that
Fargo, for instance, is a better analysis of midwestern American whiteness than he does), but overall, he does a fine job of unpacking this movie's lazy, exploitative celebration of blithely privileged whiteness. In addition to explaining how the film plays along with rather than challenges the all-American standard of (blonde, blue-eyed, white) beauty, his review resonates with efforts I've been making here and there, to examine what I see as the ultimate goal of a purely white identity, that is, a kind of fearful, empty, life-denying vacuity. Finally, I like his reminder that although movies like this one portray whiteness in ways that merely go along with and promote the problems it still causes, they do still have "anthropological" value, as examples of how whiteness works in society.

As usual, I've included the movie's trailer at the end of the review.]

White Noise

Like many recent Hollywood films,
Legally Blonde plays like an unconscious racist tract

by James Morrison

Fear and loathing and vengeance, those time-honored staples of popular entertainment, recur in predictable but still unexpected form in Legally Blonde, a teeny-bopper comic strip disguised as a movie. Its interest, if any, is sheerly anthropological.

Near the end of the movie, after Reese Witherspoon, as a jilted bimbo, delivers a triumphant comeuppance to the boyfriend who threw her over, she walks off in a haze of victory, and the movie indulges itself in a rhetorical flourish. The screen goes blindingly white, engulfing her, at which point the subject of the movie, which it had been remotely possible to miss until then, becomes unavoidably clear. The movie is about whiteness.

This subject is far from novel. It is the overt subject of many a Hollywood movie, especially the sensitive ones, and the unconscious subject of thousands more. While movies featuring black actors are routinely discussed as movies about black people, movies with white actors are rarely discussed as movies about white people--as if whiteness were so inviolate a norm that it merited note only when departed from, or contrasted with its putative opposites. It is not departed from in Legally Blonde. It's the underlying logic, the deep structure, of everything in the film.

Consider that white-out that swallows Reese Witherspoon, as if she were being welcomed into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Heaven. The white-out is a relatively recent addition to the conventions of film language, a very contemporary mark of emphatic punctuation, like a so-called "fade-to-black"--but usually charged with a greater degree of transplendence (as in A.I.) or alternatively, of desolation (as in Kids, or A Simple Plan, or Limbo). Recall, for instance, the white-outs of the Coen Brothers' movie Fargo, a slightly more knowing though scarcely less repellent film about whiteness. Or think, more recently, of the ads for A.I.: that mystic sheet of white, suddenly revealed to be a boy's face when the eugenically dreamy eyes pop open.

In both cases we think we're watching a blank screen, until coordinate points bloom in the empty field to prove it an expanse of snow, or a humanoid visage. Both Fargo and A.I. go out of their way to deride non-whiteness--in the grotesquely mean-spirited treatment of the Asian-American man in Fargo, for instance, or in the racially charged bloodsport scene of A.I.. But these images of whiteness still seem to suggest what the movies are, in those very scenes, engaged in fending off: the threat of conceiving whiteness as blankness.

What keeps us from seeing that whiteness into which Reese Witherspoon disappears, that blank screen presented as an image of exultant valediction, as an emblem, instead, of abysmal vacuity? Part of it is convention and reflex: We're conditioned by mass entertainment to accept vacuity as triumph every day. (The Scary Movie series takes the issue from a different angle; those films read the cycles of '90s horror movies as manifestations of white hysteria.) But like so much in pop culture it cuts many ways, and Legally Blonde combines the complacency of a whiteness that never doubts its own entitlement with the hysteria of a whiteness beset by sterile bouts of self-protection against threats it is happily too barren to conceive.

