Saturday, October 31, 2009

homogenize people from over fifty different countries into one group: "africans"

Yesterday, I was talking to a white friend -- a friend who is not at all clueless about her common white tendencies -- about a party she'd recently attended. At one point she described one of the women who was there, a graduate student, and something or other in what she was saying made me ask where this other woman at the party was from.

"Oh, she's from Africa."

"Um, okay," I said. "Which country?"

"Let's see. Benin. Yes, that was it, Benin."

Our conversation moved on from there, but it left me with the realization that I'd just witnessed another common white tendency: to think of people from countries in the continent of Africa as "Africans." Instead of as citizens of a particular country.

Why do we do this? In my experience, we rarely homogenize people from Asian countries in quite that same way. I can recall being told about many individuals from that continent by white people, who usually identify the specific country they're from. They say things like, "That's Lalana. She's from Thailand," instead of, "That's Lalana. She's from Asia."

And I really don't think I've ever heard anyone homogenize a person in continental terms from Europe this way, as in, "That's Jurgen. He's from Europe." Instead, we immediately tie that person's identity to their specific country, and not to an entire continent. Same thing, in my experience, for people whose countries are in South America -- I've heard things like "She's from Brazil" far more often than "She's from South America," which I can't recall ever hearing before. But then, in somewhat different geographical terms, I have encountered people in the U.S. who assume that Latinos, who could be from many different countries, are all "Mexican"; the term "Native American" can obscure specific tribal affiliations as well.

I suppose that other, non-white people in the U.S., and in the West more generally, homogenize in this way too -- when it comes to Africa, it's certainly a "First World" way of looking down, in a delusional manner, on the supposed "Third World." But when white Americans do it, unspoken (and even unconscious) presumptions of racial superiority can add weight to the problem.

What we're usually exhibiting when we refer to people as "Africans" is something that the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls "the danger of a single story."

In a TED lecture that Adichie gave this past summer (video below), she describes the identity-crushing effects of European literature on her own efforts to write stories as a child. Because of her early encounters with that which had been labeled for her as "literature," and thus implicitly deemed "superior," her own stories were initially filled with white, blue-eyed characters.

Adichie then describes her arrival at a university in the U.S.:

I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe.

One thing that people in the U.S. don't seem to realize is how much racial and ethnocentric baggage they carry, and how much the contents of that baggage can spill out into such simple vehicles as their choice of particular words. Even single words, like "Africa," or "African." Part of that baggage is, as Adichie says, a presumptuous sense of superiority -- however unconscious that may be, it's there inside us. And unless we wake up and work to counter it, it's going to reveal itself in our words and actions. Also, as I said above, the baggage of this sort that white Westerners carry is even heavier, and that's because they've been raised in a de facto white supremacist context.

Would we feel better if we could somehow unload this ethnocentric baggage? Lighter, perhaps, and more free to move around, maybe toward other people, rather than away from them?

Adichie goes on to generously explain some problematic assumptions that a single word can express, and also how it feels as a Nigerian to be perceived instead as an "African":

In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to [my roommate], in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner.

In her remarkably lucid and instructive talk, Adichie traces the development of this "single story" of disparate peoples, from its roots in Western literature to its ongoing perpetuation in contemporary mass media. She describes succumbing herself to the temptation of viewing people through a single-story lens while traveling in Mexico, and she also offers the following strategy, an effective way of countering the common perception of people like herself as "Africans":

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho — and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. 

Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. It would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. And now, this is not because I am a better person than that student, but, because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.

Aside from expressing my gratitude for Chimamanda Adichie's highlighting of the problems brought about by "the danger of a single story," and illustrating its effects so well (and also expressing my gratitude to Restructure! for posting Adichie's talk on her blog, along with the transcript), all I can add here is, if you have a few minutes, please watch her talk and listen carefully.

Let's reject this "single story." We can do that in part by no longer referring to people as "Africans," unless they happen to do so themselves, and by paying closer attention to the intricate, beautiful diversity within any group of seemingly homogeneous people. The rewards for doing so are many, and our illegitimate presumptions of superiority will be kept in check.

Friday, October 30, 2009

assume that black women like michelle obama must be covering

When white people meet a person of color who doesn't match the stereotypes in their heads and hearts about that kind of person of color, they often assume that the person is "covering." Or "acting white." Or otherwise putting on an act, or a mask, and keeping their "real" self buttoned up until they get back home.

In a recent HBO appearance, comic genius Wanda Sykes briefly satirized this common white suspicion about "the real Michelle Obama."

I think Wanda Sykes is making a great point here: it's ridiculous for white people to assume that Michelle Obama's persona as the nation's First Lady is just that -- a contrived persona. And more to the point, that it's ridiculous and racist to assume that when Michelle Obama is relaxing behind closed doors, she acts like the loud black woman stereotype, complete with stock phrases and wild, aggressive body language.

As a white American, I don't think it's any of my business to speculate in terms of race about what Michelle Obama, or her husband, or any other non-white person, acts like in private.

Anyway, we all act differently in public to some degree, don't we? If we don't "cover" and "code-switch" in terms of race, then most of us do it in other ways. As Abagond pointed out awhile back in a post on the topic (the bold print is Abagond's),

Covering is where you cover your true self to fit in with mainstream America, downplaying the ways that make you different. Gays call it acting straight, blacks call it acting white. But most Americans do it to some degree because few are perfectly mainstream.

Covering comes out most clearly with gays, blacks and women, particularly at work. Women, for example, will downplay their duties as mothers, gays do not bring up their love lives, blacks speak Standard English, etc.

Again, knowing that some people of color do cover doesn't make it right to assume that any particular person is actually doing so, let alone to assume that he or she acts in specific, stereotypical ways when they're not out in public.

Of course, covering is nothing new for people of color. More than a century ago, the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote about it as a necessity:

              We Wear the Mask

    WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

   Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
            We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
            We wear the mask!

White Americans usually like to assure themselves that "race relations" have come a long way in America, and that the particular anguish articulated in Dunbar's poem no longer exists.

But then, thanks to ongoing white hegemony, a set of whitened expectations and standards does still exist, and when non-white people don't meet them, consequences must still be paid. And on top of that, when non-white people do manage to meet those standards, no matter how precisely, they still encounter white suspicions that they're not quite being "real," which actually means "stereotypical" (all of which is why, I think, this kind of Obamination gets so much traction again and again).

In a way, white suspicions about racial or ethnic covering are sadly ironic. As with the common white demand -- an arrogant, condescending demand -- that Latinos "Speak English!", there's little recognition and admiration for other people's mastery of multiple social registers. Monolingual white Americans who don't have to do much covering when they move throughout the different settings of their daily lives lack something -- a finely honed set of skills that they should admire, and even envy.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

fail to see how racism harms white people

The white community's first racial victim is its own child.

These days, fewer and fewer white people think that non-white people suffer much racism at all anymore. They often think as well that if and when racism does happen to non-white people, it's a mere, temporary annoyance, and not the major set of hindrances it often is instead. And so, white people rarely consider the racism endured by non-white people worthy of much attention at all.

