Monday, June 30, 2008

sit quietly in movie theaters, and shush those who don't (part one)

This strikes me as a common white form of behavior, especially, from what I've observed, among middle-class American white folks.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

white weekend links

  • "James Breeden’s 'Negro Woman'" (Know Good White People)

    As I am aware of the economic, social, educational, pyschological and other benefits received by my family, I can say without reservation that the act James Breeden committed before the court on that day more than one hundred and seventy five years ago was good, but I have no idea if he was. He did, after all, own my great-great-great grandmother.

  • "What White People Should Know" (Abagond)

    Most whites are blind to their own racism. . . . Whites can afford to be blind to it like that, blacks cannot. That is why blacks seem so “sensitive”, why they seem to see racism that is not there (you think). You are racist. You might not think you are, but you are. America was built on racism and still runs on it. It is still an important part of how white Americans think about themselves and the world. You cannot grow up in America and escape it.

  • "Why Whites Can't 'Get Over' Color" (Luke Visconti @ Diversity Inc, via Racialious, where there's a great comments thread on this topic)

    Your demand that we "Get over the color!" is an expression of white privilege. It's only possible to "get over" it if you are in the majority culture. Assuming you're white, YOU can "get over the color!" but it's simply not possible for people of color to get over who they are, what that means and the damage our society has purposefully done over the centuries by color. You close with an illuminating contradiction. You can't celebrate "color and different cultures" and embrace the "melting pot" at the same time. The "melting pot" is about subjugating your culture and forcing a person to "melt" into the white culture.

  • "Charter Oak Students Upset by Racial Prank" (Amanda Baumfeld @ Pasedena Star-News)

    High school yearbooks celebrate achievement, mark the passing of a year, and in photos, captions and scribbled signatures, capture a time. But for the nine students of Charter Oak High School's Black Student Union, this year's book might better be left on the shelf. A yearbook staff student replaced each of their names with fake names - such as "Tay Tay Shaniqua," "Crisphy Nanos" and "Laquan White" - next to the club photo in the school's 2008 Chronicle, according to Superintendent Clint Harwick.

  • "Absurd Views of Obama Drive Fears" (Lafe Tolliver @

    Cynthia indicated that people are concerned that Sen. Barack Obama will give favored immigration status to Africans since his father was from Kenya and soon America will be flooded with dark Africans demanding special treatment. Martin wondered that if Senator Obama is elected, will he demand more holidays for black people besides the current Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Ralph said that people are fearful that Michelle Obama will say the wrong thing when she visits foreign countries and our country will be given a bad reputation. Jennifer was worried about whether Mr. Obama will lower standards for education and allow black kids to do anything they want since they would have a black president in the White House to back them up. Audrey spoke about concerns of black people demanding that white people take a "second seat" in social affairs and protocols since Senator Obama won; they (black people) would no longer have to "take any stuff" from anyone.

  • "Dogs and Mainers . . . They Really Love Their Dogs" (Blackgirlinmaine's Weblog)

    [The] one area that I discovered where Mainers are different than the folks back home is with regards to their deep and abiding love for their dogs. Now to be totally stereotypical, in general it seems white folks love the dogs way more than Black folks.

  • "THEM: Why I Hate Adoptive Parents,* Reason Number 872." (Resist Racism)

    And where were the white parents at this event? Why, they were all sitting in a little White Cluster™ with their children of color. And then after a suitable period of time, they went home. And folks of color cleaned up and put everything away. I don’t understand the purpose of coming to community events if you are not actually interacting with the community. And when I say “interacting,” I don’t mean that you eat their food or watch them in their strange cultural rituals. I mean that you might actually attempt to develop relationships with those people. And maybe you might not treat them like your servants as you dip your toe into your cultural experience.

And finally, not because it's a white thing, but just because it's awesome--some Koreans totally kicking some Russians at a . . . black thing? (Click lower-right button to launch full screen)

(via Jeff Chang's "So You Think They Can Break-dance?")

Friday, June 27, 2008

weekend open thread

Last weekend's inaugural open thread went pretty well--lots of comments, and many good ideas for future discussion (for which I say, "thank you!").

What's on your mind this week? And if you're white, what's on your "white" mind? Did you resist your culture's regular modes and methods of discouragement away from white racial self-awareness? Did anything happen that made you feel "white"? Did you see or experience anything as "white" that you might not have seen that way earlier in your life?

If you're not white, did anything noteworthy happen to you this week in relation to white folks, or to whiteness in some other way? Did anything seem "white" to you in a way that white folks might not have seen? Did you encounter any especially white people, or moments, or events?

As always, if you have any general (or even specific) comments about this blog itself, those are very welcome too.

And finally, some more questions (I'm just full of those): Is nerdiness a white thing? Others can of course be nerds (think: Urkel), but is a white nerd more nerdy than say, a Native American nerd or an Asian American one? Does being a WHITE nerd make one that much more of a nerd?

Here's Weird Al's mediation on the topic, "White and Nerdy"--Watch. Listen. Digest. Discuss.

[If you want all the lyrics but couldn't catch them, they're written out here.]

believe that the american civil war ended slavery

An excerpt from Bill Moyers' interview with Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin describes Blackmon's book as

relentless and fascinating. It exposes what has been a mostly unexplored aspect of American history (though there have been dissertations and a few books from academic presses). It creates a broad racial, economic, cultural and political backdrop for events that have haunted Mr. Blackmon and will now haunt us all. And it need not exaggerate the hellish details of intense racial strife.

In Slavery by Another Name, Blackmon eviscerates one of our schoolchildren’s most basic assumptions: that slavery in America ended with the Civil War. Mr. Blackmon unearths shocking evidence that the practice persisted well into the 20th century. And he is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming.

The torment that Mr. Blackmon catalogs is, if anything, understated here. But it loudly and stunningly speaks for itself.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

sacrifice the selves of their children

[This is a guest post from SWPD reader jw, who adds the following self-description: "As a white German I see it as my responsibility that history never again can repeat itself. Without ideology I am politically left, embracing humanism and trying to be a part in the fight against the system of white supremacy. Anti-racism is more than just being against racism."]

When Alice Miller wrote her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, she did not intend to address specifically Eurocentric or "white" families. Nonetheless, her book is in effect about a specific tradition within Eurocentric families, or what amounts to the training of children to "become white." Miller's book doesn't talk about the intelligent child, as the title may imply. The "gifted" children are those who are sensitive enough to empathize with the emotions and needs of their mothers, and thus learn to act in ways that do not hurt their mothers' feelings, and thus to "fit in" most comfortably within their families.

Such children learn, via emotional abuse, that they aren't accepted and loved because of their own identity, but only because they are able to fulfill the needs of their parents. They learn, then, to silence themselves. The "drama" for the gifted children is that they learn to create a "false self" in order to be an accepted member of a confining family. The true self can't develop, and so the child, and later the adult, doesn't know his or her own emotional needs, and thus becomes alienated to itself. Miller writes about the lost world of emotions and the disconnection of the individual to one's own self. So much for Miller's book.

Being nice, decent, not emotional, perfect, an object—the presence of a controlling environment of other whites creates an unquestioned tradition of standards. Relatives, neighbors, schools, and so on control the families, and the parents control their children.

This control from outside can start as early as kindergarten. My niece, who is four years old, is a child who knows what she wants. Curious, active, and hardly ever accepting a "no" from the kindergarten teachers, she caused the kindergarten to write a letter to my sister. The letter stated that my niece is hyperactive, uncontrollable, and therefore an unacceptable burden for the kindergarten and the other children there. She needs, the letter said, a special kindergarten for difficult children.