It starts with the title, an innocuous pun that reasserts the continued viability--as if it had been challenged--of blondeness as a variant of whiteness. Like that white-out melding whiteness with blankness, this title too has its double meaning, pairing blondeness and blindness. And a sociological blindness, perhaps willfully, accounts neatly for one of the first lines in the movie: Being dumped by that snobby boyfriend, Reese Witherspoon objects, "Just because I'm not a Vanderbilt--suddenly I'm white trash?" The PC police alleged to have infiltrated every quarter must have been dozing for this one; they failed to notify the producers of the "insensitivity" of this utterance. The perkiness of Witherspoon's delivery may have been intended to buffer it. Throughout, this is the all too familiar strategy: to cloak bile in cuteness.

A fantasy all-white Los Angeles peopled by 30-something students who linger in their prodigal sorority house long after they're supposed to have graduated gives way to a Movieland Harvard, where snippets of The Paper Chase stir echoes of Oxford Blues, the movie where Rob Lowe joins the rowing team. A dyed-in-the-wool post-feminist, Witherspoon follows the snobby boyfriend off to law school. Her preparation for Harvard, she tells an adviser, consists in having been "the judge in a tighty-whitey contest." Small wonder. Still, an admissions committee made up of John Houseman clones lets her in, in the name of what they call "diversity."

This conception of diversity may not, strictly speaking, be the one that proponents of affirmative action had in mind. Remember Bush's catchy alternative in the debates--"affirmative access"? That seems to be the territory inhabited here. There are four non-whites in this Harvard Law School. Three are peripheral non-entities, and one is a prop. (There is also a lesbian whose feminism is mocked, though the movie tastefully disavows using the word "dyke" after having gotten a hearty laugh out of it.) The prop is an African-American man, a bystander whose back is to the camera throughout a scene where a tough teacher challenges a student's attribution of a quote during class. "Would you stake your life on it?" she hisses. Then, spontaneously, she bangs the bystander on the head and asks, "Would you stake his life on it?" The student says no, but the movie is indifferent. It cuts away from the man without ever showing his face. The moviemakers must have thought they'd got their laugh, and so moved on. The reaction of a black man in a room full of privileged white nits to being bashed on the head by a psychopathic teacher is of no consequence.

The film, however, makes up for its white-trash crack by giving Reese Witherspoon a manicurist pal of indeterminate ethnicity who's a refugee from a trailer park, and this scene occasions another celebration of diversity wherein black, Hispanic, and gay habitués of the working-class beauty salon join together in spirited, comical jigs. They resemble, during these interludes, the black or gay minstrels who flit about on the margins of the carefully centered hetero hijinks in Moulin Rouge. Quirky camera angles allow us to appreciate the more carnivalesque aspects of their bodies in exaggerated form, just as, in a later courtroom scene, cutaway shots show us an artist's rendering of the proceedings so we can enjoy the humorous caricatures of the few non-white participants.

In a twist worthy of Murder, She Wrote, a Latino pool boy gives himself away as gay when he inadvertently names the designer of a pair of shoes--a tidbit that only a gay man would know, in the logic of this movie--and his queeny lover denounces him from the gallery as a "bitch" (major comic relief) when he claims to be sleeping with a Suzanne Somers-Anna Nicole Smith knock-off charged with the murder of her elderly husband. Why the gay pool boy should make this claim would be mystifying, if it were not clear that the movie's only interest is in the solidarity of whites, as signified by the bonding of blondes. (Reese Witherspoon and the Somers-Smith type really hit it off.) The Latino gets his quick, cheap laugh and then he's banished: It's strictly an Aryan jamboree, where the prevailing idea of multiculturalism is to chide the dumb-blonde stereotype as the last vestige of bigotry. Legally Blonde is the kind of movie you're likely to see from a society where white people fear that social progress will rob them of their privilege.

In Election, a much better movie about white people, Reese Witherspoon played a conniving, overachieving high-school girl. There was a lovely moment in her performance: We see her backstage at graduation, alone, an expression of pure emptiness on her face; then, when she hears her name called, she quickly puts on a vacant smile as she hurries forth. Two congruent versions of blankness, beautifully observed. Race is not essence, as we should all know by now, and whiteness never meant purity. It need not, of course, mean blankness--but in a movie where the whole point, in the year 2001, is to reinforce whiteness, what else can it mean?