The "racism" that most white people attend to instead is that which they think they themselves suffer. They commonly call their grievances of this sort "reverse racism" -- the supposed slings and arrows flung at white people by affirmative action, for instance, or by the "real racists" who insist on keeping the idea of racism alive by "crying" about it so much.

What very few white people realize, beyond the fact that racism against non-whites remains insidiously pervasive, is that white racism has costs for white people -- a lot of them. But these costs of racism are not the ones that many white people think they suffer.

In his book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, Paul Kivel writes that while "racism does produce material benefits for white people . . . the costs of racism to white people are devastating":

They are not the same costs as the day-to-day violence, discrimination, and harassment that people of color have to deal with. Nevertheless, they are significant costs that we have been trained to ignore, deny, or rationalize away. They are costs that other white people, particularly those with wealth, make us pay in our daily lives. It is sobering for us as white people to talk together about what it really costs to maintain such a system of division and exploitation in our society. We may even find it difficult to recognize some of the core costs of being white in our society.

Here's a summary of the costs of racism that Kivel says white people commonly suffer.

Kivel points out that because of racism, white people tend to:
  • lose contact with our ancestral traditions and cultures (and often romanticize other cultures as a result)
  • receive and believe a false sense of history, one that glorifies and sanitizes white actions and leaves out non-white contributions
  • "lose the presence and contributions of people of color to our neighborhoods, schools, and relationships"
  • feel "a false sense of superiority, a belief that we should be in control and in authority, and that people of color should be maids, servants, and gardeners and do the less valued work of our society"
  • live, work, and play in settings that are largely white, and are thus "distorted, limited, and less rich" environments
  • suffer in our relationships, with both white and non-white others, because of racial tension and/or bigotry
  • suffer stress and anxiety induced by unrealistic fears of non-white people (and suffer at times as well from injury at the hands of certain white people, whom we'd been led by racist fear of non-white people into perceiving as relatively trustworthy)
  • fail to see that we're being economically exploited by those who divert our aggrieved attention and energies into mistrust and hatred of racialized scapegoats
  • suffer spiritually, to the extent that we've lost touch with our people's original spiritual traditions -- and thus suffer morally and ethically, to the extent that those traditions no longer encourage us to intervene when we "witness situations of discrimination and harassment"
  • feel a lowered sense of self-esteem, due to our "feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or inadequacy about racism and about our responses to it"
  • become cynical, despairing, apathetic, and pessimistic when we do acknowledge the ongoing existence of white racism, and then realize that it "makes a mockery of our ideals of democracy, justice, and equality"

Again, as Kivel points out, to say that whites suffer from racism is not to say their suffering is anywhere near the devastating effects that it still has for many non-whites. Also, there is at least one danger in this method of eradicating racism: it could be taken by white people engaged in discussions of racism as an invitation to make everything all about themselves again.

What do you think? Is it worthwhile to encourage white people to also think of white racism in terms of the harm that it does to themselves and other white people? 

If you have additions to the above list, please let us know in a comment -- are there other ways that white racism costs or harms white people?

After offering an extensive checklist that white people can use to examine the costs of racism to themselves and other white people they know, Kivel ends his chapter on the topic this way:

Realizing what those costs are can easily make us angry. If we are not careful, we can turn that anger toward people of color, blaming them for the problems of white racism. Sometimes we say things like, “If they weren’t here we would not have these problems.” But racism is caused by white people, by our attitudes, behaviors, practices, and institutions.

How is it that white people in general can justify retaining the benefits of being white without taking responsibility for perpetuating racism?

How do you justify it for yourself?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

point out that they've never owned slaves

This is a guest post by Nikki, who blogs at Irene's Daughters, along with Kate and Cayce. This post is part of their series on common white "derailment" tactics. Nikki can be reached at

The majority of white Americans believe that black people were mistreated horribly; we’re willing to admit that. But we aren’t willing to pay for it for the rest of human history. We don’t want to believe in the curse of the sins of the fathers. And so people like me, who do believe that black people were wronged, also wish we could say, “If you don’t get over it, you’ll always languish like this. You have to work for what you want, like the rest of us do. Don’t expect anyone to give you the leg up.”

I’m not trying to ignore history; I’m trying to get beyond it.

An acquaintance wrote the above words to me in early 2008. She was a Christian and a Democrat who enthusiastically supported and voted for President Obama that same year. I have no idea if she still feels this way; I haven’t asked her lately.

derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo

“I never owned slaves.”

“No one in my family ever owned slaves.”

“Our family didn’t come to America until well after slavery.” [Note: Up until recently, this was my own white family’s favorite line.]

“The past has already happened; we can’t change it.”

(That last pass-the-buck statement is my favorite, I think. Really, you don’t have the power to change the past? You mean to tell me you’ve never tried to build a time machine? My God, how do you live with yourself?)

Usually when I hear these sorts of lines from white people, they are offered in explanation of why they vehemently oppose affirmative action, or any other race-based help/“handouts” for people of color. Their justification, in most cases, is this insistence on their own helplessness to change history, and their unwillingness to “pay” or be “held responsible” for it.

The way they tell it, they, too, are victims of unjust, ignorant, and/or racist white ancestors — because they, white Americans living today, are the unfortunate ones who must deal with affirmative action, “reverse racism,” and angry, greedy people of color. Sure, black people suffered tremendously under slavery, but many white people now feel that they are the oppressed ones, paying unfairly for “the sins of the fathers.”

In his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva refutes this notion of institutionalized racism and ensuing white privilege as a thing of the distant past, far removed from white people living in the U.S. today:

[W]hites interpreted the past as slavery…. Since Jim Crow died slowly in the country (1960s to 1970s), their constant reference to a remote past distorts the fact about how recent overt forms of racial oppression impeded black progress. This also means that most whites are still connected to parents and grandparents who participated in Jim Crow in some fashion… [B]elieving discrimination is a thing of the past helps whites reinforce their staunch opposition to all race-based compensatory programs. This story line, then, is used to deny the enduring effects of historic discrimination as well as to deny the significance of contemporary discrimination…

It is a fact that most whites did not participate directly in slavery or came to the country years after slavery had ended. However, this…ignores the fact that pro-white policies (“preferential treatment”) in jobs, housing, elections, and access to social space…have had (and continue to have) a positive multiplier effect for all those deemed “white.” … Although specific whites may not have participated directly in the overt discriminatory practices that injured blacks and other minorities in the past, they have all received unearned privileges by virtue of being regarded as “white” and have benefited from the various incarnations of white supremacy in the United States.

An American who exonerates himself because “that’s someone else’s history, not mine” makes the conversation all about him and his own defensiveness, his feelings of helplessness. It is not wrong to feel frustrated or helpless in the face of racism, prejudice, and unearned white privilege — but it is wrong to give yourself a free pass to ignore it, to walk away, to do nothing to challenge or change it.