Now, while nobody would call what these kindergarten teachers expected of my niece "making a child white," it definitely would be a first step in the direction of producing a "yea-sayer," a person who would learn that resistance to the status quo in whatever form will not be successful. My only response to my sister was:"Fight for your daughter." Finally my sister did, and after some interventions from outside, the kindergarten teachers were told that they have to change their expectations, and that they have to respect the needs and limits of my niece. The interveners recognized that she is a normal, active, and lively child who merely challenges the expectations of some adults about "comfortable" children.

Curiosity, "uncomfortable" emotions like anger, and questioning adults, including parents, are unappreciated characteristics, and they are therefore suppressed with different methods of emotional abuse of the child, who will later become the adapted adult who doesn't speak up against authorities (be they imagined or real). The more a child is able to deny itself and to instead "properly react" to the needs of other whites, the safer it will be in a white world. Empty, but safe.

Eurocentrism is full of irritating contradictions, and even the notion and celebration of individualism is not real: True individuals aren't welcomed. Eurocentrism concentrates on the outside, and image is more important than true being.

Children "becoming white" also means that they finally feel comfortable with their status quo, including the mistreatment of people whom they learn to regard as "Other." They accept the definition of success, which is materialistic, and they adapt to the rules of white society.

Their whiteness is nurtured by learning that they belong to a supposedly superior group, which they are told is "civilized" and should be considered an example for other nations or races. Positive stereotypes about whiteness as a synonym for goodness helps with denying a history and reality which is the opposite. They replace the self that they lost during their childhood with a dangerous feeling of safety, by belonging to a group that they think will accept and protect them.

That this tragedy for a child's soul does not always work as intended, by creating functioning members of (white) society, is not surprising. As Tim Wise says, in "Membership Has Its Disadvantages,"

specific crimes, like serial killing, mass murder, child sexual abuse, or drug use, and other dysfunctions, like suicide, eating disorders, or alcoholism, are mostly found in the white middle class. And whereas everyone, right or left, would seek to explain "why" in the case of dark and poor folks—the left saying economics and structural causes, the right saying genes or cultural flaws—when it comes to white and middle class dysfunction, the question, "why," isn't asked.

Or if it is, the "causes" are inevitably located externally—the video games, the music, the movies—and never viewed as possibly intrinsic to the group in question or the environment in which that group finds itself.

I would like to add: We need an education and training of children that doesn't deny them the right to be human.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

lack empathy for non-white people

What you once were isn't
what you wanna be


Ever since high school, I’ve been “keeping a journal.” I describe it that way, instead of “writing a diary,” because I don’t merely record mundane daily details. Instead, I mull over and try to work through some particular details of a day, usually the ones that somehow bother me.

Looking back over old my journal entries always evokes mixed feelings. I now see that at some points in my life I was a real jerk. But it’s also good to see that I’ve changed (though twenty years from now, I’ll probably realize that the current version of me is also a jerk in some ways). I’ve also learned to feel compassion for that younger version of myself; I had a privileged upbringing, but I had to struggle through some personal difficulties.

I also felt hemmed in by a sterile suburban environment, one that I now realize had everything to do with race and class, and especially with how the whiteness of my parents made it much more possible for us to be in that place. Our race made it easier, when I was ten years old, to elevate ourselves in terms of class by moving there.

That sounds like I see myself as lucky, and in material terms I guess I was. But being white did not mean that I was entirely “lucky” in emotional terms. Nor in terms of my human development. Being a middle-class white American male granted me confidence and all sorts of social access, but in other ways, it stunted my growth.

For example:

One day when I was seventeen, I was feeling a bit bothered about “the starving Africans,” who were appearing frequently at the time on television. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember now which country was in crisis. In an effort to sort through my feelings, I wrote the following journal entry. I can see now that what I wrote was mighty white of me:

The starving Africans were on TV again. It seems that we’re supposed to do something about it, send money I guess. But really, will that help? Will it go where it’s supposed to?

A thought occurred to me today about it all: why . . . not . . . just let them . . . die?

Okay, wait. I’m not supposed to think like that. But really, why not just let that happen? What is it in us—or maybe about us?—that stops us from letting that happen? Because, aren’t we also being told constantly that the world has too many people in it? If that’s true, isn’t this starvation in Africa a chance to get rid of some of the too-many people out there?

There’s too many billions of us already, and they say that food is going to get short sooner or later. I’m not supposed to say we should let them die, but a big part of me thinks, “why not? The rest of us would be better off.”

Like I said, I was a jerk back then in some ways that (I hope) I’m not anymore. What I now see about that seventeen-year-old “me” is that he was led by his training into whiteness to see “starving Africans” as less human than himself. So, “just letting them die” seemed to him like an idea worth considering. I seriously doubt that if my family’s television had been filled instead with scenes of white people in crisis somewhere—America, or Ireland, or somewhere in Europe—that such a horrible thought would have come to me.

It’s not that I thought of myself as a “racist” back then—far from it. I was instead what the philosopher Janine Jones labels a “goodwill white.” In George Yancy’s essay collection, What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question, Jones describes the sort of common white thought that I displayed in my journal entry as an “impairment of understanding.” Jones especially sees this impairment in those white folks who think and behave in ways that end up neglecting or even harming non-white people, but who also deny that race has anything to do with their thoughts and actions.*

In other words, Jones’ “goodwill whites” are the goodhearted, liberal (and even politically conservative) people who claim they don’t see race—that they’re “colorblind.” What Jones explains is how impaired such people are by their white training. Certain human capacities in them are stunted, atrophied, by underdevelopment and underuse.

One thing that makes it easier for goodwill whites to think that their thoughts and actions in regards to non-white people have nothing to do with race is what I wrote about yesterday—the apparent inability of many white people to have and maintain an awareness of their own whiteness (let alone an insightful, informed awareness of it). What Janine Jones helps me understand about my former white self is that my callous disregard for black African suffering was brought about by more than just the common, and usually unconscious, white presumption that non-white people are less than human—less, that is, than white people, who are unconsciously perceived as the real humans.

As Jones writes, such white folks also

seem to find it difficult to believe that they are white. 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. Goodwill whites’ desire not to see themselves as whites may partly explain their desire not to see blacks as blacks . . .

Elsewhere in her essay, Jones distinguishes between “sympathy” and another, higher-order human capacity that’s really the issue here, “empathy.” To empathize means more than simply imagining oneself in another’s shoes. It means understanding to a higher degree what it’s like for someone else to be in those shoes.

So if white people do not feel and understand the significance of their own racial membership, then they can’t really imagine very well what life is like for non-white people, who do know that their own racial membership is important. Thus, because training people into whiteness means in part instilling in them this fundamental (and fundamentally false) sense of their own individuality, versus the more accurate group-bound self-conception that non-white people tend to have, then whiteness renders white people less able to empathize with the difficulties or suffering of non-white people.

As I’ve said before, I find it incredibly sad and amazing that white America in general doesn’t give any credit to African American intellectuals for understanding so much about whiteness, so much that white people themselves don’t understand. On this topic of what I so clearly displayed in racial terms at the age of seventeen—a common white lack of racial empathy—another black observer of white folks has also proven helpful.

In Learning to Be White, theologian and psychologist Thandeka writes, “The first racial victim of the white community is its own child.” For Thandeka, one form this victimization takes is the white community’s denunciation of a young child’s natural feelings of connection, commonality, and empathy for non-white people and their children.** White children are taught, mostly in indirect ways, that “those people” are different from “you,” and thus, that those positive feelings of connection that they have about “those people” are “wrong.” The result, Thandeka writes (echoing in part Lillian Smith’s earlier examination of white psychology), is a split in white consciousness, a split between natural feelings and opposing, socially sanctioned, “correct” feelings. Another result for the white child, then, when it comes to those nevertheless persistent natural feelings, is a feeling of shame about them.