* See Sarah J's comment for some less-than-minor quibbles about the handling of gender by both the makers of Legally Blonde and James Morrison.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

express contempt for rural white ignorance, and give elderly jewish ignorance a pass

[Update: see the end of this post for Sarah Silverman's take on the issues discussed in this post]

As recent images of voters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky have demonstrated, rural white Americans are often racist, xenophobic, ignorant people. Many are not, but as we are repeatedly told, many are.

What we are not repeatedly told is that many older Jewish Americans hold similar views.

As I’ve written before, Americans have been steered away from understanding and sympathizing with the problems of the white working class, and encouraged instead to either laugh at or heap contempt on them. On the other hand, when we hear about elderly Jewish Americans, we often receive other helpful, explanatory information, about such things as their traumatizing connection to the Holocaust and their fondness for Israel.

As a result of the different frameworks in which discussion of these two groups of people are commonly presented—one decontextualized, the other contextualized—we tend to hold the former up for contempt and ridicule as ignorant inbreds, and the latter for admiration and sympathy as the noble, stalwart victims of a horrifically traumatizing collective experience.

But as James Pence explains in the following minute or so, rural whites, along with other Americans, have been traumatized as well. Or “terrorized”--that might be a good word too:

Because it’s an election season, and because Hillary Clinton has been making open appeals to rural and working-class white voters, many selectively edited interviews of rural white people have been circulating online, over email, and in the corporate media. “I’m not a racist,” such interviewees often say, looking away from the staring camera. “But I’ll never vote for Obama, because he’s, you know, not one of us. Not white. If we’re not careful, next thing you know, we’ll be sitting in the back of the bus.”

Again, contempt and ridicule usually motivate the sender, poster, or TV pundit who's asking us to watch these people express their views, and the expected response is more contempt and ridicule. Rarely are we asked to understand the increasingly oppressive economic and educational conditions that help to explain such views.

Now that both Democratic candidates are campaigning heavily in Florida, I wonder if the response to the similarly racist and ignorant views of many elderly Jewish American voters will receive similar circulation, and similar scorn and ridicule. If so—if, that is, ridicule and scorn is okay for one group, but not for the other—then why is that the case?

Today’s New York Times offers an article full of potential fodder for emails, video postings, and TV interviews about the ignorance of many elderly Jewish American voters. In her article, reporter Jodi Kantor summarizes her recent interviews with such voters in Florida. As Kantor candidly reveals, many of the views they express are remarkably similar to those expressed by rural white voters. They’re also just as remarkably ignorant.

As Kantor writes, the following beliefs are common in this voting block:

Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)

He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)

Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)

Al Qeada is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)

Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)

Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)

It’s important to note that just prior to offering this list, Kantor tempers its evidence of blatant ignorance with some explanation for why such beliefs exist: “Because of a dispute over moving the date of the state’s primary, Mr. Obama and the other Democratic candidates did not campaign in Florida. In his absence, novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished.”

Had Obama campaigned in the state, Kantor suggests, he would have readily dispelled such misconceptions about himself. This suggestion begs a question—do a large percentage of older Jewish people in other parts of the country hold similar views?

For me, though, the issue here is not whether elderly Jewish American voters are as ignorant about a black candidate as rural white voters are. Rather, it's the disparate handlings of two similar voting blocks. I don’t think either group should be held up for scorn and ridicule because of their views, but one usually is, and the other is usually not. We also usually receive tempering explanations for the views of one group, but little such contextualization for those of the other.

Most elderly Jewish people are worlds apart from most rural white people, but both communities traditionally vote Democratic, and both harbor many uninformed views about a black presidential candidate. Including a common unwillingness to vote for him simply because he's black.

On this last point, Kantor also writes the following:

"The people here, liberal people, will not vote for Obama because of his attitude towards Israel," Ms. Weitz, 83, said, lingering over brunch.