The determination of many white people to excuse themselves not just from any wrongdoing, but from taking any positive action to fight (or, in some cases, even acknowledge) racism as it persists today, seriously handicaps all Americans in our struggle to overcome our collective racist history. To echo Cayce’s Derailment Monday post of last week, conversations with white people about race often get sidelined by the white person saying, “You just want me to feel guilty!” But, as Cayce pointed out, no reasonable anti-racist wants white people to feel guilty for either past or current wrongs — instead, we want them “to feel engaged, empathetic, righteously indignant even, over the injustices in our society.” These are feelings we can take to the bank; these are feelings that aid us in the fight against racism. Guilt, helplessness, and especially defensiveness changes nothing.

There is one other point I want to make about the fallacy of this “historical” excuse, or “the past is the past” argument (to again quote Professor Bonilla-Silva). Yes, the past is the past, and one cannot in fairness blame a white descendant of slaveowners for the sins of her forebears. But it is ignorant and irresponsible to assume that a grievous sin such as racism, institutionalized and promoted as it was by slavery and Jim Crow — and the genocide against America’s indigenous peoples, and the persecution of immigrants, and the Japanese-American internment, to name only a few examples — can remain isolated in the past, without creating a blight on future generations as well. We are not so easily separated from what our countrymen did just a few generations ago, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from the past and claim innocence.

We reap what others have sown before us, and that includes deep mistrust, prejudice, and racism. And we do bear the burden, as their descendants — and the only people with the power to change anything now — to try to right at least some of the wrongs. It’s time to challenge all the people of our generation who want to simply wash their hands of history. Why should we expect to be excused from addressing this injustice, and working to eradicate it, even if we are not the ones “directly responsible” for it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

try to speed up hispanic assimilation

Isn't it something how America still takes pride in being a "melting pot," a nation that draws strength from having such a diverse population? And yet at the same, paradoxical time, how it also still insists that immigrants assimilate as quickly as possible into a set of deracinated, bleached-out standards?

A couple of recent news items (described below) demonstrate how that assimilationist pressure gets applied to Latinos. For one thing, they're constantly told, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, "Speak English!"

What is up with that, anyway? And why, especially, the vitriol that accompanies it? What's that anger all about, that it would even drive people to wear t-shirts like the one above? Surely someone else's struggles with the English language don't cramp the ordinary white person's life all that much, do they?

Actually, I think a lot of this white anger isn't really about annoyance with someone else's struggle with English. I think it's more about the browning of America, and the supposed threat that demographic change represents to some nostalgic white notion of a fading "real America."

It used to be that white people were more firmly in control of things, and didn't have to share center stage politically and culturally with darker people. But now that so many darker Americans seem insistent about intruding on white America, insisting that it live up to its own expressed ideals and all, a lot of white Americans are basically insisting in return that even though those intruders don't look white, they should at least act white.

A lot of white people complain about people who "can't speak English" because they're really kind of wondering whatever happened to immigrants who were more than eager to assimilate. How come they're not so anxious anymore to become just like us?

Exhibit A: It's recently come to the nation's attention that police in Dallas, Texas have been giving dozens of tickets (and a $204 fine) to certain drivers, for the horrendous crime of not speaking English especially well.

Yes, it is true that the police officers may have been confused about a law that applies instead to commercial drivers, and thus wrongly applied it to people driving cars. Nevertheless, what message do these tickets send to Latin Americans who live in Dallas?

Brenda Reyes, a political consultant and member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, puts her outrage this way: "It's the principle of the matter that there are police officers out there representing our city who actually think that it's a crime not to speak English."

It also seems to me that this injunction -- "Speak English! And since you don't speak it well yet, here's a hefty fine!" -- again has more baggage and emotion behind it than a mere concern or annoyance with linguistic ability. It also carries the weight of all that anti-immigrant sentiment that gets unjustly leveled at Latin Americans.

"Speak English!" also means "Stop speaking Spanish!" And so it's one of many ways of saying, "Stop being Hispanic." In that way, I imagine that this English-only thing can feel like the tip of a knife. Or in cases where authority is involved, as in the ticketing in Dallas, more like the tap of a police baton, which barely precedes threats of the taser, the handcuffs, and the gun. We'd prefer you leave, but if you're going to stay, then hurry up and assimilate, right now.

Exhibit B is an example of something I've written about before, the common white aversion to unfamiliar names. This aversion sometimes goes as far as the demand for different, "easier" names.

"Hotel owner tells Hispanic workers to change names":

Larry Whitten marched into this northern New Mexico town [Taos] in late July on a mission: resurrect a failing hotel.

The tough-talking former Marine immediately laid down some new rules. Among them, he forbade the Hispanic workers at the run-down, Southwestern adobe-style hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they'd be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names.

No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.

Oh the ironies. This story is full of them, isn't it? (Actually, I think it could make a great movie.)

And that hotel owner said something else I've heard white people say several times before -- I just haven't gotten around to a blog post on it yet. Something like, "suspect that speakers of foreign languages are talking about them." What is up with that? It reminds me of yet another post I haven't done yet, something about how a lot of white people "get paranoid when they're around non-white people."

Fortunately, Larry Whitten's militant style has been countered with organized protests, and he's thinking about selling the place and leaving:

Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed across the street from the hotel.

"I do feel he's a racist, but he's a racist out of ignorance. He doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong," says protester Juanito Burns Jr., who identified himself as prime minister of an activist group called Los Brown Berets de Nuevo Mexico.

 (The Taos News)

It's a little strange that this story took so long to get national attention, since the Taos News wrote about racial problems at the Whitten Inn over a month ago, as well as earlier protests:

Among chants of, “Boycott,” and, “We won’t stand for racism,” protesters of all ages carried signs and shared their feelings about Whitten and his policies. . . . most people in town are supportive of the protesters, and even white people in town have been bringing them food and water and honking in support.

Two Latinos specifically addressed Whitten's arrogant, paternalistic insistence on renaming his employees:

Emilio Sánchez, 12, said he stands behind the protest and wants to see Whitten leave town; he said he wouldn’t consider working under the conditions Whitten imposed. “My name is not Timmy or Tom or anything,” Sánchez said.

Martin Gutierrez, a fired employee, "says he felt disrespected when he was told to use the unaccented Martin as his name":

He says he told Whitten that Spanish was spoken in New Mexico before English. "He told me he didn't care what I thought because this was his business," Gutierrez says.

"I don't have to change my name and language or heritage," he says. "I'm professional the way I am."

Isn't that the problem, right there, with this "Speak English!" thing that white people do?

Again, it's not so much about annoyance with someone's English skills (which is an ironic, rather ridiculous annoyance, given that it almost always comes from people who can only speak one language). It's more about denigrating that person's heritage, and so ultimately, it's about denigrating who that person is as a person, as a human being. It's about implying that they're less of a human being than we are.

These two recent examples of assimilationist pressure are extreme, but they help to clarifly what many white Americans believe -- that Latin American people just don't belong here, and if they are here, then they should stop shoving in our faces that which makes them Latin Americans. We basically want them to suppress and deny themselves, all for our own convenience, and so that we can feel more comfortable and safe around them.