I think shame is one feeling that drove me to write that journal entry about “the starving Africans.” I felt something for them, some pain about their plight. But I’d also learned to feel somewhat ashamed of positive, humane feelings for those whom I’d learned to regard as a non-white, undifferentiated Other. And then (and if Jones and Thandeka are right, I'm really not overthinking all of this), my feelings were further conflicted by a more general moral sense that the shame I felt over my natural feeling of sympathy for other human beings was itself shameful.

So I think that the conflicting emotions brought about by something that I wasn’t even consciously aware of—that is, my own white training—led me to divert my natural feelings of sympathetic concern for human beings in desperate trouble into a seemingly rational discussion of another supposed problem, “overpopulation.” Letting those people die then seemed like a good step toward solving that other, seemingly less confusing and disturbing problem.

I think that Jones and Thandeka are right. From the perspective of the “me” that I am now, that journal entry is symptomatic of my victimization at the hands, as it were, of my suburban American white community. I’d been subtly discouraged from seeing myself as a member of the “white” group, from identifying with that group. So when I was faced with suffering non-white people, even if only on television, I’d been effectively prevented from developing in myself the higher-order capacity to empathize with them.

And so at a broader level, and to the detriment, it seems, of everyone involved--and as we recently saw so clearly in the case of white disregard for non-white victims of Hurricane Katrina--the white community discourages its members from feeling the empathetic connection to non-white people that would drive them to offer help when its needed, and to stop doing so many things that cause the need for help in the first place.

*And just to be clear, neither Jones nor I are denying how “impaired” in this sense other sorts of people can be, including non-white Americans. Being an American or a citizen of another developed nation also distances one from African or other “Third World” suffering, as do wealth and other factors. Being trained as a white American does this in particular ways, and I’m trying to describe those here.

**This is not to say, of course, that the victimization of white children, especially middle-class American ones, is of the same degree or severity as that endured by various sorts of non-white and/or impoverished children.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

express amazement when non-white people see them as "white"

I’ve written before about the common white American failure to see that for many non-white people, whiteness itself often makes a person less than trustworthy. White individuals should realize that since so many of their fellow whites still perceive non-whites in terms of stereotypes, white individuals can only begin to gain the trust of many non-white people after they’ve proven themselves unlikely to think and act on the basis of commonly held stereotypes about non-whites.

Something else that needs to be pointed out about these interactions between white and non-white people who don't know each other well is the more general phenomenon at work here--the fact that non-white people often assess the white "Other" in terms of racial membership. They see them, that is, AS white people, and they often consider that fact about them significant.

And yet, if white people ever discover or realize that they're being regarded in the same general way that they usually regard non-white people--in terms that emphasize race (though not necessarily in terms of stereotypes)--they're usually shocked, and even angry.

Again, most whites see most non-whites in group terms, no matter how colorblind they may claim to be. The strange thing is that on the other hand, white people usually think of themselves and other whites as individuals. And on top of that, they also tend to just assume that non-white people see themselves that way too.

Since non-white people have to study white people (as they try to get by or get ahead in a largely white, largely white-controlled world, as well as for their own safety), they often know more than whites themselves do about what being trained into whiteness commonly does to a person. It's also true that one resemblance between many non-whites and whites is that it is fairly common to think of their Other—of white people that is—in terms of stereotypes. And yet, despite all this non-white assessment of white individuals in terms of their race, if it becomes clear to a white person that he or she is being perceived AS a white person, the reaction is often shock or amazement.

While both whites and non-whites do often harbor stereotypes about each other, the non-white knowledge about and understanding of white people is much greater than the opposite. African Americans in particular have a long and detailed body of shared knowledge regarding whiteness. I’ve had trouble finding written or otherwise recorded observations on white people and white ways from other, non-black perspectives, but they must be out there. (Does anyone here know of any? If you're non-white and non-African American, is there recorded or non-recorded common knowledge or stereotypes about white folks among your group?)

In the essay excerpt below, bell hooks explains in more detail some common black observations about white people, as well as the ironic racism embedded within this common form of white surprise, which expresses white people's common amazement that non-white people would ever think that their whiteness makes any difference at all to who they are as “individuals”:

Although there has never been an official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversations with one another “special” knowledge of whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of white people. Deemed special because it was not a way of knowing that has been recorded fully in written material, its purpose was to help black folks cope and survive in a white supremacist society. . . .

Sharing the fascination with difference that white people have collectively expressed openly (and at times vulgarly) as they have traveled around the world in pursuit of the Other and Otherness, black people, especially those living during the historical period of racial apartheid and legal segregation, have similarly maintained steadfast and ongoing curiosity about the “ghosts,” the “barbarians,” these strange apparitions they were forced to serve. . . .

My thinking about representations of whiteness in the black imagination has been stimulated by classroom discussions about the way in which the absence of recognition is a strategy that facilitates making a group the Other. In those classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc. that are offered as “data” gleaned from close scrutiny and study.

Usually, white students respond with naive amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where “whiteness” is the privileged signifier. Their amazement that black people watch white people with a critical “ethnographic” gaze, is itself an expression of racism.

Often their rage erupts because 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. They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think. Many of them are shocked that black people think critically about whiteness because racist thinking perpetuates the fantasy that the Other who is subjugated, who is subhuman, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful.

Even though the majority of these students politically consider themselves liberals and anti-racists, they too unwittingly invest in the sense of whiteness as mystery.

think they can save the world by buying diapers

The UNICEF/Pampers 1 Pack = 1 Vaccine Campaign will donate the cost of one Tetanus Vaccine (equivalent to US 0.5 cents) to UNICEF for every specially-marked pack of pampers wipes sold during a three month period. It is estimated that this promotion will generate approximately US $3 million and facilitate the procurement of more than 40 million Tetanus Vaccines.


I've been interested in philosopher Shannon Sullivan's concept of "white world-travel" lately, and the concept came to mind again when a reader (who lives, I think, in Canada) sent me the heartwarming, self-serving advertisement below.

White world-travel involves a fantasized conception of oneself moving amidst, and in self-serving relation to, people from non-white countries. It isn't just a guy thing, and it's not just an American thing either. It's a complicated fantasy about oneself in relation to the rest of the world that many different sorts of "white" people can indulge in. They can also do so in many different ways--it's not a form of "travel" that necessarily involves physical movement to another place.

Encountering people unlike oneself in patronizing, literally "self"-serving ways is also not something that only white people do. Non-white people do it too, especially if they can afford it. While non-white people can adopt a variety of available fantasies about themselves in relation to some other people in the world, they differ from those available to white world-travelers.

What particular elements and modes of white world-traveling do you see being called upon in this combined effort to sell diapers and save children?

I'm also wondering--are First-World white women more likely than others to find this ad "heartwarming" and "moving," as so many YouTube commenters have described it?

Monday, June 23, 2008

listen to george carlin tell them that they're absurd

When I read today that George Carlin died, I felt a real sense of loss, one that rarely hits me when celebrities die. It feels like the loss of someone I've known all my life, someone who was personally important to me.

When I was a teenager, my parents kindly (and, I think, wisely) overlooked my obsession with his standup, which I bought and listened to over and over with my friends behind my bedroom's close door. Carlin was so damn smart, and so brave about "freedom of speech," and also so open about "bad" language and sex. He displayed a frank honesty about those topics that felt unjustly forbidden in my buttoned-down, white suburban world.