"They're going to vote for McCain," she said.

Ms. Grossman, 80, agreed with her friend's conclusion, but not her reasoning.

"They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color," she said, quietly fingering a coffee cup. Ms. Grossman said she was thinking of voting for Mr. Obama, who is leading in the delegate count for the nomination, as was Ms. Weitz.

But Ms. Grossman does not tell the neighbors. "I keep my mouth shut," she said. . . .

Some of the resistance to Mr. Obama's candidacy seems just as rooted in anxiety about race as in anxiety about Israel. At brunch in Boynton Beach, Bob Welstein, who said he was in his 80s, said so bluntly. "Am I semi-racist? Yes," he said.

Decades earlier, on the west side of Chicago, his mother was mugged and beaten by a black assailant, he said. It was "a beautiful Jewish neighborhood" -- until black residents moved in, he said.. . .

Jack Stern, 85, sitting alone at an outdoor café in Aventura on Sunday, said he was no racist. When he was liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, black American soldiers were kinder than white ones, handing out food to the emaciated Jews, he said.

Years later, after he opened a bakery in Brooklyn, "I got disgusted, because they killed Jews," he said, citing neighborhood crimes committed by African-Americans. "I shouldn't say it, but it is what it is," said Mr. Stern, who vowed not to vote for Mr. Obama.

Some analysts see the widespread, stereotyping, scornful laughter commonly aimed at rural white folks as the last acceptable form of racism. This may be an accurate label, but since this laughter and scorn is not directed at all white people, but rather at a downtrodden class of people, a more accurate label is “classism.”

In fact, while I usually like Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show," I think “classist” is an accurate label for his participation, in the first two minutes or so of the following clip, in more of the same tired, decontextualized ridicule and contempt for rural white voters.

Here, then, is what I’m finally wondering. Since many elderly Jewish voters hold similarly uninformed views—views which, like those of rural white voters, could be accounted for by a more contextualizing framework for such stories—will Stewart and others hold them up for ridicule and scorn as well?* If not, why not? If one is okay, why isn’t the other?

*Of course, Stewart himself is quite openly Jewish, so he might be less likely than others to hold up Jewish elders for ridicule and scorn. Again, though, I don’t expect any other media outlets to do so either. And to be perfectly clear, I hope they don’t. I just wish they also wouldn’t do so with rural white voters.

[dnA at Too Sense responds to a video-report on rural white voters in Kentucky that appeared on Al Jazeera. As dnA notes, that network offers a somewhat more sympathetic, contextualizing understanding of the roots of white rural fear of a black president. And via Season of the Bitch, an article by Howard Salter from a month or so ago on the ironic spread of misinformation among Jewish Americans.]

UPDATE (9/30/08): Sarah Silverman opines (in her usual NSFWish way) on this topic:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

restrain themselves

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
--James Baldwin
(in a letter to his nephew)

Is it fair to say that white people are literally "tight-assed"? Do they have a tendency to hold themselves in, to restrain their bodily selves in ways that other people don't?

If so, why do they do that? As a person who lives inside a "white" body and has also studied the history of whiteness, I will offer here some tentative answers to these questions.

In "White Like Me," a classic skit from the days when Saturday Night Live used to be a good TV show, Eddie Murphy implies that white people are indeed literally tight-assed. At one point, as he transforms himself into "Mr. White" for a satiric journey into the heart of whiteness, Murphy studies videos of white people. He then says to his makeup person, "See? See how they walk? Their butts are real tight when they walk. They keep their butts tight. I've gotta remember to keep my butt real tight when I walk."

Let's pause, if you have a couple minutes, for the rest of "White Like Me" (after a short commercial break, at the unfortunate insistence of NBC):

Murphy's parody on the ways of white folks covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on a certain tightness in his performance as Mr. White. If this particular satiric point of critique is correct--if white people do have a "tighter," more restrained way of living in their bodies--then where does this tightness come from? Is it something natural, something genetically inherent to who they are? Or is it part of a racial performance, something they've been socially trained into doing?