And I also think that at its worst, it's as if we're saying to them, even with a simple complaint about their English skills or their unfamiliar names, "Look, if we're ever going to accept you, you must become like us. But then, good luck with that. See, when you get right down to it, we are superior, and you are inferior."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

suddenly get interested in non-white people whenever halloween comes around

I think it's strange how whenever Halloween comes around, so many white people suddenly get interested in non-white people. I also think it's sad and frustrating how so much of that interest ends up getting expressed in racist ways.

How about a Halloween racism check -- do any of the following four images strike you as a racist way for a white person to celebrate Halloween? If so, would you make an effort to point that out to such white celebrants?

Each of these images includes white people celebrating Halloween by connecting with other races. Or rather, with their own ideas of other races. Of course, the photo with the Obama pumpkin would seem entirely non-racist to most Americans [edit: and I would say that I agree]. That's because it's the only one where white people aren't dressed up as people of other races.

So among the other three photos above of various white folks in racial drag, is any one of them more racist than the other two (assuming you think that any of them are racist)?

I would bet that for most white Americans, the image of the three blackened white boys seems most immediately wrong. And for some, the only one that's wrong. That one is pretty widely recognizable as an example of the old-fashioned, denigrated entertainment practice of "blackface." That thing that got Ted Danson in trouble back in the day, during . . . what was it?

Oh right, a celebrity roast, for Whoopi Goldberg:

Ted Danson
Friars Club Roast (1993)

If the other two get-ups depicted above -- the "Indian Brave" and the "Geisha" -- don't seem as racist to a lot of white people as the one depicting blackface "wiggers," why is that? Why is it that blackface is more clearly wrong, while redface or yellowface are okay, or else, not as wrong?

The controversial costume making the rounds this year is this one, the "illegal alien" -- does it avoid being a racist caricature because it doesn't actually depict a human being?

Isn't that clever? And look, he has a green card! But, wait -- so he's not "illegal"?

After receiving complaints about this costume, major retailer Target has stopped selling it. Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, calls it “distasteful, mean-spirited, and ignorant of social stigmas and current debate on immigration reform.”

On the other hand, according to CNN,

William Gheen, the president of Americans for Legal Immigration, said he intends to buy the costume, and calls the reaction unfounded.

"The only people getting upset are the hyper-sensitive, over-politically correct, pro-amnesty, illegal alien-supporting nuts," said Gheen. "You can't attack people's freedom in this country."

What about Halloween parties that have racial themes? Do you think those are wrong? Like the "ghetto fabulous" or "tacos and tequila" parties that occur on college campuses? And in people's living rooms?

It's been my experience that when white folks are questioned about such Halloween choices, they usually brush off any allegations of racism with the claim that it's all just good, harmless fun. The implication is that they don't intend to be racist, and therefore, they're not. Never mind any actual effects of their actions.

But if those are "all in good fun," then how about a houseful of white folks throwing something called a "lynching party"? Would that be any different, or worse?

Actually, I wonder if that's what these young good ol' boys at Auburn University called this Halloween party:

So what do you think? Where do you draw the line on these things?

If you see anyone dressed up like a stereotype this Halloween, do you plan to say anything to them?

If you do encounter costumes or situations that conjure up racist stereotypes, you might recall the words of Guillermo Iglesias, whose parents were illegal immigrants in the U.S. Iglesias said he finds the "illegal alien" costume above offensive because it depicts illegal immigrants as "not one of us."

"I have a lot of illegal immigrant friends," said Iglesias. "If I showed them that costume, it would really hurt them."

So finally, if you're white, I have a suggestion. Aside from resisting any temptation you might have to somehow dress up like a member of another race or ethnic group -- and thereby perpetuating stereotypes and running the risk of hurting other people -- how would the following idea work for you?

If you meet a white friend or acquaintance who's dressed up that way, you could say this to them: "Wow, what a concept! Where'd you get the idea of dressing up like a racist dipshit?"

[Unfortunately, a Halloween post of this sort might become an annual tradition here, as it is at other anti-racism blogs. An earlier version of the post above appeared here.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

perform in front of anonymous, silent asians

Q: Why is Shakira white?

A: Because she is pretty.

--Wiki Answers

The singer/celebrity/pop star Shakira was born in Colombia. Do many people nevertheless think of her as "white"? Or instead as "Hispanic," or a "Latina"?

Or even as something else? After all, as Wikipedia explains, "She is the only child of Nidya del Carmen Ripoll Torrado and William Mebarak Chadid who are of Lebanese, Spanish (Catalan) and Italian descent."

As for me, I'm pretty tempted to say that when Shakira appeared recently on Saturday Night Live, she was at least acting white, center-staging herself the way she did against a backdrop of homogenized Asians.

If she's going for some new global, World Music thing here, she's definitely not doing something new in terms or racial choreography. Didn't this mode of cultural appropriation go out with Gwen Stefani?

The women on the drums behind Shakira, by the way, are wearing outfits in a traditional Korean style. Here's a performance where you can actually hear some other women performing this distinctly Korean form of drumming.

Are the women behind Shakira actually even playing their drums? I couldn't hear them.

Is it fair or right for Shakira to use Korean (or probably to most Americans watching it, "Asian") women as a backdrop like this? She can do whatever she wants, I suppose, but again, it sure is a familiar white thing she's doing. And it involves such familiar white moves -- homogenizing Asians (which Western people have long done, often in far more injurious ways), and silencing them (even when they're playing drums!), and failing to recognize and appreciate their distinct national cultures and traditions.

Since Shakira's use of these women involves all of that, for the sole purpose of spicing up her own self-presentation, rather than for actual recognition and celebration of traditional Korean women drummers (whom she doesn't even significantly incorporate into her music), I don't think it's at all right or fair. I think it's racist. Her racial choreography perpetuates ongoing, racist conceptions of Asians, and it participates in the more or less general silencing of them in U.S. culture.

As I've noted in previous posts, aside from Gwen Stefani's silenced Harajuku Girls, an Australian clothing outlet recently used a notably silenced, homogeneous group of Asians the same way:

Here's another recent example, which I wrote about here, a commercial for the Palm Pre. Once again, a white woman at the center, and anonymous, homogeneous Asians collectively, uniformly serving as her backdrop.

It seems to me that what's happening in these and many other examples is a particularly stark version of cultural appropriation. It's as if in terms of race, the white individuals at the center are just that, individuals -- as if they don't have a race, nor any particular culture. As they stand front and center in the brighter lights, it's as though these individuals are supposed to be absorbing racial and cultural energy, which flows onto them from the auras of the silent, anonymous, but culturally rich others. And in the process, those individualized performers become, I suppose, less white.

But they don't become less white, do they? As Shakira's performance in another example of this racist staging demonstrates, they're actually acting as white as ever.

Friday, October 16, 2009

still ask that old camouflaging question, "but what about the children?"

Update: video of Keith Bardwell being interviewed added below

Yesterday's news from Louisiana -- about the denial of a marriage license to an interracial couple -- reminds me of a scenario that I've encountered several times in real life, and also many times in movies and TV shows (but I can't remember any particular example of the latter -- can you?).

A black and white couple want to get married, but the parents and others object. Especially the white parents. But of course, they won't admit to the racism that's motivating their objection. Maybe not even to themselves.