Carlin was a genius when it came to language, in terms of a jaw-dropping delivery of beautifully chosen and arranged words, but also in terms of pointing out things about language itself. He studied words themselves throughout his career, and much of his routine consisted of reports on his latest findings (as in his most famous routine, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television"--that link is VERY Not Safe for Work, of course, as is the video below).

Carlin's routines often seemed to spin off into absurdity, but if my friends and I listened seriously through our laughter, and through our delighted shock over the swearing and the sex talk, we realized that he always had a serious point to make. I'm not certain what his politics were, but listening to him was my first extensive experience with a "radical." While he often seemed angry at the absurdities of life, what he was really angry about, much of the time, was injustice. As he aged his persona seemed to get increasingly bitter and cranky, but I always thought that his disgust was with so much absurd injustice out there.

From what I remember, George Carlin didn't talk about his own whiteness, which would've really been something to hear. But he did talk insightfully about white people, and the absurdity of some of the things they do.

I'll miss you, George. You were a real credit to your race.

Update: Amy Goodman's good-bye to Carlin is probably the best one I've read:

Funny Man in an Unfunny World

by Amy Goodman

The world lost one of its great comedians this week with the death at age 71 of George Carlin. Carlin had a career as a stand-up comic that spanned a half-century, in which he continually broke new ground, targeting those in power with his wit and genius. He impacted our culture, our media and our nation with a stream of material that skewered institutions of the left and right, from government to business and the church. He released 22 comedy albums, earning him five Emmy nominations and winning four Grammys. He was the first guest host of “Saturday Night Live,” in 1975, and appeared on “The Tonight Show” 130 times. He starred in 14 HBO specials and authored three best-selling books. He also left an indelible mark on the radio station where I got my start in broadcast journalism, Pacifica station WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City.

On Oct. 30, 1973, WBAI broadcast Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine. Carlin wrote on his Web site, “Lone professional moralist complains to FCC which issues a Declaratory Order against station. Station goes to court.” That court battle would last five years, end at the U.S. Supreme Court and set the standard for broadcast indecency laws that are hotly debated to this day. It was neither accident nor coincidence that this iconoclastic comic would have some of his most controversial material broadcast over Pacifica Radio’s WBAI. The Pacifica Network was founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1949, with KPFA as the first truly listener-sponsored radio station.

Back then, radio was so overwhelmingly commercial that Pacifica founder Lew Hill and others found it worthless. As Hill wrote in his “Theory of Listener Sponsored Radio,” “If we want an improvement in radio, the basic situation of broadcasting must be such that artists and thinkers have a place to work — with freedom.”

On July 3, 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission could punish WBAI for its broadcast of Carlin’s routine, arguing that words relating to sex or excretion (i.e., piss) when children might be listening were prohibited. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented, noting the court’s “depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities.” Remarkably, 30 years later, the same issues are before a decidedly more conservative Supreme Court.

Recent episodes of “fleeting expletives” from the mouths of celebrities like Bono, Cher and Nicole Richie have prompted the FCC to seek enhanced power to punish broadcasters. George Carlin pointed out what in our society was truly indecent: the behavior of the powerful.

Yes, he spiced his delivery with expletives. He was angry. He, like Pacifica, gave voice to essential, dissident perspectives that have been almost entirely blocked from mainstream media. He said: “We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of slave owners who wanted to be free, so they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto of this country ought to be? You give us a color, we’ll wipe it out.”

His prolific output will continue to inspire for generations to come.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

white weekend links

  • "The Ugly Side of Disaster: Racism and the Calculus of Comparative Suffering" (Tim Wise @ Counterpunch)

    Disasters bring out the best and worst in people. . . . This week, as Iowans and some in Illinois watched flood waters rise ever higher, [Rush] Limbaugh took to the air to contrast these supposedly good and decent people who have joined forces to help each other, with the presumably evil, lazy and violent folks of New Orleans, who we are told, did nothing but foment criminality and wait for the government to save them during flooding there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

  • "President Obama? Many White Supremacists are Celebrating" (Mark Potok @ Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch)

    With the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate clinched, large sections of the white supremacist movement are adopting a surprising attitude: Electing America’s first black president would be a very good thing. It’s not that the assortment of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, anti-Semites and others who make up this country’s radical right have suddenly discovered that a man should be judged based on the content of his character, not his skin. On the contrary. A growing number of white supremacists, and even some of those who pass for intellectual leaders of their movement, think that a black man in the Oval Office would shock white America, possibly drive millions to their cause, and perhaps even set off a race war that, they hope, would ultimately end in Aryan victory.

  • "Diversity in Entertainment: Why Is TV So White?" (Jennifer Armstrong & Margeaux Watson @ Entertainment Weekly)

    Today the current prime-time lineup, including fall's 14 new scripted shows, is looking alarmingly pale. According to an Entertainment Weekly study of scripted-programming casts for the upcoming fall 2008 season, each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) of the United States population, as per the 2007 census estimate. And all of the networks are representing considerably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent, with The CW — whose only lead Latina star, JoAnna Garcia, will be playing a white character named Megan Smith on Surviving the Filthy Rich — registering just 3.8 percent.

  • "Why Should White People Fight Racism? Take Three" (One Drop @ Too Sense)

    [As] white people, we are the beneficiaries of the most extensive affirmative-action program in history, particularly white men. Access to the best education (or even, in some instances, any education at all) has been reserved for us. The highest-paying jobs, the most prestigious professions, have all been set aside for us and us alone. The vast majority of long-term material wealth, in terms of land and liquid assets, is owned by us. You want quotas? We've had the quota system of all quota systems protecting our social status for centuries. Only in the last sixty years or so has any of this begun to change.

  • "The 'F' Word and the White Press: The Editorial Sins of Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright" (Rev. William E. Alberts @ Counterpunch)

    The editorial “sin” of Minister Farrakhan and Rev. Wright is their clarity about and courage to confront, rather than accommodate, the “white supremacy” continuing to dictate life, liberty and the pursuit of access in America. The threat they pose is not their power to “divide” but to unite black and other persons at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, which certainly would have a divisive effect on whiteness as the invisible means into America’s mainstream. Thus the guardian media demonize them, and in so doing unknowingly further ordain them as prophets—and at the same time betray their own continuing role as the “white press,” which is what most black people called mainstream media during the 1967 urban riots in American cities.

  • "Racial Identity's Gray Area: The Definition of Whiteness Continues to Shift" (June Kronholz @ The Wall Street Journal)

    [The] the definition of who is white may change again -- and again. A century ago, Americans faced the same predictions about the loss of the white majority that they do today. Then, with Eastern and Southern Europeans flooding in, it was predicted that Caucasians would fall into the minority by 1950, says the University of Illinois's [David] Roediger. Those Italians, Slavs and other immigrants eventually were redefined as white as they assimilated and moved up the economic ladder. "That same thing could happen again," Dr. Roediger says -- this time, with minorities and immigrants changing their racial identities themselves.

  • "The Incredibly White College World Series" (Gregory Ruehlmann @ The Root)

    Every June I find myself watching the College World Series, but never for long. Collegiate baseball isn't something I follow in the regular season, mostly because it's rarely televised before tournament time. I almost never pay attention to the score. For me, the CWS is more of a TV spectacle out of which I make my own sort of game. I call it "Count All the Caucasians." It's a game that at first is amusing, then highly discouraging; it is also short. Whether the cameras of ESPN2 are following the play-by-play, zooming into the dugouts or just panning the crowd, within a few minutes my tally overwhelms me.