I prefer the latter explanation, and a brief foray into white history helps to explain why. In his book Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America, Ronald Takaki uses the metaphor of entrapment to guides his analysis of what was then a new, overtly "white" American identity.

Takaki explains how after the American Revolution, religious and racial ideologies combined to produce a conception of an ideal American citizen, one who was an ascetic, individualistic, religious, and hardworking man. Expectations for women, who were not in a legal sense full citizens at the time, were somewhat different, and even more restrained. At the same time, a mind/body split occurred in terms of gender; by being cast as the bodily repository of emotions, women served to bolster the masculine identity as the bearer of heightened mental faculties.*

In this new American identity, the rational “head” was favored over the unclean, sexual, desirous (and thus irrational) “body.” Sexuality, play, and leisure were strongly discouraged, in deference to God’s expectations that people “make something” of themselves, and of the land, animals, and resources around them. Americans projected outward onto "tawny Indians" and black slaves the conception of their own sexuality, laziness, deviltry, “savagery,” and bodily looseness. They also defined themselves in the process as the opposite of those other people--intellectually superior and properly restrained in the "governance" of their bodies.

At a broader level, the newborn America was also self-conscious about how the rest of the world perceived it. Americans wanted their newly independent country to be seen, Takaki writes, as a “City upon a Hill, where men would triumph over the ‘animal’ within themselves and prove to the watching world that they could be self-governing,” that they didn’t need to be dependent on another country, such as England.

Since there were other people around, those native Indians and the imported, enslaved Africans, who were darker than the new Americans, this budding national identity also developed a racial component, as "white." The choice of that particular color (or lack of color) was not random, because whiteness itself had already developed associations with cleanliness, purity, and holiness. And so, if America was to be self-governing, it had to expunge whatever was not pure and holy from itself, and also control whatever it could not or would not expunge. This effort applied to the land itself, and also to people, both individuals and groups.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was concerned in such terms about who would populate this new, relatively empty nation. As Takaki explains,

Twenty-five years before the Declaration of Independence, Franklin had already offered his thoughts on the complexion of society in America in his essay "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind." He noted that the number of "purely white People" in the world was proportionately very small. All Africa was black or tawny, Asia chiefly tawny, and "America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so." The English were the "priniciple Body of white People," and Franklin wished there were more of them in America. "And while we are . . . Scouring our planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus," he declared, "why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White?"

In this new "world without a king," as Takaki puts it, "where men had to govern themselves," self-governance by white people meant controlling those sides of themselves that seemed so uncontrolled in non-white people. By way of explaining this self-governing part of the emerging national white identity, Takaki explores the popularity at the time of ideas promoted by a leading intellectual, Benjamin Rush, who was a physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Rush was less of what we would now call a "racist" than Benjamin Franklin was. Ahead of his time, he argued for the abolition of slavery, and the removal of freed slaves to black colonies, where they would be trained into becoming more civilized beings. This training would include learning to restrain their bodies, as white people did. One of his inventions was an actual restraining device (indeed, a retraining device) for those undergoing such treatment. "The Tranquilizer" was a chair "with straps for the patient's hands and feet, a device for holding his head in a fixed position, and a container beneath the seat to receive excreta."

Rush used such a chair for "bloodletting," the draining of significant quantities of blood from especially unrestrained patients, in order to calm them down. For Takaki, such a device aptly symbolizes the "iron cage" of a white, Christian identity that the new Americans imposed on themselves.

In a frequently quoted statement about the ongoing significance of history, American novelist William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Is it a stretch to see in these elements of early American history the roots of contemporary white ways of living in one's body?

Is this why white people can't jump? Does this history of mental and bodily restraint account for their tight smiles, or how infrequently most of them dance?