So instead of saying something like, "I just don't want you marrying someone who's black," they often say instead, "But, but . . . what about the children? They'll have so much trouble, feeling, you know, accepted and all."

I'm guessing that by now, most readers of this blog have already heard about Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace for Tangipahoa Parish's 8th Ward, in Louisiania. Bardwell is entrusted by the people of his parish with the official task of issuing marriage licenses; when Beth Humphrey (who's white) and Terence McKay (who's black) approached him for one, he refused. And, of course, like just about every other white person these days who commits an act of blatant racism, Bardwell said he's not a racist -- he has higher concerns in mind:

I'm not a racist. I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children.

Bardwell has thought about these things, you see -- long. And hard. (And deep. Repeatedly, in and out, in and out -- I hope you catch the um, thrust, of what I think he's also thinking about.)

Bardwell said he asks everyone who calls about marriage if they are a mixed race couple. If they are, he does not marry them, he said.

Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society, he said.

"There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage," Bardwell said. "I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it."

Well, how thoroughly magnanimous of you, Justice Bardwell. Not to mention, intrusively paternalistic.

Speaking of Bardwell's house, which I'm sure is just overrun with joyous hordes of black and white children carousing together, he also had this to say:

I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.

Ah yes, black friends too, piles of them. Right there, in his bathroom!

Bardwell's incredibly retrograde actions, and his obviously diversionary concern for the children, have already lit up the Internet -- seems like every blog and news site I read is excited about it. My favorite response so far comes from blackgirlinmaine:

[All] the news accounts I have read about Bardwell state that he is not a racist, hell he even lets Negroes use his toilet. Nice to know should I ever darken his doorstep with a hot case of the runs, he will let a sista use his can . . . mighty nice of him. I wonder if I could drink from his cups too?

Mighty white of him too, I'd say.

And to think that Bardwell could express such doubts about the future acceptance of the children produced by interracial unions right when the preeminent counterexample, President Barack Obama, was addressing a town hall meeting in the same state, Louisiana. Oh, the sad, bitter ironies wrought by blinkered white oblivion!

I think it's easy enough to mock and dismiss Bardwell's Jim Crow-era sentiments (and actions -- he says he's turned away other interracial couples as well), as those of a mere, isolated individual. But then, as I wrote above, isn't his camouflaging concern for the children of such unions -- a concern that probably masks his more genuine distaste for what happens in the private lives of such couples, and for the supposed dangers of "race-mixing" -- aren't all those "concerns" still fairly common? Maybe the ongoing familiarity of Bardwell's diversionary attention to hypothetical children is one reason his actions still strike a collective nerve.

Anyway, I think someone should sit Keith Bardwell down in front of a TV and watch an old movie with him. In fact, I'm pretty tempted to watch it again myself, and to make it my weekend movie rec. Here's a brief review of that movie by Jonathan Kim, posted at YouTube right after Obama's inauguration:

[For anyone who can't watch the review, here's the movie you should watch. My thanks to the many swpd readers who sent me alarmed and aghast emails about this racist travesty.]

UPDATE: Keith Bardwell explains himself, and adds that he doesn't "see what the problem is," now that the couple in question has married with someone else's help:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

hate sagging, especially when white guys do it

This is a guest post by Filthy Grandeur, who blogs eponymously here, where she writes of herself, "I'm a writer still trying to figure out what I'm doing, so I'm trying to do a lot of different things. I'm a daydreamer who hates being social. I'm afraid I fit the stereotype of angry, loner writer who enjoys sitting in the dark writing about things that piss me off. Yes, I enjoy drinking, but no I do not smoke."

So I've long noticed a common white tendency involving sagging pants: white people in general seem to hate sagging, and that hate is only intensified when the person sagging is also white.

I notice this tendency because my brother sags, and I have observed a number of instances where white people have not been too shy to express their judgments toward him.  He's been told to pull up his pants, helpfully reminded that he's not black (as if my brother is unaware of his skin color), and told to stop talking with that "accent."

These criticisms often came from members of our own family.  I can recall several instances where our dad yelled at him for "acting black."  But often this criticism comes from complete strangers (all white), usually in the form of street harassment.  He's told me that he's had white people shout at him from their cars while he walks to work, telling him to pull his pants up.

A few years back, he used to work for our family's landlord (who also own a rental store).  Once when he went into the store and asked for our landlord, the white man at the counter, instead of simply pointing my brother in the right direction, asked him, "You hang out with a lot of blacks?"

My brother ignored him and again asked where our landlord was.  The man then asked him if he is ashamed of his race.

There are also the ubiquitous "wigger" remarks -- again, often aimed at him from relatives.

There's this white tendency to police other white people's appearance in that manner of definition we know as "defining what it is by what it is not." This is within the parameters of white culture and proper performances of whiteness, which includes disdain for sagging.

I think an important thing to consider in this is that it's always adult white men and women policing my brother's attire.  It seems that the older generation is always going to find something they don't like in youth culture, especially when it comes to how they dress, but there's more malice against sagging. An important aspect of youth culture is that it embraces the idea of revolt, which of course can add to the longevity of certain fashion choices.  That sagging is supposedly a form of prison culture is apparently one reason why white people find it disgraceful.

The perceptions about sagging are entwined with stereotypes of sex and violence as linked to notions of black masculinity, which are only worsened by sagging's origins when one factors in the over-representation of POC in prisons.  Perhaps seeing white people sag or perform other aspects of black culture is in effect crossing some sort of invisible barrier.  When the "us" and "them" boundaries become blurred, there's suddenly a threat to whiteness, which would explain the discomfort white people have with the way my brother dresses.  His apparent lack of white solidarity causes him to be viewed as a race traitor; it's that sort of mentality which makes him acknowledge that yeah, maybe he is, but it's not like he was seeking white approval anyway.

But the fact that these people are finding something abhorrent in the way others dress is deeply disturbing.  These sorts of attitudes are not only condescending when coming from white people ("we didn't give you all these freedoms so you could dress like a hoodlum"), they also illustrate a sense of entitlement, that white people get to say what is and isn't civilized.

It's especially evident that this condescension and hate is not as pronounced when we're talking about a predominately white youth culture (think goth).

Thoughts?  Stories of your own?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ask black men wearing dreads for weed

The following is a partial transcription of an audio interview of Lull Mengesha by Gus T Renegade. The October 8 interview took place on Renegade's blogtalkradio program, "The Context of White Supremacy," and was occasioned by Mengesha's new book, The Only Black Student.

GT Renegade: I gotta do this one, because I have experienced the exact same thing. . . . [Lull Mengesha] talked in the book about how while he was a student, he had dreadlocks. I have dreadlocks now. I suspect he already knows where I'm going with this, how many times you were stopped by white -- not just random white people, but white students that you might've had a class with -- "Uh, could you hook me up with some weed?" Can you talk about that please for our listeners?

L Mengesha: Right. There's like a dual effect to that. Oftentimes students will see that you fit a Bob Marley stereotype and assume that you're a drug dealer or that you have a connect and can get them some weed. So, a lot of students would always ask me if I had any weed. And I don't smoke weed. I can see where they're going with it, you know, if they see a black student on campus, their assumption is that I'm a drug dealer.