  • "Fear of a Black President" (Seth Grahame-Smith @ The Huffington Post)

    A black man may well become the leader of the free world. And even for someone who fancies himself a progressive, that's forced me to take a long, hard look at what that would really mean to my white mind. To identify that tiny, obscure part of me that's suddenly afraid, and find out what its problem is. Here's what I found.

think they have the right to dance wherever they like

This video combines my interests in white world-traveling and white dancing, but I'm not sure what to say about it in either of those terms.

Is Matt Harding doing good work here as a sort of benevolent cultural ambassador, cheering up people all over the globe? Or is he merely using masses of undifferentiated Others as props for a self-serving, self-aggrandizing performance, as a white American dork who thinks he has the right to go and dance wherever he damn well pleases?

Friday, June 20, 2008

start conversations

Actually, both white and non-white people start conversations. As this blog's readership has grown, I've been happy to start quite a few of them here.

I spent several hours this morning on a post about the differences between "race" and "ethnicity," but I'm currently in the clutches of that nasty, drooling, snarling beast, Writer's Block. Grrrrrrrrr.

Maybe enough people now read "stuff white people do" that I can try that common blogging feature, the "open thread." So here we go--please share whatever whiteness, or race-related, or otherwise-relevant thoughts you have in the Comments section. Suggestions for future posts would be great too.

In the meantime, here's a possible springboard for you--is this brief animated film an accurate summary of the history of white Americans?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

swpd at racialicious

Latoya Peterson, the editor over at Racialicious, asked if she could cross-post last week's item on white-American travel. The conversation in the Comments there is worth a look. . .

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

rarely count their racial blessings

Peggy McIntosh

In Shakti Butler's documentary film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Peggy McIntosh recalls the genesis of her groundbreaking essay on white privilege:

In 1980, I had read two essays by black women who had laid it out just like a given: "White women are oppressive to work with."

And I remember reading those two essays with astonishment. They were so factual about it: “White women are oppressive to work with. And I had two thoughts, in 1980, and I still remember them.

One was, “I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice!”

And the second, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980, “I especially think we're nice if we work with them.”

Then I thought, “Did we fill the reading lists, and the programs, and Women’s Studies, with white people’s stuff?”

And at first I said, “maybe,” and then I said, “yes.”

And then I asked myself, “If I have anything I didn’t earn, by contrast with my African American friends in this building, show me.”

And I had to pray on it, and I asked my unconscious mind to answer my question. And after three months, forty-six examples had swum up, most of them in the middle of the night.

And if I didn’t flick on a light and write them down, they’d be gone by morning, because I didn’t want to know them. They were messing up my view of myself as a person who’d earned everything I had.

I first read Peggy McIntosh’s essay about a dozen years ago, and I’ve been trying to keep my own white privilege in mind ever since. As McIntosh says in her essay, though, it’s a “fugitive and elusive subject,” and keeping an awareness of white privilege up front in one’s consciousness throughout the day can be difficult. White-majority environments discourage that kind of self-awareness.

I also find it difficult to remember specific examples of my own white privilege, and so like Peggy McIntosh, I write them down.

I’ll end this post with some examples from my recent life—from today, actually—and then with the trailer from Shakti Butler’s lucid and moving film.
  • As I walked around in several stores today, I never felt self-conscious about my race.
  • I never felt outnumbered by people of a different race.
  • As I drove down the highway at my usual ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I never worried that my race could make me a more likely target for a ticket.
  • As I drove through small towns on my lengthy commute to work, I never felt a need to remind myself that some of them were, until quite recently, sundown towns, and that most or all of them still weren’t exactly welcoming to people who are not the same color as me.
  • When I cut my finger while cooking tonight, the bandages that I’d hastily grabbed from a grocery store shelf pretty much matched the color of my skin.
  • When I spoke with a white colleague about the extra and excessive scrutiny that a recent black job candidate had received compared to the white ones, my claims were met with skepticism, but I never felt that my own race further discredited what I was saying. I realized that instead, it did the opposite.
  • As I thought about the conversation afterward, I realized that I have never faced the many stress-inducing trials that a successful black job candidate would face in my workplace—and that in fact, my whiteness continually paves a smoother, less stressful path before me as I navigate that workplace.
  • Throughout the day and into the evening, no negative incidents occurred that made me wonder if what happened had something to do with my race.
  • When I had dinner at a multiracial gathering, I never felt self-conscious in racial terms about which foods I should eat.
  • When I arrived late for that gathering, I didn’t worry about whether my lateness was a bad reflection on me in terms of my racial status.
  • As I conversed with my friends, I never worried if anything about my manner of speaking or the words and phrases that I used might reflect badly on me in terms of race.
  • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, waiting for some friends to emerge from a house, I never worried that my race could make me a potential target for harassment by police.
  • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, I realized that if I had encountered the police at any point during the day, the law enforcement official would probably have been a member of my own race. Even if he or she had not been, I would be likely to trust that person to deal with me fairly and respectfully, and I would not have worried in either case that my race would put me at risk in the encounter.
  • As I now head for bed, I realize that I’ll probably sleep better than I would if I were not white, having had that much less of a stressful day.

[Here's another video that combines McIntosh's interview, quoted above, with her list of forty-six examples of white privilege from her own life.]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

see white analysis of whiteness as a form of self-hatred

As I analyze whiteness, here on this blog and elsewhere, I often encounter white people who wonder if I'm really white, and if I am, why in the world I hate myself so much.

"How in the world," these white folks often ask, "could you say such things about white people? And thus about yourself? Why do you hate yourself?"

Since I'm aware of this portion of my audience, I often slow down to point out, again, that

(1) I'm talking about common white tendencies, not white people;

(2) I believe that while white people are often nice, well-meaning folks, there's very little that's positive, in historical or contemporary terms, about racial whiteness itself;

(3) white people are subtly, yet thoroughly, trained into becoming the bearers and enactors of common white tendencies, many (or all?) of which are negative, and yet, most of which most white folks aren't even aware of;

(4) and that on the other hand, most non-white people are very aware of these common white tendencies, and they often wish white folks would wake up and stop enacting them.

I recently received another e-mail asking about my self-hatred. I'm reposting it here, with my further thoughts (which the sender requested) afterwards. I welcome, very much, your further thoughts in the Comments section:

I was reading through Stuff White People Like one day and the thought came to me to check for other sites like it, focusing on other ethnic groups. Of course, there were many. So I stumbled upon your website.

The main question I need to ask you is: Are you really a white person? If so, I really don't understand the self-loathing.

Sure, white people have done some ridiculous things in the past and can all make fun of themselves. As a race, they are also responsible for some great tragedies throughout history. However, I find your own blog blatantly racist, not only to whites but people of other races.

Most offensive is the fact that you somehow believe you exist outside of racial lines, whereas everyone else does. You present yourself as some omniscient raceless judge, completely above criticism. You also group everyone into lump categories, then proceed to chastize [sic] white people for relying too heavily on stereotypes.

In one post, you mention white people interact with blacks very little, which causes them to think of them in stereotypes...not as people. However, your blog title alone "Stuff White People Do" throws 500 million people into a uniform group, you being the only outsider of course.

You paint African and Asian Americans as the lowly victims of white evil, stereotyping them as weak and moldable, something that I think you would agree is not true. You contradict yourself in many other instances as well. You have two consecutive posts that illustrate this best.

The first is that whites avoid the topic of race. Immediately following this, you accuse whites of bringing up the topic of race too often around minorities. One of your posts is also (not so) subtly demeaning to the Jewish people, impying [sic] that anger should be redirected at them.