One thing's for sure--if it's true that the historical restraints on white thought and behavior still affect people today, then white folks are acting white, just as much as Eddie Murphy did in his disguise as Mr. White.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

fail to recognize non-white people they know in public

Today's description of a common white tendency comes via email from M, a regular reader of Stuff White People Do who self-identifies as a black woman. In response to last week's post "forget the names of non-white people," M wrote to ask why so many white people she knows act like they don't know her when she encounters them in public.

First, to review the common white tendency that I described in last week's post, the forgetting of the names of non-white people stems from the more general tendency of white people to see themselves and each other as individuals, and on the other hand, to lump together other, non-white people. As a result of this tendency, white people often switch the names and faces of non-white acquaintances, such as neighbors, colleagues, or fellow students.

M (who said it would be fine to post her message) wrote to ask about a similar white tendency that she's noticed from her social position, as an African American woman:

I'm currently a lurker who enjoys reading your blog. Your blog has helped me understand that a lot of the things that white people do arise out of ignorance and the ability to be oblivious, and not always malice. I have just read your entry on confusing POC and not knowing our names.

I know that you are not the spokesperson for white people, but I would like your view on the deal with white co-workers and/or classmates not saying hello when walking on the street. This may be most relevant in big cities where people walk. But ask any black person in a big city, and he/she will tell you of the countless times he/she has smiled, said hi, waved or somehow acknowledged a white co-worker/classmate on the street--just to be ignored.

It breeds a great deal of resentment, and I don't think that most white people are even aware of it. I have told my fellow black people that the white person honestly does not see them and is not ignoring them. In my experience, most white people only deal with black people in certain contexts--work, school, etc. However, the street is not one of those contexts. Therefore, white people are not seeing individual black people, just BLACK PEOPLE--and are not expecting to know any of THEM. The street is outside of the zone where they feel comfortable around BLACK PEOPLE .

What do you think? Am I way off base? I just cannot believe that white people who I, and others, spend considerable hours working with on a daily basis willfully ignore me while walking on the street.

I stopped saying hello first--so no longer feel slighted.



I think M describes this common white tendency well, and also some of its causes. Here's most of what I wrote in return to M, in an effort to further spell it out. If anyone has further thoughts or experiences with the common white failure to recognize people they know, your comments are most welcome:

Hi Marcia,

It's good to hear from you.

Right, I'm not a spokesperson for all whites, and I'm also a "typical" white person in that black people tend to know more about my own whiteness, and how I tend to live it, than I myself do. I'm not being humble or whatever in saying that. I just think I've been trained to be oblivious to what my training into whiteness has done to me, and that black people know about it because they have to study it.

I think you're right about this common white unfriendliness on the street. It's sad, but black individuals are not being seen in those moments by whites AS individuals. They're just "black people." I think you're also right that it's not a malicious slight--it's just a kind of socially induced blindness.

You might really like Lena Williams' book [
It's the Little Things], which I quoted from in the post. In fact, one of her black interviewees says this:

"Don't be caught out of context. As long as you're at your desk in the office or in the classroom or doing your professional thing, they know you. The minute you're one of the masses, or someplace they think you shouldn't be, you become this faceless blur of blackness."

But yeah, that's another black view on this, and you asked about my white view. Well, again, most white people are not used to seeing all that many black individuals on a daily basis. They thus often don't see them AS individuals, even when they work with them for years. They've been trained into that oblivion by a racist society, and by their sheer numerical preponderance.

So maybe it's not quite right to say they're "blind" in such moments--it's more that they're seeing and feeling "blackness," and the associations it has for them, rather than the black individual before them, whom they actually KNOW in another context.

Hopefully, if Obama is elected, the mere presence of that brilliant "black" INDIVIDUAL in charge will help to change that.

My white-conscious view on my fellow whites' rudeness toward you and yours is that yes, as you said, it's not a malicious slight. I completely agree with you--they just don't "see" you.

Their loss, right?

Well, yours too. This sort of behavior is plain disrespectful, as I've been trying to tell white readers of my blog. Another sad thing is, though, that most of the blog's fans, so far, are non-white people! I'm glad you and they like it and find it useful--that's great.