But also, on the tail-end of that, what you'll see is when there's petitioning or tabling on campus, or really, any active things are going on, students ignore you. They won't engage in conversation with you or ask you to participate in whatever they're doing. I don't know if it has to do with the fact that they might not see you as a student, but I think those two situations play into each other. Students will see you as a drug dealer, but they also won't see you as a student.

GT Renegade: Wow. . . . I can co-sign on both of those. The weed thing was kind of startling because I had dreads for years. I'm not from Seattle. I moved here not that long ago. I had dreads in lots of other cities, and I've never had white people, just random white people that I didn't know stopping me on the street, "Hey, do you have any weed?" That was a whole new experience for me that really just, made me very uncomfortable.

L Mengesha: Is that something that you really only faced here in the Northwest?

GT Renegade: Yes sir. I have lived in California, I have lived in Georgia, I have lived in Virginia, I have left the country. I have never been anywhere where I have been stopped by random white people on a constant basis. I even -- I am not exaggerating. I was telling a white person, I was explaining this to her, and she was incredulous, she didn't believe me, she thought I was making something up.

A white person walked up in the middle of our conversation about this and said, "Hey, do you have any weed?" And I just looked at her, and she said, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe that happened!" I said, "No, you're not listening to me. This is every day!"

And so we kept talking for about ten minutes, and she said, "I can't believe he just walked up like that!" Another white person walked up: "Hey, do you have any weed?" And her mouth just hit the ground, and she said, "Oh my God! What is this?!" And I said, "This is every day."  . . .

So like I said, when I read your book, I laughed, I immediately connected. And I can also connect with the tabling thing and how they ignore you for that. They assume you sell drugs, they assume that you don't want to talk about anything political, or if they're organizing to vote, or anything where you might have to use your brain--"No." In addition to that, I've seen tons of white people who smoke weed on campus, and people don't seem to bother them, or run up to ask if they sell drugs or anything like that. It's just, very, very interesting.

L Mengesha:  Right. I think another thing, within the white community, probably there's no stereotype for who smokes weed. So they wouldn't know who to walk up to. But I think for the black community, I guess the stereotype is that if you have some type of Bob Marley look to you, you have like, a weed connect.

GT Renegade: Wow. And I do not, anybody who finds me in Seattle, I do not. You're talking to the wrong person!

Lull Mengesha also said during the interview that his book, The Only Black Student, will soon be available in bookstores around the country. It's available online, at Amazon and elsewhere; a review of the book recently appeared in the Seattle Times, and Mengesha was also interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR).  

Gus T Renegade's online show, "The Context Of White Supremacy," includes extensive interviews with many leading experts on race, racism, and whiteness, including Tim Wise, Peggy McIntosh, Eddie Moore, Jr., Matthew Frye Jacobson, Ian F. Haney López, Noel Ignatiev, Robert Jensen and others.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

fail to see how race and gender intersect

During the comments for the second of two recent posts here, on the difficulty that white people often have with truly listening to non-white people, thesciencegirl noted "the very obvious fact that WOC often experience sexualized racism or racialized sexism; the 2 are often difficult to separate." This distinction prompted fromthetropics to ask, "Is there a difference between 'sexualized racism' and 'racialized sexism'?" Then fromthetropics and another swpd reader, RVCBard, each sent me emails describing their experiences with living at intersections of racialized and gendered oppression, that is, as women of color. Each agreed to having their thoughts posted below in a joint guest post.

What do you think -- is sexualized racism different from racialized sexism? What should white people try to keep in mind in their encounters with people of color who are also women? Or should I make that, women who are also people of color? 

(For more on and from these two generous writers, see their other guest posts, here, here, and here.)

RVCBard writes,

Quite a few people commenting at SWPD asked about racialized sexism and sexualized racism. I didn't directly respond to that in the threads, but I have been thinking about it.

After thinking about it for a while, I realized that it's virtually impossible for me to explain the difference between racialized sexism and sexualized racism. That's trying to parse racism and sexism in a way that I don't experience it. Rather than focus on the rightness or wrongness of that question, I'll set a few things straight about my experiences as a Black woman.

As a Black woman, it has been my experience that White people (particularly White men) generally do not perceive or value me as a woman. Yes, I am biologically female (like any other animal - note the irony here), but I'm not seen or treated as feminine or womanly. Typically, White men only recognize two modes of Black womanhood: Mammy and Angry Black Woman (aka Evil Black Bitch - take your pick).

It's easy to imagine what this means. When I'm seen in Mammy mode, I am only valued insofar as I take care of White people. I'm only worthy of attention and respect to the extent that I'm willing to extend endless physical, financial, emotional, and moral support more or less with a smile on my face. It doesn't seem to matter how much this puts me at risk or actually harms me. Without saying as much, they treat me as though they are entitled to endless patience, hospitality, politeness, and generosity. And when I show that my patience, generosity, politeness, and hospitality have limits, the response is not "I'm sorry" or "Let me fix that" but "What's the matter with you?" Thus begins the transition from Mammy to Angry Black Woman.

In personal and practical terms, this means that White people (especially straight White men), treat me as though I don't have legitimate feelings, or at least feelings that can be hurt. When I'm not completely placid or jovial, White people treat me like I'm misbehaving or a rabid animal. If I'm upset, White people don't take it as a cue that something is wrong. White people have a tendency to talk at me instead of to me or with me. They try to debate my feelings, give me unsolicited advice, or "try to talk some sense into me." Rarely do White people actually ask me what I need to get better, let alone offer comfort or reassurance for whatever I'm going through. Instead of treating me like a sane, intelligent adult with the needs and vulnerabilities of any human being, I feel like White people treat me like I'm a toddler who needs to be appeased or disciplined before going on with their lives. Even my friends do this to me. It's degrading and humiliating to be made to feel so insignificant.

It's as though, emotionally speaking, I'm treated like a linebacker at the big game and not like a real person with real feelings and real vulnerabilities. I often feel as though I'm not permitted to be complex or to need anything. Somehow, sheer fierceness is supposed to carry me through life. My Black Woman's Attitude becomes this superpower that renders me invincible, some strange blend of kevlar and teflon for the spirit. Apparently nothing can penetrate or stick to me. So I often get the sense that White people feel free to pile on the bullshit without offering any relief from it. It's so rare that White folks treat me with gentleness that I notice when it happens. Then again, what I'm interpreting as extraordinary tenderness is really just being treated like a human being.

fromthetropics writes,

There are some experiences which I have been struggling to understand and reconcile with, until some commenters here mentioned the terms ‘sexualized racism’ and ‘racialized sexism’.

In answer to my question in the comments,

Genuine question here to anyone who knows: Is there a difference between 'sexualized racism' and 'racialized sexism'? If so, what is the difference.

Angel H explained:

The way I understand it, sexualized racism is akin to fetishism because of a perceived sexual stereotype ("Black Brute" stereotype, "Latin Lover" stereotype, "Geisha Girl" stereotype, etc.) I think that racialized sexism would be more of a societal stereotype like the "Black Welfare Queen" stereotype or the "Submissive Asian Housewife" stereotype.