You write as though you have just taken a college black history course and need to atone for the sins of the white race. Honestly, there is no way you could have always thought like this.

It's okay, we are all people. However your groupings of all societal functions into racial boundaries shows that you are unable to see outside of them. I'm not saying that all of my opinions need to be taken as fact, I am just offended that you do. Maybe the best way to heal the wounds of racial strife is not by placing all blame on the hands of the white race. Or maybe you are stuck with the notion that nothing unites like a common enemy. Either way, you are not going to [be] made an honorary minority.

I would love to hear a response back from you.

Okay, here's a response, in addition to what I said above:

Thank you for your e-mail. Such criticisms, and the chance to address them, help me think through what I'm doing with this blog.

Yes, I really am a "white" person, and have been all my life, even though my skin is actually more like a slightly pinkish beige color. One of the things I'm still trying to do is understand why the color (or lack of color) of a piece of paper got applied to the very non-"white" skin of people like me.

Regarding some of your more specific points, you wrote:

Sure, white people have done some ridiculous things in the past and can all make fun of themselves. As a race, they are also responsible for some great tragedies throughout history.

You write as if the ridiculous things that white people have done are all in the past, and that whatever white people do now that can be identified as "white" is so trivial that it merits little more than laughter. I've written before about some of the problems that I see with discussing today's forms of whiteness in terms of laughter. I think it's mostly white people who want to laugh at white people in terms of their being white, rather than take that whiteness seriously. And I think it's mostly non-white people who wish white people would take their own whiteness, especially their own common white tendencies, more seriously. Mostly in the hopes that they'll stop inflicting them on non-white people, and also in the hopes that they'll see just how thoroughly white favoritism still permeates American society and its institutions.

You also wrote:

In one post, you mention white people interact with blacks very little, which causes them to think of them in stereotypes...not as people. However, your blog title alone "Stuff White People Do" throws 500 million people into a uniform group, you being the only outsider of course.

Thanks for pointing this out. I know the blog's title is monolithic, and I've considered adding a subtitle along the lines of that in the epigraph to Langston Hughes great book, The Ways of White Folks: "The ways of some white folks, that is." (In fact, I've even considered changing the title of the blog to the title of Hughes' book, and adding that epigraph as the blog's tag-line/subtitle.) Again, I continually emphasize that I'm talking about "common white tendencies," and not ALL white folks; I don't think I should have to do that everywhere and always--it would get redundant.

I'll address your other point here, about my supposed claim to being an outsider to whiteness, below.

You also wrote,

You paint African and Asian Americans as the lowly victims of white evil, stereotyping them as weak and moldable, something that I think you would agree is not true.

I don't understand how I do that. In fact, I think I do quite the opposite. As I have repeatedly said, black people, like other non-white people, often know far more about white people than white people know about both themselves, and about black people. I think white people should listen more to black people, and also think about their own white selves as they do so.

To say that black people and other non-white people continue to suffer from the naive and often unconscious actions of white people is not to say that they're the weak, lowly victims of white evil. It's to say instead that white people should wake up to what they often do, and one source of information in that regard could be non-white people. I also think, though, that white people should do that work on their own, and among themselves--finding ways to understand our white selves better should be OUR job.

You also wrote,

One of your posts is also (not so) subtly demeaning to the Jewish people, impying [sic] that anger should be redirected at them.

I think you misread this post. What it says instead is that during election coverage, the corporate media in general has found much to look down upon and laugh at in the common attitudes about race that are held and expressed by rural white folks. However, they generally ignore some very similar attitudes to be found among elderly Jewish Americans. The post points out a disparity in media coverage, rather than claiming that anger should be "redirected" at Jewish people. Uneducated white people are seen as an available target for "classist" criticism and derision, and when other white groups express similarly objectionable opinions, they seldom receive similar criticism.

Finally, you also wrote,

You write as though you have just taken a college black history course and need to atone for the sins of the white race. Honestly, there is no way you could have always thought like this.

Honestly, there are many other routes besides a black history course to white self-understanding (and in fact, I've never taken such a course). I've been a student of African American issues and Asian American issues in some college courses that included them, but in terms of racial whiteness, I'm self-taught. There are at least one hundred scholarly books out there from that last fifteen years or so on racial whiteness, and hundreds more essays, stories, movies, and so on, and most of them nod to earlier African American studies of whiteness.

I'm not trying to atone for the sins of the white race. I'm trying to understand whiteness, and all that it has encouraged people to do, and all that it still encourages people to do.

More generally, I'm surprised that from your readings of non-white blogs, you didn't gather that a lot of non-white people don't find common white tendencies at all laughable. In fact, they often find common white tendencies quite a pain to deal with. So if you can see that, then don't you think that white people should try to understand that which makes them less than "nice" sometimes? And less than "fair"? That's basically what I'm trying to do here.

One thing I'm not doing is trying to claim is the status of "honorary minority," whatever that is. I realize that in America (although not in the world as a whole), I am in the racial majority, the "white" people. I'm not trying to escape that status--I'm trying to face up to it.

I often say in my posts, such as the one immediately below this one, that I'm a white person who enacts many of the white tendencies that I write about. I write at times from a personal perspective, partly in order to demonstrate this point. So I don't consider myself somehow "outside of racial lines." I'm trying to learn what being placed inside the racial lines, in the white group, has meant for me. What it's done to me, and what it encourages me to do.

So I in turn encourage you to do the same. I assume that you're white, so I have a couple of questions for you--what does being "white" mean for you? Do you see yourself as an enactor of any of the common white tendencies that I've described on this blog, or perhaps of others?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings, and I look forward to hearing from you,

macon d

Sunday, June 15, 2008

think they have the right to go wherever they like

[cross-posted, with a long and interesting comments thread,
at Racialicious]

When you look from outside at your own white people and their actions you can't help but feeling alienated. This is something nobody can do for a white. And perhaps this is an unconscious knowledge whites have - because if this happens you don't have this feeling of belonging anymore. You realize as a white that this white world [that] is meant to be 'your place' isn't your place. And what follows is a sometimes quite painful journey. You leave the comfort zone of 'whiteness' because surrounded by whites only no longer makes you feel comfortable and being 'exposed' to whites can then become quite stressful.

Difficult to explain what I mean, I guess, but I hope that some can follow my thoughts.

--jw (an especially insightful reader
of “stuff white people do”)

About ten years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Indonesia with three travel companions. We visited several of the islands and did the usual Lonely Planet things (yes, I did have a copy of Lonely Planet’s Indonesia), seeking out places to sleep and eat on our own, looking for authentic cultural practices, and avoiding the (white) crowds.

We congratulated ourselves on being different from "tourists," those people on package tours that kept them safe and clean from the more “seedy” and contaminating features of a crowded, relatively impoverished country. But now I realize that in some ways, I was worse than those tourists, and that the habits of being that I’d acquired from my life-long training into whiteness contributed to that effect.

I wasn’t a “tourist” doing a “tour” of Indonesia. I was a “traveler.” Maybe even an “adventurer.” My companions and I sought out sights and experiences that were “off the beaten path” (the clichéd nature of that phrase alone should have tipped us off to how much our supposed independence was in itself a kind of conformity). We hired guides with cars to take us to weird little villages and deserted beaches, quiet restaurants and cheap inns—places that Indonesians themselves actually used, or so we thought. And when we bought souvenirs, we tried to find authentic Indonesian stuff, not the cheap t-shirts and masks and pots and feathered things that were clearly made for those other “tourists.”