But I wish more white folks would stick around, and learn some things. I guess it makes them uncomfortable--which it should.

Thank you for mentioning this literally street-level issue. Again, it's good to hear from you, and I'm so glad that you find the blog useful,

macon d

(Hmmm. . . "Ask the White Guy"?

If anyone else has questions or observations about common white thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and so on, please write to me about them, at unmakingmacon @ gmail . com and I'll try to do a blog post about it.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

overlook barack obama's whiteness

When Barack Obama went bowling for votes during the Pennsylvania primary, he was trying to align himself with a traditionally white, working-class voting block. This effort failed, miserably.

Not only was Obama's bowling score terrible (a 37, for those of you who know anything about bowling), so was his statistical support among Pennsylvania's white, working-class voters.

Of course, Obama's difficulty in connecting fully with white, working-class voters as well as Hillary Clinton does is accounted for by much more than his lousy bowling skills. The primary cause is the common perception of him (a perception that he himself embraces) as "black." And like many other states, Pennsylvania has a high percentage of working-class whites, many of whom simply won't vote for a "black" candidate.

And yet, what people continually overlook about Obama is that he's actually half black, and half white.

As I've written before, Obama is perceived as African American, despite his biracial status, because by the magic of America's racial double standards, his white mother and black father had a black baby. If the parental situation were reversed, with a black mother and a white father, they still would've had a black baby.

In both the actual and the hypothetical case, the half of Obama that is black trumps the half of him that is white, because it's still the case that white women can have black babies, but black women can't have white ones. Ever since Obama was born, Americans have overlooked his white half, allowing the black half to rise up and virtually obliterate it.

Obama's opponents have occasionally called his patriotism into question, in part because he has declined the fashion option of a flag pin on his lapel. A more consistent reason for these doubts has been his presumed blackness. The automatic nature of this racial status, no matter which of the two parental options described above might have been the case for him, is a hangover from the days of America's more overtly white supremacist past, when people adhered to something called "the one-drop rule."

Becuase white Americans used to generally believe in the innate, genetic superiority of their race, threats to white racial purity, via sexual intermingling with the black race, were feared and denounced as a threat to that supposed superiority. Thus, as an expression of popular "common sense," the one-drop ruled stated that even one drop of black blood meant that a person was no longer "white," and was thus "black" instead.

The Wikipedia article on this rule is fascinating; it notes, for instance, that if America still fully adhered to this rule, people like Mariah Carey and Angelina Jolie would be considered African Americans. Fortunately, the rule's power as constructed common sense has faded, but it still informs our perception of Obama--a person who is a full 50% white--as black.

Remnants of one-drop thinking also inform our holding of Obama to standards that do not apply to Hillary Clinton, such as the demands for racial accountability that resulted in his delivery of a major speech on race because of racially charged comments made by his minister.* No similar demand for racial accountability was made of Clinton after racist comments that she herself delivered (for more on this double standard, see the post on Clinton's whiteness below). This racial double-standard applies to Obama but not to Clinton because she "is white," and because despite Obama being half-white, he "is black."

Most white Americans like to think that the white supremacist thinking that resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule is a thing of the past. However, a widespread favoring of whiteness clearly continues to guide our perceptions of reality. As Thomas DiPiero notes, "believing is seeing," and for most Americans, a mostly unconscious presumption is that the sight of a white American is that of a "true"American.

"American means white," as Toni Morrison has written, and there still is a sense in which the most genuine, full-blooded Americans are those with roots in its colonial past. Those, that is, who are white, and preferably even whiter than those from countries besides England who later became white. This current mode of subsumed white supremacy was recently exemplified by Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Washington Post who questioned Obama's ability to fully embody and represent true American-ness because he is not "white."