Please let me know if I'm making any sense! ^_^

Yes, that makes sense, but I still can’t seem to shake off this blanket of vagueness that I see when I think of my experiences. Let me relate some of them here.

One time I went with my (white) partner to see his two white male friends. They had met while they were in Indonesia on a language study exchange program. They all seemed to have had Indonesian girlfriend(s) or ‘girlfriend(s)’ while there. It was the first time I was meeting these two men. But no sooner had I sat down then I felt a sense of ‘yuck’ dumped onto me like a vague slimy mass. I felt as though his friends saw me as an ‘Indonesian woman’ as opposed to just a person or even just a woman. It was as though they saw me more as an Asian decoration that a white man could f*** (in both the literal and figurative sense).

I had heard that one of them used to have a few Indonesian ‘girlfriends’ simultaneously while studying there. This man’s reasoning was that Indonesians do this too, and hence in Rome do as the Romans do. (Though many others have informed me that in Indonesia ‘girlfriends’ or ‘boyfriends’ often just mean texting the opposite sex on a regular basis as opposed to anything really serious, though of course some may go a bit further.) So he was practicing a warped sense of cultural relativism at its peak (or rather, moral relativism), if you ask me. (And I’m sure had he had the chance to explain himself, he may have cited the practice of polygamy in Indonesia, though he of course would have omitted the fact that many Indonesian women abhor it.) The other friend was simply a sexist male slut, I was told.

Nothing overt happened that day. In fact, I had only a vague recollection of the stories that I had been told before I met them. But I felt a very strong sense of ‘yuck’, almost independently of those stories, as I sat there. This ensued into a huge row between my partner and I afterwards. (To be fair, these were not his close friends.)

On another day the other friend related how one of the Thai women he met in Indonesia was chasing after him by sending emails and what not. He laughed through his nose as he told the story. I felt an immediate ‘yuck’ slime splattered on me. Again, I felt as though the woman was not just a woman in his eyes. She was a ‘Thai’ or ‘Asian’ woman. I could see the prefix there, large and bold. My partner laughed too and said to him, ‘Well, it wasn’t like you had gone out with her or anything…did you?’ The friend didn’t answer in words but just gave a cheeky/sly smile as he puffed on his cigarette. My partner showed a slight sense of discomfort and surprise with this response. (I thought, Gosh! Are you seriously that naïve???? Sigh.)

But I had no evidence, as is customary. It was difficult for my partner to understand what it was that I was taking issue with. Understandably so, seeing that I had no real explanations either, apart from the ‘yuck’ feeling, and ‘just because’. But it hurts to the core.

‘What about my housemate,’ he asked. ‘How come you don’t complain about him?’

Good question. His white male housemate was going through a phase of sleeping around with women he does not care about. These are choices I personally disagree with, yet, even then, I have never felt this way (‘yuck’) when talking to him. I feel as though he sees me as a person, as a woman, as his friend’s girlfriend/partner without the prefixes ‘Asian’ or ‘Indonesian’. His personal life and choices do not come into play when he talks to me. My partner tried to understand what I was saying, and I think he managed to partially understand the difference.

Here’s another story told by a young white woman (of a non-English speaking background). A couple (white man, Indonesian woman) came to have dinner at her parents’ house. At one point the Indonesian wife said something in Indonesian to her white husband. The white husband said, ‘yeah, yeah,’ as though he was listening. The host asked the white man what his Indonesian wife had said. The man said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t understand what she’s saying either. It doesn’t matter.’ Upon hearing this, the young woman who was relating the story decided that she did not want to be in a cross-cultural relationship lest this happens to her – devalued as a female ‘ethnic’ Other.

Can anyone relate to this? How does one explain the dynamics of this ‘yuck’ feeling and the effect of the ‘prefix’ so that others, particularly (white) men, may understand?

Could it be that it is easier for men to see a woman of another color as a pseudo-prostitute? Is that what the ‘yuck’ feeling is about? Or is that – prostitute – too strong a word for people’s comfort?

Monday, October 12, 2009

derail dialogues on race with the arab trader argument

This guest post (which originally appeared here) is by Abagond, who writes of himself, "I have lived most my life in or near New York City. Although I tend to think of myself more individually, I am in fact part of the wave of middle-class West Indians who left the city in the 1990s to bring up their children. . . . My parents were writers, which meant we did not always have enough to eat. I have been writing 'articles' since I was six. I would look at the insides of worms and write about it."

The Arab trader argument is my name for an argument white Americans often use to defend the evil they do in the world. It goes like this: if white Americans do something evil and terrible it is all right – or at least not all that bad – so long as they can find at least one example from world history of someone else doing the same thing. Thus the Atlantic slave trade was not so bad because Arabs traders sold slaves too!

See how it works? Pretty cool trick.


The thing is utterly morally bankrupt. It is the everyone-does-it argument that we tried when we were eight. Our mothers did not buy it then and it does not work now – except maybe for the morally blind.

But that is just what many white Americans seem to be: morally blind. They know the evil that is done in their name, not just in the past but even now, but they do not want to see it. And when they are faced with it, they try to excuse it with stuff like this.

Maybe moral blindness leads to morally broken thinking – or is it the other way round?

It would be like if I robbed a bank and then said, “People rob banks all the time, what is the big deal?” Or if I slept with someone’s wife and I said, “Your wife had an affair two years ago. See! I am not that bad. Why are you angry at me?”

Do you see how shameless this kind of argument is?

It amazes me that anyone even tries it, for two reasons:
  1. That anyone would waste more than two seconds trying to excuse something so clearly evil, like the slave trade, the Japanese American prison camps, racism, etc.
  2. That they would try to use such a bad argument with a straight face and not see just how bad it is.
But they do it.

It seems to bring comfort to them, but that comfort is completely one-sided. It brings no comfort to those who have to suffer their evil. Like when the Jews were being sent to the death camps, did it bring any comfort to them to know that the Turks killed over a million Armenians?

Forms of this argument:
  • This is the way we have always done it
  • Blacks do it too
  • Blacks are racist too
  • There will always be racists
Right and wrong are not determined or proved by what everyone does, much less by what some people do, like Arab traders. That would just excuse everyone to sink to the lowest, meanest, most evil levels of behaviour.

A simple and far better way to determine right and wrong, without getting deep into religion or philosophy, is the Golden Rule, which is not “Do unto others as some others have done,” as the Arab trader argument would have it, but “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Acts of racism fail this test by their very nature.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

shuttle ambivalently between whiteness and ethnicity

Tomorrow is Columbus Day in the United States. Like many other countries in "the Americas," we still mark this day, officially and otherwise. Celebrations of the efforts of Columbus usually erase the horrors of what he and his men did to indigenous peoples, thereby erasing as well the indigenous peoples themselves.

Many people in the U.S. remember this childish mnemonic device: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Far fewer have heard this worthy addition, by Historian James Loewen: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see."