Before Indonesia, I’d been to other places in the world on similar terms, and I’d also worked as an English teacher in other countries. I think that overall, my extended encounters with other people, and thus with their very different perspectives and practices, gave me some different ways of looking at America, especially its peculiar racial obsessions. Maybe because I’m a rather introspective person, I also began thinking as well about my place in the world as a “white man.”

That mode of introspection was accelerated in Indonesia. Something about myself as a “traveler” hit me there, and that trip actually killed my itch to “travel.” It made me wonder just what the hell I was really doing when I ventured outside “my space,” and why I thought I had the right to do it.

Some experiences in Indonesia made me a bit of a stranger to myself. I suddenly wondered, for one thing, if I was really so different from those pampered hordes of American and Australian and British and German tourists. Having thought more since then about my status as an American, and especially as a “white” American, I now see that having been trained into whiteness made me feel especially entitled to go wherever I liked, and to do pretty much whatever I pleased when I got there, as long I was willing to pay for it. And pay for it I could, because the places I went to were cheap, man, a real bargain!

I think the thing that hit me came from the extreme poverty that I encountered while poking around on one of Indonesia's less “touristy” islands. I’d never seen such poor, hungry people as some of that island’s inhabitants. One especially disturbing encounter came after we’d hired a car to take us to a quiet beach, where I had an incident with a couple of strangers that echoed all too closely another racially charged encounter, that famous one Camus created in the bewildering sunlight of an Algerian beach.

Our driver, who spoke enough English to work with us (or rather, for us), had given me a business card that some Australians had made for him—the card identified him as “Johnny Asshole.”

As we grabbed our towels and set out across the hot, white sand, “Johnny” (who insisted on being called that) told us again not to go more than a hundred meters down the beach in either direction.

“Not safe!” he said again, refusing to answer my question about just what the danger was.

As Johnny waited for us under the shade of a tree, we splashed around in the water for awhile, happy to have this beautiful spot to ourselves. It was a warm, totally sunny day, and the water was a shimmering bluish green that I’d never seen before. When we climbed out and spread our towels for some deeper sun worship, I saw that Johnny had fallen asleep. I looked up and down the beach, which seemed to curve for a quarter mile or so in both directions around a bay, and then I decided to take a walk.

I strolled along the water line, marveling at how fine and soft the sugary sand was, and how quickly my footprints disappeared in the gently lapping waves. I was so transfixed by these sensations, and by the beauty of the place and of the whole day, that I hadn’t noticed a little boy standing in front of me until I almost walked right into him.

He looked to be seven or eight years old, and he wore nothing but a pair of ragged shorts. I gathered that he didn’t speak the one language I spoke when I said “hi there,” and he didn’t respond. He had a split coconut in his hand, with what looked to be a straw sticking out of it. The straw had been fashioned from some sort of plant, and he held the coconut out to me. I didn’t have any money, though, which is what I was guessing he wanted, so I shrugged, waved my hand, and said, “No thank you.”

Then I saw another boy, coming at us quickly from the tree line that was forty or fifty feet away. This was an older boy, and instead of a coconut, he was carrying a machete. Like the younger boy, he wasn’t smiling, and when he reached us, he stepped between me and the other boy. He planted his feet in a broad stance and crossed his arms, with one of his hands clenching the machete at a defensive angle. His face was set in what looked to me like an unfriendly frown.

I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but I thought it best to back away and return to where I’d been told to stay. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the two boys returning to the woods. The older one swung the machete loosely as he walked with an arm over the other boy’s shoulders. He was talking to him in what looked like a serious, admonishing way.

In her essay “White World-Traveling,” white American philosopher Shannon Sullivan writes about people like me—white people, that is, who feel entitled to go pretty much anywhere they like. She also writes about the resistance of non-white people (in her case, Latina and African American) to the efforts of well-intentioned white anti-racists to enter ongoing, intraracial dialogues on solutions for racial injustice.

Those non-white dialogues tend to include words, phrases, and coded understandings that outsiders don’t know about. The trouble here with white interlopers, Sullivan writes, is that in addition to obstinately insisting that they see no good reason to resist the inclusion of white voices in such dialogues, they also tend to expect that this “unfamiliar” material be translated for them. Not only does this slow down the dialogue—it can also change it. Translation for the sake of white anti-racists can also reveal modes of resistance to whiteness that non-white people don’t necessarily want to open up to white people, however well-intentioned they may be.

Sullivan has also written elsewhere about the general common white tendency at work here, which she calls a white habit of “ontological expansiveness”:

As ontologically expansive, white people consider all spaces as rightfully available for their habitation of them. A white person’s choice to change her environment in order to challenge her unconscious habits of white privilege can be just another instance of ontological expansiveness. This problem leads to the question of whether white people can attempt to change their unconscious habits and simultaneously live space in antiracist ways. While the danger of ontological expansiveness cannot be entirely eliminated, the answer to this question can be “yes.”

As I walked back from my encounter on the beach with those two boys, I did realize that I’d probably intruded on their space. Perhaps that stretch of beach and the coconut trees behind it belonged to their family. One of them might have meant to welcome me with a refreshing drink, or maybe he did want money. The other seemed to see me as a threat, which confused me—me, a threat? How could that be? I certainly meant no harm, and I saw no reason for anyone to want me to stay away. Was there something criminal going on behind those trees, something they thought I would alert the authorities about?

In other words, what that moment did for me was it shook me, in a way that I eventually realized was about ME—about who I was, and what I thought I was doing on that foreign beach, and in that foreign country. I also began thinking about what my real relations were with the people who inhabited this island, and just how they did and didn’t welcome tourists. Despite the higher regard I had for myself as a “traveler” rather than a “tourist,” it could well be that Indonesians in general were more welcoming of the restrained, contained package tourist than the Lonely Planet white guy like me, who felt entitled to enter their private spaces, and to turn their private lives into mere, exotic curiosities.

I felt even more upset about all this the next day, when my little group hired a canoe to take us across a lake. The owner of our lakefront hotel, who seemed to be the brother of the owner of the canoe, had told us about a village over there that laid out its dead above ground for a month or two before burying them. It was actually an illegal, and therefore secret tradition, he said, but he could arrange for us to see it.

We gladly took this opportunity to see something different, and didn’t mind paying what seemed like a pittance to get there. It took about twenty minutes for the canoe’s owner to row us across the lake, and as we approached the village’s creaky wooden pier, an elderly man was there to greet us. He clasped each of us by the hands with both of his own, and then led us to the bodies. And there they were, seven or eight desiccated corpses with dried flowers draped all over them. The village elder refused our thoroughly stupid request to take photographs. The four of us gawked, shivered a bit, and then headed back to the canoe.

By this time, many of the inhabitants of the village, which seemed to consist of about fifty houses, had come out to watch us. They all looked extremely thin to me. “Emaciated,” I thought, “that’s the right word.” Some had their hands out, and as we stepped onto the pier, about ten elderly people lined up along the shore. As our canoe slowly pulled away, these people walked into the lake fully clothed, with outstretched hands. They were sort of smiling at us. Few of them had any teeth left. I realized why the owner of the canoe was pulling away very slowly—it gave us more time to thrust money into these people’s hands.

I pulled out my wad of confusing Indonesian bills, reminded myself which were the smaller ones, and put some into several hands. By this time, the water was almost up to the necks of those who’d been able to venture out that far. As our canoe turned around to head away, they held their money up over their heads to keep it dry as they made their way back to shore. It didn’t look like all of them actually knew how to swim.

I hadn’t enjoyed the visit at all, but I didn’t know what was bothering me. It wasn’t the ghastly sight of dead bodies. I’d seen dead people before.