Parker opens her column by quoting the preference of Josh Fry, a white West Virginian voter, for a "full-blooded" president. Fry cited full-bloodedness as his reason for liking John McCain more than Obama. Instead of explicating and denouncing the white supremacy that likely informs Fry's remark, Parker lauds it as a down-home bit of common-sense wisdom:

His feelings aren’t racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with “someone who is a full-blooded American as president.”

Whether Fry was referring to McCain’s military service or Obama’s Kenyan father isn’t clear, but he may have hit upon something essential in this presidential race.

"Essential" indeed. Parker tries to say that the essential difference between Obama and Clinton isn't so much "about race and gender as about heritage, core values and made-in-America." Parker never says as much, but the fact that Obama's father was a black man born in Kenya does makes him, for Josh Fry and for herself, less American than Clinton, less connected to those "core values." What Parker also implies, rather than directly states, is that Clinton is more American than Obama because she's more white.

"It’s about blood equity," Parker writes, "heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots. Some run deeper than others, and therein lies the truth of Josh Fry’s political sense."

Again, Parker steers clear of an outright statement about Obama's less-than-fully American black blood; the blood she directly refers to is that spilled by the real Americans in its many wars. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear just who these real, "ordinary" Americans are for Parker--the white ones:

What they know is that their forefathers fought and died for an America that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years. What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America.

Aside from her blithe setting aside of the fact that for most of those 200 years, America wasn't working very well at all for African Americans, Parker gives voice here to a very common brand of contemporary white supremacist thinking. This is the mindset that considers the most ordinary, real, hard-working, sacrificing, and thus most deserving Americans to be the white ones. To declare them white would clearly be "racist," but to imply that they're white is supposed to be okay.

And to imply that Obama and his sort, including those African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans and others, whose free and underpaid labor did as much or more than that of many "white" Americans to "build this country"--to imply that these people are not as truly American because they're not white, is to write something so exclusionary and fundamentally racist that it's a wonder the Washington Post actually published it.

Bowing to what she would no doubt perceive as politically correct pressure not to call a spade a spade, and a white person better because she's not a spade, Parker declares Clinton the better choice for president because of DNA: "Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to. She understands viscerally what Obama has to study."

If pressed to explain what she means by this difference, Parker would probably say that because Obama's father is from Kenya, at least half of his ancestry was not involved in the building of America with those small-town values. You know, those small white towns that kept black people out, and lynched them if they didn't stay out. (The temptation to point out the many racial blindspots in Parker's argument is hard to resist.)

And since those "values" somehow get passed down right through a person's "blood" and "DNA," Obama's racial status can only make him, at best, half as qualified for the presidency as the full, superior whiteness of Clinton makes her.

But for Parker and the many white Americans who think and "feel" this way (you know, with visceral feelings, those honest, real feelings), Obama isn't even half-white. He's black. Parker never mentions, of course, the extensive "roots" of Obama's ancestors in the kind of white genealogy she prefers. That Obama is actually related to Dick Cheney and can trace his ancestors back to colonial times is irrelevant for her, because she overlooks his whiteness. It's trumped by his blackness.

It would be nice to think that Parker's brand of covert white supremacy and various other degrees of it are not widespread, but they are. That's why Barack Obama doesn't spend much time bowling, or hunting, or downing beers and shots with good ol' white boys. He and his advisers know that the half of him that's black will almost always overshadow the half of him that's white.

Update: For another way in which the image of Barack Obama bowling resonates in racial terms, see Amy Goodman's piece on the murder of black protesters who sought the right to bowl. As Goodman writes,

it was not too long ago when African-Americans were not allowed in some bowling alleys. In Orangeburg, S.C., three young African-American men were killed for protesting against that town’s segregated bowling alley.

It was Feb. 8, 1968, months before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was more than two years before the massacre of students at Kent State University in Ohio. Students at South Carolina State University were protesting for access to the town’s only bowling alley.

In response to a question in the Comments about what Wright said that was "racist," I've replaced that word with the description "racially charged." I can't find any comments in Wright's church performances that qualify as "racist."
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