Some white Americans, particularly those of Italian descent, remember Columbus differently, for their own ambivalent purposes. Considering how they do so can shed light on both the past and the present of racial whiteness, including who is now considered "white," what they and other "white ethnics" gave up in the process of becoming that way, and what they now try to recover or hold onto about themselves and their supposed heritage.

Christopher Columbus' first sighting of land that came to be known as "America" occurred on October 12, 1492. Columbus Day was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1792, in honor of the 300th anniversary of Columbus' landing. Columbus was working at the time for the queen of Spain, and his efforts are widely credited with opening the door to Spanish conquest of "the Americas." In the mid-1800s, since Columbus himself was Italian, some Italian Americans began celebrating their heritage on Columbus Day.

As a result of this later, secondary remembrance, conflict has arisen when other groups, especially Native Americans, began protesting this holiday. For anyone who might still wonder why anyone would protest Columbus Day, Andrea Robideau, leader of a university-level Native American Women's Association, put it this way: “For a lot of native people, making Columbus Day a national holiday tells us that they honor someone who started a genocide against our people.” Robideau put it that way while she was selling t-shirts that read, "Killumbus."

Some Italian Americans take such protests against Columbus Day as an insult to their own heritage -- or perhaps to what remains of it, now that they and their ancestors have paid the price of the ticket into whiteness by bleaching away most of what marked them as "Italian." (And whether these ancestors even identified as "Italian" before arriving in the U.S., instead of as "Sicilian" or some other regional identity, is an interesting question.)

After their ancestors endured that cultural loss so that they and their descendants could enjoy being full-fledged "Americans," which at that time meant "white Americans," along came widespread recognition of non-whiteness via the Civil Rights Movement, and then the ascent in the 1990s of multiculturalism and/or "diversity," which mostly meant racial diversity. All of this new racial awareness and celebration made white Americans feel left out at times, as well as increasingly ambivalent about their own whiteness. After all, the only people affirming and celebrating that racial group were those who'd done obnoxious things with their heads, like putting pointy white sheets on them, or shaving them, or filling them with ridiculous, disproven ideas about the supposed superiority of a supposedly threatened white race.

And so it was that as fewer and fewer "white" people wanted to claim their racial grouping in some active, celebratory way, more and more of them turned instead to revival of the faded heritage of their European ancestors -- and not just Italian Americans.

In an article about this kind of "ethnic revival," scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson writes:

The leader of an anti-racism workshop in the 1990s once noted a disquieting inclination on the part of white participants to dissociate themselves from the advantages of whiteness by emphasizing some purportedly not-quite-white ethnic background. "I'm not white; I'm Italian," one would say. Another, "I'm Jewish." After this ripple had made its way across the group, the seminar leader was left wondering, "What happened to all the white people who were here just a minute ago?"

The sense of a sentence like "I'm not white, I'm Italian" rests upon several historical preconditions, now loosely relayed in the term "ethnic revival": the Civil Rights Movement heightened whites' consciousness of their skin privilege, rendering it both visible and newly uncomfortable. The example of black nationalism and later multiculturalism provided a new language for -- and perceived cache in -- the specificities of an identity that was not simply "American." After decades of striving to conform to the Anglo-Saxon standard, descendants of earlier European immigrants quit the melting pot. Italianness, Jewishness or Greekness were now badges of pride, not shame.

One unfortunate result, Jacobson goes on to note, is the tendency to hold up European immigrants as the real "model minority," a highly dubious honor normally given to Asian Americans:

Despite recent fixations on Asian-American success . . . European immigrants remain the nation's real "model minority": Their saga supplies the "standard" template of incorporation and advancement against which all other groups are judged. It supplied the post-slavery, fresh-off-the-boat innocents who have become the most potent symbol in protests against affirmative action, busing or reparations.

In conservative populism, white ethnics represent precisely those little people so in need of protection from the excesses of liberal social policy; and their exemplary mobility -- from steerage to ghetto to suburb -- is deployed in damning critique of both the contemporary welfare state and contemporary ghetto-dwellers.

As the following two television clips demonstrate, the conflicted feelings of people who can be described (rather oxymoronically) as "white ethnics" have made their way into popular culture. In the first, from "The Sopranos," New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano struggles, in his usual NSFW way, to articulate his mixed allegiances -- being Italian versus being white -- to some of his loyal minions, who are upset about upcoming protests against a Columbus Day parade. The second clip, from "Mad TV," satirizes both Italian American stereotypes and the whitening process of assimilation.

In both cases, the alternating sympathies of such "white ethnics" are on display, in a sort of ambivalent shuttling back and forth between polar attractions: the privileges and comforts of whiteness, and the warm, nostalgic memory of a faded group identity. Like such memories of other white ethnics,this collective identity can be as confused and delusional as the ongoing and uncritical celebration of Columbus Day -- a "celebration" of the beginnings of an Anglo-Saxon empire in an Italian mercenary's efforts to extend the rapacious and murderous plunderings of Spanish royalty.

[An earlier version of this post appeared here last year; h/t for the Reconsider Columbus Day video: Irene's Daughters]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

never admit to being a racist

Here's a news clip about a white American who serves as an especially stark example of a couple of common white tendencies. Somehow, white people in the U.S. of A. have gotten to the point where no matter how racist something we've said or done is, we find it very difficult to acknowledge that it is what it is -- racism. That blockage often seems to happen because of another seemingly universal white American tendency, which is the refusal to simply admit, at least in public, "Yes, you're right, I am a racist."

I wonder if the reporter here, Michelle Marsh, would have gotten any further with Patrick Lanzos if, instead of asking him if he himself "is a racist," she had instead asked him if what he did was racist. Could that be the start of a more effective conversation with people like this guy?

But then, maybe not, with someone this delusional. I think it's clear that a man who would put a sign like that outside his establishment -- an establishment adorned inside with a Klan robe, for God's sake -- is indeed a racist, and that he thinks his racist actions are completely justified (no matter how bizarrely contrary they are to his NAACP membership and the portraits of black heroes hanging on his walls).

I don't mean to overlook Michelle Marsh's action-oriented question in this interview, "Why did you put that sign up?" Nevertheless, there's a lot of attention in this news clip to whether Patrick Lanzos is a racist. Lanzos himself seems to believe what just about all white Americans also seem to believe these days, which is that there's nothing worse than being identified as a racist. Oddly enough, even in extreme cases like this one, focusing on whether someone is a racist can become a distraction from the more crucial question of whether something they've done was a racist act.

As Jay Smooth pointed out awhile ago in a classic vlog post that bears repeating (and so I'll post it here), when it comes to racism, it's usually more effective to make it a "what they did" conversation, instead of a "what they are" conversation. In other words, in dialogues about racism, we should focus not on what white people are; we should focus instead on stuff white people do.

One other thought, also prompted for me by thinking about what Patrick Lanzos did, rather than on what he is -- where's the dividing line here between "free speech," a cherished American right that both Patrick Lanzos and Michelle Marsh cite in this news clip, and "hate speech," a designation that could strengthen efforts to take down this racist, hurtful sign? (I discussed this distinction in this post about another racist, hurtful sign ["Hispanics Keep Out"], as did many readers in the comments there.)

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