Maybe it was my own dead body. A sort of figurative “white” body. That of a white man who’d been trained to think that it’s okay to intrude on such private spaces, simply to satisfy his curiosity, his privilege-induced desire just to see something he’d never seen before. A white man who had been trained away from feeling any real empathy for such people, and for seeing them as a spectacle instead. And a white man who had also been trained away from understanding, by way of such a stark contrast, anything at all about the connections between their apparently desperate poverty and his own, relatively enormous wealth.

Friday, June 13, 2008

dance stiffly

Is it racist to say that white folks don't dance well?

I'm pretty sure it's not racist to say they even if they don't dance well, they still should dance more often.

fan video for "Air War"
by Crystal Castles

[this post is part of a series on white dancing, including "dance sweetly" and "dance at whites only parties"; hat-tip for the video to Ortho at Baudrillard's Bastard]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

misunderstand non-white gatherings

Yang Liu
"Lebenstil (Life)"
East Meets West

This post is different from those I've done before--instead of having something to say, I have something to ask.

Karen, a regular white reader of this blog, asked me a question in the comments to an earlier post about the presence of white people at explicitly non-white events. I replied in part that her question reminds me of a post I've been struggling with for awhile on one aspect of the same topic--the way white folks feel left out and even actively excluded from such events; the lack of white understanding about why such events occur; and why whites are sometimes not welcome at them. I haven't been able to boil down my thoughts on this topic's many facets yet to something concentrated enough for a blog post.

So, in the meantime, as I work on my post about why white folks feel entitled to attend such events and gatherings, I'm using this post to take up the suggestion of another regular reader, Just Me. We have a lot of different readers at this blog now, and he or she suggested asking readers about the other side of this topic: why do non-white people seek out non-white spaces, gatherings, and events? Also, when whites are less than welcome at such events, why is that?

The following might help spur your thoughts toward any reply you might leave in the comments.

The topic came up in an opinion column in the Kent State University's student newspaper, the Kent News, where columnist Beth Rankin wrote about her frustrating efforts to take part in events labeled something other than "white."

Here's part of Rankin's article:

While covering a fashion show for Uhuru magazine (I was the photo editor at the time), an angry black student hissed, "Why are you even here, anyway?" when I sat my photo gear next to him on a chair.

Weeks later, while covering a Black History Month talk by Malcolm X's daughter, a man behind me - who apparently was unhappy with my camera - yelled, "Get out of my way, white bitch."

Shortly after, while silently shooting another BUS event, I was called a white bitch again.

Shelley Blundell, a Kent journalism school graduate and native of South Africa, used to be a member of the Stark campus BUS chapter. But when she began attending Kent BUS events, she said she felt extremely unwelcome.

And after a controversial column on separation, Blundell said she received numerous e-mails from BUS members calling her, too, a "white bitch."

In 2005, after humor columnist Aman Ali wrote a satirical column called, "Black people need to start sharing," BUS made one phone call and the two days later, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and NAACP converged on campus, demanding Ali be fired. Some even pushed for his removal from the university.

Yes, Ali's column was inappropriate and the editor made a major mistake in running it, but when pressured, the editor folded like a card table and gave in to every single demand made by civil rights groups. Since then, the Stater has been very careful about BUS coverage, and when I told them I wanted to write this column, they were nervous. I can't blame them. BUS has showed its muscle numerous times over the years.

Now, this is not a column bashing BUS for past mistakes. This is a means to a dialog. I truly believe that BUS should embrace its non-black supporters, because there is power in numbers. We support your cause; now can we please be embraced the same way you embrace your black peers?

So this is what I say to you, current members and leaders of BUS: Tell me again. Tell me again what your goals are. I certainly hope they differ from those expressed to me in 2004.

Tell me what you are doing to reach out to non-black students who support your cause. As a straight girl, PRIDE!Kent has always welcomed me to their meetings and functions because they knew I supported their cause. I want to be able to attend BUS functions and feel the same love.

Racism is still a problem in this country, and it will never be solved if we continue to divide black from white. I have been called names and ostracized for the color of my skin, and I have been ridiculed for sharing my life with a man who is not white.

I am not a white bitch. I am a straight, white girl who will always do everything in her power to support the plight of all minorities.

I don't use the color of your skin against you, so please do not use mine against me.

Please, BUS: Tell me how you plan to use your powers for good. I want to hear your voice, and I want to become a united front in the fight against prejudice.

I am not a white bitch. I am not whitey. I am not a cracker. I am not the man.

And I never want to feel ostracized because of my race ever again. Don't you feel the same?

As Karen wrote in a comment on this blog about Beth's article,

The idea of people of similar hearts being the only categorization to live by, is an ideal one, but Beth goes to a black event where she's apparently not wanted, and doesn't see that people of color is a valid separation too...

So, a question from a white perspective to non-white ones, be they Af Am, Native Am, or Asian Am, or others--why, when the Civil Rights Movement ended de jure segregation, are these forms of segregation still valid?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

fail to see institutional racism

Now that Barack Obama has made history as the first "black" nominee of a major political party, the significance of his racial status is sure to receive more scrutiny than ever. The fact that he's also "biracial" might receive more acknowledgment as well. Despite Obama's efforts to distance himself from or "transcend" race, the issue nevertheless accompanies almost every public move he makes, and almost every event in which he participates. On the other hand, while the parallel issue that seems to matter for Hillary Clinton is her gender, her race also projects itself in significant ways in every public appearance she makes. White people in particular, though, just don't think much about her whiteness, unless her appeal to certain white voters becomes an obvious factor, and thus gets deemed worthy of discussion.

So again, now that we have our first major "black" nominee instead of our first "female" nominee, the matter of race is sure to receive even more attention, more than it has for a long, long time from white America, especially from the largely white-centric corporate media (and by "white-centric" I mean that the general perspective of the corporate media, the general framing of and approach to things, is an unmarked, generally unexamined white perspective). However, because the corporate media, as well as other American institutions, is largely white-centric, one form that racism takes will surely receive very little attention--"institutional racism."

I hestitate to refer to Wikipedia as an authoritative source, but the definition there of institutional racism matches my understanding of the term (if this definition doesn't quite match your understanding of it, please let us know in a comment--the Wikipedia entry on it also asks for help):

Institutional racism (or structural racism or systemic racism) refers to a form of racism which occurs specifically in institutions such as public bodies, corporations, and universities. The term was coined by black nationalist, pan-Africanist and honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael. In the late 1960s, he defined the term as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin."

For most white folks, Obama's historic first is likely to confirm their sense that aside from rare, isolated, and insignificant incidents involving deranged individuals, racism is more or less a thing of the past. Or, somewhat conversely, some will see Obama as an "affirmative action candidate," and thus as confirmation that racism does still exist, but it's only significant remaining form is "reverse racism" against whites.

These common white delusions occur because white people individualize racism; they operate with a narrowed, shrunken conception of it. They thus usually fail to see, for one thing, that many interactions with non-white people, including many of their own, are racist, and they also tend to believe that just as "racism" has faded into insignificance, so has the number of "racists"--who are thought to be the only people who commit "racist acts." They also fail to see that racism is embedded in institutions, and that in many ways, that kind of racism has gotten worse, not better.

In the following five-minute audio clip, Tim Wise explains this increase in the power and effects of institutional racism, which he especially attributes to the white reaction to the end of the Jim Crow era; an increased white focus on "violence"; and the new "War on Drugs."

I also want to recommend a powerful, heart-wrenching post at a relatively new blog, Keep It Trill, that describes a specific example of institutional racism. In "I Wept in the Courtroom," Kit describes her efforts to save her son from repeated instances of blatant racial profiling and abuse. Go read it--you'll probably weep too.

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